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gramophone (phonograph) recordings

gramophone (phonograph) recordings. The idea of recording sound by attaching a needle to a membrane vibrating in sympathy, and by allowing its point to mark a plate travelling at a fixed speed, dates from as early as the beginning of the 19th cent., the object being to add to acoustical knowledge about the differences in the vibrations evoked by sounds of various pitches and timbres. The Amer. Edison, in 1877 constructed such an apparatus, with the intention that it should be used in a ‘dictating machine’: this he called The Phonograph—the Ideal Amanuensis, and the records, on wax cylinders, he called phonograms. The vv. of many celebrities of the day were crudely preserved in this way (e.g. Gladstone, Irving, Tennyson) and in 1878 Lily Moulton, an amateur singer, sang into Edison's device. Other musicians, incl. Brahms, made recordings in the 1880s.

Emile Berliner, a Ger.-born citizen of the USA, had by 1888 obtained patents for important improvements—a circular plate of a shellac mixture instead of a waxed cylinder, and a horizontal motion of the needle instead of a perpendicular one (i.e. a motion making lateral impressions on the sides of a spiral track instead of the previous ‘hill and dale’ impressions), and his principles were in time developed and universally adopted. The patented title for the instr. which played Berliner's discs was ‘grammophone’, but the less accurate ‘gramophone’ was adopted.

The flat disc record led to a boom among commercial cos. for preserving the vv. of celebrated singers. The first singer to record commercially and to make a reputation thereby was the Russian sop. Maria Mikhailova. Soon Calvé, Van Rooy, Plançon, Kirkby-Lunn, Albani, Maurel, and Ben Davies were recorded, but it was the ten. Caruso who ‘made’ the gramophone record. Instrumentalists, too, were recorded, among them Grieg, Sarasate, Joachim, and Pugno. The historical importance of these discs is obvious, and many of them have been transferred on to modern records and tapes.

So far the processes used had been purely ‘acoustic’, the result of the direct action of sound vibrations. The human v. could be fairly satisfactorily and faithfully recorded by this means, but attempts to record orch. mus. were crude and primitive. In 1925 appeared the earliest electrically made records, in which the vibrations had been received by means of a microphone and converted into electrical vibrations, causing, in turn, mechanical vibrations in a steel or fibre needle travelling over the recording disc. It was found that by the use of electric-made records operating at the standard speed of 78 revolutions per minute, very much more faithful reproductions could be secured, and the acoustic-made record in time disappeared from the market. The motive power of the Edison and early Berliner instrs. had been supplied by a handle turned by the operator. This was superseded by a clock-spring device, which in the more expensive instrs. was, in turn, superseded by electric power obtained by plugging to the domestic electric circuit: such instrs. also reproduced the sounds by electric means, reversing the above process of electrical recording. The new apparatus was very commonly combined with one for the reception of radio broadcasting, and called a radiogram. During the 1920s and 1930s recordings of most of the world's great orchs. and chamber groups were made, the perf. of great artists such as Rachmaninov, Kreisler, and Heifetz were preserved, and the composers Elgar and Strauss cond. their own mus. for the gramophone. Whole operas were issued, and the significance of the gramophone as an educative force and as a means of widening the public's repertory became apparent.

A great disadvantage of the 78 rpm record was that comps. were dissected into sides lasting less than 5 minutes. An opera could run to 40 or more sides. It was in 1948 that (in the USA) all the problems inherent in trying to combine a narrower groove and slower speed without loss of ‘high fidelity’ throughout the greater part of the range of audible frequencies were satisfactorily solved.

This was when the Columbia co. announced the long-playing (LP) disc. Attempts to introduce LPs had been made in 1904 and 1931, but the 1948 version offered an average of 23 mins. per side at 33 rpm, with the advantages of records made from non-breakable material, with greatly improved recording techniques, and with light-weight pick-ups and sapphire and diamond needles. At first there was some resistance and a ‘battle’ between 33 and 45 rpm (for short items). In Brit., Decca was the first firm to market LPs (1950), the EMI group not following until 1952. However, the artistic advantage of being able to record a whole opera on 6 or 8 sides, a Mozart sym. on one side, and to offer complete recitals by singers and instrumentalists on one record revolutionized the industry and listening habits. The standards of recording improved constantly with the advent of the record ‘producer’ who, like an opera producer, governed the whole recording process. It could be argued that the remarkable growth of the public appetite for the mus. of Mahler is partly due to the fact that LPs enabled his vast syms. to be recorded easily. The rise of the LP was paralleled by the growth of high-fidelity—‘Hi-fi’—reproductive equipment—the coupling of amplifier, speakers, pick-up, and needle-cartridge instead of the mass-produced radiogram.

The other great single factor in LP recording was the use of magnetic tape instead of wax or acetate for the orig. recording process. Experiments with tape were made, esp. in Ger., in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Tape enables long stretches of mus. to be recorded without a break; it also enables flaws and errors to be corrected by the re-recording of the offending bar or two, so that a final recording may be, and often is, a compilation of the best of several ‘takes’, skilfully ed. The next ‘recording revolution’ was in 1958 with the introduction of stereophonic (as opposed to monophonic) sound, whereby the sound of instrs. or singers was as realistically ‘placed’ as in the hall or opera house. Eventually ‘stereo’ replaced ‘mono’ entirely; and demands for still more realistic and spectacular sound led in the 1970s to ‘quadraphonic’ recordings (which means that the engineers have fed four independent signal channels into the master tape).

In 1979 recordings made by the even more accurate digital tape process appeared on the market from Decca. This system of recording on tape differs from the conventional magnetic system in measuring the shape of the changes in air pressure (sounds) so that the sounds received through the microphone are stored in a computer as a series of numbers (digits). No matter how often the numbers are re-converted into sounds they cannot become distorted. Thus the tape recording is more accurate, has less background noise and no speed variations, and can be re-recorded without loss in quality. In some digital systems the shapes are measured 40,000 times a second.

In 1983 the compact disc was introduced, bringing exceptional clarity and dynamic range into recording. It is the first sound reproduction system to dispense with contact between disc and stylus or between cassette and tape-recorder heads. Thus any hiss or hum is eliminated, also any damage to the grooves. The compact disc has a coating of acrylic plastic to protect it from scratches or other damage. The rotating disc is played by a small low-powered laser which directs a beam of infra-red light on to it, translates a reflected message as a digital code and converts it into sound. The laser's collection and transference of the recorded message is achieved by a technology derived from computers. During recording, a machine makes a series of sound ‘samples’ at the rate of 44,000 per second. These are converted into a binary code (noughts and ones). This code is inscribed in the form of billions of microscopic pits on the surface of the disc in a spiral 2½ miles long (the disc has a diameter of 4.7″). The laser reads the code by focusing on the line of dots as the disc rotates. When the laser fixes on one of the pits, its beams scatter. When it hits the reflecting surface between the pits, it shines back to produce a pattern which re-creates the original binary code. The code is converted into electrical impulses and passed through amplifiers to the speakers in the normal way. The process was pioneered independently by Philips and the Sony Corporation of Japan, who joined in 1980 to produce the first players for the Eur. market.

Of less commercial success at first was the issue of recordings as tapes instead of discs (mono from 1951, stereo from 1956 in the USA). These did not appeal to the public until the introduction of the automatic cassette in 1965. Soon the sales of cassettes threatened to rival those of discs. The development of digital audio tape was yet another step forward.

Alongside the enormous expansion of recording has developed the ‘literary’ side of the gramophone, not only expert reviewing, but the specialized compilation of lists of recordings made by individual artists, these being known as discographies.

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