Read about the hot 1917 musician load-in.
Experiments in capturing sound on a recording medium for preservation and reproduction began in earnest during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Many pioneering attempts to record and reproduce sound were made during the latter half of the 19th century – notably de Martinville's Phonautograph of 1857 – and these efforts culminated in the invention of the phonograph, patented by Thomas Edison in 1877.
The history of sound recording - which has progressed in waves, driven by the invention and commercial introduction of new technologies - can be roughly divided into four main periods:
the "Acoustic" era, 1877 to 1925
the "Electrical" era, 1925 to 1945 (including sound on film)
the "Magnetic" era, 1945 to 1975
the "Digital" Era, 1975 to the present day.
One of the earliest practical recording technologies were entirely mechanical devices. These recorders typically used a large conical horn to collect and focus the physical air pressure of the sound waves produced by the human voice or musical instruments. A sensitive membrane or diaphragm, located at the apex of the cone, was connected to an articulated scriber or stylus, and as the changing air pressure moved the diaphragm back and forth, the stylus scratched or incised an analogue of the sound waves onto a moving recording medium, such as a roll of coated paper, or a cylinder or disc coated with a soft material such as wax or a soft metal.
These early recordings were necessarily of low fidelity and volume, and captured only a narrow segment of the audible sound spectrum - typically only from around 250 Hz up to about 2,500 Hz - so musicians and engineers were forced to adapt to these sonic limitations.
Bands of the period often favored louder instruments such as trumpet, cornet and trombone, lower-register brass instruments (such the tuba and the euphonium) replaced the string bass, and blocks of wood stood in for bass drums; performers also had to arrange themselves strategically around the horn to balance the sound, and to play as loudly as possible.
The reproduction of domestic phonographs was similarly limited in both frequency-range and volume - this period gave rise to the expression "put a sock in it", which commemorates the common practice of placing a sock in the horn of the phonograph to muffle the sound for quieter listening. By the end of the acoustic era, the disc had become the standard medium for sound recording, and its dominance in the domestic audio market lasted until the end of the 20th century.
View our Museum's "live" acoustic recording video by Jim Cartwright using Austin, Texas jazz musicians