Audio production history: an overview

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Audio production history: an overview

After covering the main disciplines of audio production in my first post, I would now like to give a rough overview of audio production history.

The modern way of recording music was characterized by many technical innovations made in the 19th- and 20th-century. Be it the development of new storage media or the appearence of multi-track recorders and computers – the craft has evolved steadily and the way of recording changed rapidly. To the delight of sound engineers and music enthusiast, this development led to an ever-improving audio quality, but also to an increasingly complex production process. With the widspread availability of affordable homerecording equipment, this trend has reverted back to a more simple approach and, thanks to modern and affordable technology, there is hardly any noticeable loss in sound quality. This history lesson will also give you some insight where your favorite plugins really originate from.

I will summarize the story in short, distinct paragraphs but won’t go into detail on the individual historical events. Instead I will link to relevant articles where you can find some more in-depth information (mainly Wikipedia). But now back to the beginning …

1. The beginning (18th to mid-20th century)

1.1 The barrel organ

The history of audio production begins with the appearance of the barrel organ at the beginning of the 18th century. Actually, the barrel organ is a musical instrument, but in contrast to other instruments, it has a predefined tone sequence, which was initially “stored” on a barrel using metal pins and staples. Later on, at the beginning of the 20th century, a punched tape was used to store the melody.

1.2 The phonograph

The first really big milestone was the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison at the end of the 19th century (1877). A needle attached to a sound horn applied the audio material to a cilynder coated with tin foil, wax, or metal. The stored contents could be played back by using another needle attached to a sound horn.

1.3 Emil Berliner’s gramophon and the gramophone record

The first gramophone records, already developed in 1884, were made out of metal but quickly vanished from the market due to their complex production process. With the invention of the gramphon by Emil Berliner in 1887, the real triumph of the gramophone-record started. It lasted into the 80s of the 20th century, and is currently undergoing a small revival in the form of vinyl records. This technology also used a needle attached to a horn to record sound. This needle was guided over a wax plate instead of a cylinder and the resulting groove was etched into a zinc-disc. Later, the zinc-disc was replaced by the shellac-disc, which remained the industry standard until the introduction of the vinyl record that slowly established itself at the end of the 1930s.

1.4 The audio tape

In the late 1890s the audio tape was developed as an alternative carrier medium for sound recordings. Early machines recorded to a magnetic steel-tape which later on was replaced by synthetic tape. Tape machines ar still in use in some recording studios or in performances of contemorary electronic music.

1.5 Microphone and speaker

With the development and distribution of the telephone in the early 20th century, the Bell Telephone Laboratorys also developed a recording technique, which replaced the acustical-mechanical method (horn – needle – carrier medium): the microphone. Starting with the carbon-microphone, more and even better principles of sound conversion have been developed. This development resulted in today’s dynamic-, electret-, condenser-, ribbon-, piezoelectric and carbon-microphones.

At approximately the same time the horn, which was used to reproduce the recorded sound, was replaced by the electrodynamic loudspeaker. In addition to the successful electrodynamic loudspeaker, various other loudspeaker designes are in use nowadays.

These two developments and the success of the vinyl records, which had better signal to noise ratio and a longer life span, have dramatically improved the sound quality of audio recordings.

Barrel organ
Edison mit Phonograph
Edison with phonograph
Modern tape recorder (1977)

2. It’s getting interesting (1950s, 60s and 70s)

2.1 Stereophonic sound

Already developed in 1932 by Alan Dower Blumlein, the procedure of “quasi-spatial” sound recording and playback came onto the market in 1958. Record players using this so called stereophonic method were also backwards compatible and could reproduce mono recordings. This system quickly established itself as industry standard and, to date, stereo is the most commonly used format for playing back music.

2.2 Multitrack recorder

Another milestone in audio production history was the development of the multi-track recorder at the beginning of the 1950s. Instead of recording all the music on a single track, it was now possible to record two tracks in real-time, which were then mixed down to mono. At the beginning of the 60s, devices came out that could record different contents on both tracks one after another, eg. on track one the music and on track two the singing. In the middle of the 60s four-track machines were developed, without which albums such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles couldn’t have been realized in their known form. In 1967, eight-track and at the beginning of the 70’s sixteen-track recorders came out, which were able to record more complex arrangements in one pass. The number of tracks were quickly increased and tape machines could also be synchronized to record 48 tracks with two linked 24-track tape machines.

2.3 Compact Cassette

In the 1960s Philips worked on a handy tape-medium under the project name “pocket recorder”. A wooden block, that fit into a jacket pocket, specified the dimensions for the later recording and playback device. On August 28, 1963, the compact-cassette and its associated transistor-equipped cassette-recorder was presented. In 1965, Grundig AG launched the alternative DC-International system which was not able to compete on the market. The compact cassette also paved the way for the success of Sony’s Walkman.

2.4 Mixing-consoles, equalizer und compressors

The increasing number of tracks and the higher complexity of to the production process resulted in the development of large-format mixing consoles. With the growing number of microphones used in the recording process, more channels with microphone pre-amplifiers were needed and, as a consequence, the mixing consoles got bigger and bigger. Due to the better quality of the recorded tracks, frequency overlaps and dynamic differences between the instruments had bigger consequences which led to the development of more precise equalizers and compressors.

While in the early days technologies from the radio sector were used for the purpose of compression and equalization, in the 1960s several companies specialized in the production of mixing consoles which included this features. Some of the most renown names in this field are NEVE, SSL and API, which enjoy a high reputation in professional audio to this day.

Many of the technologies developed in the 1960s and 1970s, are still in use in old and modern devices. They are known for the sound and musicality they can add to a signal and have thus shaped the sound of the music of several decades.

Stereo “dummy” head
Vintage Kompressor
Vintage Compressor

3. The digital age (1980s and 90s)

3.1 Compact Disc (CD)

Jointly developed by Sony and Philipps the “Compact Disc (CD)” was introduced to the public in 1981 at the “Funkausstellung” in Berlin. In the following year, industrial production started at the Polygram production facilities, and in 1983 around 700 titles were available in stores. In 1988 about 100 million audio CDs were produced around the world, and from this year on CD-burning-systems became available to the puplic.

3.2 Digital Audio Tape

The “Digital Audio Tape (DAT)“, a magnetic storage medium, was introduced in 1987 by Sony and designed as a successor to the compact-cassette. For a limited time, a small selection of pre-recorded DAT cassettes were available commercially, but the format could only gain a foothold in the professional audio sector. Broadcasting companies and the record industry used DAT cassettes for program exchange and archiving, since relatively large amounts of data could be stored in lossless quality.

3.3 MiniDisc

In 1991, Sony introduced the MiniDisc (MD), a magneto-optical recording medium. Until the rise of the MP3 format, the MiniDisc was a qualitatively equivalent alternative to the CD. In 2011, Sony announced to discontinue the production of MD players.

3.4 Digital mixers

In the 80s, the concept of analogue mixers was slowly transferred to the digital domain and culminated in digital mixing console flagships such as the Sony Oxford OXF-R3 digital consoles, which are still found in studios around the world. Another innovative company in the field of digital audio was Yamaha, which still produces consoles for live and studio applications. The huge advantage of digital mixers is that many channels can be accommodated in a small unit, since not every channel needs its own controls. As a result, the production costs can be kept low, which has a poitive effect on the sales price. Especially in the livesound sector almost only digital mixers are used nowadays.

3.5 Digitale audio transfer

With the appearance of digital mixing consoles, there was a growing need for digital transmission and digital storage of audio-data. In the professional audio sector transmission formats such as AES/EBU, ADAT and MADI became prevalent, and the “Sony/Philips digital interface (S/PDIF)” established itself in the field of entertainment electronics. Pulse-code Modulation (PCM), already developed in 1937, became the main method of storing digital audio data, for example on CDs. The WAV file-format, which is used in nearly every modern DAW, is also based on PCM.

3.6 MIDI

The “Musical Instruments Digital Interface” (MIDI) was introduced in the early 1980s as an interface for the exchange of musical control information between electronic instruments such as keyboards and synthesizers. In spite of minor weaknesses such as the slow transmission speed, MIDI has been able to establish itself as a standard and keep it up to date. In modern production environments it’s mostly used for controlling VST instruments and for synchronizing hardware synthesizers with the DAW.

Compact Disc
Compact Disc
DAT Kassette
DAT Cassette
Modernes Digitalmischpult
Modern digitalmixer
ADAT Verbindung
ADAT Connection
MIDI Anschlüsse
MIDI Connectors

4. Computers and the first DAWs

4.1 Digital Editing System

First attempts to realize a “Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)” had to struggle with high memory prices and very limited computing power. Despite these obstacles, Soundstream launched the Digital Editing System in 1977, which enabled users to edit audio-data digitally. This system could be more or less called the first DAW.

4.2 First Editing Software

At the end of the 1980s, some home computers had enough computing power to process audio digitally. Programs such as Macromedia’s “Soundedit” or Digidesign’s “Sound Tools” and “Sound Designer” enabled users to create audio samples for e.g. Sampling Keybords.

4.3 Pro Tools

In 1991, Digidesign released the first Pro Tools, which was equipped with dedicated hardware for the simultaneous processing of up to four audio tracks. Pro Tools was also the reason for many recording studios to switch to a digital editing system. During this time various other manufacturers released hardware assisted DAWs for Windows and Mac.

4.4 Cubase VST

In 1996 Steinberg introduced “Cubase VST“, which could process up to 32 digital audio tracks without the help of external DSP hardware. The user-interface was modeled on the principle of an analog mixer with an external effect-rack and was imitated quickly by other DAW manufacturers. At the same time the VST-protocol was introduced, which could establish itself as a quasi-standard for the programming of plugins.

4.5 MP3

In 1982, the Frauenhofer Institute started to develop the MPEG-1 Audiolayer III (Mp3) format – one of the most influental developments in music history. It’s a compression format, based on psychoacoustics, that can drastically reduce the size of audio files. Devices such as the iPod and the advent of the Internet heralded the success of the MP3 format. Since it is a lossy audio-data compression-format, it is only used as an end product for consumers and has little to no significance in the sector of professional audio processing.

ProTools HDX System
ProTools HDX System
Cubase SL Oberfläche
Cubase SL Userinterface
Apple iPod
Apple iPod

5. The modern Homestudio

After this short excursion into audio production history, here is a brief overview of the basic components of a modern homestudios:

5.1 Laptop/PC

The first and most basic component for your homestudio is a laptop, desktop PC or tablet with enough computing power to play back several audio tracks and their applied effects at the same time. Your device should have at least a USB 2.0 port, to connect your audio interface, a modern multicore processor and 4GB RAM, so that even modern VST instruments and plugins work without problems.

5.2 Audiointerface/Soundcard

The next element is the audio interface or sound card. Depending on the connection possibilities of your computer, you can use a USB 2.0/3.0, Firewire or Thunderbolt interface. Each of these connections have certain advantages and disadvantages, which I will examine in a separate post. In professional recording studios PCIe cards are also used as interfaces. The audio interface should have at least one microphone input with a preamp and one instrument input to handle basic songwriting requirements.

5.3 Microphone

The microphone is the sound transducer that converts the vibrations of the air generated by an instrument or a voice into electrical voltage. Make sure that this element has a certain quality. The good thing is that the credo “good=expensive” is only partly valid nowadays, and there is already a large selection of affordable, high-quality microphones available.

5.4 Speaker/Headphones

At the other end of the chain the electrical voltage must be converted back into air vibrations. Therefor loudspeakers, so-called studio monitors, or good studio headphones (no iPhone headphones) are used. Also please DO NOT forget about room acoustics when using loudspeakers. Similar to microphones, good monitors and headphones are also available in an affordable price range.

5.5 Software

Mixing-consoles and outboard eqipment are the tools of yesterday – nowadays the software is what defines the sound of your recordings and shapes your own production workflow.

5.5.1 DAW

First, you will need a DAW to edit and mix your recorded tracks. There are several DAWs available on the market, which all have similar capabilities but also have unique strengths and weaknesses.

5.5.1 Plugins

Every DAW comes with a set a stock-plugins, which cover a broad range of recording- and mixing-applications. There are also a large number of third-party manufactureres who develop plugins for special applications or offer emulations of vintage hardware. You can enhance every DAW with third-party plugins and create and refine your own workflow.

5.5.2 Software instruments

Software instruments (virtual instruments) are usually the cornerstone of the productions of many songwriters and producers. They are often based on samples (drums, piano, orchestra) or are emulations of old hardware units (synthesizers, drummachines). DAWs like Cubase usually come with a small selection of software instruments, so you can start to make music immediately. There is also a large number of third-party software available.

The following links lead to Amazon – If possible buy your gear at local music stores

Focusrite Scarlett 2i4

Rode NT1Rode NT1

Yamaha HS5Yamaha HS5

AKG K702AKG K702

Cubase ProCubase Pro

Use the tools and make music!

In our modern homestudios the technologies of the last 150 years are combined in a few devices. Composing and producing music is as easy as never before and with the knowledge of where this technology came from, you can expand your own horizon as a producer and musician. Be inspired by forgotten, or to you unknown applications for certain plugins or effects and develop new, creative ideas on how to use these tools elsewhere. To delve into the music of different eras and discover something new for yourself is often also a more than satisfying experience.

A quick tip at the end: Try to write a song with every software instrument that comes bundled with your DAW. You will discover a lot of good sounds and, in the process, refine your songwriting skills.


Bobby Owsinsky – The recording engineer’s handbook: This book summarizes common recording-techniques – it contains infos about recording basics (preamps and microphone-types) and examples for complete microphone-setups for a wide varity of instrumentes.
(Amazon advertisement)

Bobby Owsinsky – The mixing engineer’s handbook: This book covers the basics of mixing audio – it also contains some informative interviews with professional engineers.
(Amazon advertisement)

Bob Katz – Mastering Audio: A book that covers most of the modern mastering-techniques in detail and that explains the philosophy of mastering in a very understandaable way.
(Amazon advertisement)


Über Mich

I’m a guitarist, composer, producer and instrumental teacher from Austria. In this blog I try to share the knowledge I gatherd over the last few years in a simple and understandable way.

Meine Musik

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