Audio Recording
Tinfoil & Wax, to Digital

song by Ram Bahadur

Audio recording has less than 150 years of history behind it today, deriving originally from contraptions that captured sound by physically translating the actual sound waves into micro-jagged grooves cut around revolving waxed or tinfoil cylinders and the like. To replay, a needle was positioned to then run along the grooves of the revolving cylinder to physically pick up and transfer this jagged imprint to an audio interpretation & delivery device, such as a simple audio-membrane with a megaphone over it for amplification. Not very different in fact from the recording mechanism itself too, when viewed in reverse!

This was simple stuff by today's standards, but delivered amply excellent audio-quality for people who'd never heard recorded sound through earlier generations across millennia of existence and evolution. Not surprisingly though, the technology improved rapidly from then on in, with the grooves eventually being stamped as fine spirals on vinyl discs that could be reproduced endlessly, and also with evolving young electronics coming into the picture at the recording, pick-up and delivery stages. Such vinyl discs became the mainstay of the music industry through most of the twentieth century, even "almost surviving" the first wave of the cassette-tape revolution all the way to the emergence of CDs in the end.

Such vinyl records are, in fact, actually still made and sold, but mainly amongst specialist professionals like DJs and film-audio folks etc. In the latter context, this has mainly to do with the incredible archives of sound that were built up through the twentieth century, ranged all the way across from various takes on the racket of a race-track, through to bird-song and even whale-song, and everything in between!

On the side ~ magnetic tape-recording brought multi-tracking in about halfway down the century, and with that also came (shortly enough) "stereo" interleaved with a short and not-so-successful stint of "Quadro", which all led on to today's "Surround Sound".

Most of this had to do with electronics, to the degree that "Surround Sound" in at least home-systems today derives mainly from normal "Stereo" tracks.

Electronics in turn has increasingly been all about computers, and with the PC revolution, the audio-recording revolution also finally arrived upon desktops and in homes all over the show through this turn of millennia.

and with it also came audio-generation of a whole new order. So, there are two audio revolutions occurring concurrently everywhere about us right now.

The average computer available off the high streets today is probably a better option on equipping an audio studio that most of the "professional equipment" that one could expect to see in a professional audio-studio in a city like New Delhi just ten years ago. And with MIDI, it can make music too!

Traditional audio is still recorded as sound waves in the computer environment, typically as stereo .WAV files. Classic software recorders of the day include "WaveLab", "SoundForge" and Creative Labs' "Wave Studio". Besides recording, all of the softwares also have editing options that allow one to do all sorts of things with .WAV files.

But the real revolution impacting audio "creativity" through computers today is MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). It's a standard that's not too old, allows realtime communication between MIDI-compatible devices, and operates by triggering algorithms that make up the individual sounds of different instruments (which means an infinitely growing number of actual and invented instrument sounds).

A musical note in a MIDI file could be a hundredth the size of one in a .WAV file, but they're not quite the same thing. Whereas the note in .WAV would be the full wave-form of an actual sound, a note in MIDI is actually an event-trigger containing a small mass of information to be "translated" into an audio signal. Amongst this information would be the algorithm of the instrument sound, its duration, volume, position, velocity (e.g. key-impact) and so on and so forth. And as digital-information, everything about it is individually editable.

Softwares like the super-popular "CakeWalk" are ideal for exploring the full potential of MIDI. Music can be fed into the software as signals from a MIDI keyboard; 16 individual channels can each be assigned an individual instrument-sound; each track can be assembles in parts across several tracks; every single bit of information can be viewed and modified in any of many ways; and you can even combine it all with directly-recorded, or imported, audio in the standard .WAV format.

In a nutshell, "Musical Intrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and digital sequencing technologies allow solitary musicians to draw on a full spectrum of instruments simultaneously, and remove musical sophistication as a requirement for producing technically sophisticated sound. Rap music highlights the increased use of appropriated and recontextualized audio material, which is facilitated by digital sampling. Interactive multimedia gives listeners the ability to design their own versions of a recording."

However, since MIDI and MIDI files are all about software triggers, instrument voices are wholly dependent upon the delivery system. For example, the song below is a pre-loaded demo file from the Korg N364 keyboard and sequencer,.. but the MIDI file was copied and played back for this recording from a standard PC Windows MediaPlayer. The result as you can hear, is somewhat messy.

Here's a better approximation of what that is actually supposed to sound like:

To listen to two recordings of demo-songs from a software MIDI-sequencer ("Melody Assistant" for Mac), and view a very brief list of some of the information regarding the original MIDI files, click here,.. and when done, please close the new window this will open up in, to return here.

Screenshots at the bottom of this page offer some views from a couple of audio & MIDI softwares of the day.

Edison made the first recording of a human voice ("Mary had a little lamb") on the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph December 6, 1877, and filed for an American patent Decemeber 24. The word "Halloo" may have been recorded in July on an early paper model derived from his 1876 telegraph repeater, but the paper has not survived.

The tinfoil recorder was built by John Kruesi through December 1-6 from a sketch made by Edison on Novemeber 29.

When Kruesi heard Edison's first words on the device Dec. 6, he exclaimed "Gott in Himmel!" (but these words for "God in Heaven" were not recorded).

Edison's first phonograph of 1877 recorded sound by "indenting" or making up-and-down impressions in a groove cut into a thin surface of tin foil on a metal cylinder 4 inches long, 100 grooves per inch, powered by a hand crank at a speed of about 70 rpm. Tainter ~ Bell's graphophone of 1885 recorded sound by "incising" or making a vertical "hill-and-dale" cut in a thin surface of beeswax on a cardboard tube 6 inches long and 1-5/16 inches wide, 160 grooves per inch, powered by a hand crank at a speed of about 80 rpm, after 1887 by a foot treadle at 120 rpm. Berliner's gramophone of 1888 recorded sound by "undulation" or making a wavy side-to-side lateral cut in a thin wax surface that was etched by acid on one side of a flat zinc disc about 7 inches in diameter and used to press hard rubber copies, powered by a hand crank at a speed of about 30 rpm for the May 16 demonstration at the Franklin Institute, increased later to 60 rpm.

below: some software GUIs