Music and technology firsts
Music and technology go together like rock and roll. We take a whirlwind tour through the history of technological milestones in music, packed with classic tunes and amazing facts
August 1890. George Washington Johnson sits in front of a bank of phonograph recorders in Birmingham, Alabama, and begins to play his hit The Laughing Song for the 50th time that day. He's played it into the phonograph more than 1,000 times already, once for every single wax cylinder sold. Over a hundred years later, the song remains the same, but the way we produce and consume music has advanced with breathtaking pace.
In celebration, we've gathered together our pick of the biggest breakthroughs -- as music and technology have gone together as closely as Lennon and McCartney, Mick and Keef, Lady GaGa and earplugs. If you feel the music in you, share your suggestions and musical memories in the comments. You can even sing along at home with our Music vs Tech Spotify playlist.
From the individually recorded wax cylinders of the 19th century to the fevered experimentation of the electronic age and the white-hot revolution of the digital millenium, music has long been a crucible of technological innovation. Conflicting stories, clashing egos and happy accidents make it difficult to identify the first to use many landmark technologies. So for each milestone we've picked the song or artist that brought the technology to prominence, created the biggest impression or left the most enduring legacy, while giving credit to the unsung singers, producers and engineers who came up with the crazy ideas in the first place.
Au Clair de la Lune (1860)
The first recordings were made on phonautograph, a device that transcribed musical waveforms but had no capacity for playback.
Thomas Edison announced the phonograph in November 1877, the same year Emile Berliner patented the gramophone. The phonograph recorded to a vertical cylinder, and the gramophone to the familiar horizontal disc.
The oldest surviving recording is a phonograph of Handel played at the Crystal Palace. Early recordings had to be made individually, with performers such as Johnson playing songs repeatedly while surrounded by several phonographs, each recording an individual wax cylinder.
The electric guitar
Gage Brewer (1932)
The first electrically amplified guitar was the Hawaiian-sounding Frying Pan, created by George Beauchamp, built by Rickenbacker and used by bandleaders such as Brewer and Andy Iona. Gage Brewer gave the first performance with an electric guitar in 1932.
The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1948)
Columbia Records were first with the single-disc album, releasing 100 records on 21 June 1948. The first was a 10-inch LP of The Voice of Frank Sinatra. Ol' Blue Eyes' first studio album had previously been released as a set of four discs! The first 12-inch LP was Nathan Milstein and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York playing Mendelssohn's Concerto in E Minor. Twelve-inch records initially featured only classical music and Broadway shows, but soon pop music took over and the smaller disc disappeared. The first double album was Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan, in 1966.
Les Paul (1948)
Les Paul, who sadly died this year, was a giant in the history of music recording. A virtuoso guitarist even before you consider his technical accomplishments, Paul built one of the first solid-body guitars, and his early experiments with multitrack recording saw the 1948 release of Lover (When You're Near Me). Paul recorded himself and his wife Mary Ford, then played it back and recorded them playing or singing along with themselves. This jury-rigged solution led to distortion, however.
Paul built the first multitrack recorder when he added extra tape heads to the second Ampex Model 200 tape recorder, given to him by Bing Crosby. He financed Ampex engineer Ross Snyder to develop the first 8-track 'Sel-Sync' (Selective Synchronous Recording) recorder, released in 1955. The technology was expensive at first: the Beatles didn't get to use it until 1963. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was one of the first pop records to make extensive use of multitracking.
The music video
Technically, the first true music video -- in that it was the first to be shot on videotape -- was the legendary Bohemian Rhapsody, performed by Queen and directed by Bruce Gowers. But short films accompanying individual songs had been around almost as long as sound could accompany moving pictures: short musical films preceded feature films as early as the 1920s. Television brought the music video out of the cinema, while Scopitones were 3-minute, 16mm films shown on a jukebox of the same name with a 26-inch colour display on top, mostly found in French cafes and bars. In the 1960s and 1970s, these gave way to promo clips, used on TV to promote singles.
You've seen the video for Bohemian Rhapsody a million times, you don't need to see it again. Oh go on then: Be-elzebub has a devil for a sideboard...
The distortion pedal
The Rolling Stones -- (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (1965)
A distortion pedal is a gadget that alters the signal from an electric guitar to give an unusual sound. One of the first commercially available fuzzboxes was the Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone, used by Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones' 1965 US and UK chart-topper (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.
The 'fuzz tone' effect was first heard by accident on Marty Robbins' 1961 hit Don't Worry, when session guitarist Grady Martin, who played the legendary riff in Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman, recorded his solo without realising a preamplifier tube had blown. The same year Billy Strange, who co-wrote A Little Less Conversation for Elvis Presley, played a fuzz-tone solo on I Just Don't Understand by Ann-Margret. Seventeen-year-old Dave Davies of the Kinks achieved a similar effect by cutting the speaker cone of his amp with a razor and a pin, making You Really Got Me the first UK number 1 single based around distorted power chords.
The first pedal to deliberately create the effect was invented by electronics expert and steel guitarist Red Rhodes for instrumental surf guitar pioneers The Ventures, appearing on the 1962 song 2,000 Pound Bee. The pedal amplifies and clips the signal coming from the guitar, transforming the standard sine wave input into a square wave output, giving a rough and distorted sound.
The Beatles -- Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)
Abbey Road studio engineer Ken Townsend developed Artificial Double Tracking (ADT) to take the hassle out of recording dual vocal tracks on the Beatles album Revolver. Producer George Martin explained ADT as splitting the recording "through a double-bifurcated sploshing flange with double-negative feedback," from which John Lennon coined the term 'flange'. Flange involves slightly delaying one of two identical signals, creating an effect that makes the final sound seem to sweep back and forth.
The effect was discovered by the British Radiophonic Workshop, today most famous for creating the otherworldly Doctor Who theme and for its pioneering experimental work on electronic music and sound effects. Before ADT, creating a flange effect involved manually slowing tape by pressing on it with a screwdriver. The resulting effect was so sci-fi sounding, The Ventures used the technique on their 1962 cover of Telstar to simulate a rocket taking off.
One of the first hit singles to use the effect was The Small Faces' Itchycoo Park in 1967. In 1969, Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix was the first example of flanging in stereo. In the 1970s, advances in circuitry meant the effect could be recreated electronically, and today getting a cool swooshy flange effect is as simple as twisting a knob on a DJ mixer.
Walter Carlos -- Switched-On Bach (1968)
We'd argue the synthesiser has had the biggest impact on music since a caveman first banged two rocks together. Dr Robert Moog's first synthesisers were modular and custom-built for each user. Classically trained musician Walter Carlos was instrumental -- if you'll pardon the pun -- in bringing the synthesiser to prominence. He created a demonstration recording to promote the first production model, the 900 series, in 1967, and was the first customer. Country singer Buck Owens bought the second model produced and Micky Dolenz of The Monkees the third.
Strange Days by The Doors was the first pop record to feature the Moog, in September 1967. Albums by The Monkees, The Zodiac, The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel followed. But it was Switched-On Bach which showed the potential of the Moog for sonic innovation, and in doing so brought the instrument to widespread popularity. Switched-On Bach was also one of the first classical music recordings to go platinum. In July 1969, Dick Hyman's The Minotaur became the first top 40 hit to make heavy use of the Moog.
The first film to use synthesised music was George Lazenby's sole outing as James Bond, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Walter Carlos used synthesisers extensively on the score forand, after becoming Wendy Carlos in 1972, also scored Tron.
In 1971, the Minimoog was produced. The synthesiser could now be transported and used onstage by artists such as Jan Hammer, later of Miami Vice fame, but then playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Richard Branson's Virgin Records benefited from the Moog-heavy landmark electronica on Tangerine Dream's 1974 album Phaedra, which reached number 15 on the album charts. Towards the end of the title track, it's possible to hear the analogue equipment detuning as it heats up.
By 1976, Yamaha synthesisers offered polyphonic sound, although they were still cumbersome. Much more portable was the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, introduced in late 1977 and the first to use a microprocessor as a controller, allowing settings to be saved and recalled at the touch of a button. A year later, the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) was the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesiser, powered by dual processors and including the option to control musical waveforms on a monitor screen with a light pen. The first customers were Herbie Hancock, Peter Gabriel, Spandau Ballet producer Richard James Burgess, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, and Stevie Wonder.
Electric Light Orchestra -- Mr Blue Sky (1978)
The vocoder was first developed in the 1930s as a way of transmitting speech, passing the input through a multiband filter and envelope follower to encode vocal signals. Electro innovator Bruce Haack developed a prototype vocoder named 'Farad' after Michael Faraday. He used it on The Electronic Record for Children in 1969 and later on the 1970 acid-rock concept album about a battle between Heaven and Hell, entitled Electric Lucifer. Our old friends Carlos and Moog developed a ten-band vocoder that provided the futuristic and menacing vocal parts of Beethoven's Ninth for the Clockwork Orange soundtrack.
The Alan Parsons Project and krautrock maestros Kraftwerk also used vocoders, before ELO brought the electro voice effect to the UK top 10 with Mr Blue Sky, repeating the song title and ending the track with an instruction to flip the record over. One of the most atmospheric and haunting uses of vocoder is Imogen's Heap's 2005 track Hide And Seek, sung a capella through a DigiTech Vocalist Workstation.
Click 'Continue' for more musical and technological collisions, beginning with the tiny plastic disc that kicked off the compact age.
Billy Joel -- 52nd Street (1982)
You might have heard of compact discs. Sony demonstrated an optical digital audio disc concept in 1975. Philips followed suit in 1979, and the two companies teamed up to develop the compact disc. Philips proposed a disc measuring 11.5cm in diameter, but Sony insisted on 12cm in order to fit the whole of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
The first test CD, pressed in 1981, was a recording of Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. With neat synchronicity, Deutsche Grammophon, the company formed by gramophone pioneer Emil Berliner, was now part of PolyGram, the company that built the first CD-pressing factory. The first CD to be manufactured was ABBA's final, post-divorce, 1982 album The Visitors. Billy Joel's 52nd Street was the first to hit the shops, in October 1982 in Japan, played on the first CD player, the Sony CDP-101.
Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA was the first CD in the US early the following year.
The new technology was an instant hit, enough that in 1985 David Bowie's entire 15-album back catalogue was released on CD. That same year Dire Straits sold a million copies of Brothers in Arms.
The title track of Brothers in Arms was the first CD single, released as two limited-edition, tour-branded, four-track discs. Compact Discs became eligible for the UK Singles Chart in 1987, and in 1988 Pink Floyd's One Slip was the first single to be released only on CD.
The CD single didn't take off until the mid-1990s, and was only popular for about a decade before being killed stone dead by the digital download. Woolworths sounded the death knell in August 2008. CD singles became notorious for multi-formating, the practice of releasing two discs with different track listings. The vagaries of multi-format marketing became the stuff of national news with the 1995 'Battle of Britpop' between Blur's Country House and Oasis' Roll With It, released the same day. Look out for both Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn doing Liam impressions on Top of the Pops.
MIDI and the Atari ST
Mike Oldfield -- Earth Moving (1989)
Synthesisers became even more practical with the introduction of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), proposed in 1981 by engineer Dave Smith and introduced in 1983. MIDI is a standard protocol that allows different kinds of electronic instruments to communicate and be controlled from one interface. The humble Atari ST appeared in many recording studios because it was one of the few home computers to come with MIDI ports as standard, and included relatively generous memory. Mike Oldfield's 1989 album Earth Moving credits the Atari ST and C-Lab MIDI software in its liner notes, while recording software Cubase and Logic Pro both originated on the ST.
MARRS -- Pump Up The Volume (1987)
Sampling is another technique with a long and chequered history. The first sampled track may well have been Collage #1 ('Blue Suede'), cut together in 1961 by James Tenney from samples of Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes. A whole side of The White Album was rendered unlistenable by The Beatles' 8-minute patchwork of loops and samples, Revolution 9, in 1968.
Early samplers involved triggering tape samples by pressing keys. The Mellotron began as a form of synthesiser but could be used to play any kind of sample. Unfortunately, systems like this were expensive, prone to breakage, and suffered from limited storage on tape. Digital sampling removed the need to physically chop up tape. The first digital sampler was the EMS Musys system, developed around 1969 in Putney. It consisted of two 12KB PDP-8 mini-computers with a 32KB hard drive, built by Peter Grogono, David Cockerell and Peter Zinovieff.
It was in the 1980s, with the integration of samplers into digital synthesisers and the rise of hip-hop, that the sample took off. The first sampling synthesiser, the Computer Music Melodian, hit shelves in 1976, and the first polyphonic model, Fairlight CMI, came from Australia three years later. Over the years, the sound of individual samplers would have a massive impact on the music scene. The crunchy drums of the E-mu SP-1200, for example, characterised the New York sound of 1987 and onwards, its increased storage making it portable and popular.
One of the earliest examples of a successful commercial single built out of samples was The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel in 1981. That's the one that features a bit of Apache by The Shadows. In 1985 erstwhile Clash guitarist Mick Jones built Big Audio Dynamite single E=MC² around samples from the films of Nicolas Roeg. The first number 1 to make extensive use of sampling was the legendary Pump Up The Volume, released in 1987 by MARRS, a one-off collaboration between various artists on the 4AD label.
Pump Up The Volume was also one of the first cases of controversy over sampling. When records containing samples began to make money, the original artists -- or more accurately, the labels behind the original recordings -- began to take notice. Those champions of musical innovation, Stock, Aitken and Waterman, sued MARRS despite not initially recognising the sample from the single Roadblock. Biz Markie's 1992 album I Need a Haircut was withdrawn over a sample from Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally), and Shut Up And Dance's acid-house number 2 hit Raving I'm Raving was deleted after legal action from Walking In Memphis singer Marc Cohn.
Cher -- Believe (1998)
Autotune is pitch correction applied to recorded vocals: a trade secret that gives singers perfect pitch every time. In fact, it was such a dirty little secret that when it was used to give Cher an electronic warble on 1998 hit single Believe, the producers claimed to have actually been using a Vocoder. Although pitch correction is designed to be undetectable, this was the first example of the unusual robot-voice effect also being possible.
Autotuning began with Auto-Tune, a Pro Tools plug-in developed in 1997 by Exxon seismic engineer Andy Hildebrand, from research into interpreting vibrations in the Earth. Auto-Tune can be used in a live setting outside the studio because it works in real time. Similar technology is included in Celemony's Melodyne, as used by Coldplay and Daft Punk, which can build backing vocal tracks from lead vocals and manipulate individual notes within chords.
Many artists decry the use of autotune. Jay-Z recorded a track entitled DOA (Death of Autotune), but Kanye West and other R&B and hip-hop artists love to flaunt the wibbly-warbly effect. Top-hatted lunatic T-Pain is synonymous with the sound, eventhat allows you to autotune your own voice. Check out our CNET US colleague Justin Yu bringing autotune full circle with his extraordinary rendition of Believe.
Koopa -- Blag, Steal and Borrow (2007)
In October 2001, -- and everything changed. The iPod captured the popular imagination with its sleek design. Integration with iTunes made the digital music experience accessible to mainstream users for the first time, and the MP3 killed the MiniDisc as the portable format of choice before Sony's nifty little platter had a chance to show its mettle.
The official UK Download Chart launched in September 2004. Just a few months later, in January 2005, downloaded tracks outstripped physical sales, and in April, downloads were added to the UK Singles Chart. In January 2007, the requirement for a physical release was removed, ending a period of argy-bargy over technicalities: Gorillaz, for example, released a nominal 300 vinyl copies of Feel Good Inc. Hits such as Gnarls Barclay's Crazy and Nelly Furtado's Maneater disappeared from the top 10 because the end of their physical releases made them ineligible, despite still selling digitally.
Crazy was the first song to reach number 1 on digital downloads alone, on 2 April 2006, when the condition was that downloads could be counted a week before the song's physical release. Mobile phone and video downloads count in the chart.
The first song to chart without ever being physically released was Blag, Steal and Borrow, by unsigned Colchester punk band Koopa, reaching number 31 the week after the rules changed. Before the end of the year Koopa did it twice more, even breaking into the top 20 with The Crash.
Ten songs went on to hit number 1 on the strength of download sales, but all followed this with physical releases. Leona Lewis scored the first number 1 that never graced a shop shelf with her histrionic cover of Snow Patrol's Run.
Suddenly, every song is a single. Radio and television play mean most artists still need what we could describe as 'lead tracks', so as not to split the song-buying public's vote. But downloads can still be successful without being officially released or reissued. Crazy and Maneater reappeared in the charts, which now also reflects surges in public interest in an artist. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was the first to persuade listeners to game the Chart, sending Billie Piper's 1999 number 3 Honey To The Bee in at number 17 in January 2007. Luciano Pavarotti's death prompted Nessun Dorma to chart at number 24, and Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight hit number 14 two and a half decades after first release, thanks to a drumming gorilla in an advert.
The death of Michael Jackson saw the biggest invasion of the Chart by a single artist, with 16 of his solo hits and four Jacksons tracks charting in June 2009. Man In The Mirror reached number 2 the following week.
It's a time of turmoil for the music industry, as physical releases and retailers apparently draw their last breath, while record labels and copyright holders chase their own tails in ever-decreasing circles. But music will always be with us, and as long as there are visionaries, innovators and nutcases inventing, innovating and messing about, technology and music will continue to hit the high notes.
Instruments such as the Tenori-on and the incredible Eigenharp are already pushing the musical envelope. What do you think is the future of musical technology? And what were the musical technology moments that blew your mind? Let us know in the comments.