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.

Recorded music

Recorded music

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 LP

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.


Multitrack recording

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

Scopitones (1962)
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.


The synthesiser

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 for A Clockwork Orange and, 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.


The Vocoder

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.

About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.


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