From wax cylinders to Auto-Tune: The technology that changed music

From stereo to samplers, from the first LPs to the iPod, we check out the technological innovations that helped your favourite music stars hit the high notes.

Richard Trenholm
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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 in music technology, from wax cylinders to Tidal, from Sinatra to T-Pain. One, two, a-one-two-three-four!

2 of 36 Keystone Features/Getty Images

For more than a century, music and technology have gone together as closely as Lennon and McCartney; Mick and Keef; Lady Gaga and earplugs.

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 millennium, 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.

And if you feel the music in you, you can even sing along at home with our Music vs. Tech Spotify playlist!

3 of 36 Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

Recorded music (1860)

The first recordings were made on phonautograph, like the 1872 version pictured. It was 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's Au Clair de la Lune 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.

4 of 36 EMI Group Archive Trust

Stereo (1931)

Stereo was invented in 1931 by Alan Dower Blumlein, a British engineer who pioneered a remarkable number of innovations in the early days of telephony, television, sound recording and radar. Tragically, he died during the Second World War aged just 38, without seeing the legacy of his many advancements.

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The electric guitar (1932)

The first electrically amplified guitar was the Hawaiian-sounding Frying Pan. It was 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.

6 of 36 William Gottlieb/Redferns/Getty

The LP (1948)

Columbia Records was first with the single-disc long play record, releasing 100 albums on 21 June 1948. The first of those was the 10-inch record "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". 12-inch records initially featured only classical music and Broadway shows, but soon pop music took over and the smaller disc disappeared.

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The double LP (1966)

The first double album was "Blonde On Blonde" by Bob Dylan, released in 1966.

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Multitrack recording (1948)

Les Paul 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 (pictured in 1952), then played that recording back and recorded themselves playing and singing along with their recorded performance. This jury-rigged solution led to distortion, however.

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Multitrack recording

Paul built the first multitrack recorder when he added extra tape heads to an 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) machine, released in 1955.

The technology was expensive at first: the Beatles didn't get to use it until 1963, for example. The Beach Boys' 1966 album "Pet Sounds" was one of the first pop records to make extensive use of multitracking.

10 of 36 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The distortion pedal (1962)

A distortion pedal is a gadget that alters the signal from an electric guitar to give an unusual sound.

The first pedal to deliberately create a distorted "fuzz tone" effect, was invented by electronics expert and steel guitarist Red Rhodes. It was made for instrumental surf guitar pioneers The Ventures (pictured), appearing on the 1962 song "2,000Pound 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.

11 of 36 Elmer Williams, Getty Images

The distortion pedal

The "fuzz tone" effect was first heard by accident on Marty Robbins' 1961 hit "Don't Worry". Session guitarist Grady Martin (pictured), 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.

12 of 36 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

17-year-old Dave Davies of the Kinks (pictured) 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.

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The distortion pedal

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".

14 of 36 Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images

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 (pictured left) coined the term "flange".

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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 theme to TV show "Doctor Who" (pictured), 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.

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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 (pictured) 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.

17 of 36 GAB Archive/Redferns

The synthesiser (1968)

Many would 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 (pictured) was instrumental -- if you'll pardon the pun -- in bringing the synthesiser to prominence. Carlos 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 purchased 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.

18 of 36 MGM

The synthesiser

The first film to use synthesised music was George Lazenby's sole outing as James Bond -- 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (pictured). Walter Carlos used synthesisers extensively on the score for "A Clockwork Orange" and, after becoming Wendy Carlos in 1972, also scored "Tron".

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The synthesiser

In 1971, the Minimoog was produced. The synthesiser could now be transported and used onstage by artists such as Jan Hammer (pictured left), 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, it was 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. It was powered by dual processors and included 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.

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The music video

Technically, the first true music video -- in that it was the first to be actually shot on videotape -- was the legendary "Bohemian Rhapsody" (pictured), 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, in movie theatres, on TV and even in bars.

Short musical films preceded feature films as early as the 1920s. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, artists began to make promo clips which were used on TV to promote singles.

In between there were Scopitones: 3-minute, 16mm musical films shown on a jukebox of the same name with a 26-inch colour screen built-in. Scopitones were mostly found entertaining the chic young things in French cafés and bars in the 1950s and 60s, but faded away by the end of the 60s.

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The Vocoder (1969)

The vocoder was first developed in the 1930s as a way of transmitting speech, passing the input through a multiband filter and an 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 (pictured) 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.

22 of 36 Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The compact disc (1982)

CDs -- remember them? 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. 52nd Street by Billy Joel (pictured) was the first to hit the shops, in October 1982 in Japan, played on the first CD player, the Sony CDP-101.

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The compact disc

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. CD singles became notorious for multi-formatting, 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".

24 of 36 Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

MIDI and the Atari ST (1983)

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.

The 1989 album "Earth Moving" by Mike Oldfield (pictured) 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.

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The sampler

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". Meanwhile, a whole side of "The White Album" by The Beatles (pictured), was rendered nigh-unlistenable by an 8-minute patchwork of loops and samples entitled "Revolution 9" in 1968.

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The sampler

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, by Grandmaster Flash (pictured). That's the one that features a bit of "Apache"by The Shadows.

27 of 36 David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The sampler

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". The 1992 album "I Need a Haircut" by Biz Markie (pictured) was withdrawn over a sample from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)". 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.

28 of 36 Photo by Barry King/WireImage

Auto-Tune (1998)

Auto-Tune 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 (pictured) 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 made possible by Auto-Tune.

That effect began with Auto-Tune, a Pro Tools plug-in developed in 1997 by Exxon seismic engineer Andy Hildebrand, using 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.

29 of 36 Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Rock Band


Top-hatted loon T-Pain (pictured) is synonymous with the Auto-Tune sound, even lending his name to an iPhone appthat allows you to auto-tune your own voice.

Many artists decry the use of Auto-Tune. 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.

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Digital Downloading (1993)

The first online archive of downloadable songs was the Internet Underground Music Archive, followed by music stores such as Ritmoteca. At first downloading was a relatively niche pursuit -- until October 2001, when Apple released the first iPod and everything changed.

The iPod and its successors -- Steve Jobs is pictured above with an updated model in 2004 -- captured the popular imagination with its sleek design. Integration with iTunes made the digital music experience accessible to mainstream users for the first time. 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.

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Digital Downloading

On 2 April 2006 "Crazy"was the first song to reach number 1 on digital downloads alone, 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 (pictured), 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".

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Digital Downloading

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 was a single. Radio and television play meant most artists still needed what we could describe as 'lead tracks', so as not to split the song-buying public's vote. But downloads could still be successful without being officially released or reissued. "Crazy"and "Maneater"reappeared in the charts, which now also reflected surges in public interest. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was the first to persuade listeners to game the Chart, sending the 1999 number 3 hit "Honey To The Bee" by Billie Piper (pictured) back into the chart 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.

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Digital Downloading

The death of Michael Jackson (pictured in 1993) 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.

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Online streaming (1993)

The first band to play live over the Internet was Severe Tire Damage, who happened to be in the building when some Xerox scientists wanted to demo online multicasting. Streaming was mostly known for video rather than music until services such as Spotify came along in the new millenium.

In 2015 rapper Jay Z bought streaming service Tidal and recruited celebrity chums including (pictured left to right with Jay Z far right) Madonna, Deadmau5 and Kanye West.

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Streaming is great for consumers but has proved less popular with artists like Taylor Swift, who argue services like Spotify don't pay musicians fairly.

36 of 36 University of the West of England

The future...

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 innovative instruments such as the Tenori-on, the Eigenharp and the Korg Kaoss Pad are pushing the musical envelope -- singer Imogen Heap (pictured) has even turned her hands into an instrument with a pair of "magical musical gloves".

As long as there are visionaries, innovators and nutcases inventing and messing about, technology and music will continue to hit the high notes.

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