History of Audio Technology

Educational Activities related to recording and music technology

During the 50 years that I have worked in recording and broadcast I have always been fascinated by the history and development of the equipment that we use in our craft. My first exposure to this was at a small Connecticut radio station that was equipped with gear from Bell, Viking, EICO, Garrard, Dynaco and AR - names that have long since vanished from the broadcast industry. My interest in extinct equipment, both professional and domestic, led me to begin collecting information and to developing a series of college lectures on the "History of Magnetic Recording."

These lectures were first presented in 1987 and were refined and expanded over the next two decades. The lectures focused on the historical process by which creative artists and engineers have influenced the development of recording technology. They examined the complex interaction between creative individuals, the communications industry and the inventors of new technology.

In the late 1980s, when I began to lecture on the history of audio technology, there was virtually no organized material available on the subject. While quite a few writers had put together chronologies, there had been little progress towards providing an overall perspective on technological change and linking the developments in various fields. Writers were also just beginning to realize the necessity for in-depth interviews with the creative professionals who were responsible for the industry's forward progress, while these pioneers were still with us. My lectures and the associated source materials attempted to meet this need for an organized and meaningful presentation of audio's 20th Century history.

In 2004, The Mix Foundation created a TECnology Hall of Fame to spotlight the long and rich history of the audio industry. Finally audio history became a subject of real popular relevance and Mix editor George Petersen initiated an ongoing effort to put the key people and innovative technologies into a coherent and meaningful historical contest. This was no small task - as George wrote in 2004, "The history of Pro Audio - our very lineage - is woefully neglected and sources are scarce..."

Most of my lecturing was done in the southeast, as I was based in Atlanta from 1974 to 2001. I am pleased that a new generation of students is now discovering the history of our profession. The massive revival of interest in older or vintage technology that began in the 1990s has created a growing awareness of the need to research and preserve the 125 year history of professional audio.

The lectures I gave provided students with a clear understanding of the chronology of recording technology, so that they are able to consider technological change in reference to the stream of time, musical developments and broader trends in society as a whole. By asking how and why decisions are made regarding the applications of new technology, students will develop a better sense of contemporary history and a new understanding of the dynamics of technological change.

Students and experienced engineers are also challenged to reflect upon the nature of their craft. A healthy skepticism as regards the traditional sources of commercial and scientific "expertise" is encourage, along with deserved respect for the creative individuals of visions who have contributed so much to our profession.

The scope of these lectures was broadened in 1998 to 2001 to meet the needs of music programs at LaGrange College and the Georgia Institute of Technology. My original focus on magnetic recording was significantly expanded when I taught a "Survey of Music Technology" course at Georgia Tech in 2001. The course provided an overview of the technological cultural and aesthetic factors that shaped the development of electronic music in the 20th century. Much of the contents of this course dovetailed nicely with material from the lectures on magnetic recording, providing a more complete picture of Music Technology in the 20th Century.

The course also featured a lab where students learned how to use analog tape recorders, and to splice, edit and loop. They learned the techniques of sound-on-sound recording and tape echo effects. Students unfamiliar with analog recording truly enjoyed these excursions into recording history, in much the same way that one goes to craft shows to watch blacksmiths and other practitioners of extinct technologies that have now become art.

"The Art of Engineering: Metaphysics of Mixing," presented at the LaGrange College Electronic Music Festival in 1998 and 2000, explored how engineers perceive the recording process and the "sound" of music. We are all familiar with the way engineers use equipment to get the sounds they want during mixing - what I call the mechanics of mixing. Of equal or greater importance is the way sounds are mixed and processed in the engineer's brain - what I describe as the metaphysics of mixing.

This lecture highlighted the mental processes used by engineers as they seek to create effective mixes. It also examined selected recordings from the 1950s through the early 1960s and explored their relevance to contemporary recording.

The various presentations were well received at Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, the Atlanta College of Art, LaGrange College (GA), Appalachian State University (NC), Columbia College (Chicago), University of North Carolina - Asheville, Dutchess Community College (NY), and Valdosta State College (GA). Lectures have also been presented to the AES chapter at Penn State, to the AES Student Summit at Webster University (2009 - 2011) and to younger students at a performing arts summer camp.