The Historical-Mechanical Origins of Audio Fidelity

Title

The Historical-Mechanical Origins of Audio Fidelity

Description

Since the advent of recording technologies in the 19th century the question of fidelity has dogged artists and engineers alike. First, there is the philosophical problem: implied in the term ‘fidelity’ is a major epistemological claim about reality: that there is an authentic source, an objective and discrete ‘thing’, in our case the original performance of a musical or sonic piece, that is then somehow mediated in the process of recording or transmission, and then further mediated in the subjective experience of being listened to or heard.
Sonic puritans would argue that any kind of mediation outside of that which occurs in the organic and psychological perception of sound by the human brain/ear necessarily diminishes a piece, that a copy is by definition inferior, or at the very least different than it’s original. In theory this is loosely supported by the fact that any kind of sonic reproduction involves some level of hard/soft limitation, be it the mechanical oscillation of a stylus in a phonograph, or the sample rate of an analog to digital converter.
My project will will be an exploration of the mechanical and socio historical problems of fidelity rather than the philosophical and epistemological ones. As such I will assume that there is in fact such thing as an original, for our purposes the ‘true’ performance, but rather than frame the issue of a recording's fidelity as that of inferior or superior, I will argue that audio recordings, while clearly indebted to their originals, take on a form of their own that is best understood dialectically, as a process influenced by a range of limiting factors,that extend beyond the philosophical to the mechanical and socio-historical.

Technologies and Events in This Collection

Spotify Streaming Service Launches
Swedish company Spotify launches, offering a streaming alternative to Apple’s iTunes store. Initially sample rates at Spotify were limited to 128kbps, but with increasing bandwidth capabilities, Spotify pro users were able to stream music at up to…

The release of Apple’s iPod
Apple capitalizes on the increasing trend for digital music distribution by premiering its own MP3 player. While not the first MP3 player to hit the market, it was the first time a company had rolled-out a comprehensive digital music ‘solution’…

Napster P2P Music Sharing (mp3’s)
The Napster GUI and various imitation clients make Peer 2 Peer (P2P) sharing of MP3 files across the internet increasingly popular. Napster marks the first of many destabilizing moments for the music industry. First by the various distribution…

Sony and Phillips Premier Compact Disc
Sony and Phillips premier the first compact laser disc in conjunction with a set of encoding parameters. Unlike the audio cassette, which relied on magnetic tape, or the laser disc which was an analog technology, CD’s were the first time a disc had…

A Clockwork Orange Score by Wendy Carlos on the Moog
First synthesized score for film utilizing the recently debuted Moog and skills of musician/sound engineer Wendy Carlos. While not the first example of synthesized music, (Switched-on Bach sold over half a million copies in 1968-69) the score was…

First Pre-recorded Radio Broadcast, Bing Crosby and Magnetic Tape
Bing Crosby is approached by engineers from AMPEX who successfully market magnetic tape as a way to record, and splice segments of radio performance to create pre-recorded versions of what had typically been broadcast live.

Experiments in Stereo
Alan Blumein experimented and succeeded in recording two-tracks of sound to create a sound-scape, or stereo sound by utilizing both a single groove’s alternate walls to record both signals. Stereo-sound is far more accurate in rendering a recording…

1st Radio AM broadcast
Marconi’s first transmission relied on amplitude modulation to send a ‘wireless telegraph’ from England to Newfoundland. The transmission ‘bounced’ off the ionosphere and was received in Canada. Marked the first time in history that information…

First Electrical Recording
The recording at Westminster Abbey of the hymns sung at the funeral for the unknown warrior mark the first time that electrical recording using microphones and plastic discs, which were stored in an offsite location were made. However because of poor…

First Playback of Audio, Edison's Tinfoil Phonograph
Thomas Edison’s recording of Mary Had a Little Lamb in upstate New York marks the first time in history that sound was recorded and played back. The recording itself is remarkable in that it survives to this day, and the excitement and surprise in…

MPEG 1-2 (MP3)
MP3 is the name given to a way of processing an audio signal in post-production through compression. It was invented by the Motion Pictures Experts Group through various teams at University of Hannover, AT&T - Bell Labs, and others. MP3’s rely on…

Signal Converters (ADC & DAC)
Signal converters have been around in analog form at least since the invention of the telegraph, and possibly as far back as the ottoman empire. However in their most familiar iterations, as digital converters, they have been around for roughly 70…

The Transistor
The transistor was invented at Bell labs by Bardeen and Brattain in 1947. It improved upon earlier designs like Lilienfield’s solid-state amplifier, which due to the lack of semi-conductor materials int he 1920’s found no commercial application…

Magnetic Tape
Magnetic Tape was invented by Fritz Pfleumer in 1928, improving on earlier designs for magnetic wire by Oberlin Smith in 1882. Pfleumer’s innovation was to use a celluloid sheet coated in ferric oxide powder. By charging a magnetic coil or…

The Audion Triode Amplifier
The Triode amplifier was invented in 1906 by Lee de Forest. It improved on earlier designs like the Fleming valve by adding a grid with a charge in addition to the two diodes. By 1912 the amplifying properties of the triode had been fully fleshed out…

Ribbon Microphone
The Ribbon mic was invented by Harry F Olsen for RCA in the 1930’s, building off of work conducted by Dr Shottky and Gerlach in the 1920’s. The microphone improved immensely on earlier and alternative methods of recording by using a small nickel…

The Phonograph/Gramophone
The Phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1878, building off of several prototypes most notably the Phonautograph, which was a machine designed to ‘write’ audio rather than play it back (Rutgers: The Edison Papers), (UCSB: Cylinder Archive).…