The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 9, 2002
Half Note

In tune with the times
Jawahar Wattal

"Music, nothing else but wild sounds civilised into time and tune."

—Thomas Fuller

NEVER were truer words said. Especially, if we trace the fascinating evolution of music technology and try and decipher how the music that reaches our ears, enters our homes and captures our imaginations has changed over the years. Gone are the days when drumbeats were used as warning signals in the African jungle—we have fast-forwarded into an age where a hand-held cellphone does our bidding, bringing to us whatever tunes we choose to hear in our homes, offices or even during our morning jog, thanks to MP3 players! And it's all because of the development of technology.

The evolution of sound technology has been tremendous. We have moved from analog to digital; mono to stereo; Akashwani to FM; Doordarshan to Star Plus; and from Chitrahaar to TVS Sa Re Ga Ma in just a few decades. As this process of evolution took shape, technologies were continuously developed to aid things along. And each rung in the ladder of evolution took it a step higher, made it more streamlined and in the process, ironed out the faults of the earlier inventions.


The first step was the invention of gramophone vinyl records that created history with music being reproduced on LPs and EPs and Super Seven records. Along with the manufacture of records came the development of the record player. Till 1950, sound production was mechanical: record players used to run on springs that needed to be cranked up to play the records. The needle was initially made of steel, passing sounds from the gramophone disc to a stylus, which was further attached to a diaphragm. The sounds were then amplified by a horn that was attached to the entire contraption. As time went by and technology changed, the needle was replaced by a diamond tip, the stylus by crystal; and the mechanical reproduction by electronic amplifiers.

The next few years saw the entry of tape recorders and music was recorded mono in studios. At that time, there was absolutely no stereo recording and no panning of sound. The first recording device was a wire-based system in which a steel wire was passed through magnetic poles to store sound. This was followed by a 0.25 inch tape wherein sound would be recorded on magnetic tape.

The 70s saw the entry of the cassette tape as a storage medium and the cassette player as a reproduction medium. With the entry of the tape recorder, this era also saw an initial foray into the field of stereo recording, with a few experimental recordings being undertaken. Also, the process of reproduction and duplication was easier and less cumbersome with the cassette tape, as compared to the vinyl record. Apart from which, there was also substantial improvement in sound fidelity.

The 80s’ CDS was the era of digital recording on direct CD or digital audio tape wherein sound could now be recorded in the form of binary numbers instead of magnetic waves on a magnetic tape.

The 90s ushered in DVDs and MDs and in the 21st century, we're in the era of the MP3, a digital music technology, that is sweeping the Internet, allowing web surfers to download thousands of songs, many free of cost. MP3 software squeezes songs that are normally too big to move around the Internet into files that are just one-tenth their original size. Using MP3 is legal if the song's copyright holder has granted permission to download and play the song. The sound is basically indistinguishable from a CD and you can now download all your favourites on to your MP3-enabled cellphone!

Another aspect of this entire process, as I mentioned earlier, was that each stage of development learnt from the previous one and made improvements as it moved along. For instance, the problems that records were plagued by-- dust, scratching, popping sounds, warping under extreme climatic changes, taking up huge amounts of shelf space—were erased when the cassette came along. But though the frequency response improved with the little tape and storage was not such a headache, these too could be damaged due to wear and tear or demagnetisation. Now, of course, we are in a digital era where the high fidelity and near-perfect sound reproduction takes music closest to its natural form than it's ever been.

What a journey it's been and one can only wonder what brilliant breakthroughs await us at the next corner!