Tuesday, August 27, 2013

History Lesson: Invention of Audio Tape Machines

What does a popular music crooner, a cigarette paper manufacturer, and the Nazi WWII propaganda machine have in common? Well, let me tell you if you haven’t already guessed. One clue is that these are a few of the key elements that helped change the recording industry forever, turning it into a multi-million dollar industry virtually overnight.
In 1877 Thomas Edison became the first recognized person to record and playback sound, using his new invention the phonograph. Next the Polish engineer Valdemar Poulson got the stone rolling for the recording industry by inventing the Telegraphone, the first magnetic recorder. In 1896 Telegraphone used wire to capture sound and later steel tape and coated steel discs. This a revolutionary concept, but tube amplification was still 10 or so years away, there wasn’t enough quality for these devices to become popular.


All of this leads us to WWII, where U.S. Army Signal Corps lieutenant Jack Mullin is stationed in Europe working on RADAR and other allied electronics. The military tasked Mullin with investigating Germany’s many advances in electronics and technology. While listening to German radio broadcasts, Mullin noticed that all of the music was much clearer and sounded better than the discs the Americans and British were using. After some investigating he found out that the Germans were using the Magnetophon, the first iron oxide based tape recorder, for all of their productions.

It seems that an Austrian inventor, Fritz Pfleumer, working on cigarette manufacturing, discovered a method for applying iron particles to a strip of paper. Being an audio enthusiast, he invented a recording machine to utilize this ferrous oxide (rust) coated “tape”. By 1935 Pfleumer had partnered with several German companies to become BASF, which would in turn be a leading manufacturer of magnetic tape and the first quality tape recorder the Magnetophon.


While Mullin was still in Germany he shipped parts from the Magnetophon and 50 reels of tape back to his home in San Francisco. When he returned home from the war in 1945 he partnered with film sound pioneer Bill Palmer. Together they reverse engineered the Magnetophon and built their own tape machine. Throughout 1946 and 1947 they gave demonstrations of their tape machine to the film industry with rave reviews.

This is where famous crooner Bing Crosby enters the story. Crosby’s technical director was at one of Mullin’s presentations and immediately saw the value of the machine for Bing’s weekly radio show on NBC. Bing had been performing the same radio show live two time each week, one show broadcast to the East Coast then another three hours later to the West Coast. Bing had just quit the show for the upcoming 1946-47 season when NBC executives refused to let him record the show in the studio to acetate transcription discs.

When Crosby signed his new contract with the then new ABC he decided to use Mullin’s tape machine to pre-record his shows, eliminating the need to do two live broadcasts of the same show. He hired Mullin on as his chief engineer and then invested heavily into the company that would refine and mass produce the reworked Magnetophon as the Ampex Model 200 tape machine. This would make Bing Crosby the first music start to produce all his following commercial releases on tape. Also, Cosby would be the first to pre-record radio broadcasts.

Since tape could be easily edited, unlike wire or acetate recording discs, this changed the entire music and broadcast industry. Shows could now be edited to improve pacing or remove parts that didn’t work. Crosby also created the “laugh track” by having the engineers edit in laughter from other takes and performances. All of this is standard today, but in the late 1940’s it was unheard of. By 1948 Ampex Model 200 machines were being used at all the major networks.

When Crosby gave Les Paul on of the first Ampex 200 machines the industry would change again. Les Paul always an innovator and pioneer in the music industry found a way to use the tape machine to record along with previously recorded tracks, inventing overdubbing. Soon with Les Paul’s ideas, Ampex would create the multi-track recorder, first 2 tracks, then 3, and eventually 8 tracks. Les Paul was the first to receive a custom built 8 track recorder that he named the “octopus”. A year later in 1958 Atlantic Records purchased their own 8 track Ampex for renowned engineer and producer Tom Dowd. The recording industry was now changed forever. Artists no longer needed to perform live to record, musicians began overdubbing, and tape editing for corrective or creative reasons became commonplace. All of this thanks to a popular singer, a cigarette manufacturer, and the German war machine.

Did you find this history lesson interesting? Would you like to learn more? 

If you answered "yes", then consider learning more about today's advances in the recording arts industry! 

Learn more first-hand while enrolled in the Audio Engineering and Music Production Program at F.I.R.S.T. Institute - get free info here...

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