Tech that Transformed Music — the Microphone

Have you ever wondered why early recorded music rarely features singing or guitars? The US Billboard Chart did not exist in the early 1900s, but if it did, it would have been dominated by music featuring trumpets, cornets, trombones, and tubas. In truth, however, this had as much to do with recording technology as it did with musical tastes.

In the pre-war era, music studios looked completely different — sound recording was still an entirely mechanical process involving no electricity. Typically, the band stood around a large metal, horn-shaped funnel and played. The funnel directed the sound onto a thin glass sheet connected to a steel stylus. As the band performed, the sound waves caused the glass sheet to vibrate and the stylus to move up and down, etching a groove into a wax disk rotating underneath. The wax disk, which worked similarly in principle to later vinyl records, could be played back on a gramophone or phonograph.

This simple, yet ingenious recording technique had some pretty major drawbacks. The volume tended to be very low and only a narrow segment of the audible sound spectrum could be recorded. While the average human ear can hear sounds ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz, these acoustic recording machines were only able to capture a spectrum ranging from 250 to 2500 Hz.

In order to work around these limitations, popular bands of the early 1920s had to either go big or go home — using large, loud wind and brass instruments. If a song featured vocals, the singer needed to briefly run in front of the metal funnel and sing as loud as possible directly into it, before moving away again so that the overall recording would not be disturbed.

As only a limited sound spectrum could be recorded, baritone singers were too low to be heard. The ability to sing at the correct pitch while projecting with sufficient volume required specialised vocal skills, which required years of training to master. Thus, most of the recorded singers of the early 20th Century tended to be tenors, who could project their voices loud enough to be immortalised on wax.

In the mid 1920s, the advent of electrical microphones meant that for the first time, sound could be captured and amplified before being recorded. Whereas technically, microphones had existed since the invention of the telephone in the late 1800s, they were too primitive to be used to record music. The development of crystal and condenser microphones, which began to be widely used in the music industry in 1925, opened up a whole new range of possibilities for recording artists.

First and foremost, the microphone put the singer at the center of popular music. Singers like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra used the microphone to deliver highly subtle, emotive performances. Suddenly, it was possible for a singer to personalise their singing style, creating an intimacy that was not possible before. Holiday, in particular, developed a vocal style and microphone technique which made it feel like she was talking, rather than singing — giving her music an unmistakable air of familiarity and fun.

The microphone also gave rise to the era of the crooner — singers like Bing Crosby and Perry Como sung melodies featuring falsetto, vibrato and legato phrasing — whereby the singer smoothly glides between notes without pausing. Although not to everyone’s taste, this singing style became the bedrock of love songs and romantic music for decades to come.

The art of working the mic

But while the electric microphone brought many new possibilities, it also posed new challenges. Terms like “sibilant” and “plosive” mean nothing to most people, but send shivers down the spine of recording technicians. These are the sounds we make when we pronounce words like “pat”, “bag”, “sip” or “zip” which cause a sudden release of airflow from our mouths. This airflow tends to cause sensitive condenser microphones to spike or pop, which leaves a noticeable and irritating noise on the recording.

Artists like Frank Sinatra, who got close to the microphone during quiet parts of a song to create a sense of closeness and intimacy, needed to develop techniques to avoid these problems. Sinatra would lead back away from the mic during loud parts to avoid spiking and tilt his when pronouncing certain words to avoid pops. During the recording of It Was a Very Good Year in 1965, for example, he tilted his head away from the mike while delivering the line “it poured sweet and clear” to ensure that the plosive released when he sung “poured” did not cause the mike to pop.

These techniques became standard practice and many of the movements and gestures that we associate with modern vocal performers have their origins in good microphone technique. Of course, studio technicians did their best to develop practical solutions to these challenges for less experienced singers. If you ever wondered why a mesh is often placed in front of the microphone in studio settings, now you know — this is known as a “pop filter” and has the specific purpose of guarding against sibilants and plosives.

While we take it for granted today, the microphone was undoubtedly a technology which irrevocably changed music, ushering in a new era that placed the singer center stage. At Utopia Genesis, we are developing the next technologies that will transform music, fractional ownership of music rights and more. Find out more here.

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