The Evolution of Recorded Sound

From shellac dics to CD. A technological leap in the human history, to which DG has made major contributions

Emile Berliner (1889) by © DGDeutsche Grammophon

The Birth of an Industry

Emile Berliner (1851–1929),  the founder of Deutsche Grammophon, came up with the prototype for commercial sound recording. Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, a device that used wax cylinders. The first discs Berliner marketed, in the mid-1890s, were made of a shellac compound, were 5 inches in diameter, had a spiral groove running from edge to centre, and could be pressed and duplicated by electrotyping.

Emile Berliner, 1929, From the collection of: Deutsche Grammophon
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Berliner had also developed a device to read recordings – wax cylinders initially, then discs – and he christened this the gramophone.

Berliner's gramophone (1889)Deutsche Grammophon

Acoustic Recording

The recording process can be summarized as follows: the sound source causes the vibration of a membrane; this vibration is then transmitted to a stylus, which inscribes an undulating groove. To reproduce the sound, a stylus follows this groove, picking up the vibration and transmitting it to a membrane that plays back the sound. Thus sound is stored in a material form similar - "analogue" - to the vibration to which it corresponds.

Joseph Berliner and his workers (1898)Deutsche Grammophon

In 1898, Emile Berliner and his brother Joseph founded Deutsche Grammophon in Hannover, along with the first record and gramophone manufacturing works.

Caruso - Andrea Chenier: "Un di, all'azzurro spazio" (1907)Deutsche Grammophon

1895 saw the introduction of 7-inch records, which had a playing time of up to 90 seconds at 70 rpm. This was increased to 78 rpm when the first electric motor appeared. The picture shows one of the many 78s recorded by Caruso (this one in 1907).

one of many early gramophone models, 1900s, From the collection of: Deutsche Grammophon
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The first 10-inch records appeared in 1901, and 12-inch records were introduced two years later, with a playing time of five minutes per side.

Erna Sack (soprano) with orchestra, Cond. Walter Schütze - Flowers from Nice (1936) by Erna Sack (soprano) with orchestra, Cond. Walter Schütze, ℗ Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 1936, and the Shellac ProjectDeutsche Grammophon

There was no doubt that electrical recording reproduced sound far more faithfully. The introduction of electrical recording in 1925 and the electric loudspeaker two years later lent a new dimension to recorded sound. Mechanical transmission of vibrations to a cutting stylus gave way to a microphone and amplifier. Innovation was then evident in 1934 with the arrival of the concept of high fidelity (hi-fi), which extended the band of recorded frequencies from 30 to 8000Hz, thus improving sound quality still further. This is a 1936 recording of Erna Sack: Ein Blumenstrauß aus Nizza.

An encyclopedia of Deutsche Grammophon GesellschaftDeutsche Grammophon

Post-war Innovations 

After World War Two, Deutsche Grammophon’s objective was to retain its technical expertise and return to normal production levels, inasmuch as shortages would allow. By this time, the 78 rpm record was living on borrowed time. From 1946, Deutsche Grammophon became the first company to make all recordings using magnetic tape, building on pioneering research that had been carried out by German engineers during the war. In 1950, the invention of the variable groove extended the playing time to nine minutes per side.

Eugen Jochum: Jean Sibelius (1951)Deutsche Grammophon

The Arrival of Vinyl

The first long-playing microgroove records left DG’s Hannover factories in 1951. Made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), they were supplied in two sizes: 10 inches (15 minutes per side) and 12 inches (30 minutes per side). The rotational speed of 33 1/3 rpm was the same for both sizes. The record pictured is one of the earliest vinyl LPs. The yellow central band was a distinctive feature of DG’s record sleeves at that time.

Dr. Hans-Werner SteinhausenDeutsche Grammophon

Dr Hans-Werner Steinhausen joined Deutsche Grammophon in 1950 as Technical Director. He defined the very strict guidelines for record production that ensured better sound reproduction. Quality came at a price – an LP from the Hannover factory cost around 24 marks when the average monthly wage was 350 marks.

Records of Jochum conducting Wagner, Mozart and Brahms released in 1956 (1956)Deutsche Grammophon

Launched in 1953, the 45 rpm polyethylene record, which had a 7-inch diameter and a playing time of five minutes per side, was also used for small-scale classical works. The French edition of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” pictured was made by Eugen Jochum with a chamber orchestra.

Berlin Philharmonic with Karajan: Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra. (1958)Deutsche Grammophon

The Advent of Stereo

Sound as a fixed point, almost abstract and lacking in spatialisation, gave way to a two-dimensional sound image. The first stereophonic discs recorded by Deutsche Grammophon appeared in 1958: Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”, conducted by Karl Böhm. 

Hervert von Karajan with Akio Morita (1981) by © Arthur UmbohDeutsche Grammophon

The Digital Era

The changes in sound reproduction that the CD brought about at the end of the 1970s were radical. Interestingly enough, its 120-millimetre (4.7-inch) diameter was almost identical to that of Emile Berliner’s first flat discs! Herbert von Karajan could not let the CD revolution pass him by: he is pictured here with Akio Morita, founder of Sony, at the international launch of the CD during the Salzburg Easter Festival of 1981.

Claudio Abbado: Mahler - Symphony of a Thousand (1995)Deutsche Grammophon

Claudio Abbado: Mahler - Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat Major - "Symphony of a Thousand" - "Neige, neige, du Ohnegleiche"

In 1994, DG’s recording of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic by Abbado, saw the first use of 24-bit multi-track recording, the ultimate evolution of the “4D Audio Recording” process.

Credits: Story

Text by: Rémy Louis

Credits: All media
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