By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Cassette tapes may never be as popular as vinyl, but they are selling like hotcakes. The sound quality of the format is famously lackluster, but sales have skyrocketed. And today, the sound is much clearer.
Media formats for music playback have changed countless times over the centuries: cylinders; phonographs; cassettes; CDs; and now, digital music. Over the last few decades, vinyl has seen an incredible rebirth, with purists arguing that music has never sounded as good as it does on a record. More recently, cassettes have seen a smaller, but noticeable, return, as well.
Of course, cassette tapes are known for sounding scratchy and muffled, with a constant hissing in the background. In his video series How Music and Mathematics Relate, Dr. David Kung, Professor of Mathematics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, discusses the history of recorded music.
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“Prior to about the U.S. Civil War, no music had ever been recorded to be played back later—all of those performances of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, all gone,” Dr. Kung said. “[If] you wanted to hear Beethoven’s Ninth, you got to hear it maybe two or three chances in your entire life because it had to be live—people traveled around to hear a concert. Hector Berlioz was famous for traveling Europe extensively both to conduct, but also to hear concerts.”
Dr. Kung said that the popular idea that Edison was behind the first piece of recorded music is actually a myth. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a British printer, sang Clair de la Lune in 1860 and it was written to paper by a machine called a phonautograph. It wouldn’t be heard for another 150 years.
“The first music recorded onto replayable cylinder was in 1888,” Dr. Kung said. “It was Handel’s Israel in Egypt and it was done for Thomas Edison. It took 4,000 voices and the sound from 4,000 voices; it sounds incredibly faint. It is really scratchy. You can find this online and you can listen to it; it is oddly at the National Park Service website.”
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Recorded music transitioned from cylinders to flat discs around 1890, which made multiple copies of recordings possible and easy to create, leading to the rise of gramophone companies. By 1910, radio broadcasts of live music became common, which occurred alongside an improvement in the quality of both recording and playback.
“Through all of this, no mathematics was needed,” Dr. Kung said. “The waveform was transferred directly to the medium that held the recording. They were really limited only by the quality of the recording instruments and the playback instruments.”
Old Victrola machines, for example, required no electricity or amplification at all. They were purely mechanical. However, their needles were so heavy that each playback degraded the record a tiny bit. In fact, they were so heavy that they literally tore the vinyl as they played it—when listening to one, very small bits of vinyl could visibly be observed accumulating on the needle.
As technology improved, home theaters with record players became commonplace. The rest is history—recent history. Cassettes, CDs, mp3s, and streaming have followed vinyl, so far. And today, younger crowds are starting to look back at vinyl, and now, cassettes.