NPR Online

The History of Recording
with Dennis Rooney and Wayne Stahnke

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, we eavesdrop on the past and examine the impact of sound recording on music. Host Lisa Simeone is joined by producer Dennis Rooney, who shares insights on how Thomas Edison’s invention has both preserved and affected musical performance. We hear the evolution in the quality of music recording, from scratchy, indistinct wax cylinder devices and gramophones to warm LPs and crystalline CDs. We also visit with player piano expert Wayne Stahnke, who shows us how that invention could reproduce Rachmaninoff's performances with great fidelity.

Rooney says Edison gave little consideration to the musical value of his recording devices and thought his invention’s most important use would be to take accurate dictation. We hear a fascinating, though barely intelligible 1888 concert recording of Handel’s “Israel and Egypt” made by Edison’s London-based agent using the earliest technology.

Within 30 years, many improvements in analog recording technology occurred. We hear a delightful 1917 recording of violinist Jascha Heifetz at the tender age of 16. Heifetz was perhaps the first musician to confront the idea that his concert performances had to be as good as his recordings in order for his reputation to remain credible. This concern may have caused him to adjust his style so as to be more easily repeatable. Rooney says recordings have raised the expectations of audiences, who can easily listen to other performances and make comparisons. It has thus affected the way most 20th century musicians perform.

We listen to an example of the increased sensitivity of electronic recording devices, which became available during the 1920s. Electronics also expanded the dynamic range of recordings. Rooney examines the impact of the “LP,” or “long playing record,” as well as stereophonic and digital recording. Throughout his career, Heifetz expressed annoyance at having to rerecord his performances for each new improvement to recording technology. At the other extreme, artists like pianist Glenn Gould would renounce the concert stage altogether in favor of the totally controlled environment of the recording studio. We hear Gould’s heavily edited studio version of the Invention No. 14 in B-Flat, by Bach.

Also in this edition, we hear Wendy Carlos’ recording of Bach using synthesizers, and a well-known intergalactic space commander’s pioneering rap performance. As one great composer noted, some performances would be better left unrecorded.

Listen as Lisa and Dennis Rooney cover the history and impact of music recording in this online feature from the Milestones of the Millenium series. Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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