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What is Analog Recording? – How It All Started!

In today’s digital world, recording any sound you want is a piece of cake right? Well, why wouldn’t it be? The whole process can be done with just a click of a button. However, sound recording technology used to be way more cumbersome that it is now. Curious to find out more? Then you need to know what is analog recording all about!

The overwhelming majority of home recording enthusiasts and producers of this digital age, might not want to concern themselves with today’s subject. But if you truly have a passion for audio engineering, then I think it is important to understand the basics of early recording methods, and its limitations. Let us dive right into in!

Analog Recording – The Beginning

The technique that is used to record analog audio signals is known as analog recording. At the same time, it also allows recorded analog audio and video signals to be played back. The unique aspect of analog recording methods is that it actually stores signals as a “continuous signal” in or on the media.

Cassette Tape

Analog Cassette Tape

Continuous analog audio signals that have been recorded may be stored as either a physical texture on a phonograph record, or a fluctuation in the field strength of a magnetic recording. This is the exact opposite of digital signal processing where analog audio signals are being sampled and then represented as discrete numbers.

Let us now go through the development of analog recording since the beginning:

  • The Phonograph
  • The Magnetophon
  • Fidelity improvement

The Phonograph

The first ever machine that is capable of capturing analog sound was invented in 1877, by the famous inventor Thomas Edison. Various elements that had been incorporated into his Phonograph would later become fundamental aspects of modern recording devices even to this day.

Phonograph

The Thomas Edison Phonograph / Photo by Jalal gerald Aro / CC BY-SA 2.0

There are three main steps in a Phonograph’s sound recording process. The sound first enters a cone-shaped component called the microphone diaphragm. That sound will then cause the microphone diaphragm, together with a small metal needle that is connected to it, to vibrate. This causes the needle to etch a distinctive groove into a cylinder that is made out of tinfoil.

Sound playback is achieved by spinning the cylinder, causing the needle to follow the etched groove. This causes the needle, and the attached diaphragm, to vibrate. The vibrating diaphragm then creates a disturbance in the air, thus producing sound, much like the bell on any wind instrument. The final outcome of this process is an audible reproduction of the originally recorded sound.

Problems

The major drawback of the Phonograph was the physical contact between the small metal needle and the tinfoil diaphragm. The groove on the tinfoil would eventually wear down since the needle had to make continuous contact with it every time a recording was played back. This meant that the more often a recording was played back, the closer it is to being lost forever.

The Magnetophone

In 1935, inventor Fritz Pfleumer used the method of “electromagnetic recording” and further improved on it. Pfleumer had discovered that normal strips of paper can be coated with tiny particles of iron. These iron particles would allow the paper to be magnetized, in the same way as a steel wire, but without most of its limitations and problems.

Magnetophon

The Magnetophon / Photo by George Shuklin / CC BY-SA 1.0

When a coated paper strip passes under a recording head, varying patterns of magnetic polarity are created within the paper, which can later be played back. In order to achieve playback, the recording process had to be reversed. The pre-magnetized paper (which is eventually known as “tape”), passes over a coil, creating changes in magnetic flux.

These changes are then translated into an electric current, which can then be amplified, thus reproducing the originally recorded sound. The magnetophone records sounds using a process called electromagnetism, which is vastly different from earlier inventions such as the gramophone or the phonograph, where sound is recorded using a completely mechanical process.

Further Developments

The invention of the magnetophone eventually led to the development of “multitracking“, which occurs when multiple takes of a performance, recorded at separate times, are brought together to be played simultaneously. This is a recording method that all recording studios use to this day, in order to record various parts of a song, and get the best possible takes from all of the performers.

Gramophone

A Berliner disc being used on a Gramophone, which works the same way as the Edison’s Phonograph

A reel of tape could also store up to thirty minutes of sound recording. This is a major improvement as compared to a Berliner’s disc, which could only hold a few minutes of recording, meaning that each disc typically contains a single song, or multiple short recordings. This development eventually gave birth to the concept of a music “album”, or collection of multiple songs.

Fidelity Improvement

All of the analog recording devices suffered from low fidelity sound. Inventors had been using a type of current called “DC” in electromagnetic recording devices, and they had not considered “AC” current. It just so happens that AC current contains higher frequencies than its DC counterpart, and those higher frequencies were the key in improving the fidelity of electromagnetic sound recordings.

Those high frequencies “shake-up” the magnetic particles on the tape in a desirable way, which led to the production of the first high fidelity sound recordings. Interestingly enough, this process known as “AC Bias” was actually discovered in 1940 by two inventors who lived in different parts of the world, and they were both unaware of each other’s discovery.

Well, that just about does it for today’s article. I hope you had some fun learning about the recording methods in the past!

Let me know your thoughts down below, and do share this with your buddies!

Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

8 Comments

  1. I am taking some courses on digital recording right now. It is very interesting but some of it is over my head and I have had to slow down. 🙁 From reading this post I can see that the science that has gone into recording has evolved but has always been a cool process. This was an interesting read. I joined your email list so i can keep learning.

    • Hi Elisa!

      I hope that all the content on this website will help you out, as you go through your digital recording courses. Thanks and all the best!

      Cheers!

  2. Hey Farhan, I wanted to stop by and satnthanks for explaining what is analog recording. My hubby had been trying to explain it to me for ages and sent me a link through to your site. I read through it and it now clicks! I can. Ow even understand what he was trying to explain before I read your site haha! Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Amanda!

      Really appreciate you dropping by. Don’t hesitate to come back for more articles!

      Cheers!

  3. Farhan,
    Thanks so much for this in depth post on What is Analog Recording I love it.
    I am an older guy that grew up with vinyl. Vinyl morphed into 8Tracks and cassettes then into CD’s.
    I know there is a big movement these days of music purists going back to vinyl because of the purity of sound.
    Do you think today’s digital can capture music as well as the older analog to vinyl?
    Thanks again for the great post,
    Gary

    • Hey Gary!

      Theoretically speaking, the digital signal processing that we have today, is more than capable in producing high quality audio across the board. However, there are some audiophiles and even audio engineers who have developed a strong preference for analog recordings.

      To a certain extent, there is some truth when people talk about the “purity” of analog sound. But in my opinion, this may be just a “bias” that the older generation have, since most of them are used to the old records of their time.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. You certainly know your stuff. That is a very informative article about the history of analog recording. I remember clearly growing up with reel-to-reel tape recorders and we felt very rich when my father bought a new AKAI machine in the mid-70s.
    We could record small reels and send them overseas to our relatives. We could all say hello and give an update about what we were all doing.
    How times have changed with instant messaging and video calls.
    Great article that was well written.

    • Hi there!

      Thank you so much for sharing your golden experiences. Its truly amazing to hear about how people in the previous generations listen to sound playback. The current generation of music and audio enthusiasts will never be able to understand the challenges of using analog recording equipment.

      Do come back again!

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