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Review: 'Into the Groove' offers fine survey of changes in recording technology

Into the Groove

INTO THE GROOVE: The Story of Sound From Tin Foil to Vinyl. By Jonathan Scott. Bloomsbury Sigma. 320 pages. $28.

The first musical records were created in 1877. They were cylindrical, composed of various substances, fragile and clumsy. The sound they captured and played back on what were dubbed “talking machines” was of decidedly low fidelity.

Yet they began a revolution in music, both enticing and horrifying musicians who feared that even as live performance might be preserved for posterity and replayed at whim, it might also be eclipsed.

In various forms, these early, hard-to-produce recordings would bring music into the home without anyone having learned to play an instrument.

For people of the era, the record was an astonishment. And the phonograph, developed by Thomas Edison and a host of other inventors, would become “a world-changing device, one that ultimately shifted the way we humans interacted with music,” writes music journalist Jonathan Scott.

In “Into the Groove,” Scott spins a remarkably dulcet history of sound recording from its genesis to the present day. And if the volume of detail charting design, format, method, style and the groundwork of the many involved in R&D can get a bit dizzying, it’s more than worth a “listen.”

Scott, a columnist for the periodical Record Collector, also is the author of “The Vinyl Frontier” (2019). He insists “Into the Groove” is not a comprehensive account of recording industry development, but one suspects even the most ardent technological devotee will be satisfied, not least by an expansive “Miscellany of the Groove” that concludes the book.

Scott also offers short histories of telegraphs and telephones and how they paved the way.

The author builds on a variety of sources including Oliver Read and Walter L. Welch’s seminal “From Tin Foil to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph” (1971), but the tone, timbre, and pitch of the narrative are all his own.

Scott opens with a glimpse inside Edison’s lab, with the great inventor trying to explain to a visitor how his phonograph works. The guy doesn’t get it.

“The reason I love records, the thing that inspired me to write this book, is that I don’t understand them either,” says Scott, though his expertise goes unquestioned. “I remain as delighted and mystified by them as when I was five years old.”

While Edison was the first to play back sound, he was not the first to record it. In 1857, 20 years before Edison’s invention, printer and typesetter Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented what he called the phonautograph. Then there was Charles Cros, a Parisian poet who devised the scientifically workable paleophone, which could also record and reproduce sound. But lacking financial backing, he couldn’t get it off the drawing board.

This is just a sampling of some ingenious inventors who turned their talents to the problem.

Interestingly, it was the limitations on how much could be recorded on a cylinder that gave birth to the three-minute song that’s been the staple of the recording industry ever since.

Eventually, Alexander Graham Bell picked up where Edison left off, temporarily having lost interest. But the biggest advance was made by Dr. Peter Goldmark, working at CBS in the 1940s, who fathered the LP, introducing the modern era of vinyl by greatly expanding recording capacity by using the much superior Vinylite plastic over the old shellac.

The introduction of high-quality microphones gave recording engineers a great leap forward.

Sound recording can be roughly divided into four periods: acoustic (1877–1925), electric (1925–45), magnetic (1945–75), and digital (1975 to date).

Not even the coming of commercial radio in the 1920s could impede the industry for long. By the 1930s, “radio, movies and records weren’t eating each other, but instead building a symbiotic relationship.”

Vinyl ruled the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in the form of the LP and 45-rpm record. As LPs gained traction, “album” came to mean a collection of songs or pieces within a single record.

“They had created a new standard unit of music making. LPs stopped being collections of singles and B-sides ... but creative expressions, through which bands and musicians began to conceive common themes and narratives.”

Though today the classic LP is enjoying a revival among collectors, a renaissance not enjoyed by the versatile audiotape, the LP some time ago was supplanted as the market leader, first by the CD, then portable media players and streaming.

Scott agrees with many that analog sound (LPs and tapes) remains warmer, richer, and more realistic than any digital marvel — still the finest format for engaging with music in a deeper way.

Although, he adds, it is not really the format or sound quality that’s important. Leave that preoccupation to audiophiles.

“It was what you were listening to, and how what you listened to made you feel. And it all came from the groove. The groove not only changed how we listen, it changed what we listened to.”

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Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.

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