Mediums of Music


Music has existed for as long as there is recorded history. While music has been around for ages, the ability to listen to recorded music is a fairly recent innovation. Earlier you would have to go out or play music yourself but now in this day and age you have the convenience of listening to music virtually anywhere. The transmission of music has changed drastically similar to change in transmission of printed text with the advent of the Gutenberg Press, something that revolutionized and changed the world forever. For music, transmission started with the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s and has changed more recently to streaming music digitally. In the short period of time since then, there have been numerous different mediums that music has been recorded. I will be writing about what the most popular forms of media are and how they relate to our own relationship with music in order to provide a more complete understanding of music formats.

The Compact Disc (80 minutes audio / 700 Mebibytes)

In order to better understand the compact disc (CDs), we must first look into its history. The first compact discs were invented in 1982 and continued to evolve as new methods of compression were engineered. While initially quite large in capacity, CDs have not advanced as much as hard drive space, which left them obsolete as a storage medium but remained perfect for a music medium. While the information on CDs are recorded and written digitally, CDs have a much higher quality than most streaming and other digital sources as its construction and finer compression produces a larger dynamic range.

CDs have changed over the years since their invention. One major improvement was the ability to put information on the discs and eventually the ability to edit the content of the CD similar to a floppy disc or flash drive. This allowed CDs to be similar to cassette in its ability to make “mix-tapes,” which will be explained in more length later; a personalized way to store all the songs you want to share or listen to on the go.

An optical drive is the device used to read a CD. This device works in a very specific and sensitive way. A sensor beam of light is emitted, which then refracts off of the small ridges on the discs polycarbonate layer off the reflective inner layer and back through the polycarbonate layer into the optical drive’s sensor. Here it assimilates the information by reading the differences in the refraction index and height of the grooves where the information is stored.

The CD doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. It is still used quite universally in cars even as streaming and the internet radio have become more popular. Most collectors of music still keep their music collection in CDs or Vinyl on display so the materiality of the compact disc still lives on.

The Vinyl Record (30 minutes max per side, average total of 60 minutes)

While the invention is now credited to Thomas Edison, the earliest invention to record sounds and music was the phonautograph created by Leon Scott in 1857. This device converted sound waves into physical recordings. This was before records were invented so the physical recordings were on paper, also known as scores. This allowed a visual representation and recording of the sounds recorded by the phonautograph. In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the first device to both record sound waves and produce them back. The plastic cylinders that sounds were recorded on became the large discs we are familiar with now in 1901. By 1919 the patent of the discs ended allowing them to be mass-produced by other music companies.

The vinyl record is placed on a turntable where the circular tray rotates the vinyl at a set speed (16.66, 33.33, 45 or 78 rotations per minute). The phonograph’s most complex part, the arm, is made up of a stylus, a counterweight and an electromagnetic inductor. The stylus is the piece of the arm that is the most sensitive part. It detects the difference in height of the groves that is fed into the electromagnetic inductor what converts the pressure and difference in thickness into the music that you hear. The counterweight on the arm is used to keep the pressure and attempt to create a frictionless platform for the other parts of the arm to work better.

Over the years vinyl has changed from its original state with minute tweaks that the musical community has done to produce a medium with higher quality. Initially, vinyl was printed on shellac, a substance that, while it did store and play the music well, did have its weaknesses such as its predisposition to cracking and scratching. After a time the vinyl record was improved upon, the material that they print the vinyl on changed from the shellac to polyvinyl chloride, a substance that is much sturdier and decays much slower than its shellac counterpart.

Vinyl’s physicality can be used in some unique ways as the creation of grooves themselves allow for some manipulation of the medium that is not possible for other mediums. One such unique attribute is the creation of locked grooves, a technique that uses the physicality of the grooves in the record to enable the record to be repeated, creating a loop in the record. Normally a record does use a loop of silence in the end of a side so as not to let the needle affect the label area. Some artists used this technique to loop their music in a similar way. This was notably used on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, when the last two seconds of the record was created to repeat indefinitely on certain pressings, most notably on European pressings.

Listening to vinyl records has a unique problem, as it must be used with specialized mechanisms much more rare than CD players: a phonograph sometimes casually called a turntable. While cheap turntables and speakers exist, most people buy higher quality systems in order to get the most out of vinyl with their larger range and unique sound possibilities. These systems cost upwards of a $100 and can cost as much as $650,000.

The sound quality of vinyl is noticeably different than a CD or a MP3 as its physical nature lends itself to a more complex and wider range of sounds and music. In these ways vinyl stands as a unique alternative to CDs or MP3. To be more specific, the dynamic range that vinyl is able to produce is wider, up to 60-80 decimals (dB) of practical audio dynamic range, compared to the 50-60 dB range of the tape and the most common range of digital music starts at 96dB in theory but with compression the dynamic range decreases substantially. While the sound quality and range of music played on vinyl is improved, the vinyl itself presents a problem: the sound of the needle moving along a surface with kinetic friction which creates the pop and crackle that is unique to vinyl. Along the same lines, the vinyl is limited to only 30 minutes per side, something which limits the accessibility and ability to listen to the vinyl passively. These advantages and disadvantages are what create the intense debate on what is the best method to listen to music: CD, Vinyl or MP3.

Vinyl Vs. CD

Vinyl and Compact Discs have maintained a complex feud that splits the music community, each with their own assets and weaknesses.

The Vinyl has physical limitations (a grove that is too high may cause needle to skip) while CDs tend to widen their dynamic range to include more frequencies, they do not necessarily treat every note with as much deliberate emphasis as vinyl records do. Vinyl also deteriorates over time as the record is played more and more due to the arm’s weight as well as the nature of physical media.

CDs tend to dynamically compress the music and the audio ranges of the CDs are affected negatively by this compression.

The Compact Cassette (45 minutes per side for a total of 90 minutes)

In 1957 the Dictaphone Corporation invented the first magnetic cassette tape. As time went on many corporations tried to create the best magnetic tape cartridge and after the flawed 4-track, the compact cassette was introduced. The compact cassette beat out all the other tape mediums and it came into mainstream use. Tapes are still one of the most iconic and influential mediums of music despite their decrease in popularity today.

Cassettes are made out of a plastic film with a thin magnetic coating; the tape is then affected by an electromagnet to impose a magnetic flux in the film. By reading the electromagnetic residue on the film, the tape player converts these subtle differences into sound.

The advent of tapes brought a very unique phenomenon in that, for the first time, it was very easy to record your own music allowing for people to create their own “mix-tape,” something that previously hadn’t existed. At first this caused quite an upset for music corporations that believed that this would raise the rate of music piracy. While most people used and crated mix-tapes for personal use, there were people, DJs and other performers, that used tapes to create their own personalized versions and mixes of these songs to create a product that they would then sell, putting mix tapes in danger. Frank Creighton, director of anti-copyright infringement, even argued that even the act of compiling a mix-tape for personal use would be copyright infringement. Even now it is still a legal grey area with proponents on both sides.

The MP3 (No size restriction)

Pulse-code modulation, the first way of encoding information digitally, was invented in 1937, much earlier than it was ever used for commercial recordings. In the 1960s the first commercial recordings were being recorded and edited, and by 1971 the first commercial recordings were released to the public, allowing the music industry to release music in the modern way.

Sound waves from an analog source are translated into analog electromagnetic waves that are then converted again by an analog to digital converter via pulse-code modulation. These digital recordings are then stored and able to be played via other digital systems.

Due to the various conversions that digital media must go through to record and its storage compression, digital media tends to sound worse than both vinyl and CDs. This means that the theoretical dynamic range of as high as 385 dB with full 64-bit resolution something that would take up several hundred gigabytes to store, but in practicality the most common dynamic range is 96 dB which is lowered even more when listening outside of a sound deprivation room as the audio is compressed and processed. Despite this downside, the convenience and accessibility of digital music through digital music libraries and streaming services has made it the most popular way to listen to music today.

CDs, while using the MP3 format when acting with computers, are not read by CD players (optical drives) the same way as computer optical drives. This results in an objectively better sound quality when using CD players. In this way CD players are better as the compression that music must go through for digital consumption reduces the sound quality in almost all digital formats.

Music has been around for a long time and it’s important to continue its advancement in the best way. Just as the advent of the printing press revolutionized thought and spread information in a very important way, the introduction of musical recording has changed the music community drastically and in a long-lasting way. Just as the printing press enabled the spread of false information and must be wary how that changes the importance of the written word, we must be careful how the recording of music changes the musical industry. As I have said before, all mediums of music media are not equal; each has their own weakness and strengths. Although MP3 is the most accessible and recent form of media, it is not the highest quality medium as it compresses and reduces the quality, something that is not conductive to continuing the legacy of music. The best way to preserve music in its most pure and highest quality form is through purchasing and collecting physical mediums that portray it in the most authentic way. Here at Bedrock Music and Video we strive to maintain the best quality of music in order to keep music alive and as healthy as possible.

By Nigel Smikle