Book Review: The Art of Sound by Terry Burrows

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Plenty of excellent books have been written about record sleeve design, and with good reason. Before Alex Steinweiss first thought to adorn Columbia Record sleeves with original artwork, records were sold in dull, plain colored sleeves with holes punched in the center so a respective record’s details could be read off the label on the disc. But after his innovation in 1939 drove up sales, the rest of the industry followed along. Blue Note Records hired Andy Warhol; design luminary Paula Scher added her typographic know-how to covers for an astounding array of CBS Records artists, from Charles Mingus to Cheap Trick.

Credit: Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Prior to the advent of record sleeve art, however, people the world over bought and listened to recorded music. Terry Burrows’s The Art of Sound: A Visual History for Audiophiles documents the story of how recorded music has been made and marketed over time, starting with its late-nineteenth century origins and tracking its evolution into the digital era of today. Burrows has put together this story of sonics by plumbing the EMI Archive Trust, “one of the world’s largest and most diverse music and technology archives,” according to the trust’s website. Electrical and Music Industries (EMI) is an umbrella group for a number of companies, including The Gramophone Company, best known for that cute mutt Nipper, the iconic logo for His Master’s Voice Brand. But that’s not where the story begins.

p. 67, The Chocolate Record Player (1902) EMI Archive Trust

p. 56, Nipper and the Gramophone. The His Master’s Voice brand began as an 1898 painting of a dog named Nipper by his owner, the artist Francis Barraud (pictured). Originally, Nipper was seen staring down the horn of an Edison-Bell phonograph. The manager of the Gramophone Company in London agreed to buy the painting if the phonograph was replaced by one of his company’s own gramophones. EMI Archive Trust

Burrows divides his chapters into the four periods of recorded sound: acoustic, electrical, magnetic, digital. Over 800 illustrations fill these pages, relics all once used to serve the same purpose: deliver recorded sound to listeners. For the technically minded, dozens of facsimile patent blueprints show how these recording and playback machines worked, from a 1910 Regulator Lever made for the Victor Talking Machine Company to the schematics of the iPod Classic Click Wheel. Designers and pop culture aficionados will appreciate this rich tale of how recorded music was marketed, converting it from elitist novelty to something we all take for granted today.

p. 87, Recording in North Africa. In 1910 the French subsidiary of The Gramophone Company produced this catalogue of songs recorded in Algeria. EMI Archive Trust

p. 156, Marconiphone Poster (1934). In 1929, the Marconi Company sold its Marconiphone brand to The Gramophone Company. As this Art Deco poster attests, models such as the Marconiphone 292 radio-gramophone were marketed to wealthy, urbane consumers. EMI Archive Trust

In the ninth century, in Baghdad, Iraq, the Banū Mūsā brothers devised the first musical sequencer using “a series of water-powered clocks that could repeat patterns of whistles and drums.” Music boxes emerged in the eighteenth century. But the nineteenth century was when the technologies to create recorded sound as we think of it today were invented. Burrows explains the ins and out of early sound recording devices; and it is amusing to learn that Thomas Edison quickly lost interest in his phonograph, thinking the 1877 invention held no real commercial potential (though Edison does get credit for being the first person to mention audiobooks as one possible use for these new recording and listening technologies).

This book works so well because of the inherent symbiotic nature between music and mark making: songs are written in notation and the earliest methods of recoding those notes being played and sung required marks being made by vibrations. In 1857, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville patented his “phonautograph,” the first known sound recording device. When sound passed through a flexible membrane stretched over one end of a barrel-shaped horn the attached pig-bristle stylus moved over a sooty carbon deposit that had been applied to a glass slide. It makes sense that the story of sound can be told so well through a varied and compelling collection of imagery.

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When Emile Berliner patented his gramophone in 1887 its ability to store recorded sounds in the grooves of flat discs, as opposed to phonograph cylinders, made for an easily replicable and, eventually, reasonably affordable format. In 1901 Berliner and Eldridge Johnson started the Victory Talking Machine Company. By then, Columbia gramophones were already popular the world over, whether used in homes or in public places where models like the coin-operated “The Eagle” could be played to both entertain patrons and lure new customers. It is during the early twentieth century that the real visual pageantry of this story began. Everything about gramophones was packaged to sell: needles came in colorful tins; opera singers and marching bands became stars as their likenesses were distributed on promotional materials all over the world; and no geographical locale was too far flung, as the abundance of foreign-language ads and catalogues makes clear. Record players sold so well that novelty versions were released. The German confectionary company Stollwerck released a chocolate player that played actual chocolate discs that could be eaten after use. In the 1920s, child-sized gramophones began appearing, often decorated with popular children’s characters or coming with illustrated song books like The Funny Froggy Bubble Book.

Another essential component to this story is how recording technologies developed over time. Until the 1920s, recordings had all been made by mechanical means, but the thermionic triode valve ushered in an era of electrifying every part of sound recording. During the early years of the twentieth century experiments in using electricity to transmit radio waves and amplify sound resulted in how individual microphones were used to make recordings. As recording technologies became more and more sophisticated so too did the selling of recorded music. From the popularity of record stores in the 1930s to dance instructor Arthur Murray leveraging his franchised dance schools into instructional albums that included recorded instructions from him, music to dance to, and books with photographic examples and foot-placement diagrams.

 p. 292, Portable Music (1967) The compact cassette revolutionized the way music was consumed. Small, battery-operated portable units such as the Telefunken Magnetophone CC Alpha, enabled people to take their favorite music with them wherever they went—something only previously possible by means of small transistor radios. Interfoto/Alamy Stock Photo

With the magnetic and digital eras, not only were the possibilities of sound engineering furthered but so too were the channels to distribute all that sound, from cassette and CD mail-order clubs to digital downloads and streaming. And, of course, playback technologies became truly portable, and eventually pocket-sized.    

As with so much of consumerism today, the digital era of sound isn’t so much new as accelerated, and the book’s final chapter feels obligatory, although like the rest of the book it is informative, should you need a refresher on minidisc players and Napster. But overall, The Art of Sound is a singular and comprehensive history that makes visual the capturing and playback of sound, a fitting tribute to those earliest recordings made by marks warbling through soot.


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