What are the Various Formats for Listening to Music?
It’s kind of an ongoing joke. The dad pulls out an 8-track in front of his kids and they ask ‘what’s that?’
If we go back in history, we will find various types of formats that have been used to deliver music to the masses. These include vinyl, cassettes, CDs, MP3s (remember those?), and more. This article will review the different formats of music delivery and briefly review their history.
The earliest form of the phonograph was invented and patented by Eduoard-Leon Scott in 1857. He called the device a phonautograph. It recorded sound waves on a glass plate but it was not able to play back the sounds.
The purpose of the phonautograph was to evaluate acoustics rather than playback sounds and music. After its initial development, it was updated to record sounds on lamp-blackened paper. A drum or cylinder was used to hold the paper in place.
The phonautograph eventually inspired Thomas Edison to invent the phonograph in 1877. He based his model on a combination of the phonautograph, the telegraph, and the telephone. His goal was to transcribe messages from the telegraph to a piece of paper tape. The message would then be in a format that allowed the individual to send out the same message repeatedly through the telegraph.
Edison soon realized the phonautograph might have other applications. He used the model to develop a device that would use a needle to record the sounds onto a cylinder covered with tin foil. A second needle would replace the sounds through the phonograph.
The phonograph had its faults and Edison eventually lost interest in the project. However, Alexander Graham Bell took over to make his own updates.
One important improvement Bell made was to stop using tin plates for the recording as they wore out the needle. He replaced the needle with a floating stylus and started using wax instead of tin foil. He called his invention the gramophone.
Things took off from there. Manufacturers figured out how to mass-produce wax cylinders so artists could make their music available in larger quantities. Cylinders were eventually replaced with discs to play back sounds.
Cylinders replaced with discs? Tin foil replaced with wax? It’s clear that vinyl was the next natural progression for the audio industry. It was the ideal alternative to the shellac discs which were quite fragile and noisy.
The first vinyl record was introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records. It was made of a synthetic plastic material called polyvinyl chloride which was much sturdier than its predecessors. Its creation was part of the plastic boom of the early 1900s.
The creation of vinyl also saw the transition of 78 to 33 1/3 speeds. Unlike 78 records, which could only hold five minutes of music per side, 33 1/3 records could hold 15-22 minutes of music per side. Hence the concept of an album.
Eventually, 45’s were also released. Like 78’s they could also hold 5 minutes of music per side. But their small size made them easier to produce. They were the perfect medium for singles, and they became popular with the younger generations.
Vinyl had its day, but the death knell rang in 1979 when the Walkman came out. People preferred it because it presented a form of portable music that they could take with them wherever they went.
Eventually, the CD, iPod, and streaming services hammered more nails in the coffin. But vinyl eventually rose again. Many people prefer it for its distinct warm sound, the ritual that comes with playing albums, and the terrific, large format album artwork.
Walkman’s brought the death knell to vinyl. But it wasn’t the Walkman alone that was responsible. It was also the medium used to play music through a Walkman. That’s right, we’re talking about the cassette tape.
The cassette tape was first developed by the Philips company in 1962 in Belgium. Philips released the invention to Europe at the Berlin Radio Show in 1963. They premiered it in the United States in November of the following year.
The cassette features two small spools inside a plastic cover. The spools wind the magnetic-coated film as it passes from one side to another. The magnetic film is where the audio is stored.
The cassette was revolutionary for a couple of reasons. First, it made it easy to take music with you on the go. It also gave people the ability to record themselves and other music.
Before the cassette tape, the only way to record yourself involved bulky reel-to-reel technology that required training to use. The cassette changed all that. It allowed you to record your own voice and sounds. Or you could make a special mixed tape for your honey.
Cassettes were popular for their recording capabilities, but they really took off when Walkmans were invented. They gave people the ability to listen to music on the go. This meant they no longer had to wait until they got home to pop on their favorite album.
The fact that cassette tapes provided a way for people to listen to music portably dealt a devastating blow to vinyl. And more than that, the recording capabilities nearly killed the music industry. People now had the means to record albums for their friends, so they didn’t have to buy them.
After many unsuccessful attempts were made to tax blank tapes, the DAT (digital audio tape) Bill was introduced in 1989. It restricted the number of tapes consumers could buy preventing them from making excessive recordings.
In 1991 the Audio Home Recording Act was brought into legislation which collected tax from media and record makers and distributed back to labels. This ensured the labels didn’t lose too much money off counterfeit recordings.
The 8-Track Tape
Of all the music formats, eight-track tapes are likely to most laughable. Their large size just wreaks of vintage nostalgia. And unlike records, they did not see much of a revival.
Invented in 1964, eight tracks were a collaborative effort brought by RCA Records, Lear Jet Company, and Ampeg Magnetic Tape Company. Bill Lear of the Lear Jet Corporation teamed up with employee Richard Kraus to design the 8-track cartridges. They turned to the musical experts at Ampeg and RCA to bring it to life.
Lear, who was a known manufacturer of private luxury aircrafts always had an interest in audio. He had tried to create an endless loop wire recorder in the 1940s. However, he saw more success with the 8-track.
8-track tapes’ main advantage over the compact cassette was their ability to house 8 parallel soundtracks with four corresponding stereo programs. This enabled them to play a lot of music despite their relatively small size.
8 tracks owe much of their success to the booming automobile industry. Ford was just one of the many automobile manufacturers to offer an 8-track player in their vehicles.
Eventually, 8-track players were introduced for home use. Many people favored them over vinyl as they were more portable.
But, with cassettes being smaller, they won out as a convenient on-the-go option. As a result, 8-tracks eventually became obsolete.
It is rumored that Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, which was released in November of 1988 by Warner Records, was the last 8-track ever to be put out by a major label.
At this point, you may be saying, the floppy disk? Does that even count as a music format?
Floppy disks are usually seen as a medium for data storage for desktop computers. But during the 80s and 90s, a few artists began releasing music on this unconventional format.
8-inch floppy discs were first released by IBM in 1972. They eventually shrunk in size to 5 ½ inches in 1976 and 3 ½ inches in 1982.
The floppy disk never really hit the mainstream as a music format. The most notable release to come out on floppy disk may be Brian Eno’s Generative Music I which came out on Opal Music.
Other artists also attempted releasing their music on the floppy disk format, but it never really caught on. However, it did open doors for the next hot music format trend…
CDs didn’t hit the mainstream until 1982. But they spent years in development before then.
Their history goes back to 1974. Philips, the same brand that introduced the cassette tape, was working on the CD as a replacement for records and tapes.
Meanwhile, Sony was working on a similar product. They beat Philips to the punch demoing their product in 1976.
Eventually, the two companies came together to release the compact disc in 1982. Sony introduced the first-ever CD player that same year. The CDP-101 Compact Disc cost a whopping $1000.
CDs brought with them a variety of related products including portable CD players, CD-ROM drives, writable CDs, and the 16-bit/44.1kHz which set the benchmark for all audio formats.
The CD represented the best of every format before it. It was portable and recordable like a tape, yet it resembled a mini album. It also provided high-quality music for an affordable price.
CDs were an important music industry development, and they were a go-to format for decades. And you could say they marked the end of physical formats. But when computers became more sophisticated, there was only so much the CD could do to keep up.
Unlike other music formats, CDs didn’t disappear overnight. They are still a go-to for people who enjoy physical music products. They have even seen growth in the used music retail industry over the past few years.
In the context of all music formats, it’s easy to forget about MP3s. Today, this is the file format digital music is sent in, but it was once a primary way to listen to music.
It was originally developed in the early ’80s by Karlheinz Brandenburg. His post-doctoral work at AT&T Labs allowed him to gain insight into using pre-existing codecs to compress music. As an interesting aside, he chose Suzanne Vega’s 1987 hit “Tom’s Diner” as the song to test the MP3.
Although the MP3 was ready to be released in the late ’80s, it didn’t hit the mainstream until 1992. And when Napster came out in 1999, the medium really caught fire.
Napster was a platform that allowed for free peer-to-peer sharing of MP3 files resulting in widespread copyright infringement and outrage from labels and artists alike. As history dictates, it was a short-lived service lasting only 3 years. However, it paved the way for streaming platforms that carry their own share of infringement issues.
We’ve come a long way baby. Looking back at the 1857 phonograph invention, it’s hard to believe that we are now in a high-tech digital music streaming world.
The internet started in 1980 and has been gaining popularity ever since. Offering 24/7 accessibility to, well, everything all the time, developers and entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to provide music to the masses without the need to download files or purchase physical product.
Several inventions furthered the popularity of streaming music. One was the 2007 iPhone. With the capability of playing music, it was the modern answer to the Walkman.
The following year Spotify launched offering a way for people to subscribe to hear their favorite music or listen for free with ads. Many platforms followed in Spotify’s footsteps providing similar ways to enjoy the music you love online.
Streaming remains the most popular music format today. However, there is another music format that is unlikely to uproot it. Rather, it works alongside it. It’s the music NFT.
NFT stands for non-fungible token. It is a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted, or subdivided. It is recorded in a blockchain that certifies authenticity and ownership.
Essentially, it’s a digital piece of art that can only belong to one person, but it can be sold. It can come in the form of, well just about anything… drawings, music, even your ideas turned into AI. Obviously, music NFTs are NFTs in music forms.
Music NFTs were born due to artists being frustrated over the low payouts of digital platforms. They are taking back control by providing exclusive content to those who want to buy it. Even though the music is likely also available in other formats, NFTs typically come with unique owner experiences.
For example, Kings of Leon released limited edition NFTs that came with golden tickets that provide buyers with access to unique artwork. They also unlock concert tickets and guaranteed four front-row seats to any Kings of Leon concert for a lifetime. The VIP experience includes a personal driver, a concierge at the show, a meet and greet with the band, and exclusive lounge access.
In addition to allowing the artist to make more money, NFTs are sold directly by the band to the buyer so they forge a personal connection.
Will There Ever Be Another Physical Music Format?
While CDs, albums, and cassettes are still very much a thing, one may wonder if there will ever be a new physical music format to be released. Perhaps.
Legendary producer T Bone Burnett is currently developing a unique combination of vinyl and CD to create a physical music format called Ionic Originals. He has reportedly been working with Bob Dylan to re-record some of his most iconic songs for the sole purpose of introducing this “new ultra-high-fidelity medium” to the masses.
“An Iconic Original is the pinnacle of recorded sound. It is archival quality. It is future-proof. It is one of one. Not only is an Iconic Original the equivalent of a painting, but it is also a painting. It is lacquer painted onto an aluminum disc with a spiral etched into it by music. This painting, however, has the additional quality of containing music which can be heard by putting a stylus into the spiral and spinning it,” Burnett said in a statement.
Wow, way to sell it.
The exact release date for the Iconic Original is unknown as is any information on what device would be needed to play it.
The music industry has certainly seen its share of music formats. Although we seem to be satisfied with streaming, who knows what the future holds? We can only wait and see.