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In April of 1923, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band filed into the tiny Gennett recording studio in Richmond, Indiana, and waxed the first recordings to ever feature Oliver’s protégé and second cornetist, Louis Armstrong. According to Laurence Bergreen in his book Louis Armstrong, An Extravagant Life, the facilities were less than ideal. Little more than a wooden shed behind a piano factory, the studio was bordered by the rushing Whitewater River on one side, an adjacent and noisy pumphouse on another, and a railroad spur that ran just a few feet from the building’s front entrance. Reportedly, the acoustics were so poor inside the studio (a space of 125 x 30 feet) that the musicians had to shout to communicate and complained that they couldn’t hear one another play.
Add to that the primitive recording system — the band played into a large umbrella-like megaphone which funneled soundwaves into a cone, then through a mechanism that held a stylus that etched impressions into a wax master disc — and it’s a wonder that this music was preserved for posterity, let alone heralded Armstrong as the sound of the future (thanks to his startling solo on “Chimes Blues”). When Armstrong recorded with his Hot Seven band four years later, the music was captured by a then-new electric recording process, via microphone, which remained the standard for decades.
[caption id="attachment_32524" align="alignleft" width="1018"] King Oliver Jazz Band[/caption]
Technological developments during the past century have intrinsically influenced the way listeners consume and conceive of music and those who make it. Wax cylinders gave way to flat discs, 78s gave way to 45s, 45s to LPs, LPs to cassettes, cassettes to CDs, CDs to digital streams. Recordings made it possible for people to hear performers that they might never have otherwise encountered, as physical distance and racial segregation were no longer impediments to enjoying the music of someone who lived across the country or across the tracks. Album cover art, which arguably reached its creative zenith in the LP era of the 1950s and ’60s, also guided perceptions, whether through photographic portraiture, illustration style or snazzy typography, much of which was carefully designed to imbue a certain mood or ethos. Liner notes educated listeners about the musicians, the music and the circumstances of the recording, frequently listing personnel and composer credits. And while the 12-inch-by-12-inch canvas of the album cover shrunk precipitously with the advent of cassettes and CDs, and has become increasingly marginalized in the world of digital streaming, the romance of album art has enjoyed a resurgence with the renewed interest in vinyl records, which have outsold CDs in recent years.
Like most technology, innovations in recording have grown exponentially. Whereas engineers once had to meticulously splice tape with a razor to fix errors or substitute a superior solo, digital editing has made both tape and razor obsolete. Musicians needn’t even be in the same space to record together, something that’s become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physical objects such as LPs and CDs, prized by earlier generations, are not nearly as valued by younger listeners, who can download libraries of music that would have once spilled off their shelves and cluttered their closets. Companies that do manufacture physical products have had to literally think outside the box. Recognizing an ecological imperative not to introduce more plastic into the environment, the Biophilia label has innovated a model whereby they offer artfully designed, origami-like sleeves that contain not a CD, but a download code for the music. Experimental artist Evicshen recently released a vinyl single for the American Dreams label in which the album sleeve, when connected to an amplifier and placed in front of a magnet, turns into a speaker.
Ultimately, though, the aim of recording remains the same since Thomas Edison first captured sound on wax: to move listeners’ hearts, minds and booties in a way that becomes indelibly etched in their consciousness. And to sell a few units in the process.