During Thanksgiving dinner, a conversation surrounding gadgets of yesteryear came up between a few of my in-laws and me. My father-in-law’s old reel-to-reel came up, and we spent several minutes discussing the finer points of splicing, tape reversal, and dubbing techniques. I was further surprised when two of my wife’s nephews asked, “What’s a reel-to-reel?”
It suddenly dawned on me that the equipment on which I learned basic editing techniques are but distant memories to sound engineers and multimedia types who worked in the field just over a decade ago. Over the past 10 years, expensive analog equipment has given way to digital software running on inexpensive, ordinary computers.
What was once a fundamental stage in the learning process for any perspective producer, disk jockey, or sound engineer has now been replaced with quick and easy click-and-drag software that could be learned in minutes and mastered over a weekend. While I would agree that today’s multimedia software is leaps and bounds ahead of traditional analog equipment, part of me mourns the loss of what was an extremely important part of my learning experience in radio over a decade ago.
Here are four obsolete technologies that defined audio production.
In radio, the ability to record, edit, and play audio very quickly is essential. For decades, morning shows and talk radio have depended on technologies such as the reel-to-reel to provide a way for disk jockeys to record audio for commercials in an easily edited form. The reel-to-reel makes it easy to mark, cut, and tape together sections of magnetic audio tape to create a seamless track ready to be replayed and duplicated.
During a song, you could record a minute-long call, and edit the audio to make the caller (and yourself) sound a little more intelligent before the outro starts counting down. It took some getting used to, but before long a disk jockey would master the art of marking, cutting, and splicing together magnetic tape. Within months, he or she would wield the wax pencil with ninja-like finesse.
Like any tape-driven recording format, audio quality was limited more by speed than anything. A tape rolling through the reading head at 15/16 in/s (inches per second) would provide a degraded audio track suitable for long-duration recordings such as archives and other miscellaneous content. A significantly faster speed of 15 in/s would be more suitable for a professional-grade recording such as a commercial, voice over, or call recording suitable for on-air playback.
Before digital automation systems and other technologies took over the broadcasting scene, there were 3-track NAB cartridges that carried three tracks of audio data across a single spool of magnetic tape that was laid out in an infinite loop within a single cartridge. The beginning and end of each recording was marked with an audio tone that told the player when to stop.
These cartridges (known as carts) were almost exclusively used to play one-liners, jingles, commercials, and single songs over the radio. Content contained on these carts could be easily wiped and replaced by use of a bulk eraser, which was nothing more than an electronic magnet.
These carts were widely used in early automation systems by stations that connected to a satellite feed that provided talent and music around the clock. These remote DJs would broadcast to dozens (or more) stations at a single time. Before they started speaking, a barely-audible tone would be sent through the channel that triggered a play response on the Fidelipac cartridge player. Recorded on the cart, a brief station ID pre-recorded by the remote DJ that would give the listener the impression that they were actually sitting in that station’s office.
The widespread use of these cartridges started around the mid 1950s and began falling out of use during the late ’80s and early ’90s. I had the unique pleasure of working for a very low-budget FM station in a relatively small market. Because of this, I was swapping carts well into the late ’90s. While I agree that the technology itself is obsolete, those big carts were actually pretty easy to work with when compared to software automation systems of the time.
While not a huge part of the professional audio production process, it’s hard to look into the past without remembering the compact cassette. The little tape — more portable and durable than the LP record — was widely used between the 1970s and 1990s as one of the primary consumer distribution platforms in existence. It wasn’t until a more portable and digitally playable compact disc came around that the cassette tape gave up the ghost and retreated into obsolescence.
The compact cassette replaced two larger and considerably less flexible consumer audio solutions. The stereo 8-track and reel-to-reel were popular ways to distribute audio through magnetic tape, but players for these formats were often unreliable, expensive, or just not portable enough to carry with you. The compact cassette introduced a high-quality magnetic tape solution for audio recording and playback that was a fraction of the width of previous platforms. In addition, you could record separate audio tracks (two stereo or two monophonic) and play them back by simply flipping the reversible cassette around in the player. Half of an album would be recorded on one side, while the other half was recorded on the other. Automatic tape players were quickly developed that required no physical shift by the user, allowing a cassette to play over and over again until it wore out.
Wearing out a tape was a common sign of overplaying, and it usually meant you had to buy a new one, or remember to dub the cassette on a blank to extend the life of the recording. Dubbing machines became very popular, allowing someone to copy a commercial cassette to blanks and freely distribute the copies to friends and family. Bootlegging became a popular pastime among youth, and could arguably be considered an early form of peer-to-peer music sharing.
It would be impossible to write about obsolete audio production technologies without tipping my hat to the invention that made commercial audio recording and playback a possibility. Phonograph cylinders were widely used in the late 1800s to the mid teens of the 1900s. These cylindrical tubes were commonly made of wax and contained a series of grooves that held the vibrational data (sound waves) that could be picked up by a tiny needle and amplified through a cone-shaped speaker.
The phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison, was able to both record and replay sound. This was a remarkable achievement for the time, and something that early phonograph record players (also known as gramophones) were unable to reproduce. The Edison records didn’t last very long as the needle would quickly gouge the wax and degrade the sound quality with each play. Over the years, the wax was hardened and improved until Thomas Edison devised the Gold Moulded cylinder made from a hard, black wax. While the cylinder itself wasn’t gold, the term was derived from the metal plating used on the master cylinder from which the black wax copies were made.
This is also believed to be the origin of the term “gold master,” which is commonly used to describe a finished product by which commercial production is based. You’ll commonly hear the term used in relation to software that is being sent to a manufacturer when it is ready for mass printing.
These technologies have all made a major impact on the digital audio systems we use today. If it weren’t for Thomas Edison, we might not have ever advanced to phonographic records, multitrack cartridges, compact cassettes, compact discs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs we use today. You could also argue that the modern spindle hard drive is a technology that is directly derived from the advances made by Thomas Edison in relation to grooved and rotational data storage. Indeed, while the format itself has changed, the basic principals behind media recording, storage, and playback have largely remained the same.