History of the Recorded Voice: Journey Through 100 Years of Sound
Have you ever thought about the heritage of the voice over industry?
A lot has changed since the earliest days of voice recording. No longer do we rely on wax cylinders (yes, those came first!) or other analog technologies, such as film reels and tape to make beautiful audio recordings.
Before moving into our new office, I developed a keen interest in the artifacts related to the voice-over industry.
My passion for collecting various artifacts reflecting the evolution of voice acting began with a gramophone. I’d seen them in antiques shops before and got bit by the antiquing bug. Once my husband David and I acquired the gramophone, it became clear that a museum exhibit and gallery space would become an important part of our office space in downtown London, Ontario, Canada.
That’s when a world of possibilities for telling our story began to take shape. Similar to the first days of Voices, a sheet of paper (not a napkin mind you), was used to create a timeline spanning a century, taking us from analog to digital in pursuit of pieces that stood out as pivotal technological and cultural advancements in our industry.
Part of this project involved reclaiming space, namely, a corridor in the office that no one quite knew what to do with. There was an elevator bank that was never built out. The transformation of that space was a work of art in itself and a real labor of love!
The result? A History of the Recorded Voice over the last 100 years. Our love of industry and desire to honor the past in our space resulted in a collection that features pieces from as far away as Colorado Springs, Iowa Falls, Strathroy, Tavistock, and as near to London as Kilworth.
As its curator, I’d like to take you through a virtual tour of Voices’s museum. Join me now as we appreciate the technological advances and how these marvels have changed the way voice over is recorded and enjoyed today.
Let’s start at the beginning of the timeline.
“History of the Recorded Voice: A Journey Through Sound in the 20th Century”
In the Beginning
Phonographs were one of the first mechanisms for playing audio recordings. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison and Guglielmo Marconi were innovating and perfecting these machines with the goal of getting them into people’s homes. This was before radio and long before television.
The phonograph was one of the first mechanisms for recording and playing recordings of music and the human voice. At the turn of the 20th century, people could hear the sound of recorded words or music played back to them. One of these early pieces of technology was called the phonograph (which used a spinning cylinder), with later versions commonly known as gramophones (they used flat spinning disks, not cylinders). You’ve heard of the Grammys, right? That’s where the awards show takes its name.
1902 marked the birth of the Victor Model E Monarch Junior phonograph. I was surprised to learn how many pieces of older audio technology were still available. To my great delight, the president of the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society (CAPS) had put one of the gramophones he had been caring for up for sale. After some messages back and forth on Kijiji, we jumped in the car for a trip to Tavistock, Ontario, a town famous for its cheese and as it would happen, the great distinction of being a place where phonographs and gramophones can be found in almost any basement.
Here’s a picture of our phonograph (or, you could call it a gramophone!). Note Nipper, the world famous dog, listening to his master’s voice. Depending on the company, phonographs were branded with other names. For instance, Columbia’s phonographs at the turn of the 20th century were called grafonolas.
Another interesting fact about gramophones is that most people at the time thought they were unsightly. Many did not like the horns — oddly this is something people really enjoy now about these machines. Back then, they actually covered them up inside wooden enclosures like the Victor Victrola.
Let’s enter the museum, shall we?
Victor Monarch Junior Model “E” – Recorded Sound Enters the Family Home
You’ve met our grand lady already above, but please say “Hello” once more to one of audio technology’s finest developments, the phonograph. This Victor Monarch Junior “E” phonograph was made between 1902 and 1905. The phonograph was purchased in Tavistock, Ontario from the president of the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society (CAPS). Thomas A. Edison was also making phonographs during this time. More than 100 years later, this phonograph still works and continues to inspire, amuse and dazzle. Atop the phonograph is a record. Can you see it? Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians are ready to play once more. Be careful when you drop the needle, though! Fittingly, Lombardo was born in London, Ontario Canada in 1902, about the same time this phonograph was made. These pieces are a very special part of our history.
Enrico Caruso at the Met – Live from New York, The First Audio Broadcast
The world got its first audio broadcast when celebrated tenor, Enrico Caruso, performed on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1910. This audio broadcast treated listeners to excerpts from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci.
Vintage Film Reel – Talkies Triumph over Silent Films
The Roaring Twenties saw advancements in many areas, including the role of audio in film and the birth of Neumann’s signature condenser microphones. The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was one hour long with the distinction of being the first talkie. Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie was also released in 1928.
Animated Cartoons and Film – Disney and Warner Bros.
The Dirty Thirties, an era of poverty and uncertainty, birthed what would fuel the glorious, golden age of radio, animation and film. Warner Bros. released Looney Tunes in 1930 followed by Disney’s foray into animated feature films with Snow White in 1937. Snow White won an Academy Award that year, which was handed to Walt Disney by child actress, Shirley Temple. From 1934 until the 1980s, “The Man of a Thousand Voices” Mel Blanc voiced an entire generation of characters that have lived on in various ways using the power of the human voice.
Mel Blanc: Man of a Thousand Voices
Can you believe he (Bugs Bunny’s voice) was allergic to raw carrots?
If Mel Blanc were still with us today, he’d be 98 years old. Mel Blanc was and continues to be one of the most influential character voice actors inspiring voice actors everywhere. Mel found his niche as a character voice actor and was a glistening gem in the Hollywood Golden Age of animated cartoons.
Working with Warner Brothers, starting out in 1936, Mel voiced infamous characters such as Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and many others.
His natural voice was that of Sylvester the cat but without the lispy spray for the Hanna Barbera studios during his career with their company in the 1960s. Who could forget the line “Suffering Succotash”?! Did you know that Mel was the voice of Barney Rubble on the Flintstones and Mr. Spacely on The Jetsons, too?
You’ll find out tidbits about his life and learn interesting trivia about Mel Blanc, including the ironic fact that he was allergic to raw carrots!
“That’s All Folks!”
Turner 22X – WWII and Audio Advancement
During World War II, the world witnessed the start of commercial FM broadcasting and even better audio recording technology. The Turner 22 was manufactured by The Turner Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the 1940s. Most microphones made during that time had high, medium and low switches. Microphones were often named for famous singers who used them. The “Elvis” mic or “Billie Holiday” mic are examples of this.
Hockey Night in Canada – Foster Hewitt
Hockey Night in Canada is part of the bedrock that holds our home nation together. Announcer Foster Hewitt, perched high above the crowds at Maple Leaf Gardens, is pictured in his famous “Gondola” where he called games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1950s and 1960s. His excellent play-by-play and color commentary inspired the Hockey Hall of Fame to give out a memorial award in Foster’s name honouring broadcasters who excel and contribute greatness to the game of ice hockey over their careers.
1966 Global Transistor – 10 GR-920 – Making Music and News Portable
No longer did you have to huddle around a giant radio in your living room. Transistor radios were portable and could be easily taken with you to the beach or your backyard. As a result, the transistor radio became the most popular communications device in history. Billions of transistor radios were made during the 1960s and 1970s.
Reel to Reel Recording – Splice and Dice
The 1970s were all about reel to reel recording. Anyone who worked in radio can well remember using razor blades to slice tape when editing audio. How much easier is it now that programming is digital and the music plays itself?
Original Nintendo Entertainment System – Games Played at Home, Not the Arcade
The 1980s saw technological shifts of all kinds. This decade saw the beginning of books on tape, the Sony Walkman, a home studio revolution, and a major shift from analog to digital technologies. Macintosh introduced its first personal computer in 1984. ISDN became part of top talent home studios in the late ‘80s when Don LaFontaine convinced producers that he could just as easily record voice-overs from home instead of going from studio to studio in his limousine.
iMac – From Analog to Digital
In the ‘90s, ISDN was a mainstay, personal computers entered into the mainstream and the Internet became part of everyday life. With new and considerably less expensive technology available to the masses, just about everyone gained the ability to create and record their own voice. MP3s and CDs ruled the day.
Just Want the Facts? Enjoy this Decade-by-Decade Review:
1900s – Phonographs/Gramophones, Thomas A. Edison, RCA Victor, Marconi
1910s – Enrico Caruso first audio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York
1920s – Talkies came out (1927 – The Jazz Singer); Neumann microphones starts making condensers (1928)
1930s – Animated cartoons and film – Disney and Warner Bros., Snow White (1937)
1940s – WWII – Commercial FM broadcasting began in the U.S., cardioid microphones invented, wire recorders for the home market – 3M creates Scotch No. 100 – a black oxide paper tape
1950s – Sleeping Beauty, Sony produces first pocket transistor radios
1960s – Hockey Night in Canada – Foster Hewitt, Dolby Type A, Moog synthesizers
1970s – Reel to reel recording
1980s – Books on tape, Sony “Walkman,” home studio revolution, installation of ISDN lines in top talent home studios. Macintosh introduces computer in 1984.
1990s – ISDN made available, personal computers, iMac – first Internet-connected computers, ability to create MP3s, CDs – analog to digital.
How do you celebrate your voice-over heritage?
Comment and let me know!