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The Impact of Microphones on Music [Complete History]


Microphones, once modest devices for amplifying sound, have evolved into transformative tools with a profound impact on various aspects of modern living. From enhancing entertainment experiences to revolutionizing communication and advancing scientific research, they play a pivotal role in shaping our world. 

The fusion of microphones and the internet with new technology has transformed the music landscape. Nowadays, the average listener can access a vast repertoire of music spanning various artists and historical eras. This accessibility facilitates revivals and the continuation of musical styles that might otherwise have faded away. 

Consequently, the musical tastes and knowledge found in an average audience today are likely to be considerably more diverse than in the past. Here, we will dive into the start of the microphone and how it shaped the modern music industry and entertainment.

History of Microphone Use and Development

To begin, a microphone is a tool that converts airborne sound waves into electronic signals, which can then be recorded onto a storage medium or transmitted through a speaker. 

These devices facilitate various audio recording applications, including communication in diverse forms, as well as recording music vocals, spoken words, and different sounds, with good sound quality. Microphones are found either as independent units or integrated into devices like headsets and telephones. 

Let’s talk about the 1920s and ’30s. This era was a time of post-war happiness, wild dancing, and even Prohibition. It was also when microphones and later radios became a big deal in the music industry. This period marked the formation of what we now know as American music. But here’s the twist: It existed long before musicians used them. 

Scientists have been interested in music since the 17th century, and they made early sound gadgets in the late 19th century, even though the quality wasn’t great. One of the first good microphones, the carbon microphone, was used for the very first public radio broadcast in 1910, featuring the New York Metropolitan Opera. Before, people could only imagine the huge impact this new technology could bring to modern society.

When the ’20s and ’30s came along, microphones became a big deal in the music industry. Before that, music was mainly listened to live or on record players. There was ragtime, early jazz, orchestral music, and barbershop quartets, but it was all sort of high-class stuff. Most people could not afford these players, only well-off rich people, and they were mainly into classical and orchestral music. So, there was no real “mainstream” music back then. 

Microphones played a pivotal role in shaping the telephone, public address systems, radio broadcasting, and sound recording sectors. While early carbon microphones proved effective for telephone communication as early as 1876, they fell short in most other applications due to limited frequency response and high noise levels. 

Several decades saw a series of experiments with different mic types, including carbon, crystal, capacitor, and electromagnetic variants. By the 1920s, microphones had advanced to a point where they could completely transform every facet of the music industry.

Before the mic’s introduction, individuals performing in public had to develop a vocal technique capable of vocalizing and projecting to the farthest corners of large venues. Opera singers were among the first to necessitate this technique, but they were not the sole beneficiaries. American popular music vocalists did not require an operatic voice, yet they relied on their powerful voice and assertive delivery to make an impact.

Lee de Forest is credited with inventing the inaugural practical amplifier. He showcased its capabilities by transmitting the operatic vocals of Enrico Caruso from the Metropolitan Opera House to various locations in New York on January 13, 1910. 

This achievement would have been unattainable without the aid of a microphone. In the early days of phonograph recording, a recording horn was the primary tool employed. The advent of electric recording, empowered by microphones, commenced in 1925. 

In 1926, the Vitaphone Corporation released the pioneering film with sound, “Don Juan.” It wasn’t until the subsequent year, with the astounding success of “The Jazz Singer,” that the feasibility of sound motion pictures was unequivocally demonstrated.

Performer Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” singing “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” shows how live performance at the time demanded a lot of strength from the singer’s voice to be heard by the crowd.

Paying particular attention to his posture as he concludes the song, his posture isn’t just a dramatic flourish; it seems to enhance the song’s sheer power. Jolson initially made a name for himself in vaudeville in 1903 and on Broadway in 1911, and he naturally carried his vocal techniques into his films. 

Of course, Jolson wouldn’t have been able to record that clip or any other performance without a mic. However, when microphones were exclusively used for recording, singers had to develop similar vocal techniques to project their voices in theaters, dance halls, and other large venues. It was only when mics became available for lives that professional singers could adopt a softer and more intimate style.

How Did the Microphone Impact Music?

The microphone has had a profound and transformative impact on the sphere of music in several key ways: 

Amplified Sound

Before the microphone, musicians had to rely on the natural acoustic of a venue or large ensembles to allow singing to a wide audience. The microphone allowed for the amplification of music, making it possible for a single singer or musician to be heard by thousands of people in large concert halls and stadiums.

Microphones revolutionized live performances by enabling artists to sing or speak to large audiences without straining their voices. This allowed for more dynamic and engaging stage shows, leading to the growth of live concerts and festivals as a major source of revenue for musicians. 

Recording and Broadcasting

Microphones made it possible to capture and record a performer with high fidelity. This innovation was a pivotal moment in the history of music, as it allowed for the preservation and distribution of music on a scale never before imagined. 

Recordings could be played on demand, enabling artists to reach audiences worldwide even without singing live. With CDs and vinyl, a fan can play their favorite band’s music on the go, and they can make the audio louder in their own home and, with headphones and loudspeakers, can listen to music on demand.

One of the most significant transformations brought about by the microphone is in the field of communication and broadcasting. Before the microphone, talking in public speeches and gatherings was limited in scope due to the human voice’s natural limitations. 

Those giving speeches are left to make their voice loud to make it amplified. The microphone’s ability to amplify audio allowed for larger audiences to hear people clearly, making it an essential tool for politicians, public speakers, and religious leaders. 

In the sphere of broadcasting, the microphone had a pivotal role in the growth of radio and television. It enabled broadcasters to reach millions of homes and paved the way for the development of mass media. News, entertainment, and cultural events became accessible to people worldwide, connecting communities and shaping public opinion.

New Vocal Styles

As discussed prior, the microphone allowed an artist to explore a space with a larger variety of different vocal styles. Crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, known for their smooth and intimate singing performances, became popular in the early 20th century. Artists could now use soft, subtle, and nuanced vocal techniques that were not possible without amplification. 

Diverse Musical Genres

The microphone played a crucial role in the development and popularization of various musical genres. For example, the close-miking technique in a recording studio allowed for the creation of genres like rock ‘n’ roll, where an artist could sing with powerful and dynamic voices. It also enabled the emergence of genres like hip-hop and electronic music, where vocal manipulation and effects became integral to the style. 

Innovation, Accessibility, and Inclusivity

Microphones have been used to amplify not only vocals but also various instruments. An electric guitar, for example, relies on a mic and amplifiers to achieve its signature sound, contributing to the development of the rock genre. The microphone made music more accessible to people with hearing impairments, as it allowed for the amplification of audio and the use of assistive listening devices. This inclusivity opened up new possibilities for enjoying music.

How Did the Microphone Change Singing?

Regional styles existed, but there were very few famous national artists or groups. Plus, without microphones, singers were limited by their voice power and the acoustics of their venues. Only those with strong voices could make it big. It was all about whether they could project to fill a whole hall. But then, the microphone revolutionized everything. 

It broke the industry’s record monopoly, making music more accessible to everyone. Radios became a big deal too. People preferred them because they were cheaper and had a wider variety of music. Radios also spread music styles across the nation. It created a community of musicians that connected people from all walks of life. 

An artist could now reach families across all 50 states. They could finally become household names, with their music and image becoming part of American culture. But it’s not just about mics and radios; it’s also about the singers from the ’20s and ’30s. These Crooners were the ones who really transformed American music and culture.

The emergence of crystal and condenser microphones, which gained widespread popularity in the music industry starting in 1925, ushered in a new era of fresh opportunities for recording artists. Most notably, the microphone placed the artist at the forefront of popular music.

The vocal style known as crooning, which is to hum or sing in a soft, low voice, especially in a sentimental manner, could not have existed without the microphone. Known for their unique soft and subtle approach, these singers were often described as “crooners.” 

They typically performed with either a big band, reminiscent of early 20th-century jazz ensembles, or with a more straightforward piano accompaniment. To have their voices heard while singing in a large room, a performer would need the help of the microphone.

Think of iconic figures like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Fred Astaire – they were the rockstars of their era, setting the standard for crooning. Bing Crosby sang in his first performance in 1930 and went on to become America’s most famous crooner. He would have needed a vocal technique like Jolson’s for people to hear him without a microphone. 

There are the sounds we produce when singing and articulating words like “bag,” “sip,” or “zip.” They involve a sudden rush of air escaping from our mouths. This airflow can lead people to hear abrupt spikes or pops in sensitive condenser mics, resulting in a noticeable and bothersome noise in the recording.

The microphone enabled a gentler, more intimate delivery in public that before would have been suitable only in the privacy of someone’s house. Singers like Frank Sinatra, who leaned in closer to the microphone during quiet song moments to create a feeling of closeness and intimacy, had to learn techniques to prevent these problems.

How Has the Microphone Changed the World?

The microphone’s impact on modern society is undeniable. From transforming communication and entertainment to advancing scientific research and fostering inclusivity, this unassuming device has changed the way we connect, share, and understand people around us. As technology continues to evolve, the microphone’s role in shaping the future of sound remains as dynamic and significant as ever.

Music has landed on mainstream ears recently because of microphone technology, and it has been easier to make music in your own home. It has been more accessible than ever in every different form, from vinyls, to CDs, to digitals. 

Every form of video content recorded in the modern day has used microphones as a way to enhance their content’s audio. These days, a lot of indie artists have recorded their own EP or album just from their own bedroom and blown up on social media with the help of video and audio. 

Every recorded audio and music these days is recorded with built-in or external mics and has reached the ear of the modern audience simply through the Internet. Loud, exciting music festivals are hit events for young people and public speakers are able to broadcast their talks all over different countries.

Microphones have improved music and broadcasting in a way no one has ever seen coming and as technologies continue to evolve, so will the innovations made by humans.

Ash Burnett

Hailing from Chicago, IL - Ash made his break into journalism at the age of 23 writing music reviews for a local website. Now in his late 30's and after being pulled closer towards the technical side of the music and live gig industry, he founded Shout4Music to write thorough microphone reviews.

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