It all Started…
There is an ongoing debate about how to get the best audio recording. Most would agree that it is a bit subjective, determined by the person’s specific vocal tone and how it is received by each microphone. You could probably spend an entire week investigating which setup would work best for you and still come away not entirely sure.
But where did it all begin?
I always find it fascinating how far technology has come along. My father remembers getting a colored TV, I remember the transition to flat screen TVs, and now we have 4K curved ‘smart’ spectacles that fully immerse you in whatever you’re watching. Don’t even get me started on VR!
Voice Over also has a long, inspiring history. I think most of us have heard the story of when the very popular radio drama, War of the Worlds, premiered in 1938 and how the entire Nation feared for their safety! (The listeners did not realize it was not the News!)
The Phonautograph is the earliest (known) sound recording device, capturing actual sound waves, like what you would see in your audio editing software today.(1) It was invented by Edouard-Leon Scott and it was patented on March 25th, 1857. He originally based the design off the anatomy of an ear canal, which I personally find so incredible. Consider for a moment reading a book (he was a bookseller by trade) and being so motivated by a single concept, you take it upon yourself to dig deeper and see what can be created. Scott made several versions, as did other inventors. I find it funny that no matter how much society changes, some things stay the same; take YouTube trends. in 2017-2018, everyone was making slime! Why, even the articles I’m sourcing were written within days of each other! I would love to be a fly on the wall, just to know how it came to be that everyone thought to try to record sound at the same time! Perhaps there were news articles written about the idea.
However, although he was the first to record audio and display it visually, Thomas Edison was the first to playback audio audibly, using his phonograph, invented in 1877. On June 22nd, 1878 in St. Louis, the world hears it’s first blooper! After hearing “a 23 second cornet solo” and Mary Had a Little Lamb the voice can be heard laughing as he recites Old Mother Hubbard incorrectly, stating “Look at me; I don’t know the song.”(3) Scott passed away in April of 1879; I wonder if he was happy to know that sound could be captured and replayed or disappointed that he himself had not created the invention. Reading into his life, it seemed he was more interested in the concept of “Talk-to-Text” as he wanted to record audio in a written format. Although he sold a few phonautographs, which were used to study sound waves, he never profited from the venture. Instead, he turned his interest to “the relationship between linguistics, people’s names and their character” (5) which I must admit, sounds absolutely fascinating to me but unfortunately, initial searches did not turn up the actual article. If you happen to find it – pass it my way!
Yet in 2008, Scott’s recording was finally heard – it is a 10 second clip of (supposedly) Scott singing the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” on April 9th, 1860. (2) That’s 159 years ago! In fact, despite Edison premiering first, Scott holds the Guinness World Record for having the oldest recorded human voice (4).
The oldest recorded sound would actually go to the tuning fork, but that doesn’t seem relevant for our conversation.
Edison’s invention led to the phonograph record (vinyls) in the 1880’s, which birthed the 8-track and cassette tapes in the 1960’s, CDs in 1982, and now we simply download the songs we like on our phone or mp3 player!
That of course is the history of music more than voice over but the concept is the same and I would argue that audiobooks share this same history. “Talking books” began in the 1930’s to assist the blind and hard of seeing (6) but the popularity (and terminology) of ‘audiobooks’ rose in the 1970’s with the increased favoritism of cassette tapes.
The history of Radio could take an entire blog post on its own but the first radio news program was broadcast on August 31st, 1920 by station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan. (7) Sure, those are radio hosts. What about voice over; what about Commercials? Well, on August 28th, 1922 around 5pm, the first ever radio commercial was presented – the Hawthorne Court Apartments in Jackson Heights – on the New York radio station WEAF.(8) They bought 10 minutes for $50. I recommend reading the entire article by John McDonough for more color to the story; I just wanted to put all the cliffnotes together!
I wanted to find who voiced the first radio commercial that wasn’t the Radio Host or a representative of the company being advertised but I couldn’t find a name. However, in terms of the first voice over entertainer, I would point you to this article by James B. I feel that’s more honest than simply copy and pasting the entirety of his hard work: https://www.matinee.co.uk/blog/a-history-of-voice-over-1900-2015/
Then, of course, there’s animation with Disney’s Snow White claiming the title of America’s first feature-length animated film in 1938. I didn’t do much research on this side of things but animation and television also has such a rich history; truly fascinating!
It’s amazing how thoughts and inventions snowball into a wide scope of careers and passions. How many people owe their livelihood – or greatest hobby and enjoyment – to Edison and even Scott? What concepts are we thinking of now that will mean so much to so many next Century?
All websites visited March 4th, 2019: (1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonautograph (2) Eli MacKinnon Oct 26th, 2012 https://www.livescience.com/24317-earliest-audio-recording.html (3) The Associated Press, Oct 25th, 2012 https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/soundtrack-history-1878-recording-unveiled-including-world-blooper-article-1.1191864 (4) Guinness World Records Limited 2019 “All records are kept Up to date” http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-voice-recording (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89douard-L%C3%A9on_Scott_de_Martinville (6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audiobook (7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_radio (8) John McDonough, August 29, 2012 https://www.npr.org/2012/08/29/160265990/first-radio-commercial-hit-airwaves-90-years-ago