Music cannot exist in a vacuum. I’m not just talking about the laws of physics here (those actually do prohibit sound from traveling across a literal vacuum). I’m talking about influence: Technological advances throughout the years have had a palpable effect on the music we hear. In this article, we’ll list eight pieces of gear that have undeniably changed music.
1. The Edison Phonograph
First things first: We must start at the beginning, with the Edison Phonograph. Invented in 1877 out of little more than tin foil and a crank, the phonograph changed everything. Every single modern avenue you have for enjoying music starts here.
The device worked for recording and playback, encompassing both microphone and speaker in a single device. So, without the phonograph, you wouldn’t have the means to record music, or listen to it, outside of an acoustic performance.
The ramifications of this technology extended far beyond the gear itself: As David Byrne pointed out in his book, How Music Works, musicians were finally able to hear what they sounded like at a remove, and this changed the way they made music.
The example he offers is that of an opera singer. Early opera recordings display an entirely different style from what we associate with opera today. Byrne argues the modern trappings of opera—the vibrato, specifically—is a reaction to hearing oneself, a sort of insurance to make sure one is hitting the note at least some of the time.
This digression hopefully illustrates how revolutionary the Edison Cylinder was, from the technology of recording, to the sound of music itself. When musicians were finally able to hear themselves after the fact, it changed the way they sounded.
Following on the heels of the Edison Phonograph, the next technology we’ll cover is magnetic tape. People started playing with the principles behind tape not too long after the phonograph was invented, and like many audio technologies, it owes its proliferation to war efforts—in this case to the Germans, specifically, in World War II.
Within the music industry, the popularization of tape is often credited to Bing Crosby’s radio show. Recording his program straight with the methods available at the time resulted in a noticeable lack of quality. Editing the program wasn’t too much fun, either, so Bing was frothing for any improvement to the process.
Enter a canny American engineer named John Mullen; he was given access to tape recorders captured from the Germans. After he brought the technology to the American marketplace, it found its way to Bing’s team, and the rest is history.
Tape became the medium of choice for studio recording until digital supplanted it. More than a mere medium, tape was in itself a sonorous tool and a signature sound: You could push into tape for warm saturation, taking the edge off a harsh sound in the process. You could play with it to create echo and flange effects. Indeed, in our digital marketplace, it’s no wonder many top-selling pieces of software are tape emulations: The sound of tape has become an important color in the palette of many engineers.
3. The Electric Guitar
The electric guitar might have fallen out of favor. It might have offered only a niche sound evoking bygone eras. But that doesn’t change the simple fact of the matter: Electric guitars changed everything about the way pop music sounds.
First came the amplified acoustic guitar, in or around 1936. This was followed by the solid-body electric about 15 years later. Les Paul and Leo Fender both owe some of their legacies to the creation of the instrument.
From the 1950s on through the 2000s, electric guitars became the bedrock of so many seminal styles and genres. The guitar even affected effects now commonly used in synthetic pop music. Distortion, for instance, owes its ubiquity to the electric guitar. Sure, one can drive tape or clip the input of a microphone, but the obvious desirability of distortion became prevalent in the 1960s, when guitarists realized they didn’t have to be polite. Love the sound of a growly synth drop in an EDM bro-step tune? One can argue the modern-day drop is merely our zeitgeist’s take on double-tracked distorted guitars.
Ike Turner’s broken amp on the song “Rocket 88” introduced the world to what a distorted guitar could achieve. A broken transformer in a tube-desk fuzzed out the baritone guitar solo on Marty Robbin’s “Don’t Worry,” inspiring the engineer to turn the malfunction into an effect pedal. Just a little while later, Dave Davies slashed his amp speaker with a razor blade and got a good crunch for the Kinks’ “You’ve Really Got Me.”
All of these concurrent discoveries changed the face of music: Within no time at all, you got Hendrix, Clapton, Paige, Beck, and others scorching the earth with their crackling distortion. Hard rock has become a fixture of the radio dial to this day—you can drive down the road in nearly any part of the country and find a station stuck in the sound of the 1970s.
But guitar sounds don’t stop developing—in the 1980s we saw the proliferation of tapping techniques that, in turn, influenced disparate genres, from jazz to acoustic folk (if you can believe it). The 1980s also saw jangly clean tones that became their own sonic signatures. Enter the 1990s, and we came to the digitization of guitar effects, spawning even more new tones; people such as Tom Morello and Johnny Greenwood thought outside the constraints of previous hard rock stylings, and pushed the music forward—until the 2000s, when guitars suddenly took a nosedive in popularity, a victim of Swedish-style pop and other genres.
4. The UREI 1176
The 1176 might not be a household name to the average music consumer, but it changed the way pop music is mixed, and therefore, the way it sounds. Let’s start by talking about what the 1176 even is.
The 1176 is a compressor, which means it restricts the dynamic range of material. In laymen’s terms: It makes the loud stuff quieter, so there’s less of a “swing” between the softest and loudest passages. Once that’s handled, you can make the whole audio signal louder, and keep the overall volume consistent all the while.
That’s a super basic definition, and here’s a super basic history: Compressors have their genesis in early-modern warfare, restricting the dynamic range of signals broadcasted from commanders to troops over military transmissions. In making the loud stuff quieter and raising the overall volume of a military order, commanders could be more certain that their edicts were more intelligible and, therefore, less apt to be bungled.
After the World Wars, audio engineers began to use compressors in music for similar reasons—to preserve intelligibility in a recorded part, either over the airwaves, or against other instruments in a mix. But the earliest compressors weren’t very controllable. They offered limited controls, so their behavior could be hard to predict.
Enter the UREI 1176, created by Bill Putnam in the 1960s. The 1176 gave the market a compressor with continuously variable controls, meaning engineers could now shape compressor behavior to fit the exact needs of the material.
Indeed, this is arguably one of the first compressors that let engineers change the actual groove of music with predictable precision—something they could not really do before. Suddenly, the engineer became as musical as the artist. This had ramifications for virtually all music to follow, which was more and more compressed for a variety of reasons.
The 1176 also boasted a happy accident of a feature, one that became the sleeper-sound of aggressive rock: you could push all the ratio buttons in at the same time, and create a punching, uproarious sound in the process.
Vocals, guitars, and more got the 1176 treatment starting in the late 1960s. This compressor, combined with the advent of 8-track recording, had an impact on drums: Now individual hits could be made punchier and more delineated. If you ever listened to records from the early 1960s and wondered why the drums sounded so distant compared to the 1970s, the 1176 and its offspring are likely the culprits.
I’ve also chosen to spotlight the 1176 because of its circuit: This compressor makes use of an FET, or Field Effect Transistor. I want you to focus on the “transistor” part of that acronym.
This little component completely changed the way we’re able to amplify, record, and produce music. The ramifications of the transistor extend far beyond music, branching into all fields of electronics. The transistor is why you have a computer sitting in your pocket, rather than occupying an entire room of your house.
5. The Mini Moog
The Mini Moog wasn’t the first synthesizer ever built—that honor probably goes to the RCA Mark II, built in the 1950s, and too ungainly for mass consumption (it required punch cards to operate). The Mini Moog, however, was the first synthesizer to hit the marketplace in a meaningful way. For the first time, people could go to their instrument shop and buy an analog synthesizer.
The Mini Moog showed up in 1970. Note the trend of pop music since its arrival, and it’s impossible to deny the impact this synth had on music. Synths became more and more commonplace throughout the decades, with noticeable crests in the 1980s, when you really began to see synths on the pop charts on a consistent basis.
Cut to the 2000s, and synths have supplanted nearly every other instrument as the texture of the modern age. As I write this, “Butter” by BTS is the number-one hit song in the country; synths comprise its bass and chordal accompaniment. The number-two hit song off Billboard right now has more guitars (“Good 4 U” by Olivia Rodrigo). But a cursory listen to the verse drums reveals that here, too, synths reign.
6. The Roland TR-808
When the Roland TR-808 first came out in 1980, it was a flop. People thought it was a toy. Forty-one years later, it’s an iconic piece of tech that redefined the way we program, produce, and even conceive of drums.
The 808 helped groups of people make music with rhythmic propulsion, even if they didn’t have a drummer. You didn’t need knowledge of the drum-set to program an 808; heck, you didn’t even need to know how to play a keyboard—or how to mash buttons in time! The 808 was one of the first drum machines to put whole patterns on offer, so all you’d have to do was click a button, and there was a drum loop, ready to serve as your underpinning.
The Roland TR-808 wasn’t the first drum synth on the market, but it became the dominant one in hip-hop, house music, and other genres that continue to rule the roost. It’s no accident that nearly any electric drum-set or performance keyboard you can purchase has an 808 library: The kick drum is an undeniable bedrock of modern pop productions, as are the clap and hi-hat sounds.
7. Avid Pro Tools
Digital Audio Workstations—called DAWs for short—are easily one of the most important inventions in modern music history. Digital Audio Workstations are to 21st-century music what the Edison Phonograph was to 20th-century music.
The DAW is a revolutionary invention for audio recording: Instead of capturing audio magnetically to tape, the DAW allows you to record to a computer—but more than that, it makes editing exponentially easier and more powerful.
Whereas editing before the DAW involved getting out your trusty razor blade and cutting out slices of tape willy-nilly, the DAW allowed engineers to drag-and-drop any audio piece of audio to any place they chose. It facilitated this simple cut-and-paste operation with the click of a mouse, or the press of a keystroke.
The paradigm shift engendered by the DAW cannot be overstated. Now, you can record a gazillion takes, and stitch the best one together on a note-by-note basis—or fly in parts from earlier in the song for a complete substitution. The processing power of a DAW also contributes to its prevalence: Engineers can now copy a sliver of audio to twenty tracks, and then use software to change the pitch and sound, thereby creating entirely synthetic harmonies. These are but two of the ways DAWs opened up editing for the masses.
But why Avid Pro Tools, when so many DAWs exist? We’re vaulting Pro Tools partly for Darwinistic reasons: Beginning in roughly 1984, the software that would eventually become Pro Tools started eating up more and more of the pro-audio market. Pro Tools was the dominant DAW by the early 2000s: If you didn’t know how to use it, you wouldn’t get hired in a studio.
Pro Tools began its journey as a sampler—and this is another reason we’re choosing to spotlight Pro Tools over the competition. Samplers are extremely important to modern music, especially genres such as hip-hop. Samplers allow producers to cut up pieces of prerecorded material and trigger them at will, in effect “playing” existing pieces of music. Choosing Pro Tools over Logic or Reason is a way of acknowledging the DAWs sampler routes, and covering the importance of samplers in a limited blogspace.
8. The Digidesign Digi Rack 002
No list of music-changing gear would be complete without an audio interface, and for this one, we’re going to spotlight the Digidesign Digi Rack 002, first introduced around 2003.
Sure, it wasn’t the best-sounding piece of gear in the world—but it was unavoidable in the early days of home-studio proliferation, especially among aspiring professionals. Why? Because Pro Tools dominated the pro-studio environment, and you couldn’t use Pro Tools without authorized hardware before Pro Tools 9.
So, if you wanted to shuttle your projects between the home studio and a pro room, your easiest option was to get hardware that would work with Pro Tools, and the Digi 002 became the one to which people gravitated. This resulted in a couple of interesting effects on the music industry at large.
For one, the situation inspired mod culture in the nascent home-studio game: Today, Black Lion Audio is famous for its power conditioners and stand-alone rackmount pieces, but the company got its start modding gear like the 002, souping them up to compete sonically with pro-studio pieces.
Of course, plenty of people just went along with the stock sound of their 002, and the sound of music changed ever so slightly as a result: Within independent scenes, listeners grew accustomed to the sonic limitations of hardware like the 002, until the less-polished, less-sumptuous sound of home-recording hardware became acceptable in all corners of music. One could draw a line from interfaces such as the 002 to genres like SoundCloud rap, for example—styles of music where the “cheapness” of the sound is part of the point.
These days, you’re not likely to find an 002 in many studios. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop to recognize how the 002—and, really, all the early home-studio gear it typifies—influenced music.
Doubtless, there are other pieces of gear that have changed the sound of music; we cannot cover everything here. But you can, in the Comments section! Let us know what pieces of gear you think changed music the most!
Then continue your musical journey by turning to Music Appreciation Week for more great content!
Fun list. I would also find a spot for the Shure SM57 microphone that for many years has been a studio and live performance standard.
Very interesting article. Thanks