The History of Sound

As those familiar with Velodyne's history know well, David Hall's technological innovations in the field of sound reproduction changed the subwoofer landscape forever. When Dave patented his High Gain ServoTM technology, he joined an elite group of inventive minds that laid the groundwork for today's clean and powerful subwoofers, as well as sound reproduction in general. The following is a brief journey through their contributions.

The Acoustic Era

The history of modern sound technology begins with a familiar name: Thomas Edison. When he wasn't busy inventing the light bulb, Edison was working on the first phonograph. Upon finishing it, he recorded the iconic ditty “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1877 (he patented the device in 1878). His initial invention featured a layer of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder; sound waves caused Edison's phonograph to make grooves in the foil, recording the sound. The machine was then able to reproduce the sound by “reading” the grooves.

Of course, the phonograph couldn't measure up to today's sound reproduction standards, especially since only mid-range frequencies could be recorded by this early technology—there was no bass at all to provide depth and power. Furthermore, the sound quality was abysmal, and the longevity of recordings was limited. Nonetheless, his invention spurred an era of development for sound recording and reproduction technology.

Alexander Graham Bell, another widely known historical figure, arrived on the sound technology scene a decade later with the invention of the graphophone. With the help of several assistants, Bell improved upon Edison's design by using a different material to record on; wax proved to be more effective than tin foil, and produced a better sound (though the bass was still missing). Before offering the graphophone for sale, Bell's distribution company reached out to Edison in an attempt to bring him in on the business; stubbornly rejecting their offer, he continued his own research and provided some competition for Bell in the marketplace. Ultimately, Edison's aim was to make his phonograph a feasible product for home entertainment, but his work was impeded by litigation as other inventors claimed wrong-doing.

Skip forward another decade (almost), and you'll find the next big innovation in sound: the transition from cylinder to disc. German by birth but American by residence, Emile Berliner began selling his disc players, called gramophones, in the mid-1890s. The switch to discs made commercial distribution more efficient, as the discs were easier to make and ship; also, they were louder than cylinders. This new recording format dominated the marketplace for the duration of the acoustic recording era, and was improved upon by such companies as the Victor Talking Machine Company (which made Victrolas). Edison grabbed a (small) piece of the disc market as well, and his cylinders were phased out. Up until this point, sound recording and reproduction was still mechanical, rather than electrical. Bass still wasn't a consideration, and it would be another 70 years before sound players could provide low-range frequencies to round out the sound; still, a revolution was imminent.

The Electrical Era

Electrical sound technology using microphones took over in the 1920s, influenced by increased use and development of radio technology in WWI. Technological leaps in the field of electrical sound reproduction included Edwin Armstrong's many contributions such as the Superheterodyne circuit, which greatly improved the quality of electronic sound recording and reproduction. He also invented FM radio, a medium that spurred further innovation and development.

So far we've seen lots of inventions, but still no bass (at least, nothing approaching the kind of bass available in home theaters today). The decades that followed saw copious inventions related to movie, radio and home sound reproduction; for instance, Columbia released its first LP (long-playing record) in the 30s, 45s bearing the RCA logo came out in the 40s, and magnetic recordings became viable around the same time. However, the speakers of the day simply couldn't reproduce the low frequencies that quality audio demands. 

Bring On the Bass

Finally, in the mid 1960s, the scene was set for the birth of the subwoofer. It was 1966: the Beatles were dominating the music charts, the Cold War was in full swing, and Rick Astley had just been born. Most importantly, audio enthusiasts had noticed something missing in the sound systems of the day. Their speakers may have been high-end, but they couldn’t reproduce the low-end-of-the-spectrum frequencies that were vital to a satisfying audio experience.

Enter Arnold Nudell, Cary Christie and Ken Kreisel, a few of the earliest creators of the subwoofer. Responding to existing speakers’ inadequate reproduction of the lowest sound frequencies, Nudell and Christie created the first subwoofer in 1966. A short time after, Kreisel answered the cries of his business partner’s customers, who bemoaned the inadequate bass in even the high-end audio products. Thus, the sub was born.

Not long after the invention of the subwoofer, the motion picture industry capitalized on the raw power of a sub to create a more engaging experience for movie-goers. The movies played a key role in driving the popularity of subwoofers; while the technology was originally motivated by audiophiles’ demands for better bass, the 1974 film Earthquake took the technology to the next level by putting it into action in movie theaters across the country. Released in Sensurround, the movie literally shook the earth beneath the audience’s feet, relying on specially installed subwoofers to create the thrilling rumbles.

This is where David Hall, founder and owner of Velodyne, enters the picture. Subwoofers of the 1960s and 70s could produce earth-shaking vibrations, but the levels at which they distorted sound were unacceptable, and they couldn’t quite get low enough. David’s answer to these problems was the revolutionary accelerometer-based High Gain ServoÔ system, which controlled the woofer cone movement and slashed distortion levels 20 to 30 times over while hitting the lowest of the low end of the sound spectrum. His subs were also even louder. Furthermore, he didn’t stop inventing new subwoofer technologies: since then, Velodyne has used new advances such as the Dual Tandem Voice Coil, the Energy Recovery Amplifier, Digital High Gain Servo-Control and the Digital Drive Room Bass Equalization System to bring subwoofer sound performance to new levels.

These advancements bring you the sound quality you enjoy today in the privacy of your home theater. No matter what kind of sub you own, each of these sound recording and reproduction inventors played a part in bringing it to you. So the next time you pump some bass, remember the masterminds that helped bring it into being.




Sources and more info:

Recording History

In 70 mm


US Patent Office