Who Was Technical Grammy Honoree Alan Blumlein?

December 21, 2016

Recording Academy announced that Alan Blumlein will be postumously honored with a Technical Grammy in 2017. Take a moment to get better acquainted with this remarkable man, whose innovations still impact our audio work today.

In his short life, British audio inventor Alan Dower Blumlein revolutionized the way we listen to recorded sound.

Although he grew up poor and did not learn to read until he was 13 years old, Blumlein became one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century: Before he died in 1942 at the age of 38, he been awarded 128 patents, most notably for the invention of stereophonic sound.

The notion of stereo sound came to Blumlein in 1931 when, attending a movie with his wife, he grew frustrated hearing voices emerge from a fixed, single location even as characters moved onscreen. Later that year, he filed for a patent for a two-channel system—he called his invention binaural sound, but we know it as stereo. This patent comprised 70 claims, including a crossed-figure-eight two-microphone stereo recording configuration that would ultimately become known as the Blumlein pair, a technique still in use today. (Interested in learning the Blumlein technique? Read our advanced tutorial here.)

A senior engineer at EMI’s Central Research Laboratories (CRL), Blumlein also invented a stereo disc-cutting head and a moving-coil microphone, and held patents for innovations in a broad range of telecommunication fields, from telephone measuring equipment to cathode ray tubes and circuits to radar systems.

Military radar research led to Blumlein’s death in 1942, when he was killed in a plane crash during a covert test flight. The military kept his death a secret to protect the research project, and for a time it seemed Blumlein would be forgotten. Interest in stereo sound grew in the 1950s, however, and in 1958 Blumlein was honored posthumously by the Audio Engineering Society. Today, guests at Abbey Road Studios can visit an IEEE Milestone plaque commemorating Blumlein’s achievements.

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