Vinyl records, where do they come from and what are they made of?
My kids keep asking me questions about all my vinyl records. How do they work, why do you need them, where do they come from? I put together a piece to answer some of their questions.
They are a favorite item amongst collectors and audiophiles nowadays. They represent an image that is synonymous with high quality music. Long-replaced by better storage methods that allow for the same audio quality*. But nothing compares to the physical sensation of listening to a vinyl record.
But where do they come from? We’re going to take a short dip into the long history of this wonderful music format. How they where made, how it led a musical renaissance, died, and was recently resurrected.
* This is of course up for debate some think its better, some not.
The precursors to vinyl
The first music records in disc shape were actually made of rubber. Emile Berliner invented the first, 12.5-18cm discs of vulcanized rubber, in 1888. They got a little closer to the shape and feel we recognize today when he realized how to improve them. By mixing shellac and slate dust he created a glossy slate surface. That also fitted well with the steel needle of an acoustic gramophone. They presented a lot of surface noise but these discs became the most popular way of listening to music until 1925. This is when the microphone and the direct recording of music meant the gramophone was obsolete.
Western Electric improved the recording of music. Engineers started creating the first microphones using vacuum tubes. Less than two decades later, World War 2 was in full-effect. One of the most revolutionary scientific changes during the time was the widespread creation and use of plastics.
One of those plastics was vinyl, which proved to be perfect for the “V-Discs” that the US Army would produce and send to troops to boost their morale. At 12 inches in diameter, they were lighter and able to hold much more music with less surface noise compared to older types. Even after the war ended, vinyl stuck around.
The vinyl wars
But even before V-Discs, the first commercially available long-playing vinyl discs were being produced by RCA. Columbia Record was their fiercest competitor, announcing their 12 inch, 33 rpm discs in 1943. RCA and Columbia Record’s competition continued to refine the record composition itself as well as the equipment used to make them.
More sophisticated playback systems and discs were created. As music became inexpensive and high-quality, sales boomed across the US and into Europe. It was during this fierce competition that two of the formats still most common, were born. The 12” Long Play (or LP) by Columbia Records and the 7” Extended Play (or EP) single by RCA Victor.
Vinyl’s competition and decline
Discs had been the dominant way of listening to music for nearly a century since Berliner’s first rubber breakthroughs. Vinyl and record players drastically increased the quality of the listening experience. They also improved portability and affordability of music. They continued paving the way for the commercial music industry in a manner that wasn’t possible before. But, in 1962, that began to change.
New record types, such as the quadraphonic record, were developed but proved to be ineffective in the market. That was all thanks to the arrival of the Phillips Cassette. Lighter, smaller, a digital method of storage that could easily rewind, play, pause, and stop, the competition was immediate. Phillips innovated even further, unveiling the Compact Disc (or CD) in 1974. By 1988, CDs were outnumbering vinyl sales, doubling them in that year alone. This began to long decline of vinyl records from 1988 to 1991.
From 1991 onwards, they enjoyed some quiet success as some found themselves preferring the sound analogue sound. They compared it to the lossy, sometimes glitchy nature of digital recording. They began to resurge in popularity amongst audiophiles and disc jockeys. Older records of legendary artists started becoming collectibles.
They started to pick up again. They were supported by industries like indie and folk music that often released first or even exclusively on vinyl. By 2007, Record Store Day was born not only to celebrate what was once the social hub of music lovers all over, but the format that made such stores boom. From that year, vinyl sales have continued to boom, growing for nine consecutive years. Now, just after 2017, we have the highest number of vinyl record sales noted since 1991.
Vinyl records are back. They may not be the average consumer’s most readily available way of enjoying music. But audiophiles, collectors, and those looking for a more visceral experience turn to them time and time again. They have come a long way and had their ups-and-downs, but those iconic, black, glossy discs are here to stay.
A study on why people want to own music
Emusic blog recently published an interesting study. In it they investigate why people who already have a streaming account prefer to also own music. The study was carried out on a large part of their members. According to the study “virtually no member indicated that they weren’t streaming music”. However they reported that “83% of the time they are listening to their own music collection vs. a streaming music service.”. Wonder how many listen to vinyls.
I do it all, play vinyls, collect CDs and stream music
I admit I do the same. I collect vinyls, especially classical music vinyls. I use Roon (the amasing audio player catering to audiophiles and collectors) to manage my CD collection and to stream music through Tidal. And I use Spotify to stream music on the go and discover new music. Spotifys AI is so far the best. But there is nothing as relaxing as loading a nice copy of classical music vinyl on to the turntable and sit back and relax.
Read the full story here.