Vinyl records are an integral part of the rich history of music. They were made of polyvinyl chloride and stored music in the analogue format, long before the beginning of the digital era. They can be solely credited with the distribution of popular music since the 1950s. In fact, they were in circulation till the CDs and other digital music formats took over.
The first flat disc player was developed in 1888 by Emily Berliner that used rubber discs with a diameter of about seven inches. This was then replaced by shellac discs that were used till the middle of the 20th century. Since the early 1900s, the 10 inch discs had become a norm and they carried up to three minutes of music on each side. The 12 inch record discs were also available in the market at the time and each side successfully carried roughly five minutes of music.
The major players in the music industry were striving hard to increase the duration of music on the discs. They were able to touch the 10-minute mark, but the sound quality was questionable. The fundamental need to increase the length of the track on the disc could only be achieved by increasing the number of grooves on the discs or micro grooves. This required a sturdy material that could withstand smaller grooves. However, there was nothing exciting that happened in the industry till the 1930s.
It was during the Second World War that the vinyl discs were produced and it was even later that they were used commercially. The discs were made from a mixture of vinyl acetate and vinyl chloride. The resulting Vinylite was stronger and better than the traditionally used shellac. This enabled the vinyl records to have more than 200 grooves per inch as compared to 100 grooves that could be achieved with shellac. The RPM of the turntable of the player also played an equally significant part in the making of a disc with a long playing time.
Like all the other record companies, Columbia too had active research interests in developing a microgroove record, which could run slower on gramophones. Dr. Peter Goldmark was the man at Columbia Records selected for this task. He was an electrical engineer, and worked with a team of scientists and the research director of the company, Bill Bachman, to develop the technology. Apart from this research, he also made it a point to improve the record manufacturing process in general. He noticed that the process followed to produce the records was not clean and introduced unwanted particles in the records themselves. This contributed to the background noise and a slump in quality of the music on the record. He suggested the records be manufactured in cleaner rooms to prevent any foreign particles from contaminating the process.
It was on June 21, 1948 that Columbia Records announced the successful creation of the first 33-1/3 RPM microgroove long playing vinyl record. At the press conference held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the company had introduced to the world an unbreakable 12-inch record that played a whopping 23 minutes of music per side.
The technology was not new, but Columbia had managed to develop a working record for the first time. Columbia Records left no stone unturned to impress upon the feat it had achieved. It played the new vinyl long playing (LP) record for the reporters present. This was important to showcase the great quality of sound the LP records could produce, despite their obvious advantages. Columbia Records also demonstrated a visual comparison when it stacked traditional and LP records with more than 300 tracks on them. The traditional records made for an eight feet tall stack, while the LP records peaked at a short fifteen inches.
Then, Columbia Records unveiled the other important part of the process, the slow moving machine with only 33-1/3 RPM. The slower speed of the machine allowed for the elimination of noise from the turntable and also take care of any fluctuations in the turning speed. This player also had a pickup that was light and put only seven grams of weight on the record while playing. This managed to solve the problem of heavy wear and tear of the records.
The competition in the industry escalated after this development. RCA Victor, a competitor of Columbia Records, offered an alternative vinyl format that was seven inches in diameter and played at 45 RPM. What came to be known as ‘War of Speeds’ that extended from 1948 to 1950, had the market guessing as to which one of the two would eventually take the cake.
Ultimately, the 12 inch 33-1/3 records emerged as the choice for the distribution of commercial music. However, the 45 RPM discs also created a market for themselves. Since they were cheaper to produce, they were used as short duration discs with typically one song per side.
The 1950s also saw the implementation of the RIAA Equalization, a standard for all record companies. This period also saw the development of 16RPM records that were primarily manufactured for narratives for the blind or radio transcription. They were not made widely available for commercial use, but their specific uses kept them in circulation.
1955 brought to the fore a growing affinity of the general public to the stereo sound. Major efforts were undertaken by the record industry that bore fruit in 1957. These LPs slowly gained popularity and by the early 1960s, the sales of the records with stereo sound was steadily growing. By this time, the common stereo could play three to four speeds (16rpm, 45rpm, 33-1/3 RPM, and 78 RPM), had microgroove stylus and could also play the typical 45 with a large hole in the center.
By the 1970s, record companies were finding new ways to reduce the cost of manufacturing. This involved reducing the quality of the vinyl used and the overall thickness of the record. Mass manufacturing quality of vinyl was used that was also known as regrind vinyl. A niche market also popped up during the period, where ‘direct to disc’ records were developed that skipped the use of magnetic tape.
The 1980s and beyond focused mainly on the improvement of the sound quality of the vinyl records by eliminating the background noise, use of sophisticated disc cutting tools, and so on. With the advent of computer technology, vinyl almost disappeared from the market with the introduction of compact discs and, later, other digital media.
However, since 2006, another interesting phenomenon is slowly catching up, which has been touted as the ‘Vinyl Revival’. It marks a new wave of interest in collecting and listening to vinyl records. This renewed interest in vinyl records is definitely taking the sales up and has given a new lease of life to a fading yet integral cog in the history of music. When you sign up for AT&T U-verse Internet Service ou can listen to every imagineable type of music in the world.