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The History of Vinyl Records: An In-Depth Guide

Vinyl records have a rich history. They’ve been around for over a century now, and their roots trace back to American inventors like Thomas Edison and others from around the world. Since the days of the phonograph and gramophone, advancements in audio technology have made vinyl one of the most compelling and immersive ways to listen to music. The format definitely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

In this post, we’ll walk you through the full history of vinyl records, starting with the earliest days of the format and working up to the present. We’ll discuss milestone moments that changed vinyl forever, as well as the possibilities for the future.

The Beginning: The Phonograph

The grandfather of the modern turntable was the phonograph, an invention created by Thomas Edison way back in 1877. This device was a far cry from the record players of today, but the ingenious technology at its core was remarkably similar. 

Phonographs served two purposes – recording sound and playing it back. The devices were equipped with foil-coated cylinders, which could have grooves etched in them by one of their two needles. The recording needle would write recorded sound into the cylinder, which could then be played back by running a second needle through the grooves. 

The phonograph was powered by a crank mechanism, which the user had to turn manually throughout the recording and playback process. While that might sound like a hassle, the technology was completely revolutionary for its time, and it laid the groundwork for the turntable that came after it.

The Phonograph Evolves Into the Gramophone

After Edison’s phonograph changed the world, the next innovation in audio technology came from a German immigrant named Emile Berliner. Berliner’s gramophone, the father of the modern record player, was invented ten years after the phonograph, and it bears much more resemblance to the turntables you’re familiar with.

The gramophone made several major departures from the design and function of the phonograph that came before it. For one, the gramophone used flat discs instead of cylinders to play back recorded audio, and these discs were created without the use of the gramophone itself. The use of a device strictly to play back recorded music instead of recording the music itself made the gramophone much more consumer-friendly than its predecessor. 

Early Vinyl Records

After the gramophone grew in popularity, new versions were created that made the technology more accessible, affordable, and suitable for the early 20th-century consumer. 

The discs used on the earliest record players were made from shellac, not vinyl, and they could only be played at 78 revolutions per minute RPM. We now know that records with higher RPM have the potential for better sound quality, but at the time, the speed at which these shellac discs spun was based on necessity. 

The 78s, as they became known, could only hold a few minutes of recorded music on each side. Due to their minimal capacity, these records have essentially become obsolete. 

However, it wasn’t long before companies like RCA and CBS started experimenting with albums that could be played at lower speeds. A lower RPM and larger size meant that records could hold more recorded music on each side, albeit with some sound quality sacrificed. 

The Dawn of the LP

After years of only 78-RPM records being available on the market, the first 12-inch, 33-RPM record was produced by CBS in 1948. 12-inch albums could hold an album’s worth of songs on each side, and they came on the scene at a time when the postwar entertainment industry was booming. Consumers were more than ready to buy these 12-inch LP (long-play) records, and they quickly became the industry standard. 

Instead of the hard shellac that 78s were made from, 12-inch LPs consisted of polyvinyl carbonate, the material that gives vinyl records their name. This material was also used to create 7-inch records that were designed to be played at 45 RPM. These records, known affectionately as “45s,” are still on the market today. They’re primarily used as promotional material.

How LPs Changed the Music Industry Forever

Prior to the advent of the LP, there was no way for an artist to release more than a small handful of songs at once. That meant that there was essentially no such thing as the modern album before midway through the 20th century. It was the LP, which could hold over 20 minutes of music on each of its two sides, that revolutionized the way music was recorded and released.

Thanks to the LP, artists and bands started recording full-length projects consisting of around a dozen songs. These albums had a cohesive sound and featured a mix of multiple separate audio recordings, which were blended together by a mixing engineer and mastered to sound cohesive. This process for recording, mixing, and mastering is still used today.

The Birth of Rock

With the LP came the advent of a brand new genre in American music – rock n’ roll. Around the time that 12-inch records started becoming widely available, musicians like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley were revolutionizing the sound of popular music and gaining fans around the nation. 

Around this time, radio was experiencing its golden age as well, and the combination of record sales and radio airplay made Elvis and his contemporaries superstars. All of that success was owed largely to LPs, which were purchased en masse by consumers who loved the rock n’ roll sound. 

Stereo Mixing Changes Everything

While it was first introduced in the 1930s by an English Engineer named Alan Dower Blumlein, stereophonic recording didn’t become a mainstay in the audio world until midway through the 20th century. Created by sending one signal to a speaker on the left side of a turntable and a different signal to the speaker on the right, stereo audio added a new dimension to the sound of vinyl. 

Stereo mixing is now the industry standard for modern music, but that wasn’t always the case. At first, stereo audio was seen as a gimmick that record labels like RCA, Columbia, and CBS tried hard to sell to consumers. 

However, by the 1960s, mono recordings were falling by the wayside, overtaken by stereo. Some bands, including The Beatles, would release mono and stereo mixes of their records, primarily because some early turntables didn’t support stereo speakers. Mono copies of albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are now rarities in the record-collecting world.

The CD Enters the Scene

In 1982, the Sony Corporation created the first compact disc, and things weren’t looking good for vinyl. CDs were small, portable, and reliable, and they could be played using a device that could travel anywhere. Cars started being manufactured with built-in CD and cassette players, and the public eye shifted over quickly to this new format. It was looking like vinyl would become completely obsolete.

Vinyl Sales Decline Throughout the 90s

During the last decade of the 20th century, records saw a historic decline in sales. The market was largely dominated by CDs and cassettes at this point, with consumers looking mainly for convenience and portability rather than an immersive listening experience. 

Some anticipated that vinyl’s death rattle would be heard around the turn of the millennium and that no one would ever turn on their turntable again. Fortunately, that wasn’t how things turned out.

Vinyl Makes a Comeback

The new millennium and the internet age saw the CD give way to the MP3 and even more of an emphasis on portability and convenience for music listeners. However, a devoted group of audiophiles kept collecting records, swearing by them for their sound quality, aesthetic appeal, and collectibility. 

Eventually, it was the CD that fell out of style – and vinyl that rose to the top once again. In the last decade, there’s been a significant decline in the sales of physical media as a whole – DVDs, CDs, and more. All of these formats have been overtaken by streaming services and digital media, but records are still standing tall. 

Vinyl sales have increased over the last decade, with many millennials and gen-Zers discovering the appeal of warm, analog sound. Just about every major-label artist, and a wide array of independent bands and musicians, are releasing their newest records on vinyl these days. The format has made a historic comeback, had a massive cultural impact, and shifted the tide of the music industry forever – and it’s over a century old.

Conclusion

After looking back on vinyl’s history, it’s easy to wonder what’s next. The truth is that it’s hard to tell where the music industry is going in the decades to come. However, it is safe to say that vinyl will always have a legion of devoted fans who believe in its unique sound and the immersive listening experience that comes with it.

Sources:

History of the Cylinder Phonograph | History of Edison Sound Recordings | Articles and Essays | Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies | Digital Collections | The Library of Congress

For the record: Emil Berliner and the gramophone - Museum for Communication Nuremberg, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication | Google Arts & Culture

How Vinyl Records Have Made a Miraculous Comeback | The Whit Online

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