By Alan Gregson
As a teenager in the Eighties, I grew up with records. I started buying music just before the invention of CDs and long before CDs became the dominant music format. My first love was cassettes. I’ve previously written about this for British Ideas Corporation but records are my enduring passion.
There’s many a learned article been written about which music format sounds the best but listening to music isn’t a scientific exercise. Yes, digital audio straight from the mixing desk is probably the purest sound and when pumped through a pair of high-end studio monitors, it will blow your socks clean into the next room. The thing is, music isn’t pure. A piano, for instance, generates undertones and overtones as the strings either side vibrate with each note. These are known as harmonics. Even though harmonics are almost impossible to hear, they give warmth and context to the actual notes, so we are used to hearing imperfections in music. When these are removed, either from digital mastering or from mp3 compression, there is something lost from the overall sound.
I like the sound from vinyl. It may be a placebo effect but being able to see the media, read the sleeve notes without a magnifying glass and physically place the needle on the record, it provides a greater connection with the music.
OK, time for the history lesson.
It’s difficult to imagine that before the advent of the phonograph, there was no way to listen to pre-recorded audio. Music was purely a live medium. At home, in church, the theatre or a music hall, to listen to music, the musicians had to be there in person. For me, the greatest piece of music ever composed is “Miserere mei, Deus” composed by Gregorio Allegri for Pope Urban VIII sometime around 1630. The only way to hear this beautiful and beguiling music was to be in the Sistine Chapel for the Tenebrae (dusk) service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week. That is until a 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart attended the Wednesday service in 1770 and transcribed the piece from memory that night. He then went back on Good Friday to make a few corrections.
The next year, Mozart met the British historian Charles Burley, who obtained the transcription and published it in London. Up until this point there had been a ban on performances of the work outside of the Sistine Chapel but after the full score was published, Pope Clement XIV eventually lifted the ban, so now this work can be heard anywhere you can find two sufficiently talented choirs, one of four voices, one of five, who can render the two distinct parts simultaneously. There are numerous recordings of this piece. For my money, the best is the 1980 recording by The Tallis Scholars. This version was sampled by The Orb on “Into The Fourth Dimension”.
As almost everybody knows, the first “records” were cylinders. The Edison Phonograph, invented in 1877, used grooved metal cylinders coated with tin foil. This was pretty crude and Edison soon got bored and went off to invent the light bulb instead, leaving the phonograph for others to improve.
The first leap was using card tubes coated in a thin layer of wax. These devices were meant for dictation, with the cylinders tossed on the fire after use. After Edison saw these new wax cylinders he re-entered the game with his Perfected Phonograph. These new devices used a cylinder made of thick wax that could be shaved down and reused once the top surface wore out, usually after about a dozen plays. The cylinders were spun at around 120rpm and played for up to three minutes. The US congress used a bank of phonographs to record certain sessions so they could be accurately transcribed at the end of the session.
The next leap was Emile Berliner’s disc-playing gramophone, patented in 1889. While the gramophone was patented in the US (numbers 372,786 and 382,790) and his company was incorporated in Washington DC, Berliner’s first partner was German toy manufacturer Kammer & Reinhardt, who manufactured the 5” hard rubber discs the gramophones played. These discs were spun at anything from 60-75rpm. I suppose when the only record on the market was a spoken word reading of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (the oldest record in the BBC record library; I must see if I can get Gideon Coe to play it one night), you just played the record at whatever speed made it sound funniest.
From that point on, Berliner’s engineers started to experiment with different materials to try to extend the life of the recordings, because the metal gramophone needles would soon destroy the rubber records. Various materials were tried until, in 1900, they settled on a shellac-based compound laced with pulverised slate. These new records would wear down the playing needle rather than the other way around. Typically, a needle would only last a single record. This is why gramophones often had a drawer to hold tins of fresh needles. There is quite a busy market for needle tins among collectors.
While there were still variations in the composition of records (celluloid-covered laminated cardboard and celluloid-coated paper were two short-lived products), manufacturers soon settled on 78rpm as the playback speed (actually 78.26rpm, using a 3,600rpm motor and a 46-tooth gear). On a 10” record, this meant you could fit three minutes of recording.
Yes, three minutes.
Not only did the invention of the gramophone mean we could have music, sweet crackly music, in our homes any time of day or night, it also shaped the entire pop industry for the next century. Previously, music lasted as long as the audience’s patience. In the case of Wagner, his operas lasted days on end but if you wanted your hot new tune out in the shops, you had to distil it down into three minutes. For the Edwardian prog-rock types, there was always the 12” record. These held a whole five minutes a side.
In the Thirties, record companies started to release collections of four or more records by the same artist, or of the same type of music. These were called albums. The sleeves of the records would be bonded with card down the left-hand side, like a photo album. Often these records would be pressed specially for the new auto-changer record players, so a four-record set would have the sides pressed 1/8, 2/7, 3/6, 4/5. After playing the fourth record, you’d lift the whole stack and turn them over. I have an early double LP recording of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood that’s pressed 1/4 and 2/3.
Until the mid Twenties, the only recording technology available was acoustic. The singer and band would play in front of a huge horn that would funnel the audio down to a diaphragm, which in turn would vibrate the needle to engrave the master record. The sound quality was less than optimal to say the least, and frequency range and sensitivity were extremely poor. Instruments had to be placed very carefully, with the drums and horns at the back of the studio, and strings at the front. Instruments would sometimes need to be replaced to ensure they could be heard. The violins, for instance, were often replaced by Stroh violins, which is a hybrid string and horn instrument with the body replaced by a horn.
The quality of recordings improved once electrical recording was perfected. Using this system, musicians performed in front of a microphone. This signal was passed through an amplifier, which boosted the signal fed to the disc-cutting machine. Multiple microphones could be used, but while the microphones could be individually balanced using a multi-channel mixing desk, they would all eventually feed into the same amplification circuit; the recordings were still mono.
This new process vastly increased the frequency range of recordings. Acoustic recordings generally had a frequency range of 250-2,500Hz, whereas electrical recordings could capture sounds in the 60-6,000Hz band. The recordings were also much more stable, as the signal could be passed through numerous filters before it arrived at the cutting equipment.
Electrical recording direct to disc continued until after the Second World War, when the allied nations got their hands on German magnetic-tape recording equipment. Germany had been working on magnetic-tape recording since the Thirties, but had held onto the technology. It was used to pre-record propaganda broadcasts so that they could be broadcast from several locations, or even using mobile equipment like a pirate radio station.
The first 33⅓rpm records were used from around 1924/25 for the Vitaphone Sound-On-Disc cinema system. This system used turntables electrically synchronised to the projectors. The records were still shellac, although they were much bigger than a standard record, at 16” diameter. This, along with the lower playback speed, allowed for around 11 minutes playing time, which was the maximum running time of a 1,000ft reel of 35mm film played at 24 frames per second.
There was another major difference with the Vitaphone records: they played from the middle outwards. This had a couple of advantages; it meant that it was easier for the needle to be lined up with the synchronisation arrow on the label, also that the needle was fresh and sharp where the grooves were tightest, in the middle of the disc. This is the system used for The Jazz Singer, regarded as the first talking movie, although Don Juan, released the year before, in 1926, also had a full-length soundtrack recorded on disc. However, this was a musical score and sound effects, with no recorded dialogue.
The next development was the microgroove, launched by Columbia in 1948. These new records were vinyl and played at 33⅓rpm. Initially, these records allowed for 45 minutes across two sides on the 12” discs, and 35 minutes on 10” records. Improvements in both cutting lathes and quality of vinyl has increased maximum playing time to over 60 minutes for 12” records, although the volume and frequency range is restricted on such extremely long records, so most releases still stick to the 45-minute optimum playing time.
Columbia initially pushed the 12” record towards classical music fans, thinking they would appreciate listening to a full movement without having to get up and turn the record over. Fans of popular music, on the other hand, were used to shorter pieces of music, so Columbia assumed they would be OK with smaller 10” records. For this reason, of the first tranche of 133-microgroove vinyl releases, 85 were classical music 12”, 26 were classical music 10”, 18 were popular music 10” and four were kids’ 10” records.
Seventy-eight rpm records continued to be released for another ten years or so, but by 1958 they accounted for less than two per cent of sales in the US. The last 78rpm record was released in 1959 in the US, 1960 in the UK, 1965 in India, with Argentina hanging on to the format until 1970.
The 7” 45rpm single was introduced by RCA Victor in 1949. Commonly known as a “single”, despite the fact they almost always contained at least two tracks, these records had an ideal playing time of three minutes. Yep, we’re back to three minutes a side, but again improvements in equipment and vinyl mean that five minutes a side is still decent quality. I have a few records that are much longer than five minutes. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” is 8’21”; the b-side of Jellybean’s “Sidewalk Talk” is a 7’59” cover of Cat Stevens’ “Was Dog A Doughnut”.
The first RCA Victor singles were pressed in seven translucent colours depending on type of music: dark blue for light classics; light blue for international series; yellow for the juvenile series; bright red for blues/spiritual; deep red for classical music; green for country and western; and black for popular music.
A major contributor to the success of the 7” single, in the UK at least, was the Dansette record player. If you look at magazines from the Fifties and Sixties, you’d suspect that every teenager had one in their room, but initially they were really expensive. An early 4-speed model such as the Plus-A-Gram would retail at 33 guineas, about £800 in today’s money. It wasn’t until the early Sixties, when more economical models such as the Popular 4 were launched at around a third of the price, and also on HP at the likes of Radio Rentals, that the Dansette became a feature of many people’s bedrooms, especially the portable models with stud feet and locking lid that could be taken to parties. Many other brands such as Bush and Ferguson emulated the look of the Dansette but didn’t capture the market in the same way.
With the northern-soul boom, people wanted to dance to longer tunes. Some enterprising bands would put extended versions of songs across both sides of a 7” single. George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” was a perfect example. DJs would have two copies of the single; as side one ends, they’d fade in side two, then end with a section from the middle of side one again. This was a lot of work, and many a DJ breathed a sigh of relief when the 12” extended mix became a thing.
The 12” single served a few purposes. The first was it allowed for longer, extended versions of tracks designed for the dancefloor. They allowed for additional tracks so bands could sell multiple versions of the same record. Frankie Goes To Hollywood released so many versions of “Two Tribes” in 1984 that the chart company brought in a new rule that meant only sales of the first five versions of a song counted towards the Top 40. It also meant that grooves had an extra 5” to spread out, giving better definition. FM radio liked these singles as they had less unwanted noise. As everybody knows, the biggest-selling 12” single is New Order’s “Blue Monday”. Legend has it the band lost money on every copy sold due to the complexity of the die-cut “floppy disk” sleeve.
A 12” 45rpm single can hold up to 15 minutes’ music a side, but the shorter the track, the wider the grooves, which means broader frequency response and louder recording level. So 12” singles usually top out at 10 minutes a side. I have a couple of Isaac Hayes singles that are about 12 minutes a side and they still sound great.
Most people assume that vinyl records produce a pure analogue sound without any processing but this isn’t true. If this were the case, then the playback of bass-heavy music would cause the stylus to jump clean out of the groove. For this reason, RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) equalisation is applied during mastering.
RIAA equalisation is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. During recording, low frequencies are reduced and high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The net result is a flat frequency response but with attenuation of high frequency noise, such as hiss and clicks that arise from the recording medium. Reducing the low frequencies also limits the excursions the cutter needs to make when cutting a groove. Groove width is thus reduced, allowing more grooves to fit into a given surface area, permitting longer recording times. This also reduces physical stresses on the stylus which might otherwise cause distortion or groove damage during playback.
This is the reason you need either an amplifier with a dedicated phono input, or, for amps with a phono input, a phono amp. Either option will reverse the RIAA equalisation to bring back the music as it was played in the studio.
There are a couple of record formats that I’ve not yet mentioned. Firstly there’s 16rpm records (actually 16⅔rpm), which were mostly for spoken-word records. My mum had a record of Winston Churchill speeches that played at 16⅔rpm. As we never owned a record player with that speed, I only ever heard the Pinky & Perky version played at 33. Based on these records, playing at half the speed of an LP, and the speech-only format, you could expect to get at least 45 minutes a side on these records.
I have also seen a few 8rpm records but never seen any record player that would play them. As far as I can tell from research online, the 8rpm records were exclusively for audio magazines for the blind. The copies I’ve seen at record fairs had a braille label on one side and a printed label on the other. There is a video on YouTube with a sample of the audio from Newsweek, a magazine for the blind from 1971. The audio quality is somewhere between a shellac 78 and a 33rpm LP. The total running time is well over an hour a side.
Most people reckoned that the launch of the CD in 1982 would wipe out vinyl sales, and for a while that seemed to be the case, with vinyl record sales declining to almost zero. When downloads and streaming came along it almost killed physical media completely, then something unusual happened: record sales started to pick up. Worldwide sales reached their lowest point in 2006/7 but since then, growth has been steady.
Some of this growth has been people rebuying existing records on 180g virgin vinyl with a pristine sleeve. These records probably won’t ever get played; instead they’ll be displayed on a wall like a piece of art. This was outlined by the Top 40 vinyl sales of 2016. Almost 75 per cent of the Top 40 were re-releases, with only eleven of the Top 40 being new releases. The top-selling vinyl album was David Bowie’s Blackstar. In total last year, Bowie had five albums in the Top 40.
A BBC/ICM poll conducted in 2015 found that 48 per cent of people who buy vinyl will never play it, and seven per cent do not even own a record player.
Many in the media have claimed that the rise in vinyl sales is people of “a certain age” (that means people like me, 40+ years old) reliving their glory years, but I know a lot of younger people are buying records. My good friend Laura is 20 years my junior. She was born in the height of the CD years when almost no vinyl was sold but she absolutely loves records and she has a great turntable to play them on (a very clean, white Pro-Ject turntable, an Austrian manufacturer of great value turntables, mostly copies of the classic Eighties Rega Planar 3).
One company has done particularly well out of the rise in vinyl sales and they’ve done it by emulating one of the brands that did well out of the pop boom in the late Fifties and Sixties. Crosley Radio, based in Kentucky in the US, now ploughs the same furrow as Dansette with their mostly retro all-in-one record player and amp units. Some are even a similar portable “suitcase” design. Many I’ve seen also include a USB port and SD card slot to record your vinyl to transfer to your phone or computer.
While a lot has been said about the amazing increase in vinyl sales, they started from a low level, so the increase in sales from 2006 still only means about 3.2 million LP sales today. The low sales mean that each release is essentially a limited edition, so vinyl releases tend to be expensive. On average, an LP is twice the price of a CD. It also means that bands strive to make the LP releases as attractive as possible. Records are often pressed on coloured or clear vinyl and many bands will do pre-sales so they know how many to press up. And to attract pre-sale buyers, they will often sign the records as an incentive.
I’ve always loved coloured vinyl and picture discs. Recently I’ve bought a couple of brilliant new releases: a red, white and blue triple vinyl compilation from The Jam, About The Young Idea, and a signed clear vinyl album from new Reading band Sundara Karma, Youth Is Only Fun In Retrospect, which included a CD copy so I can keep the vinyl for special occasions.
While I still buy quite a bit of new vinyl, I mostly buy secondhand, either from charity shops or secondhand record shops. There’s a brilliant shop called Vintage Vinyl in Morecambe I visit a lot, and there’s a couple of stalls on the Saturday car boot in Morecambe. There’s rarely a weekend goes by that I don’t manage to bag a few gems.
So, vinyl: the format that refuses to die, and for that I’m immensely happy.