It is much easier to make files available on a computer than to produce a vinyl record: There was a time when the vinyl record was in danger of disappearing almost completely from the collective memory. But the vinyl record never completely disappeared from the scene: it made a surprising comeback in the 21st century and is now the first choice of music enthusiasts when it comes to holding music in their hands.
Why did the vinyl record return? Because it is the purest way to listen to music. The analogue qualities of a vinyl record make every piece of music sound more honest and give the music a background that it lacks with digital media.
Like the sizzling of a chimney fire
It’s not just the scratching sound you hear in the background when listening to some vinyl records that almost reminds you of the sizzling of a fireplace.
Above all, it is the message that the vinyl record carries: without the vinyl record, music would hardly exist in its present form.
It all began in the mid-19th century: the production of vinyl records started in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 19th century, there were three different patents of music storage and reproduction: the phonograph, the graphophone and the gramophone. All three terms are often used synonymously – yet they refer to three different variants of music storage.
The beginnings of music recording
It was not until the arrival of the gramophone that it became possible to mass-produce vinyl records: The techniques that existed before were not suitable for mass production.
A vinyl record consists of various grooves: Within these grooves, various peaks and valleys are scratched in the record factory. When the pickup passes through these peaks and valleys, vibrations are created: These vibrations are converted into electrical signals and passed on to a loudspeaker.
But the vinyl record was not the only medium for sound back in those days: Thomas Edison’s phonograph worked with sound cylinders. The original version of this cylinder consists of a rotatable cylindrical body on which a tin foil is mounted, which functions as a sound carrier. This roller is fixed with a membrane in a fixed holder. In the centre of the membrane is a small pin with a rounded tip – the original version of the pickup. This pin exerts slight pressure on the tin foil, causing vibrations. The result of this process is the reproduction of a sound track.
The concept of a cylinder music box, invented 100 years earlier, is not entirely dissimilar to the concept of the first phonograph.
In 1889, the first phonograph parlours opened in America: it was the first time that the masses came into contact with the newly invented medium of vinyl records. The first phonograph parlour opened in San Francisco in May 1889: customers sat down at a desk and voiced their title request through a tube. Then the title was played on a phonograph located one floor below the customer and the customer could hear his title through two earphones. By the mid-1890s, every American city had at least one phonograph parlour.
For a long time, these phonograph parlours were the only way to hear recorded music: Mass production of vinyl records and players was still in its infancy.
In the beginning, artists recorded their recordings directly on a phonograph: This involved the artist filling several cylinders during a session, all of which were in one of the phonographs at a time. Thus, recording music was extremely time-consuming and cost-intensive – nevertheless, almost everybody was soon familiar with the concept of sound recording and enthusiastic about it.
It was only slowly that it became clear that the vinyl record was the simpler method of recording music: records could be punched in factories, whereas the production of cylinders was much more complex.
The German, later US-American inventor Emil Berliner played a decisive role in the invention of the vinyl record: in 1887, he applied for a patent for a disc-shaped sound carrier on which grooves were scratched from the outside to the inside in the shape of a spiral, thus preserving the vibrations of the recording. This is exactly the definition of what is still understood by a vinyl record today.
Although the size and playing time of the vinyl record at that time differed from those of today, the basic concept was fixed.
After Berliner had invented the vinyl record as a medium, a corresponding playback device was still needed: at the end of the 19th century, the Berliner Gramophone came onto the market in the United States. In 1901, Berliner founded the Victor Talking Machine Company to manufacture and market the gramophone and the accompanying vinyl records.
In 1929, the Victor Talking Machine Company became the Radio Corporation of America (RCA Victor). The name RCA still exists today.
The way a vinyl record was recorded changed over the decades: Until 1925, a single horn was used for recording. Quiet instruments were positioned close to the horn, loud instruments further away from the horn. From 1925 to 1945, electric microphones and signal amplifiers were used. In the 1930s, magnetic tape technology was invented in Germany, which was far ahead of purely electrical recording technology: however, this invention remained reserved for German recording studios until 1945.
The vinyl record has survived the tides
From the making of the original master recording to the pressing of the final vinyl record, the making of a vinyl record is a culture in itself. Today, there are only a few factories in the world that press vinyl records. Nevertheless, the demand for vinyl records is high: many factories use machines from the eighties to make vinyl records: For many decades, there has been hardly any development work in the construction of new record pressing plants. When making a vinyl record, it is not only the vinyl record itself that counts: The design of vinyl record covers is an industry in itself and forms an art form of its own.
The effort that goes into making a record is part of the message of a vinyl record: the numerous quality checks and trained hands that a recording passes through before it becomes a vinyl record are unique. Many digital music libraries would be a lot poorer if they were not fed with numerous recordings from the past. When the compact disc (CD) emerged in the eighties as one of the first digital methods of storing music, the vinyl record was in danger of disappearing at first: But now almost every artist releases a vinyl pressing alongside their digital versions. The power of a vinyl record continues to fascinate to this day.
Main source: Miles, Jenna: The Beginner’s Guide to Vinyl, 2017 Adams Media
Cover picture: A musical box, © Simon von Ludwig