Home RMW Articles RMW Features Vinyl Records: How A Piece Of Wax Change The World

Vinyl Records: How A Piece Of Wax Change The World

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What once was old is new again and one of the biggest examples is the vinyl record. Spanning almost a century, vinyl is still easily the most beloved of the available formats for both recording and reproducing music to the masses.

Vinyl ruled the world from its first appearance in 1948 till 1988 when it looked like time was up for the medium when CDs outsold records for the very first time in history.

However, vinyl is back, and we thought it would be only fitting to give you a brief history on where it all began, and how it became the go-to format for music.

How it all started:

To understand the concept of the vinyl record we have to go back to 1857 and the creation of the phonautograph by Édouard-Léon Scott. Scott’s invention actually recorded sound in the form of visual wavelengths and frequencies, records suggest that there is no evidence that the inventor used his invention to reproduce the sound, that privilege would go to Thomas Edison in 1877 when he invented the phonograph.

Initially, it was all pretty basic stuff, Edison used tinfoil placed over a grooved metal cylinder. He placed a sound-vibrated stylus on the tinfoil that would leave indents when the cylinder was rotated, this could then be played back immediately. Later Edison updated his invention by using a hollowed wax cylinder instead of tinfoil.

The introduction of the gramophone:

This is where we get into something that resembles modern day vinyl. The use of the word ‘gramophone’ was originated by Emile Berliner, his invention played lateral-cut disc records and was introduced and marketed in 1889 in Europe. These initial discs were around 5” in diameter and were originally looked at and marketed as a curiosity or toy due to the rather poor sound quality. In order to better improve his product Berliner worked to create a better quality gramophone and changed the size of the disc to a 7” record. Even with the considerable changes in place, Berliner’s gramophones were still far behind when it came to the sound quality of Edison’s wax cylinders. Enter Eldridge R. Johnson, his involvement helped form the Victor Talking Machine Company, and with it came seriously improved sound quality for Berliner’s invention. The upgrades in both player and sound meant that gramophones and lateral discs would go on to dominate the market.

The recording process:

The earliest forms of recording onto this new medium were done acoustically with a process that had sound collected from the horn, which was then piped to a diaphragm that in turn vibrated the cutting stylus. If that sounds a little convoluted, then spare a thought for the singers and musicians of the time. The singers had to put their whole face in the recording horn in order to be heard. This all changed in 1925 when there was a major recording technology advancement. Western Electric’s engineers figured out if you captured sound with a microphone and used vacuum tubes as an amplifier the sound quality was improved considerably.

Mass production and size:

What we now know as vinyl albums were initially made of zinc. The zinc would be the base and would be covered in a thin layer of beeswax. This was then etched by a vibrating stylus, which would leave a groove on the disc. The final part of the process would see the disc submerged in chromic acid which would allow the previously imprinted groove to be played back. Eventually, the discs were created using a shellac compound. These materials were continued to be used until the 78rmp format was replaced in the 1950s. The size of discs has also been played with over the years. 1901 saw the 10” disc introduced, this allowed a whopping three to four minutes of playing time, compared to the cylinder’s two minutes, and in 1903 the 12” disc was introduced. The real change came when the US Armed Forces were sent overseas. Large amounts of 12” 78 rpm ‘V-Disc’s were produced for soldiers to listen to music on. These records were made largely of vinyl as they more durable and flexible compared to the shellac versions. Vinyl had cemented its place as a more lightweight solution suited to the newer record players and still holds firm to this day.

Pretenders to the throne:

As with all inventions, there is always the next big thing just around the corner. Vinyl had been the go-to source for music for close to a century and it was only when the Phillip’s Cassette was introduced in 1962 that anyone had even questioned that vinyl had a real competitor. Small and compact, the cassette could rewind, fast forward, play, pause and stop, and with a big storage capacity of 30 to 45 minutes of audio each side plus the added bonus of being small in comparison to vinyl, it was the first whiff of trouble in the market place. Then came 1974, Phillips introduced the idea of compact discs, and what seemed like futuristic insanity at the time turned into the technology that changed music reproduction, and would transform the way we would buy our music in the future. We had entered the beginning of the digital age. With the advent of downloads, you couldn’t help but hear the apparent death knell for vinyl. 1988 saw the first time CD sales outnumbered vinyl, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, CD’s had doubled its sales compared to vinyl, compact disks sold 150 million units compared to vinyl’s 72 million. By 1991, there was a huge decline in vinyl sales and the format was relegated to ‘do you remember these?’ conversations.

Vinyl fights back:

Following decades in the wilderness, and relegation to yard sales and charity shops, 2017 saw vinyl fight back. It earned its highest number units sold since 1991. Indeed, 2016 saw vinyl reaching a 25-year high, with more than 3.2 million LPs sold. Vinyl sales had made a steady climb over the years and by the time 2016 rolled around, it was the ninth year in a row that vinyl had grown, with 2m LPs sold in the UK alone in 2015. In fact, 2014 saw vinyl as the only physical format that had increased its sales of music from the previous year. 2016 also saw the deaths of some of the music business’ most beloved musicians that included the like of Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and George Michael. It was these losses of beloved artists that was attributed to 2016’s huge surge in vinyl sales. Following David Bowie’s death, his sales went up considerably in vinyl, so much so that it made him the bestselling artist on vinyl in 2016.

Let’s celebrate:

As of 2007, in order to celebrate the huge resurgence in vinyl, Record Store Day event was created. This yearly event is meant to “celebrate the culture of independently owned record store,” and why not we say… Record Store Day’s headquarters are based in the US but is celebrated across the world including the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and Australia. Such is the event, on a designated Saturday in April each year Record Store Day is held. New vinyl is now pressed in honor of the day itself and only distributed to stores that have chosen to participate.

This year’s Record Store Day is Saturday, April 13th, come join the fun.

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