Vinyl has proven itself one of the most important recording formats in the history of modern music. It was responsible for bringing music to the masses and is the foundation on which the contemporary music industry was built. To give you a better idea of how this all happened, we’ve put together a brief history of the medium. Whether you’re a vinyl purist, a casual collector or just interested in how the format changed the world, we’re sure you’ll enjoy our look back on one of the most iconic music technologies to emerge in the last 150 years.
A Time Before Recorded Music
It’s safe to say that the invention of a machine capable of recording and replaying music revolutionised society. It also had a profound effect on the nature of music itself. Before vinyl, music was primarily a public art. It was a shared experience for a live audience that could not be captured and replicated. While musicians obviously played privately and for personal enjoyment, most people only ever come into contact with music in a public setting.
The arrival of the record player on the mass market resulted in a fundamental shift in how we thought about music, what music could be and what people wanted to hear. It suddenly became a form of entertainment that you could consume alone, at home, as well as an experience that you could repeat again and again, as many times as you desired. This allowed for greater introspection and meant that listeners could immerse themselves in performances and better understand their intricacies.
At the same time, the ability to record music opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Sounds could be layered, altered, tweaked and deconstructed. Recording itself became an art form and some producers would go on to enjoy greater fame than many musicians.
While this article will cover the history of a particular type of recording technology, it’s also about the way a particular medium shapes an art and how the materials you use define what you create.
Music and the Age of Industrial Inventors
While Thomas Edison is the name most associated with the invention of machines capable of recording sound, the story of vinyl begins slightly earlier with the phonautograph. Patented in 1857 by a French printer named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, the phonautograph introduced the world to the idea of recording music. However, unlike later designs, it wasn’t able to replicate and replay those sounds in audio form. Instead, it produced a visual representation of the music.
Edouard-Leon’s idea was for people to read the music as they would a poem or novel, though this proved impractical and was soon superseded by devices capable of replaying recordings. Despite this, the phonautograph did prove useful in the study of sound and it was central to several experiments that examined the way humans produce certain noises. Remarkably, in 2008, scientists were able to convert one of the phonautograph’s graphical representations back into playable sound - the recording turned out to be Scott de Martinville himself singing the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune.
Though it’s often suggested that Thomas Edison was inspired by the phonautograph, there’s little evidence he ever saw one. While his invention - the phonograph - shared some basic ideas and principles with the phonautograph, it also differed in several significant ways. Most importantly, it could reproduce recorded sounds, albeit in poor quality. At the time, this technological development was so abrupt and unforeseen that many believed it to be magic and Edison became one of the USA’s biggest celebrities.
The phonograph was invented in 1877 and patented a year later. Originally, recordings were etched onto tin foil cylinders using electromagnets and an embossing arm. The arm would respond to sound by etching lines into the tinfoil, which could then be “read” by a different machine. On this machine, the embossing arm was replaced by a distinct arm with a special contact point.
Improving on Edison’s Creation
Though the phonograph was undoubtedly a huge technological development, Edison did little to develop his early model until other inventors began to show interest in the concept. Recognising that tin foil was prone to rips and breakages, that it only lasted for a few playbacks and that it didn’t offer a premium sound quality, several inventors experimented with new materials.
In 1887, Emile Berliner introduced zinc discs coated with beeswax. After recording, the discs would then be dipped in chromic acid, which etched a groove into the wax where the wax coating had been removed by the recording stylus. This was also the first instance of discs that used grooves that spiralled inwards towards the centre. Berliner named his new invention the Gramophone.
At the same time, Alexander Graham Bell was making similar strides forward in the US and struck upon a similar idea to that of Berliner. Having patented his design, the American capitalist machine kicked into action and the next few years were a period of fundraising, corporate mergers and takeovers and the pursuit of intellectual property rights - the fight for the future of sound had begun.
Establishing the Means of Mass Production
The period between 1890 and the onset of the First World War was defined by the race to bring recorded music to the mass market. One of the main ways this competition manifested itself was in experimentation with a wide range of production materials. By 1984, 7” discs were being manufactured from a hard rubber, this changed in 1985 when Berliner switched to a shellac compound. During this time, recording cylinders were gradually phased out as it became increasingly apparent that discs were easier to manufacture on a large scale.
There was also considerable experimentation with playing speeds. Originally, there was no standard playing speed and discs were designed to be spun at anything from 70 to 130 rpm. As the majority of early phonographs were hand-powered, playing speed was also something of an approximation - it wasn’t usual to have the message “Play at around 70 rpm” inscribed on the discs. Eventually, the industry would settle on 78 rpm as a standard speed.
However, everything would change in 1930, when RCA Victor introduced vinyl discs that were meant to be played at 33 ⅓ rpm. Though this development would lay the groundwork for the modern record industry, such discs remained prohibitively expensive to manufacture until after the Second World War. Consequently, their use was reserved for special releases and particularly important recordings.
Post-war Standardisation in the Music Industry
After the Second World War, long-playing records (LPs) were introduced. Capable of recording much longer pieces of music, they were an immediate hit with listeners and marked the moment at which music became something that the general public could consume within their own homes. At the same time, 45s also rose to prominence. These smaller discs contained one single and, when flipped over, a B-side.
In the early years of the mass music market, a battle for dominance was played out between Columbia Records, which was responsible for the majority of 33 ⅓ LP recordings, and RCA Victor, which favoured the 45 rpm format. Over time, this commercial struggle would fizzle out, resulting in an honourable draw in which both discs found their place in the industry. By the 1960s, cheaper turntables had made owning home audio systems and vinyl collections a reality for an increasingly large proportion of the population.
The Early Years of the Mass Market
The arrival of recorded music in the home had an enormous impact on music itself. From the prevalence of radio-friendly singles to the creation of longer pieces of music, it forced musicians to adapt what they played and how they played to the new formats. This was particularly noticeable in certain genres.
For instance, jazz benefited enormously from musicians being able to slow down recordings, pick them apart and learn and adapt them. While vinyl can’t be attributed sole credit for the creative leap and virtuoso playing that typified the evolution from swing and big-band styles to bebop, hard bop and modal jazz, it certainly played an important role.
The limits of the medium also influenced the direction musicians took. Though LPs could hold a relatively large amount of music, they didn’t allow for endless performances. This limitation resulted in the development of the modern album. Traditionally around 45 minutes in length and split over the two sides of a disc, the album would go on to become one of the most important and revolutionary artistic formats of the 20th century.
The Glory Years of the LP and Album
The 1960s, 70s and 80s are now viewed as the glory days of vinyl. LPs from every conceivable genre became iconic and beloved artworks that still hold a significant place in modern music culture. From Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue through to the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Stones Let it Bleed and Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin II, LPs came to define the era and creating and recording an album became a craft in itself.
Other quirks of the format also assumed cultural importance. While modern musicians may now represent themselves visually through social media photos and videos, the age of vinyl was all about record sleeves and cover art. Image has always played a key role in marketing musicians and switched-on bands, record labels and music moguls quickly realised that they could communicate the musician’s identity through the sleeves in which vinyl records were sold.
The Arrival of Cassettes and the Compact Disc
While cassettes were introduced in the 1960s and quickly became the most popular means of listening to music in the car, the inferior sound quality meant that vinyl remained the dominant format for home listening. Cassettes did have something going for them, though - their portability. While this became increasingly important during the early 80s, cassettes coexisted with vinyl until the arrival of the compact disc in the mid-80s.
CDs were the first real indicator of the way digital formats would irrevocably alter the music business. By the mid-90s, they had replaced both cassettes and vinyl, relegating them to relics of the past and making their way into homes across the planet. Next, came something even more revolutionary - MP3s and similar high-quality digital formats.
There was no longer a need for a physical copy of the music to play it in your own home. Remarkable amounts of music could be contained within a handheld device, such as the iPod, or streamed from larger desktop computers and laptops. The age of vinyl dominance was over.
The Modern Vinyl Revival
Though more portable formats quickly replaced vinyl, the format continued to hold a significant position in several modern music movements. In particular, dance music and hip hop. In large part, this was due to the perceived superiority of vinyl’s sound quality.
However, it can also be accredited to the tactile and manipulatable nature of the medium itself. In genres where the ability to alter sound or performance by controlling the way the recording plays is vital (as with dance music DJs who mix records and hip-hop DJs who sample and cut up records), being able to touch and feel the vinyl beneath the fingers was essential.
While the digital music revolution certainly sidelined vinyl, the absence of any physical formats also allowed vinyl to re-establish itself as a connoisseur’s choice. Though it remains a niche market, vinyl sales figures have risen steadily over the last decade. While hip-hop and dance purists have maintained traditions of extensive vinyl use, rock audiences are also now rediscovering the medium and independent record labels are enjoying a resurgence in demand. Although no one knows what the future holds, it would seem as though vinyl is here to stay. For the moment, at least.
Are you a big vinyl fan? What is it that keeps you coming back to the format? If you’ve got anything to add to our brief history of vinyl, we’d love to hear from you. So get in touch and leave us a comment below!