Originally printed in Razorcake #25 (April/May 2005), here is a printable PDF and full text of Todd Taylor’s Vinyl Audities: A Look at the History and Ideas That Keep Vinyl Records.
It’s a comprehensive zine that looks at the history, science, and manufacturing processes of vinyl records. If you’ve ever wondered how records were made and how they make sounds, this is a good place to start.
This zine is also available directly from Razorcake.
Vinyl Audities: A Look at the History and Ideas That Keep Vinyl Records Spinning.
By Todd Taylor
"But I like the inconveniences." —Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
A Needle Riding in a Groove
Vinyl’s death knell has been ringing out ever since the advent of the reel to reel in the ‘50s. Then the 8 track was going to whoop it. Then cassettes. Now CDs. Vinyl records are definitely like punk rock in one respect: neither of them should still be around in any way, shape, or form. They should be long dead, decomposing quietly in the back of some archivist’s cabinets, not rocking out in real time, halfway through the first decade of the new millennium. It just doesn’t seem to matter that so many people have given up on both of them. Punk and vinyl just keep on perpetuating, popularity be damned. Remember this: there’s a huge difference between outright extinction and a small, vital, supported interest.
From an outsider’s point of view, vinyl records don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. They’re heavy and fragile. The more you play them, the worse they sound. Every time a needle passes over a groove, it changes the groove slightly. If you play a record repeatedly, it eventually wears out. There’s no just hitting a button to skip tracks. They’re not terribly convenient. They’re old technology. You can’t play them in the car. You have to do this thing called getting off your ass so you can flip it over and play the other side and the sides aren’t terribly long. Vinyl records don’t offer the option of putting thousands of songs into the palm of your hand via a powerful hard drive, selecting random—knowing that a laser isn’t actually wearing away the digital representations of sounds—and as long as the numbers aren’t corrupted, you can go jogging all year long, if you want to, without interruption, listening to every song in Hootie And The Blowfish’s celebrated catalog every step of the way. Vinyl demands to be interacted with. In this respect, a vinyl record is like a child: you have to hold its hand and be nice if you want it to stick around.
You’ve got to care for records or they’ll deteriorate. Protect the sleeve from nicks by putting it in a little plastic sheath. Protect the vinyl from scratches by putting it in a little paper dust jacket. Keep dust and carpet fuzz off the record and the needle. No two ways about it: it’s a lot of work to not fuck up vinyl. Then you’ve got to worry about floods, sunlight, fires, pets, dumb-ass friends with pizza fingers and poor beverage handling techniques. From albums warping to unintentional needle drags across the vinyl during momentary lapses of dexterity (Way to go, drunkie!), the list goes on. And, for all that care, the vinyl still doesn’t last forever.
I’m not quite sure where my appreciation for vinyl came from, but I can tell you in two words why I love it: punk rock. For some reason that I’m not quite clear on, punk rock’s firm handshake with vinyl hasn’t lost its grip. There are other genres—such as dance music—that have also embraced vinyl. It makes more sense that a DJ doesn’t want to just stand there, looking like a button-pushing robot while they could manipulate the sound of a record by slowing it down, fading it out, and doing things that DJs do. But, for punk rock, it doesn’t make sense why vinyl’s such a protected medium. I like that it doesn’t make sense. I like that it’s antiquated. I like that it’s not “efficient.” I like the fact that people who go out of their way to listen to music will be rewarded with full-sized cover art and little sayings etched in the inner rings of the record. I like being able to hear music that may very well have never been digitized—turned into solely zeros and ones—and played by human beings for human beings. There’s something alluring about the words “vinyl-only release” and knowing that I own great vinyl records (like Hostage’s badass Collateral Damage camouflage-wax compilation LP) that have no intention of ever being released on CD. It’s a type of secret club, yet anyone with a record player and an affinity for punk is invited to join.
There’s more than just a hint of ritual when turning on a turntable, putting on a record, and hearing the sound pulse from the speakers. It takes a little bit of care. A little bit of paying attention. A little bit of time each day. It takes a bit of scrounging to get all the components set up right. I also like seeing the record rotate and shimmer. I like that I can almost see how the sound is made. I like that it’s real and comprehendible.
I’m not even sure if vinyl sounds better, as I’ve heard some pretty great-sounding CDs and more than a handful of crappy vinyl. But let’s keep this in perspective. For fuck’s sake, I love punk rock. It’s not the most delicate form of music in the world. Here’s some simple math for a basic music equation in my brain: Mummies > Mariah Carey. Or, if that’s a little too esoteric: monkeys > robots. I’m used to a little aural tumbling and knocking around. Audio poo-flinging isn’t a negative in my book. As a matter of fact, I prefer and cherish it. What’s a little hiss, pop, or crackle? I’m not listening to classical music and going, “Dude, that reverb on the flute solo is driving me bat-shit crazy!” (I’m not even sure if flutes can have reverb.) I grew up in an age when cassettes ruled supreme, where if I could hear a song while I was driving fifty-five with the windows rolled down, then it probably sounded okay by me.
CDs are like those pastel paintings that are bolted above beds in hotel rooms. Sure, there’s millions of them all over the world, but just because they’re everywhere doesn’t mean they’re the best, or even good. Great LPs are like short-run lithographs commemorating the world’s best punk rock shows. You know that there’s only a finite number out there, and yours was touched by human hands before you peeled it from the wrapper.
I’ve always been curious as to what makes vinyl records work. I mean, I understand that you plop them on a rotating platter, stick a needle in ‘em, and music comes out of a speaker nearby, but beyond that, I knew close to dick. Wanting to change that, I did a little digging. Here’s what I came up with.
The Epic Struggle of Cows Vs. Dickies
Somewhere along the five million years of development of Homo sapiens, we were furnished with mouths and ears. Inside the mouth is a throat. Inside the throat is a delicate membrane called a larynx. It vibrates every time someone speaks. These vibrations went airborne, and if someone was close, the vibrations struck on another delicate membrane: the eardrum. Fundamentally, that’s how we hear. That’s nature’s telephone.
Although silent, the first major leap in sound technology came in 1857 when Leon Scott invented a device called the phonoautograph: a “signature of sound.” It could transcribe sound onto a visible medium, but had no means to play it back after it was recorded. It made pictures of sound by focusing that sound through a horn onto an animal bladder—fashioned after how the human diaphragm worked—which, in turn, was attached to a stiff hog’s bristle. The bristle moved back and forth in a continuous, wavy track on a revolving lamp-blackened glass plate. What it made looked kind of funky, and it didn’t play worth a shit. Actually, it couldn’t be played at all, but it was the first time that a human voice had been “frozen” in time. Scott had philanthropic ideas for the phonoautograph and believed that the visual recording of the vibrations of human speech could be of help to linguists. It didn’t occur to Scott that those visual recordings could possibly be played back.
In 1877, the year most of you may remember as the first time root beer was first available on the open market, another exciting development occurred that might have escaped your attention. To commemorate the worldwide explosion of punk rock exactly one hundred years hence, Thomas Edison announced his invention of the first device for recording and playing sounds. He called it the “phonograph,” quite literally a “sound writer.”
In the original phonograph, a diaphragm—this time a thin disc of less than one-hundredth of an inch that vibrated when receiving sound waves—had a sharp-pointed needle attached to it under its surface. When the sound waves of Edison’s voice struck the diaphragm, it vibrated the needle with it. The needle rose up and down and scratched a signal on the outside surface of a strip of a soft sheet of tin wrapped around a rotating metal cylinder, which was placed on a threaded shaft. These phonographs were extremely fragile.
Think of a horizontal paper towel holder that is holding the cardboard middle of a roll of paper towels. The phonograph player would spin that roll while attached to the ends of the roll. A needle mounted onto the phonograph player would then vertically cut variable depths of grooves into the roll; low sounds were cut deeper into the roll and softer sounds were cut more shallow. This method of vertical cutting was also called the “hill and dale” cut because it resembled a miniature replica of mountains and valleys.
When Edison spoke into his device while rotating the cylinder, the needle “recorded” what was said onto the tin. To play back the sound, Edison set the recorder to the starting place and the same needle traversed over the groove scratched in the tin. A gear moved the needle in synchronization with the grooves of the recording. In a metallic, distant voice, the machine repeated what he’d just previously sung. On November 21, 1877, for the first time in history, a played-back recording of a human voice was heard as Edison sung “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Prior to that time, one had to make one’s own music or attend a live performance to hear music.
These cylinders appeared in various sizes. In the late 1880s, a standard system was agreed upon between various manufacturers. These were about four inches long and 2¼ inches in diameter, about the size of the cardboard middle of a roll of toilet paper. They played about two minutes of music. They weren’t terribly easy to store. They were too soft for making a permanent recording. They couldn’t be easily mass-produced. They broke easily. The cylinders were sold in cardboard tubes with cardboard lids at each end. These containers prompted the nickname “canned music.”
By 1884, Emil Berliner, a German who emigrated to the United States and settled in Washington, DC, quit his job working in a dry foods store, and became interested in audio technology. He worked for Bell Telephone in Boston for six years, then established himself as a private researcher. Although Berliner would go on to invent a new type of loom for the mechanized production of cloth, what most people remember him for is that he developed the technology of the usable disc record.
Through trial and error, Berliner embarked on developing a complex process to make playable discs. He first tried replicating Scott’s experiments of photoengraving the surface of a glass disc which was plagued with problems and quite possibly sounded amazing similar to when, in Strange Brew, Doug McKenzie tried to play a computer’s floppy disc on a turntable. Brawwacckkk! Hiisssss! Cccrrrreeeaaccchhthubthubthub! With a measured compound of stovemaker’s zinc, beeswax, and gasoline, he began experimenting on making playable discs. On one side, he etched the zinc disc with a stylus. The other side he coated with varnish. The disc was placed in an acid bath. The acid etched super-fine lines, the actual recorded vibrations, into the grooves of the zinc. The disc could then be played on a turntable; the sound reproduced with a steel needle.
In 1887, Berliner was granted patent 372,786 for a “gramophone” using a non-wax disc engraved with a “lateral-cut” groove. Lateral-cut means that an actual record spins and sound is etched into it while it spins. The sharp object that makes the etching moves side to side, ever so slightly. The main difference between lateral-cut and vertical-cut—and one of the vast improvements over it—was that lateral-cut records have a constantly deep groove so that a flat disc of a unified width could be used. Sound vibrations were stored on the sides of the groove walls. For playback, a stylus would be fit down into the groove and, by placing the record on a turntable, the spinning groove itself would pull the stylus across the face of the disc. The stylus is just along for the ride and must comply to the record’s grooves. As the stylus tracks the grooves, a mechanical vibration results. It contains both frequency and volume information for an audio signal.
Here’s another way to understand it. A record spins at a constant rate so songs don’t go from sounding like the Chipmunks to sounding like they were recorded by sad ghosts huffing ether. A needle at the end of an arm locks into a groove on the record. The groove has sound imbedded on its sides. The groove is a little bit wider than the needle. The needle bounces—ever so slightly—from side to side as it spins around. Sound comes out. Everybody happy.
Another benefit over cylinders is that these disc records could be stored and mass-produced, by a process of molding and stamping, much more easily. A bulk of discs, when placed in paper sleeves, could be stored upright, like books, in a small space. Another subtle improvement of discs over cylinders is that discs had a blank area in the center of them, where the title, performer, and record company could be etched. No such markings could be etched on cylinders. They had to be accompanied by a slip of paper, which was often lost.
The next hurdle for Berliner was to develop a process for mass production of the discs, as the zinc disc and steel needle combination wore out quickly. Wax was too soft. Plaster of Paris proved too crumbly and fragile. Wood and bubble gum were out of the question. Berliner thought he had singled out the perfect candidate in a newly developed substance called celluloid, made from cellulose and camphor. Celluloid was easily shaped and molded, proving extremely versatile in its fields of application, providing a cheap and attractive replacement for ivory and bone. It was already being used in waterproof shirt collars, cuffs, and the false shirt fronts: dickies. Berliner began experimenting with it, but celluloid also proved to be flammable and easily decomposed. An extremely limited number of celluloid records were made and, eventually, sold. (FYI: Ping pong balls, one of the few products still made with celluloid, sizzle marvelously if set on fire.)
After obtaining a German patent for the gramophone in 1889 and visiting his birthplace of Hanover, Germany, Berliner was approached by a small toy company. They wanted to sell the small discs and hand-turned machines as novelties. In the early 1890s, the world’s first samples of laterally cut discs were sold in Germany.
Early gramophones were plagued with playback problems. They’d oscillate at the speed at which they were played. An engineer and machinist, Eldridge R. Johnson, developed a system inspired by clocks by incorporating a spring-wound motor that released energy at a near-constant rate of speed. Gramophones were wound by hand using technology that was first developed, then rejected, for use in sewing machines. Berliner and Johnson had worked out the major kinks in the gramophone system and began selling the “talking machines” and discs that would play on them. These gramophone records were the first disc records to ever be offered to the public. They were one-sided, 5” discs.
The India Rubber Comb Company provided Berliner with his first substantial breakthrough. He found that when he warmed hard rubber, it was possible to stamp single-sided, 7” copies of records with the zinc negative. By mid-1888, Berliner began refining the rubber process, for both sound quality and to withstand mass production. The method he devised worked for several years and in 1893 Berliner applied for a U.S. patent for the hard rubber discs.
Within two years, 7” records were introduced for public consumption. They were a big hit. In 1895, Emil Berliner had made and sold 1,000 gramophones and 25,000 hard rubber discs. One of the largest sellers was George W. Johnson, a former Virginia plantation slave, and who many consider the first prominent Black recording artist. The song was called “The Whistling Coon.” The genre: “jolly negro.” The record played at 55 rpm. It was a huge success. Johnson was paid twenty cents for his rendition and he helped set the standard for the music business to fuck over artists of all creeds and colors.
Berliner became dissatisfied with the records he was making with hard rubber, since an unacceptable number of the discs from his factories were defective. He tested, then was convinced of, a new compound. It was made from the secretions of the Lac beetle, an insect indigenous to South East Asia, mixed in with powdered slate. The compound was called shellac and its superiority over rubber was obvious. By the end of the year, all Berliner records were made with the newly utilized substance. Volcanic pumice—a light rock froth produced by the violent separation of gas from lava—was put in the grooves to keep the needle sharp as it played. Shellac records proved to be extremely versatile and were common all the way up to around 1950.
Thomas Edison was brilliant, but he was also stubborn and a bully. He abandoned neither his phonograph nor his cylinders. He still thought he had a chance since the amount of audio information on both cylinders and disc was roughly the same: two minutes. By 1896, his early prototype cylinders of tin were eventually replaced by wax compounds. A recipe was perfected in a brown, waxy substance that yielded a much more acceptable sound quality. The secret ingredient after experimenting with substances like whale wax? A shade less than half of the wax for the cylinders was made from stearin, the rendered fat of cud-chewing animals, like cows. Refusing to see that the phonograph ship was sinking, in 1902, Edison incorporated a method and technique of molding duplicate cylinders, which allowed for mass production.
Four years after the worldwide attention of Berliner’s machines, a company called Wonder was shut down for bootlegging Berliner’s records. They weren’t that crafty in trying to cover their tracks. The geniuses simply copied a Berliner record and added a “1” to the disc number to claim it as their own. By 1898, Wonder was put out of business by the government.
Johnson and Berliner joined in a business partnership in 1901. The name of their company is called The Victor Talking Machine Company. Ten-inch records were introduced to the public. These discs could playback the human voice, but still could not record the high or low-end frequencies of strings or bass. In 1904, the first double-sided discs became available to the public. It doesn’t sound like that big of a breakthrough, (“You mean there’s another side to these things?”), but that little detail doubled the listening time on discs and put another critical stake in the already stake-filled heart of phonograph cylinders.
Edison still didn’t sway with the cylinders. In 1906, The Indestructible Record Company began mass marketing cylinders made of another formulation of celluloid, that Edison swore would not break if dropped and could be played thousands of times without wearing out. These cylinders, some argue, are still the most durable form of sound recording produced in the entire analog era prior to the introduction of digital audio. Two years later, Edison discovered that the induction of lead and asphalt vastly improved the listening volume of his cylinders and in 1912, he introduced to England an improved four-minute cylinder made from celluloid on a plaster of Paris core called the Blue Amberol. However, it would be seventeen more years, 1929 to be exact, when Edison would finally throw in the towel and concede that the gramophone was more utilitarian than his phonograph.
Between the years of 1906-1929 Victor spent $50 million dollars in print advertising and $17 million on catalogs for the Victrola, a phonograph player designed as a piece of furniture and all-enclosed in a cabinet. The consequence of this is that records, too, were sold heavily in furniture stores. The terms “turntable” and “record player” weren’t quite in popular use. People were still just wowed by the fact that this thing actually carried other’s voices and often used the term, “talking machine.” This was also an era where normalization started coming into play, for both the records and the speeds at which they were played. Circa 1910, records rotating between 78 and 80 times in a minute were standard. By 1925, the revolutions became stabilized at 78 rpm with the introduction of electrically powered turntables. The 10” record usurped the 7” record as the audio medium of choice because it could hold about three minutes of music on each side.
Bell Telephone Laboratories developed a new electric recording process in 1925. Commerce and capitalism are often very far from the world of fair sportsmanship and an even playing field. In a secret agreement, the two largest record manufacturers, Columbia and Victor, colluded and began recording with a new electric process. They kept their knowledge of the new recording technology clandestine, away from public knowledge for a long period of time in order not to hurt sales of their existing acoustically recorded catalog.
Record companies also hit a dip in sales in 1930, when something that seemed as colossal as internet file sharing hit the world. For several years, widespread radio broadcast caused a decline in the manufacture of records. People could now hear music for free over the airwaves. It would take a couple of years for the recording industry to rebound and devise ways to make substantial sums off of both the radio and recorded discs. In 1931, RCA made its first attempt by marketing 33 1/3 records. At first, their impact was minimal, barely noticed. They didn’t sound that good.
Although there were bigger problems in store for the world at the dawn of the 1940s with the United States officially getting into World War II, one of the side affects of going to war against Japan was that the production of records came to a screeching halt. Shellac reserves were primarily in South East Asia. Supply lines were cut, shellac was suddenly scarce, and a replacement material was sought.
Due to the scarcity, a considerable amount of research and development was spent to discover a replacement material. It came in the form a plastic resin derivative of petroleum, polyvinyl chloride plastic, first developed by Waldo Lonsbury Semon. PVC, more commonly known as vinyl, is the same stuff that would be used for bean bags, credit cards, plastic wrap, uncomfortable underwear, residential plumbing, and higher quality band stickers. Someone also put two and two together and found out that records could be made of this vinyl stuff. It turned out that vinyl not only mimicked some of the best qualities of the shellac records, but that they could be etched with tighter grooves and provided a better playing surface. Gone was the hiss associated with 78s. Yet, it was found that vinyl was far from the perfect, everlasting material. It is very prone to acquiring a static charge and attracting dust. It’s easily scratched.
Not long after WWII ended, in 1948, Columbia introduced the first 33 1/3 micro-groove LP with a 23-minute per side capacity. The narrower grooves were played by a stylus smaller than the ones used with 78s. The record was a good nineteen minutes per side longer than what had ever been available to the public. Columbia marketed them as “professional” speed. The same company also introduced the term “long-playing records,” and trademarked the term “LP.” A 33 rpm 7” was also released. It was called the EP (extended play), and contained two or three songs per side.
When it was first released in 1909, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite was collected in a specially designed package of four double-sided 78 rpm shellac discs. The packaging, which housed each record in its own paper sleeve and bound them all together like a big book, was called an “album,” due to its resemblance to a photographic album. With the advent of the micro-groove LP, the same amount of music as an entire album of old style 78s could be fit on a single disc. It was possible to now listen through a whole movement of music on one side of a record. Later on, the Nutcracker Suite would be distinguished again by being the first piece of music to ever be recorded on vinyl. Since people were so used to calling the collection an album, although it was solely one disc, the name stuck.
RCA Victor had developed the 45 rpm format years earlier, but did not market it until 1949, in response to Columbia. Both companies were being dicks. RCA introduced their incompatible format as a competitive marketing maneuver. Not only were there now two different speeds (45 and 33 1/3), but the systems used different sized records (10” and 12” vs. 7”), and different-sized holes in the center. (RCA was the first company to put a big hole in the 7”s. There was no real reason for it.) Both systems of playing records were, undoubtedly, more lightweight, thinner, and higher-fidelity formats than shellac 78s.
There was one other record speed that was developed in the 50s. 16 2/3 rpm. The technology was developed by Peter Goldmark, the same man who invented 33 1/3. The sound quality was similar to that of a telephone. These slower-rotated discs were designed for two completely different uses. Many were distributed by the U.S. government via its “Talking Books for the Blind” program. These types of discs became the genesis for books on tape. The most imaginative 16 rpm record player was fashioned into the 1956 Chrysler Imperial. This in-car turntable was factory installed underneath the air conditioning controls, below the dash, between the driver and passenger. It played stackable 7”s. Pardon me, but that’s fucking cool.
Berliner’s original idea and method of the lateral-cut disc proved to be so good and so advanced, that it took over seventy years to be vastly improved upon. In 1958, a new process was developed which converged the two technologies of lateral and vertical cutting. Stereo is born. The first stereo records are released in America. On stereo records, the inner wall of the groove carries the left-hand signal and the outer wall carries the right-hand one. The stylus moves up and down as well as left to right. These movements, it was discovered, provided a more natural listening experience where the spatial location of the source of sound was partially reproduced.
The next twenty years, up through the 1970s, was left up to refinements in high fidelity. The only new format to emerge was the 12” single. Introduced in Britain in the late ‘70s, it carried the same material as regular singles with wider spacing between the grooves, allowing for higher sound quality than regular 7”s.
In 1983, the dusk appeared on vinyl’s future. Although not immediately usurped, compact discs became mass produced and started gaining popularity. By 2005, vinyl would account for about only one percent of all record sales. It was a nice run; analog audio recording onto a disc was the main technology used for storing recorded sound in the 20th century.
So, that’s a brief history of vinyl, but how do those things work? What actually happens when the needle hits the groove?
“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road.” —Stewart Brand
Vinyl records contain a single, continuous spiral groove in which a stylus rides. Records are most often played from the outside edge towards the middle. The record is rotated and has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound’s waveform. Vinyl, literally, takes a picture of that sound, analogous to how cameras use film to capture light waves.
Sound is represented as undulations of the two sides of the grooves. Picture a big raft going down a narrow river. For a mono recording, the left bank is the left channel and the right bank is the right channel. The walls of the groove provide the force that accelerates the stylus. Your stylus is the raft that is going down that river. The louder the sound and/or the heavier the bass, the wider the whole river. Your raft sweeps and glides side to side. The higher the pitch of the sound, the closer the wiggles get, and your stylus is like a raft shooting the rapids. Everything, from bass to treble, is happening at once, so the long, wide curves (bass and drums) have jagged wiggles (vocals, cymbals, guitars) superposed on top of them. It can be a tremendous amount of turmoil.
To get a firmer view on what a vinyl record does, it’s helpful to contrast them with CDs. Even though CDs may contain some of the world’s greatest music, I still can’t help but feel a little removed from them since the music encoded in them is, technically, just a series of 1s and 0s. It’s data on a machine which you retrieve by pushing a button or two. That said, they’re economical for sharing with friends and archiving hard-to-find music.
Distilled to one simple concept, here’s the difference between the two mediums: digital music re-creates sound. Analog music is sound.
An analog device can handle an infinite number of values within its range. Analog is a continuous signal that constantly varies. The music on a vinyl record is continuous, rather than discrete. By contrast, a digital device can only manage a fixed number of possible values. An easy way to grasp the difference is by looking at a clock. If you’re looking at one that has second, minute, and hour hands, all of the hands’ movements are analog. A clock with only numbers representing time is digital. Digital represents its information in steps (exact second, minute, and hour), while analog is continuously changing along a more complex—yet naturally occurring—phenomenon. Analog differs by the fact that small fluctuations in the signal are meaningful.
The CD is a digital re-engineering of the vinyl record, reusing the basic activity of a disc with a spiral groove containing music tracks, yet utilizing digital codes and a non-contact infrared laser sensor instead of a needle. CDs also play from the inside out. The number of values that a sound can have on a CD is pretty staggering. It can take snapshots of an analog wave 44,100 times a second (called a 44.1 kHz sample rate), and measures each snapshot with a certain accuracy. Currently, industry standard CDs are 16-bit, which means that a particular sound has 65,536 different possible values. That’s a lot of information, but it’s technically far from infinite.
In fact, there’s an argument that the sampling rate isn’t high enough to capture subtle, almost subliminal differences. A vinyl record has a much wider dynamic range than standard CDs, and although most of this range is beyond the limits of human hearing, it still has an effect on the sound of the recording. Audio recorded at extreme ranges provide harmonics for sounds that are within hearing range. Basically, it’s not only the notes played on a guitar that are important, but the air around the guitar as it’s played. There’s also a group of thought which believes that sounds are a subjective perception in human beings, called psychoacoustics, where the sound you can’t hear, the sounds that aren’t registered and can’t be sufficiently measured by scientific devices, add to analog records a “warmth” lacking in CDs. Maybe so.
I looked into the melding of the two worlds: vinyl and digital and came across the laser turntable. Although they minimize the wear on vinyl by only touching it with non-wearing laser, the cost is astronomical. If you want a device that plays both 7” and 12”, it costs around $14,300, plus a service contract that requires shipment to Japan, and it only works on black vinyl. That’s way out of my league. My current rig, from player to amplifier to speakers, was less than two hundred dollars.
Sitting and Spinning: How a Record Player Works
A record is an incredible invention, but it can’t spin and play itself. It needs something to move and tickle its grooves. That’s where a record player comes in. A platter, on which the record is placed, is spun at a specified speed by a drive system. A pickup system in the form of a stylus and cartridge converts the audio on a record into an electrical signal, which is then sent to an amplifier. A tracking system in the form of a tonearm connects the cartridge to the turntable and also enables the pickup system to track the record grooves faithfully.
Let’s look at the little bits and see how they all add up.
The stylus: the tip of the needle. It’s the point of contact, usually a teeny tiny diamond. Contrary to the commercials, diamonds don’t last forever. They wear out, too. It just takes a little longer than other gemstones. A stylus should ride in the grooves of a record with its weight evenly distributed on two points at the insides of the groove. It sounds pretty benign until you realize how much acceleration the stylus is subjected to. Some studies have shown that the needles spin in an upward of 100 g’s. (Without a protective suit, the human body can typically withstand 5 g’s of force before loss of consciousness.) Styli also travel far distances: about half a mile per record. After 1,500 plays, the stylus has traveled further than I do when I get in my truck in Los Angeles and drive for eleven hours to skate a really great, not-too-fancy community park in Ashland, Oregon. That’s pretty damn far.
You know when your stylus is giving out when your records start sounding super shitty. (There’s a big difference between sounding shitty-by-design and just plain ol’ shitty.) At the first sign of noticeable wear, go buy a new stylus. Not only does it suck when your favorite records sound like poo, you run the risk of cutting them. A sharp edge forms on the stylus and gouges away at the friendly little sound-providing wiggles in the record grooves. Get this: there is such a small amount of area resting on the groove—literally, not even the tip of needle, but the sides—that the total force the stylus places on the record is measured in tons per square inch. I found claims ranging between fourteen tons to forty tons. To put this in a little perspective, twenty tons per square inch is the amount of force exerted by an eight-foot shark’s jaws and it takes very little effort for a shark to bite through bone and tissue. Imagine what it could do to your most rare Articles of Faith, Spontaneous Disgust, Big Boys, Smog Marines, or Zero Boys record. Carnage. Not a pretty thought.
To make this all seem a little more like science fiction, instead of a happy little record spinning around being tickled by a nice little needle, the temperature of the stylus rises to over 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which momentarily melts the vinyl as it passes through. Ever wonder where pops, hisses, and ticks come from? Often times, if there’s dust on the stylus or the record, it’ll be baked right onto the stylus and rip off chunks of the vinyl. If the scratch is deep enough, it could cause the needle to skip over a series of grooves, causing the player to skip over a segment, or worse, cause the needle to skip back, creating a locked groove. D’oh!
The greatest demands are placed on the smallest unit in the complete turntable system: the cartridge. The cartridge is the unit containing the stylus that actually converts sound into small electrical impulses. The “moving magnet system” is the most popular and widely used cartridge in use today. In modern stereos, the stylus means solely the tip, the connecting point of the record player onto the playing surface of the record. The stylus is attached to a doohickey called the pickup. The pickup is the stem that connects the stylus, on one end, and to a magnet on the other end. Inside the pickup is a tiny, permanent magnet, which is placed between two fixed coils. This cartridge, affixed to the pivoted tonearm of the turntable, is the key factor in the reproduction of music from records because it makes the first and only contact with the record. Anything lost at that initial point will never be recovered.
The pickup is about the size of a fingernail on your pinkie finger. It not only detects and measures mechanical motions of hundreds of thousandths of an inch, it converts these motions into electric energy: signals as tiny as one-thousandths of a volt. As mentioned previously, the motion of the stylus is caused by the shape of the grooves. The motion of the magnet is caused by the motion of the stylus via the pickup. This electrical energy, in the form of a tiny current inducted into the coils, represents the music that was used to determine the shape of the groove in the first place. It’s really quite elegant. If you’ve ever played a record without turning on your speakers, you can hear the record faintly. This very quiet signal is then fed to an amplifier. The stylus vibrations are so small that they must be amplified thousands of times to produce sounds from the speakers.
The cartridge is attached to what’s called the tracking system. The tracking system positions the stylus in the right spot and enables the stylus to track the record grooves. What positions the stylus is called the tonearm. Look at your arm. It kinda looks like that. It’s a long unit that holds the headshell (which contains the little hook sticking out from it, so you can lift the tonearm with a single finger), cartridge, stylus, and a counterweight. This counterweight offsets the majority of the weight of the arm itself so not too much pressure is put on the stylus and less of a burden is imposed on the vinyl. Think of an almost perfectly balanced see saw. There is just enough weight on the stylus end of the arm to pick up the information in the ridges of a record, yet keep it from jumping up and down or skipping completely out of the groove.
On the far end of the tonearm is a seldom-visited dial (or slide) called the anti-skating device. If you placed a blank record on your turntable, the stylus would be automatically pulled towards the center of the record. This phenomenon is called skating. It’s unwanted because it results in greater exertion of stylus pressure on the inner groove wall. An anti-skating device exerts a small outward force on the tonearm to compensate the inward thrust, so when you put the stylus in a groove, there’s an even weight between the inner and outer edges of the groove.
With all of these components dialed in and working together, your record will spin at the correct speed, won’t get chewed up, won’t skip, and it will provide you with the best possible sound your turntable is capable of. All you have to do is plug it into an amplifier and hook up some speakers. Then, you can dance around in your underwear and air guitar to your heart’s content.
Fine-Lined Beauties: How Vinyl Records Are Made
Okay, so we know how the record came to be and how it plays. How are records currently made? I knew that the process for making a record would be involved, but initially didn’t realize all the steps. A vinyl record has to be recorded, mastered, cut, fathered, mothered, stamped, poured, pressed, labeled, and sleeved. Damn, that’s a lot of work, but with almost everything else in life, stuff that’s easy to make is as equally easy to throw away. These processes are refined and fancied-up versions of both what Berliner and Edison had developed over a hundred years ago.
To manufacture a vinyl record, you start with a master tape. From about 1950 on, it became usual to have the performance first recorded onto audio tape, which could then be processed or edited. This master tape, technically, can be anything from a boom-box tape to a CD-R to a DAT (digital audio tape) to a reel-to-reel, but it must be compatible with what the vinyl pressing plant can deal with. (Call ahead.) The process of mastering is when the finished product is duplicated onto a media that is used to mass-produce more copies. Mastering also makes sure that the entire record sounds cohesive and balanced.
In the beginning, a record cutter would engrave the grooves into the master disc, often made of soft beeswax. Nowadays, using a cutting lathe, the music is transferred onto an aluminum disc covered with lacquer. The lathe operates with a heated sapphire or diamond-tipped stylus that etches a single, continuous groove into the soft lacquer. Inside the stylus are tiny coils. They’re like miniature speakers that, instead of moving air, push the stylus to etch a groove. This stylus can oscillate at up to 16,000 times per second as it “cuts” the record. This precise operation converts electronic impulses into grooves on the record. If the cut is too deep, your playback stylus may not fit correctly in the groove; if it’s too shallow, it may skip tracks. Each lacquer disc is single sided, so two must be made for a standard two-sided record. The catalog number, or matrix number, is added to the lead-out groove on the “dead wax” space at the edge of the disc, surrounding where the label is traditionally glued.
The lacquer disc—which some folks call an “acetate”—is then cleaned, washed, and bathed in chloride. It’s then sprayed with a combination of silver, glucose (which is a form of sugar), and formaldehyde to make it electrically conductive. An acetate looks like a vinyl record, but it is actually a metal plate covered in a thin layer of acetone. (For you collectors out there, acetates are the rarest form of any record. Usually, they’re one-sided. They can be played but wear out very quickly.) The acetate is then put in the technical equivalent of what usually happens when two mutually attracting bodies sit in a hot tub and drink a lot of beer. Well, sorta. The nickel in the bath slips into the silver on the record. The two bond together, creating an exact, fitting layer. When that metal layer is engorged enough, it is removed from the tub and the lacquer is thrown away. Ta da. When that 1/15,000” metal is separated from the master disc, you’ve now got what’s called the “father” plate, which is a negative of the original. It has protruding ridges instead of grooves.
The mother plate is made from a re-oxidized father plate. It is a positive metal duplicate, identical to the finished record (yet can’t be played). If you’re going to make less than 10,000 copies of a record, you can skip making a stamper and use the father as one. (Here’s the math: one father can make ten mothers. One mother can make ten stampers. One stamper can make 1,000 records.)
A stamper is a negative used to stamp out records. One is needed for each side. Stampers are used to press the grooves into preheated vinyl. If you’ve ever wondered how some records get streaked or marbled (and if you’ve never seen one of these gems, you’re missing out, because even if the music on them sucks, they’re neat to hang up for decoration) vinyl starts off in pellets that look a lot like rabbit poop. Most vinyl nowadays starts out clear and then color is added. Not all black-looking vinyl is the same. Traditionally, black vinyl was treated with carbon, which provided a stronger, slower-wearing surface. It was then discovered that if the carbon wasn’t added and the vinyl compound was tweaked, a quieter playing surface could be achieved even though it is a slightly weaker record. Put a black record up to the light. If you can’t see through it, it’s carbon black. If you can, it’s clear vinyl that is dyed black. The two sound virtually the same.
The stampers are mounted to the top and bottom of the record press and the heated vinyl is formed into a biscuit. The biscuit is then poured into the center of the press between the labels, the press closes, and 300 degree Fahrenheit stampers press down on the biscuit to form a record. That’s why they call it a record “pressing.” This all takes around twenty seconds. Then the records are lifted out of the press, trimmed of excess vinyl, laid flat to cool down, then sleeved.
The one hundred tons of pressure needed to press vinyl records is hard on the stampers, which will wear out and lose sound quality after about 1,000 records are pressed on them. A word to the wise to bands: have your stampers returned to you by the pressing plant with your record order. They usually won’t hold them for very long and will scrap them for nickel. As a brief aside, some of the crappiest-sounding vinyl records were the result of a familiar trait that has constantly plagued the recording industry since its beginning in 1890s. Greed. For many years, U.S. manufacturers used poor quality vinyl and overpressed their masters to save money, often pressing three to four times the amount of records that a stamper could handle.
Well, that’s about it. I just want to underscore a simple idea before splitting. Since what I do—as co-editor and co-publisher of Razorcake—is to help preserve and perpetuate punk rock culture to the best of my abilities, an element that lures me to vinyl records is that they’re so acutely finite. There has never been a vinyl punk rock record that has sold a million copies. That appeals to the seeker in me. That’s one thing that keeps compelling me to keep my ears close to the underground. We’re dealing with limited windows of time where you can get a record at its original price, from record companies that are often little more than the band’s self-made label, or a close friend who put some money down and runs the whole operation out of a closet. The record collector in me is also savvy to the fact that the most valued records ever made came in extremely limited press runs. In punk rock, a press run of 10,000 pieces of vinyl for a single record is gi-fucking-gantic. Most records have press runs of less than a thousand. Usually, when they’re gone, they’re gone (either literally or into the financial stratosphere of Ebay) and it’s not like you can buy a blank piece of vinyl for less than fifty cents (like you can with a CD), and make an exact vinyl duplicate copy. With vinyl, you’re literally holding a slice of time that can’t easily be replicated by the end user. True, the sounds on the vinyl can be replicated—if you hook a turntable up to a computer’s sound card—but making only one vinyl duplicate of a record once it’s out of print? It’d cost you over five hundred bucks and you still wouldn’t have the cover art. But why go though all of that?
Go find your new favorite band, one that’s still around. It may cost you as little as four bucks and the rewards, well the rewards, to me, are as obvious as and plain to see as a great record spinning on a turntable.
Special thanks go out to Jason Willis of the Knockout Pills and Paul Brekus of Aardvark Record Mastering for lending their expertise and considerable knowledge to this article.
Definitions and Terms
Record: Initially, phonograph records were intended for office use, to make a record of business transactions. Over time, “phonograph record” got shortened to “record,” the actual medium the audio was stored on.
Dubbing: When one recording is recorded over, so that a new recording replaces the old one entirely.
Flip side: The reverse of an A-side of a record. The lesser-known track. Strangely, looking through several unabridged dictionaries, there was no common use of this word prior to gramophone records.
Virgin vinyl: 100% new vinyl, as opposed to recycled vinyl used in normal albums.
EP: A 33 rpm 7” is known as an EP (extended play), with two or three songs per side. 45 rpm 7” EPs are also produced, using a narrower groove spacing.
LP: Originally 10”, now most frequently a 12”, an “LP” is a long-playing record, usually with between five and ten songs per side.
Wow and flutter: Unwanted variations in the tone level or frequency of the reproduced sound, usually because the record’s not rotating at a constant, correct speed.
Spindle: The part that the record revolves around.
Plinth: The turntable’s base.
1890s: The first Automatic Phonograph Parlors were businesses that had a collection of cylinder phonographs with four listening tubes. They were brought about by the vogue of the slot machine. They did a flourishing business for just two years—one multi-listening phonograph earned over $1,000 in its first six months of operation in San Francisco’s Palais Royal Saloon—and then the craze vanished.
1927: Automatic Music Instrument Company of Grand Rapids introduced the all-electric coin-operated phonograph to replace coin-operated pianos. The idea didn’t immediately take hold. Few were built prior to 1934.
1930s: The term “jukebox” came into use in the United States. “Jook” was slang for “dance.” “Box” still meant “box.” The first nickel jukeboxes kept the recorded music industry alive during the Great Depression.
1934: Wurlitzer introduced multiple-selection jukeboxes. By 1939, 25,000 were installed across America. Bing Crosby was the #1 selection. (Bing Crosby, who by the time of his death in 1977, recorded 1,600 hit songs, made sixty-one movies, and sold 500 million records [over ten times the number that Elvis had sold by that time]).
1949: An Omaha radio man, Todd Storz, creates the Top 40 after realizing that customers in a bar played the same jukebox selections over and over again.
1951: Debut of the first jukebox that is able to play 7” 45 rpm records.
Vinyl Storage Tips
Keep records away from direct sunlight.
Avoid moisture and extreme temperatures. Storing your records in basements is a bad idea.
Store records vertically.
Never leave a record in the original shrink wrap. It’ll warp both the jacket and the record.
I store all of my records in their dust jackets, slid in behind the record artwork, all together inside a plastic sleeve. The biggest advantage to this is that you’ll prevent ring wear and the record won’t chew through the album’s cover.
Vinyl Handling Tips
When you remove a record from the sleeve, it creates friction. This friction results in static, which causes the record to attract dust. Be aware of that.
Try not to touch the vinyl surface when handling your records. Use the label and the edges of the record.
Never touch the grooves.
The Wacky World of Lesser-Used Record Grooves:
Inside out / Reverse groove: Record starts at the middle and plays to the outer edge. Dropdead’s Armageddon does this.
Parallel groove: Two or more distinct tracks are recorded on one side, interlaced. It depends when the needle is dropped as to which song will be played. This is a way to “hide” a song or have a “three-sided” LP. (Fucked Up’s Searching for Gold EP and Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief LP both use this technology.) Mad Magazine released a flexi disc, It’s a Super Spectacular Day, which had eight parallel grooves.) Times have to be equal for each groove.
Locked groove: Groove that intentionally repeats every turn of the record. It’s usually at the end, like the car exhaust sound at the end of the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, or TSOL’s Dance with Me, the B-side to the Damned’s Smash It Up single, and the B-side to World Burns to Death’s Sucking the Missile Cock LP. White Flag’s S Is for Space has locked grooves that force the listener to lift the needle several times to hear all the songs on the record. The time for a locked groove is 1.8 seconds on a 33 1/3 and 1.33 seconds on a 45.
Box Sets: The numbering of the sides of the discs in albums in box sets is explained by the fact they were designed to be played on changers. After the discs were stacked and one side of each disc played, the stack would be turned over together as a unit and replaced on the changer. The proper sequence of a four-disc set: side A would be 1 and side B would be 8, 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5. Some folks were confused by this, so record companies began offering both “numbered for automatic changers” and “standard numbering” box sets.
Did you know? Records have slightly higher fidelity at the outer edges, where the disc spins more rapidly than at the center.
Did you know? America is the only country that shrink wraps new records.
Razorcake fact. Number of 7”s reviewed in the last four years: 500, give or take. Number of “Hey, can you review the song that’s attached to this link in this email in your magazine?”: 0.
1918 was the first audio document of a gas shell bombardment.
Did you know? The first CD ever commercially released was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street in 1982.
Did you know? In 1934, a General of the Signal Corps, General George Squier, founded Muzak. He sold recorded music to homes in Cleveland.
Tips for garage sale turntables:
Garage sales are your number one bet for getting a cost-effective record player. Sure, you can go on Ebay or plunk down over $100 on a so-so one at a chain store, but with some diligence, you can find one for $20-$30 on someone’s lawn during the weekend. Ask if you can plug it in, even if there are no records to play. Don’t be completely swayed at how cool the player looks. The two biggest hurdles are 1.) Seeing if the turntable still rotates and 2.) The needle and cartridge are still attached. To do this, very gently slide your finger under the end of the tone arm that would be placed on a record. If there’s a needle, you’re usually in business. Seventy percent of the time, there won’t be. If both things check out, it’s a relatively safe bet the record player will be okay. It may need a tune-up (if records continually skip or skate (drag for a little, then catch itself). But, if there isn’t a needle and cartridge or if it doesn’t rotate, it’s a big crapshoot. Many belt-drives and needles just aren’t made anymore. Some are, but they’re mighty expensive.
Razorcake is a bi-monthly, Los Angeles-based fanzine that provides consistent coverage of do-it-yourself punk culture. We believe in positive, progressive, community-friendly DIY punk, and are the only bona fide 501(c)(3) non-profit music magazine in America. We do our part.
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