Episode 38.  Just for the record...

The way we listen to music has changed over the decades, a new format comes along every thirty years or so that makes the previous one obsolete. I am of the generation that sat stunned watching Tomorrow’s World in England in 1981 when the presenter, Kieran Prendiville, demonstrated the CD format which was then later so spectacularly launched on 1st October 1982. CD sales peaked in the year 2000 when billions were sold around the world but then went into rapid decline when the iPod was launched that same year. Younger people it seemed preferred the convenience of mp3’s even though they had a far inferior sound quality. Now, along with the iPod, mp3s are all but gone having being replaced by superior audio formats and given that their technology and audio quality is obsolete, there is no reason to bring them back. Likewise, when Sony released their first CD player- the CDP-101 - on that date above, along with the first CD, Billy Joel's 52nd Street, many people thought it was the death of vinyl and for a while it was. However, sales of CDs, records and even the good old cassette are on the increase. Last year, the UK’s Now Spinning magazine announced that CD sales had increased by 15%* and new data released last month from the Entertainment and Retail Association shows that vinyl has already outsold CDs this year.

Kieran Prendiville introduces the Compact Disc on BBC's Tomorrows World

The first audio recording was made by Thomas Edison on 12th August 1877. He used a rotating cylinder to make his recording and it wasn’t until ten years later when the flat disc version named the gramophone record (a.k.a. the phonogram record) was patented by a man named Emil Berliner, a German living in Washington DC, USA. The first commercially available recordings were on the Edison cylinders but the phonogram was almost concurrent with it, the first being released in 1895 by which time, a man named Henry Spiller had opened is record shop in Wales (see below) and by 1920 had become the preferred format as they were more economical to manufacture and more durable. Experiments were made on early discs as to which material best suited and in 1898, the first disc manufacturing factory opened in Hanover, Germany. The discs were made of hard rubber, 7” in diameter and were played back at 55 revolutions per minute (rpm) and some even started playing at the centre of the record and worked their way back out to the edge. Amazingly, there was no fixed rpm as most of the manufacturing and reproducing machines were turned by hand or by clockwork but eventually, Berliner settled on an approximation of Edison’s cylindrical recordings, that being between 70 and 80rpm. Once a master disc had been cut, these records were pressed in either 10” or 12” formats and could reproduce up to five minutes of music on either side. They were made from a material called Shellac, a mixture of slate dust and resin. Shellac proved to be ideal for manufacturing and sound but was also very brittle. So much so that it was common for 10% of the discs to be broken before they even reached the shops but as nothing else seemed better, it became the norm for records for the next forty years. One very important thing happened in this period though and that was in 1925 when the first phonograph players were manufactured that used an electric motor to turn the turntable. The fixed speed was a mixture of coincidence and economics and came about when a common, mass-produced motor turning at 3,600rpm was fitted with 46:1 gearing which was only used because it was also mass-produced. It gave the very convenient fixed rpm of 78.26 and also gave rise to their nickname: 78’s. These records were sold in sets or separately which you could collect into a set and would play a longer piece of music. The sets came in the form of a book or box which had paper sleeves for the records and they were called ‘albums’.

38 -01a A Edison cylinder.jpg
38 - 01b album.jpg

An Edison cylinder                              An album of records.

38- 01c Spillers Records.jpg

Spillers Records in Cardiff, Wales was opened in 1894 and is the oldest record shop in the world.

Recording technology advanced swiftly between 1910 and 1930 and none more so than the microphone. Better recording equipment enabled music to be captured more clearly and the fidelity possible at 78rpm could now be reproduced at 33⅓rpm. This speed was developed early but the cost of converting everything from 78 to 33⅓ was deemed too expensive until 1931 when RCA Victor tried to market the format. Aimed at the cheaper end of the market, RCA’s equipment was poor quality though so nobody was interested and although the 33⅓ remained, it was used only by radio stations who could afford it. No doubt launching something like that in the great depression didn’t help sales either. Our next stop though for recorded music, in one of history’s wonderfully strange interventions, is that WWII played a vital part in the development of our audio listening format.

Music was considered to be a big morale booster for the Allied troops stationed overseas and the USA government ordered many 78’s to be shipped to Europe’s Prisoner of War camps to keep the prisoner’s spirits up. Alas, as mentioned above, the brittle Shellac records often arrived broken which of course had the opposite effect of reducing moral and so the more durable and flexible vinyl started to be used. Vinyl was expensive to manufacture at that time but the circumstances of war and men’s moral deemed the expense justifiable. By the end of the war, with all the government investment in it, vinyl was more viable and quickly became the way forward. It was just three years after the war ended, in 1948, that Columbia Records released its new 12” LP (long Player) and one year after that RCA Victor introduced the 7” 45rpm. Both formats were vinyl and used a smaller groove called the ‘Microgroove’ designed to use a smaller stylus to give higher fidelity. During the shellac/vinyl crossover time, record players were manufactured with a reversible stylus cartridge that had one stylus for Shellac records and one for the microgroove. Shellac 78’s continued to be manufactured into the mid-1950’s (and in India into the 1960’s) but the newer vinyl records quickly started to outsell the older format. The post-war economic boom across the USA also helped to popularize vinyl as more teenagers had pocket money to spend on records and increased sales led to manufacturing costs coming down. They also poured money into Jukeboxes that were increasingly popular in teenage hangouts.  The Jukebox had been around since 1928 but were now brightly coloured and lit, were capable of holding 50, 45’s and had remote wall-boxes at tables for people to select their choice. Most importantly, they were filled with the kid’s choice of Rock and Roll records. Vinyl was rushing ahead as a shellac record could not endure the frequent playing, sometimes totalling in the thousands, that one vinyl record would take in a jukebox.

My 1958 shellac copy of Elvis; Hound Dog. They were so brittle that 10% were broken in transit and record companies started to write into their contracts that they would only pay an artist on 90% of the discs pressed to avoid paying royalties on the broken discs.

Two other speeds were briefly used in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. The 16rpm discs (actually 16⅔) were 7” in diameter, mainly pressed as talking books but tape quickly superseded them and the music albums that were pressed at that speed were of poor audio quality, most retailers didn’t even stock them. A second talking book speed was 8rpm that was sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind. It could hold four hours of speech on a 7” disc but it too disappeared very quickly.

The 16rpm speed did however create the first background music. The Seeburg 1000 BMS1 phonograph was introduced in 1959 and was used exclusively to play background music in offices and restaurants. The machine played 25 discs that were 9 inches in diameter and were stacked on a spindle. The records were mono and could play up to 40 minutes per side giving a total of 40 x 2 x 25 minutes or over a day and a half of continuous music and because it was strictly intended for background music at low volume, the sound quality was not important. The Crysler Corporation in the USA also used the 16rpm disc for their ‘Highway Hi-Fi’ system which was a record player installed in their cars between 1956 and 1958. The records were made exclusively for them by Columbia Special Products.


Vinyl has evolved much since the 1950’s. The small modifications to the cutting and pressing techniques as well as improved vinyl itself can now give us a much higher fidelity. The introduction of the first 12” single in 1975 was another accident when producer Tom Moulton’s mastering engineer ran out of 7” blank discs and used a 12” instead to cut Al Downing’s I’ll Be Holding On. The rise of punk and New Wave brought all sorts of picture discs, shaped discs and popularized coloured vinyl (coloured vinyl had actually been around since the earliest vinyl records and RCA Victor even used it in 1948 for different genres. Green was for Country music, yellow for kids, Classical was red, etc) and there have been novelty records that have two grooves on one side giving you a 50/50 chance of finding the one you actually want. Artwork became an integral part of the LP starting with The Beatle’s Sgt Pepper album in 1967 and reached a peak with Progressive Rock’s outstanding gallery of covers throughout the seventies. The sleeve became in many cases as important as the music itself. Many designers were instantly recognizable and in great demand for their art. Roger Dean, Storm Thorgerson and Rodney Matthews may well have remained undiscovered if it were not for the LP cover.

The heyday of the record has no doubt gone but it is also obviously having a new lease of life. It may not for the young be the preferred medium for listening to music but it is now often manufactured as a marketing and promotional item, limited editions being pressed to be sold as merchandise and the older albums are becoming more collectable every day. Old Japanese vinyl, in particular because of the higher quality pressing and heavier vinyl but also because of the inserts and obi strips, is much sort after around the world and although it is highly unlikely that vinyl will ever become as popular as it was, it is, unlike the CD, far from dead.