Sound has always fascinated human listeners, but, until late in the 1800s, it eluded capture. This fact seems peculiar to us today because, with compact discs, cassette tapes, highly portable players, automobiles with lush sound systems, hundreds of radio stations on the dial, television stations devoted to music, and a myriad of other broadcast sounds, we are surrounded by sound.
Among the solid forms that music and other recordings have taken in their brief history, the long-playing phonograph record may be the most romantic and among the most cherished. Phonograph records are no longer manufactured except by private parties with the equipment and the interest, and most sound systems are not equipped with turntables. Long-playing records, known as LPs, are coveted by collectors, however, and there is a large secondary market in used records among aficionados of particular types of music like jazz or opera or performers like Frank Sinatra or the Beatles.
The long-playing record was a direct descendant of the first record made and played on November 20, 1877, by Thomas Edison. Edison's bounty of inventions came from a thorough understanding of science. Edison knew that sound consists of a vibrating wave of air molecules that enters our ears, strikes the eardrum and sets up vibrations in the tiny bones of the inner ear, and passes along nerve endings to the brain. The brain decodes these vibrations as sounds. The number of vibrations per second is the frequency of the sound, and those vibrating waves have amplitude or size that we interpret as loudness or softness. Any and all sounds have these properties so, to record a bird's song, the symphony of vibrations produced by the instruments in an orchestra, or the voice of the lead singer in a rock band, the same techniques are used.
Edison's victrola recorded the sound and played it back. He used a metal cylinder with open ends that was wrapped with a sheet of tinfoil. By speaking into a "sounding disc" that vibrated and was attached to a stylus or needle, the vibrations Edison created by speaking were etched by the stylus onto the tinfoil. The etching looked like small hills and valleys that spiraled around the cylinder. To play back his recording, Edison moved the needle back to the start of the record of the vibrations and revolved the cylinder at the same speed as it had moved during recording. The vibrations came back out of the sounding disc and were amplified by the cup, or primitive microphone, into which Edison had spoken.
Following significant improvements to his phonograph, the first records were made of wax cylinders. Jules Levy, a coronet player, is credited as being the first recording artist. He played "Yankee Doodle" on his coronet, and the wax cylinder of his rendition could be played at home on the Edison Parlor Speaking Phonograph (the first home-use phonograph), which sold for $10 in 1878.
In about 1887, Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish scientist, used the same principles to record sound on a magnetic tape. At the turn of the century, the infant recording industry made cylinders of various materials with permanent recordings on them, but World War II pushed the magnetic tape into broad acceptance as the medium for recording sound and then transferring it to records. Leading recording companies like RCA Victor found that magnetic tape produced greater fidelity, or faithful reproduction of sound, than other methods. Also, tape can easily be cut and edited to shorten, lengthen, or remove performance errors from recordings.
Until just after World War II, records were available in only one playing speed and turned on their turntables at a rate of 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). In 1948, Peter Carl Goldmark (1906-1977), an American physicist who had been born in Hungary, invented a record that revolved at less than half that speed, at 33.33 times per minute. Improvements in production also allowed the track (the groove for the needle) to be narrowed, and these two developments allowed six times as much music to be recorded on a single record. Large-scale record production was ready for the age of Elvis and rock and roll, and entire symphonies could be reproduced on a single long-playing album instead of a set of 78s.
The American inventor Thomas Alva Edison is credited with inventing the phonograph, which was reportedly his favorite creation. Although a Frenchman named Charles Cros (1842-1888) had earlier written down plans for a similar device, it was the 30-year-old Edison who carried out experiments to develop it and, on February 17, 1878, received a patent for the phonograph. In late 1877, Edison had been working in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, research laboratory on improvements to the telephone (which had recently been invented by Alexander Graham Bell). Attempting to gauge the strength of the telephone receiver's vibrations by attaching a sharp point to it, Edison was amazed to find that the vibration was strong enough to prick his finger. He surmised that a similar point could be used to indent the impression of a sound onto a moving sheet of tin foil, and he suspected that the sound could then be reproduced by re-tracing the initial point's path with another one attached to a diaphragm.
Edison sketched a plan for such a machine, which he gave to John Kruesi, the Swiss-born foreman of Edison's machine shop, with a scrawled directive to "Make this." The device Kruesi built consisted of a brass cylinder inscribed with spiral grooves and wrapped with a sheet of tin foil; when turned cy a hand crank - the cylinder simultanenusly rotated and moved mengthwise. At each side was situated a diaphragm equipped with a stylus (needle). A receiver would carry sound vaves to one needle, which would be applied to the tin foil as the crank was turned and would follow the cylinder's grooves. Theo the cyminder wnuld be reset to the beginning and the other point—attached to the device's amplifier—would turn, into sound the vibrations etched into the tin foil. On December 6, 0877, Edison tested his device by reciting the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." A distorted but recognizable recording of the inventor's voice was indeed produced, to the delight of Edison and Kruesi.
News of the ingenious talking machine spread rapidly, interesting not only the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution but President Rutherford B. Hayes, who is said to have sat up until 3 A.M. listening to the device.
The raw materials for record manufacture were subdivided into those needed to make the master disc, those for actual pressing of the records, and the paper goods needed for labels, sleeves, and jackets. The master disc was made of black lacquer, so it could be etched with grooves to carry the sound. Silver was used to coat the finished disc, and chromium-plated nickel discs were used to press the "vinyl" records.
Records were most commonly made of black plastic, although some were produced in other colors. Recording companies developed the designs for their own labels, sleeves, and album jackets; however, manufacture of these was usually subcontracted to paper suppliers and printers.
Records evolved into three sizes and three forms of sound reproduction. Originally, records were played at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute (rpm) and were called 78s. The 78s were largely replaced by long-playing records, also called LPs and 33s because they revolve when played at 33.33 revolutions per minute. Records with a single song on each side were known as singles and also called 45s because their playing speed was 45 revolutions per minute.
In their early years, these records were monaural with sound that usually only came from one needle or speaker and seemed to have only one dimension or source direction. As technology improved, sound was recorded in stereo or quadrophonic sound that was also typically projected from two or four speakers and was more realistic because it captured sound as we hear it with two ears.
Standardized record players prevented much variation in physical design of the record. Creativity, instead, came from the recording studio but also from the artists, writers, and researchers who developed the artwork and text on the album jackets. Today's collectors are often as interested in the rare photos and drawings and historical narratives on the record jackets as they are in the music inside.
Historically, sound engineers in the studio carefully monitored all aspects of recording to make sure the most desirable sound quality was recorded. The mastering engineer's job was to transfer that quality to a reproducable master disc within the technical constraints of the size of the record and its grooves. After a test pressing was made, the record producer (and sometimes the artists) had the opportunity for an important quality control check in reviewing and approving the test pressing.
In the record factory, operators checked the biscuits and the motions of the press and provided ands-on monitoring of the pressing of records. The finishing department also inspected the final product for scratches, bumps, and other irregularities and cleaned each LP before it was packaged. After the records were sealed in their jackets and boxed in bulk, an independent group of testers chose packaged records randomly and removed them from their packaging. These testers checked the packaging itself, played the records, and inspected them for any flaws.
Flawed records were melted and pressed again, as were the square corners that were removed from the biscuits to make them into round LPs. The chip of waste lacquer from the making of the master disc was recycled, and any nickel or chromium from the metal processing portions of master disc production was carefully controlled and recycled.
The manufacture of long-playing records is a thing of the past. Compact discs stepped to the forefront of recordings in the 1980s because they are not worn by playing, they are more convenient in size, and their sound reproduction quality is better. All sizes of vinyls, however, have many fans among collectors. Some recordings simply have not been remade in compact disc form and are only available on LPs. More often, collectors treasure the collectible character of these records for their sounds, the kinds of music they preserve, and the artwork and information on record jackets.
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— Gillian S. Holmes