The evolution of the record began with a need to preserve and replay sound. They made it possible to hear music apart from a live performance for the first time in history. But nowadays, many say they’re mere relics of the past.
Some enthusiasts insist records are as everlasting as their favorite hardcopy books. While others feel they’ve gone the way of the Dodo bird.
Join us as we look back through the evolution of the record and find out why they’re still sold by the millions today.
Let’s hit it!
What Is a Phonograph Record?
A phonograph record is a storage disk resembling a flat black frisbee. Embedded grooves create sound vibrations that turn into electric signals via a needle and then into music via your stereo system. If you look closely, you can see where one song starts and stops by looking at the grooves.
The first records evolved from phonautographs of the 1850s. These contraptions recorded sound, which could be transcribed but not played back. Thomas Edison’s 1877 phonograph was the first device to both record and playback sound. And Graham Bell’s hand-cranked gramophone made flat discs easier to play. Thus, the vinyl record was born.
Evolution of the Classic 78 RPM Record
Early 20th-century records varied greatly in speed and design. Most were made from shellac and were ten inches in diameter. Although speeds ranged from 60 to 130 rotations per minute, producers quickly realized that a standard speed would improve the sound. That way, standardized spring drives could replace hand cranking and make sound easier to control.
By the 1920s, shellac albums were standardized to 78 rpm, or rotations per minute. The most common record, the ten-inch, held three minutes of music per side. The larger the disk diameter, the longer the grooves can be. Playing times vary slightly depending on the speed-to-diameter ratio, but not by much. So a 12-inch record held five minutes, and the rare 21-inch had eight.
What Is a 33 1/3 RPM Record?
The most significant step in the evolution of the record was the LP. But it took a little back and forth before this great milestone took hold. LP stands for long playing with a standardized speed of 33 ⅓ rpm.
RCA Victor launched the first LP in 1930, but the Great Depression thwarted sales. However, these new records and their narrower grooves were a great improvement. More grooves plus slower speeds meant more music per side.
Record manufacturers were also experimenting with mixing plastic vinyl with shellac. Columbia perfected everything with their 1948 vinyl LP. Bands took full advantage of these 12-inch records, jamming as much music on each side as possible. Album covers showcased the band members or artistic visions related to their music.
Introduction of the 45 RPM Record
Records evolved again less than one year later, in 1949, with the 45 rpm single. RCA Victor returned to the scene with these smaller seven-inch records and their high-fidelity sound. In addition, 45s came in different colors, which added to the fun.
Record shopping and trading took off in the 1950s and 60s. Youth from the U.K. traveled to America just to buy soul and R&B singles. Some say this exchange was the beginning of rock and roll. Record stores became the place to go and meet people.
Due to the success of the LP and 45 EP (extended play), 78s plummeted to two percent of music sales by 1958. As of 1960, 78s were no longer made in the U.S. Vinyl records reigned the music world for the next thirty years.
Record Evolution Decline and Vinyl’s Comeback
Over the decades, record sales dropped as new modes of music listening came to life. The cassette tape ruled in the 80s. And by the 90s, compact discs took over. Indie record labels experienced their heyday because their fans bought all three formats.
But then came Napster in 1999. This file-sharing app resulted in a 33% drop in recording sales and crushed the industry. Although the company went bankrupt in 2002, the introduction of the mp3 music file worldwide meant it was already too late.
During the Napster years, you could still go to big stores like Amoeba Records or Tower and spend hours finding discounted albums. Because the record evolution was dissolving, collectors quietly kept buying. The secret is that records never went away.
By 2005 people bought music via streaming services like Pandora. Thankfully, the music industry figured out how to make streaming profitable. But although streaming music is convenient, it’s also sort of boring compared to the vinyl experience.
When young people in 2008 discovered their parent’s album collection, they realized they were missing out. The next phase of the record evolution took flight, and sales have increased ever since. In fact, vinyl outranked CD sales for the first time in 2020. Multiple record stores opened, like Rough Trade, with a focus on selling albums.
Record manufacturing is so popular now that some pressing plants require a six-month lead for production.
Vinyl sounds better than digital mp3s because the streamed file is compressed. Furthermore, you have artwork to look at on an album cover. And maybe even a neat inner sleeve with lyrics, photos, and stories from the band you love. But even if you can’t tell the sound difference, some folks just love the overall experience of playing records.
Sound Quality and Record Evolution
How good a vinyl record sounds depends on various factors. As album production evolved, the recording industry learned that heavier records meant better sound. But in the 70s, vinyl manufacturers thought people wouldn’t notice, so some would cut thickness down from 180 grams to 125. Keep your eyes out for old 225-gram jazz records. They sound and feel amazing.
How good your album sounds also depends on your record player and stereo system. The more separate components you have, the higher fidelity, or sound quality, you’ll get. If nothing else, be sure to buy a turntable with a detachable needle.
Then you have the basics of cleaning and storage. Always keep your vinyl in both sleeves. Store them vertically in a dry, cool place away from direct sunlight and moisture. When buying used records, stay away from those with a bunch of scratches. And buy professional cleaning fluid.
If you find yourself entering the audiophile realm, look for your favorite singles in 12-inch form. The extra surface room for one song allows for greater dynamic range and better sound.
Vinyl Records Continue to Spin
Recorded music has come a long way since the 1850s. Although streaming makes up about 85% of music purchases, some people still love records. And others are just discovering them. Long live the record evolution.
If you like the idea of supporting independent singers and musicians, you may want to buy some vinyl records from them directly. They make much more money from albums than they do from streaming services.
And whatever you do, don’t buy your turntable from Urban Outfitters, or any clothing store for that matter!