There was a time not too long ago when, if you wanted to hear something twice, you had to commit it to memory or write it down. This was the norm for thousands of years because there were no means for us to record sounds of any kind. It is hard to imagine not being able to hear music on demand at any time we wish, but that was simply not possible less than 150 years ago.
Today we will explore the timeline from the first to the most current record player, we will see how this incredible technology was born and quickly developed to become what it is today. Let’s dive in.
The Man Who Started It All
Thomas A. Edison was a great man in many respects. He is somewhat of a controversial figure today for a few details that we will not cover here, but his achievements are impressive nonetheless. Among those achievements is the Phonograph.
The phonograph was the first-ever device capable of recording and playing back sounds. Although it is not technically a record player because it used cylinders to record instead of circular records. It is the grandfather of all the ones that came before.
Edison came up with the idea of having a needle be moved by the vibrations coming from a cone-shaped implement. He states that his first attempt at it was simply the mouthpiece of the early telephone attached to a needle and tinfoil. By using the sound’s vibrations as a pattern the needle puts dents in the material and can then reproduce them. After the prototype, he moved towards a cylinder-shaped object to hold recordings.
This device was so novel that it spread very fast, everyone wanted one. Because of how popular it became innovations and improvements upon the original design were imminent. Then comes Alexander G. Bell.
This is a new and improved version of the Phonograph. It was born in the Volta Laboratory that was founded by Alexander G. Bell around 1880. They worked hard for about 5 years to produce a device that was sufficiently different and improved over the original Phonograph to be able to obtain the pertinent patents and yet had all the functionality that made this device so appealing.
They developed several techniques to improve the sound quality and durability of the cylinders, and once they knew they had something different enough they went to work on patenting, producing, advertising, and selling them all over the United States, and later abroad. This massive distribution gave the record player a prominent place in living rooms around the world, they were still rare and expensive, but they were now well-known enough and well on their way to becoming a mainstream item.
The disc-shaped records
At this point, the record player starts to resemble a lot more what we know today as such. Emile Berliner is responsible for developing the disc-shaped records that we know today. He did this primarily because of how hard it was to produce in massive quantities copies of a given cylinder. The shape of the record does not necessarily translate into better audio fidelity but makes the process of copying discs a lot easier. With this improvement, the record player was now ready for mass consumption. A lot of copies could now be made with a press due to the flat shape. The materials that were used to produce these records vary, we are not at the vinyl stage yet, but we will get there rather quickly from here.
A few decades go by and we finally see Vinyl rise as the material for records. It is around the year 1931 when the first Vinyl LP is recorded and commercially available. This breakthrough brings excellent sound quality and fidelity while on a medium that is a lot more resistant. Having sturdy records means that a whole new market opens up, and the applications of this technology are now wide. We start seeing records and record players being used for a lot of different purposes but gaining a lot of strength in the music and entertainment industry. This will bring about the golden age of records along with another significant feature that is also right around the corner:
The 1950s are the decade when Vinyl is finally established as the dominant medium, this is thanks to all the excellent technological improvements that the mechanism of the player has gone through, the fact that records are now very durable and can be copied with ease, and the last improvement on this list is Stereo Sound. This is a vast improvement over the previous level of sound quality that blows everyone’s mind, and with good reason. You can now sit in your living room (or wherever you prefer) and listen to music with such a high level of fidelity that the public never looked back.
These three facts have now added up to produce the music storm, and this aligned with all the cultural developments is what gives birth to what is widely known as the Golden Age or Records.
Records for the Masses
With the medium ready for mass consumption we see the boom of record companies and the music industry capitalizes greatly from this technology. Record shops spring everywhere, collections are made, and a whole industry rises around the vinyl record. This is an industry that is very much alive today and remains an important part of our culture. A lot of the best recordings are from this era, there is something irreplaceable about original records that cannot be matched with digital recordings. We also have a huge legacy now available for us to enjoy and learn from. The history of music will never be the same now that we can hear exactly what everything sounded like.
A Short Down Period
Innovation did not stop after the Vinyl Record showed up on the horizon. Quite the contrary, it sped up significantly. Recording mediums evolved into different shapes and sizes, all incompatible with the previous one and with particular pros and cons. All of this change happened very rapidly and seemed to spell doom for the vinyl record industry, but after all of these developments, we find that there is still a market for records and that they continue to be produced. Unlike many other mediums that came and went records are here to stay because they still offer a very particular quality that is unmatched. Digital recordings are very convenient and easy to use, they are also very accurate, but there is something they cannot match in terms of the warmth of sound.
That is the reason why we have seen mediums as the cassette come and go, while the Vinyl Record is still very much alive and seeing a resurgence in popularity. After these low decades pass the Record returns with strength.
Records as Instruments
We have all seen turntables as part of a live performance by now, but that was not a thing until the 80s. This innovative way to perform live started to show up in the underground scene, usually around hip-hop. It quickly grew in popularity and became a trope that is hard to miss. It is very common to see DJs use record players live, not just to play the music, but also to produce all sorts of sounds out of them. This is a fact that helped a new generation come into contact with this medium that had had its original rise over 30 years ago.
The Return of the Turntables
This is not the place for a debate over the superiority of analog versus digital sound, suffice it to say that this is quite an old battle that is still being fought and that the answer is not a simple one by any means. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but one thing is for sure: Vinyl Records are very much here to stay due to their unique characteristics, Vinyl sound is quite remarkable and not fully emulated with digital means.
Because of this, we can see that the production of records never really comes to a full halt, and also that they start to come back strong in our time. Several years have gone by from the first boom of digital distribution of music, and yet for all its convenience, we find that turntables and all sorts of record players are now starting a resurgence. We see new brands and models, a lot of excellent features are added to these machines to make them comply with current audio equipment. These new record players are still, at their core, the same as they were several decades ago. They serve as a way to keep alive thousands of recordings and collections.
It is very common to see record players today being offered at music stores as well as online, and you can count on a world of accessories to keep your collection in top shape, too. This is all excellent news for those of us that love the sound that only Vinyl Records can produce.
So, what can we expect to see in the next 20 years? We can never know for sure, but based on what we have seen for over a hundred years this medium is very effective at preserving sound in a very specific way, and that tells us that it is probably here to stay. Technologies will continue to advance, but the record player seems to have been able to find its place among them, staying current and holding its own against the tides of novelty. A lot of artists are now offering Vinyl versions of their recordings, even going through a lot of trouble to keep the journey from performance to record as analog as possible. This could mean that this particular niche has a place in the market.
Even though we all appreciate having hundreds of hours of music available inside our pockets at any time there is still a place for the ritual of getting a record out of its container, popping it in, and sitting down to enjoy it. In a digital and increasingly virtual world, the reassurance of a physical medium that preserves something of the essence of the original performance holds a kind of magic that is hard to ignore for those of us that know about it.
Audio Recording came to stay and changed the world in deep ways, from the old days of cylinders to today not a lot of time has gone by, but there have been incredible leaps in quality and availability.
Until a digital format comes along that can reproduce the quality of a Vinyl Record these will be irreplaceable, and that means that we can add to our collections with confidence. They will probably retain or increase their market value. For most of us, that is not the primary concern. We care about having access to these records and keeping them in shape to enjoy ourselves or in good company. The good thing about records is that no matter what happens with cultural trends or markets they will survive for a very long time in perfect shape if we take care of them. That is part of their appeal and value. It is also something that cannot be taken from them no matter the kind of competition they may face and part of their uniqueness.
We feel that this is one of the best times in history to get into records if you have not done so, there are so many different things available to listen to that it will be impossible to run out of things to explore. Once you get into it you will be hooked, you will not be able to look back. If you feel like taking a stroll through the old recordings you can do so with many historical ones that are archived on the internet for free, too!