The First Vinyl Record
Phonograph records were made from shellac which was noisy and didn’t last very long. In 1931 RCA Victor released the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony under the direction of Leopold Stokowski on 12’ vinyl – making it the first vinyl record. Why the Philadelphia Symphony? RCA Victor’s headquarters and main factory were right across the Delaware River in Camden, NJ. Later that year RCA introduced the vinyl 33 1/3 RPM LP, but in the midst of the Great Depression the product was a dismal failure.
Thirty-three and A Third
Seventeen years later, Columbia Records released the first commercially available “microgroove plastic, 12-inch, 33-1/3 LP.” This new technology extended playback time to nearly 22 minutes and was much quieter than shellac. The dawn of the Age of Hi-Fi had come.
Why 33 1/3?
Thomas Edison’s first Victrola’s were hand-cranked – so playback speed varied and the joy of listening to music wore off as soon as your arm got tired. Electric motors were eventually introduced around the turn of the 20th Century and the 78 RPM speed became the standard simply because 3600RPM electric motors with a 46:1 ratio were the most affordable and available motors. At this speed only about five minutes of audio was available per side.
In the 1920s when the first Hollywood movies with sound were released the ten-minute audio platter wasn’t practical to use for motion picture soundtracks. The Vitaphone recording system was introduced which still employed the same 3600RPM motor but with a new gear ratio of 108:1 which resulted in the now-standard 33 1/3 RPM disk.
By the early 1930’s on-film "optical soundtracks" replaced the Vitaphone system for movies, but radio stations loved the new platform for music, so it became the standard in the audio industry.
The Inside Sounds Worse Than the Outside
Have you ever noticed that the best songs on an album are usually reserved for the first one or two track on either side? There’s a reason for this that goes beyond getting your attention: Songs closer to the center of a record sound worse than those on the outside. On the outside of the LP the audio signal is cut across a relatively long section of vinyl resulting in a higher quality sound. Toward the center the grooves get shorter and the music is cut into a much smaller section of vinyl – the smaller the section the lower the fidelity. The needle also changes its angle as it moves inward, making tracking less accurate. That’s why your favorite LPs generally keep the quiet stuff on the inside and the loud stuff on the outside.
Jumping Out of the Groove
Mastering a vinyl record is an arcane art all onto itself. Mastering engineers need to adjust the groove pitch to account for musical dynamics but there are minimum and maximum depths that can be used. If there is too much low frequency information and a lot of other information spread across the stereo field (i.e. both sides of the groove) the stylus is forced out of the out of the groove. If the groove is too shallow and narrow the music loses its stereo image and volume.
Some vinyl lovers claim that records cut on color vinyl sounds worse than records cut on black vinyl. Some also claim that records on colored vinyl skip in sections where there is no skip on the black copy. This is typically an issue with lower quality turntable and cartridges, but even though the groove cut is the same regardless of the color of the vinyl there is some truth to this claim. Standard black vinyl is the quietest in terms of surface noise, followed by transparent colors and opaque colored vinyl. Recycled vinyl, multi-colored or vinyl with designs on it, glow in the dark, and glitter records are much noisier. Since surface noise can tend to make a needle jump the groove there is some merit to the claims.
The best-selling album of 1967 was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles which sold 250,000 copies in the first week in the UK alone. Fifty years later the best-selling vinyl album was Blurryface by Twenty-One Pilots which shifted 49,000 units. The fourth best-selling album in 2016 was The Beatles’ Abbey Road which shifted 39,000 units.
Across the Universe
Voyager I and II are carrying record albums made of copper that are analog time-capsules from the late 1970s (when the spacecraft were launched). The albums contain greetings in fifty-five languages, musical selections from different eras and cultures, and information about where the records came from. Voyager 1 is 12 billion miles and Voyager 2 is 10 billion miles from Earth, making those two records arguably the most widely distributed albums of all time.
The Most Expensive Album That Wasn’t Sent Into Space
A single acetate test pressing of The Velvet Underground & Nico recorded at Scepter Studios in 1967 fetched $25,000 at auction.
You Probably Don’t have the Largest Vinyl Collection on the Planet
In spite of how proud you are over the size of your vinyl collection, a Brazilian billionaire has you beat. His personal collection has over 6,000,000 albums and is growing – he buys out the entire stock of stores that go out of business and he has a staff of buyers that regularly travel to Europe and the United States to buy close-out stock and attend auctions.