The story of the LP (long playing) record lies at the heart of recording history.
The first widespread pre-recorded music device was the player piano with large punched paper rolls, (cumbersome to load, apt to tear) which brought "recorded" music into homes throughout America and the world.
The most renowned pianists, in all musical genres, played in your parlor at the touch of a button or pull of a lever. The notes and timing were identical to their original performance, however, the subtleties of emphasis and shading could not be captured. Player piano rolls were a simplified, early hint of our digital system of “1's” and “0's.” The key was struck when a row of “feelers,” very lightly pressed against the paper roll, found an opening and activated the corresponding key on the piano; "on"/"off" without nuance.
Turn of the Century (19th-20th) player piano
Piano Roll Detail
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the first pre-recorded, home playback system with his wax cylinder -- sized and looking somewhat like a narrow roll of black toilet paper, only half the diameter. The cylinder was driven by a mechanical windup motor which rotated the wax cylinder at a more-or-less constant speed while an acoustic playback head, nested in the groove, picked up minor changes in depth and converted these hills and dales into acoustic energy which was, in turn, fed into the familiar acoustic horn. Previewing the early 50s slugfest of the Columbia LP vs. the 7" 45 RCA Disc, Edison had competition and lawsuits with his rivals (incl. Alexander Graham Bell) who had "invented" their own cylinder system. You guessed it -- none of these systems were compatible with each other.
Early Edison Cylinder Phonograph with Wax Cylinders
The most promising and intelligent advance came ten years later (1888) with a one-two punch of thoughtful invention by Emile Berliner. Berliner, clearly aware of the cylinder’s limitations -- complicated to record and produce in quantity -- chose to record on a flat disc which offered significant advantages. The disc's grooves would form a compact spiral, one of the most efficient means for information storage. A shellac (later vinyl) biscuit of raw material would be slipped into a press between the A-Side and B-Side record labels (the press itself resembled a large, round waffle iron, only with far more pressure and heat) and the switches thrown. The press closed, and the metal molds would “press” the grooves into the material. The press would open, the molded record would be removed, and the rough circular edge trimmed or beveled.
Berliner's basic concept would be incorporated into every physical record produced since that time, up to and including the CD, DVD and Blu-Ray™!
The first vinyl LP to come off a press at the CBS laboratory occurred on February 27, 1946. It took two additional years for problems with mastering, cutterhead mechanics, corrective equalization for the inner grooves (where the same amount of information is packed into ever shorter spaces), and vinyl formulations to be resolved. The initial LPs, released in time for Christmas 1948, were already quieter and contained a fidelity and dynamic range much improved over their shellac 78 rpm parents.
Mastering engineers, like Peter Bartok, modified existing equipment to insure a cleaner, more powerful dynamic range to the cutterhead. Experimentation was everywhere and audio engineers happily shared their techniques because it improved the breed.
Peter Bartok mastering an Elektra LP circa 1955
Bernie Grundman mastering facility of today. Note tube power amplifiers, lower right
Milestones in LP disc development include the “hot stylus.” A resistive tungsten wire, very much like the filament of a light bulb, was tightly wound around the stylus’ metal shank and current run though it. Thus heated, the stylus cut smoothly through the acetate coated aluminum disc which ensured a much quieter master disc.
Equally important was the installation of a playback advance head, reading the tape a few precious seconds ahead of the music. It previewed the music, looking for high energy passages. When a loud section was detected a message was sent to the servo controlled lathe screw urging the lathe to hurry up and widen the “land” between adjacent grooves thus preventing those grooves from running into each other and making possible a longer, long playing record.
In the early 50s, the LP was given a tremendous boost by the demand for Original Cast Albums of hit Broadway shows, especially, "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady." The LP was the ideal format for the Broadway musical.
The success of the vinyl LP encouraged small indie labels to record unusual repertoire and ship it without fear of breakage. The LP, together with high quality microphones and truly portable tape recorders meant you didn’t need a studio to make sonically competitive recordings. You could do it as well as the majors, maybe better. And you could do it yourself. This motivated independent record entrepreneurs to broaden the range and direction of music during the 35+ years of LP dominance. The indies were experimental, open and hungry. They dug deeply into jazz, folk, spoken word and chamber music offering more choices, better recorded, to a wider range of tastes and interests.
In 1956 Westrex invented a method of encoding two substantially separate signals into a single groove which offered vastly improved sonic imaging of the original performance via stereo. Artists like, the Beatles, made excellent use of stereo to enhance the impact of their repertoire. When Sgt. Pepper was released, mono laggards quickly switched to stereo and headsets, not wishing to miss a hidden subtlety.
Peter Goldmark, who led the LP development initiative at CBS labs, told me that the impetus for the LP came from his constantly interrupted listening to a Mozart symphony. Every four to five minutes the music stopped, another record would plop from the top of the changer stack onto the turntable below and the interruption and changer noises drove him crazy. Why can’t we get it all on one record he wondered?
The LP, for all of its influence and prominence, was more of an adaptation than a from-the-ground-up design. 33 1/3 had been a standard playback speed in every radio station worldwide, used for playing recorded transcriptions of radio broadcasts and commercials, though on much larger 16” diameter discs.
To achieve its longer playing time the LP was slowed down from 78 rpm to 33 1/3 (gaining 57%) and by narrowing the playback stylus by 2/3rds, ( to .001 in.) the LP achieved space economies sufficient to hold 20+ minutes per side.
One of the first three LP's to ever leave a press
Note label copy detail and inscription from Dr. Goldmark to Jac Holzman
It takes smarts and a controlled ego not to reinvent everything. The vinyl LP could be molded in the very same presses as the older 78’s. Indeed, only a new disc player was necessary and Columbia accelerated LP acceptance by giving away a rather nifty player in a solid Bakelite shell equipped with a gentle cobra-like playing arm, if you purchased only five LP’s. The new LP players were initially hooked up to existing radios with a simple LP/Radio switch custom installed. The concept worked, and millions of serious music listeners were the winners… and so were potential indie record labels, including Elektra.
Columbia LP attachment to radio or amplifier. Buy just five LP's and the player was free)
Standard pop music record sleeve
Without the creation of the LP, my life, and this Elektra60.com website would never have happened.
The vinyl LP and high quality analog tape recording lived harmoniously together from 1948 until 1983 when the first CD’s came to market. Once stereo LPs had became the norm, people upgraded their sound systems and these systems, already in place, hastened the adoption of CD’s. All you required was a CD playback device that connected via the input jacks already on your amplifier or receiver.
The Ultimate LP - Gold Layered Voyager Disc, sent into space in 1978. It's still out there! An Elektra/Nonesuch track of Japanese Shakuhachi (flute) music is featured
The CD was the first all digital disc. If a master had originally been recorded on tape, as almost all were, the analog tape was converted into a digital master, which activated a strong laser that burned tiny pits into a reflective stream representing the “0s” and “1s” of binary code. Digital recordings are really a series of superfast “samplings,” taking 44,000 sonic pictures a second of the tonal envelope: loudness and all the shadings of frequency. The more frequent the samples and the larger the “word” length (think of word length as a bigger container capable of storing more samples) the truer the recording or re-recording. And all these micron sized pits are neatly laid out in Berliner’s original, ingenious spiral.
The CD was also a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a near perfect digital representation of the original master. Indeed, it was a master copy, no longer locked safely in the record company vaults but cached in millions of record collections.
Sixteen years later, the arrival of the MP3 codec (coder/decoder) and Shawn Fanning’s Napster, would allow these sleeping “masters” to be “ripped” and transmitted in files one tenth the size of the original CDs. The sound was compromised but it birthed iPods, iTunes, and unrestricted file sharing, and further spurred the design of high speed modems and bigger transmission pipes -- DSL, cable modems and fiber optics -- to handle today’s flow of music, words and images, both legal and illegal.
Happily, the LP is alive again and doing well. Serious music fans appreciate its warmer, sensual sound, the heavier pressings (180 grams) and the delicious tactile feel of vinyl. Established equipment manufacturers are offering updated turntables with both conventional RCA plugs for analog listening but also with built-in Analog/Digital converters and a standard USB connector to plug directly into your computer.
Your analog vinyl LP is now welcome in the digital universe, while still retaining its immortal soul.
The following photo essay will walk you through the vinyl pressing process...
Our thanks to Record Technology, Camarillo, CA, for their help in presenting this story. All photos by Kurt Triffett.
Cleaning the original acetate master before it is silvered
Silvering the lacquer/acetate master in preparation for growing the additional metal parts used in manufacture
The delicate silvered lacquers are pre-plated at this stage
Separating the metal "stamper" from its "mother". The stamper embeds the grooves into the heated and pressurized vinyl
Trimming excess metal from the stamper edge
Determining the precise center of the stamper. A concentric stamper is essential to an LP free of "wow"
Part of the press room at Record Technology in Camarillo, California. All RecordTech presses are automatic for precise molding
A vinyl "biscuit" soon to become a treasured LP
The press awaits the "A" and "B" side labels and the vinyl biscuit
The "sandwich" of metal "B" side stamper, "B" side label, vinyl biscuit, "A" side label and metal "A" side stamper
The record being molded. Temperature, pressure and timing of the press cycle are critical
Listening room quality control also includes microscopic examination of the LP groove structure
Gloved hands perform a visual inspection before discs are inserted into their protective sleeves