The Rise and Fall…and Rise…of the LP
Music aficionados may have noticed how the LP record has been making a comeback in recent years. While record stores are virtually extinct — except for those independent stores specializing in used vinyl — evidence is perhaps most easily found in the music department of any equally-endangered Barnes & Noble or FYE store. B&N has, for several years, been clearing out rows of CD shelves to make room for pressings of both classic LPs and new recordings by top artists. How ironic it is that a slice of our popular culture is taking a deliberate technological step backwards, seemingly forsaking mp3 players and CDs in favor of the humble, grooved (and groovy) 33 1/3 vinyl record.
Here then, is a truncated version of the history of the LP:
Like most modern inventions, the long-playing record of today is the result of an evolution, during which improvements both big and small took place over a number of decades. We’ve all been taught since childhood about Thomas Edison and his 1877 invention. By the early 1880s, Edison had hit upon the idea of using hard wax cylinders to record and play sounds, voices, and music. The cylinders, played at 160 rpm, had their limitations — not the least of which was their short playing time of about two minutes — but proved popular with the public.
Edison was not without his competitors. Other inventors began introducing their own formats of playing back sound and music, including on disk records. “Gramophone” was actually the name given to the first flat recording disks, invented by Emile Berliner in 1889, and necessary improvements led to the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company. A decade later, 10-inch and 12-inch disks appeared on the market, with the 12-inch records still only able to play about four minutes of music. Edison responded with a new, improved cylinder that could play for about the same length of time.
Disks that could play longer — at 78 rpm — were initially developed to accompany motion picture films, serving as their soundtracks, before sound was integrated onto the film itself. When the music 78s were sold to the public, longer classical pieces and pop song collections had to be sold as multi-disk packages, with the record sleeves bound together to create a book-like “album” — a term that we still use today.
In September of 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first long-playing 33 1/3 records for home use, as described in this ad for a disk-changing player. Both 10-and 12-inch records were offered, with the 12-inch boasting a 15-minute capacity on each side (the first release was Beethonven’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).
There was a catch, though. Turntables that accomodated both the 78 and 33 1/3 playing speeds, or special adaptors offered for other players, were expensive, expecially during the Depression. Record sales began plunging. RCA was also sluggish in producing and marketing new titles, and ceased production of the LP format altogether before mid-decade.
Now comes the part of the story that you probably haven’t heard. One of the greatest of modern-day inventors, who has been relegated to virtual obscurity throughout the past 80 years, can be credited with inventing stereo for records and films in the 1930s. His name was Alan Blumlein, a London-born audio engineeer who, while working for EMI in 1931, first proposed and developed a “binaural” recording system for records and film, in which sound could be separated into two distinct audio channels (he got the idea while sitting at a movie theatre with his wife). In 1933, he cut the first stereo disk, containing two such channels, and received its patent that year.
The following year, working at the brand new EMI studios on Abbey Road (yes, that Abbey Road) in London, Blumlein and his team continued their experimental work. Not long after, however, EMI shelved further work on stereo, citing its limited commercial potential (!).
Even so, the rest of Blumlein’s story proves fascinating, and deserves a brief digression. Being the genius that he was, he then went to work on the fledgling medium of television. In 1936, EMI presented the world’s first electronic TV system, which was chosen by the BBC over the groundbreaking but inferior mechanical system developed by the legendary John Logie Baird.
At the outbreak of World War II, Blumlein turned his attention to the highly secret development of radar for the RAF, where he pioneered a technology called H2S, enabling bombers to find their targets through thick cloud cover. Unfortunately, during a 1942 flight intended to further test the H2S system, Blumlein’s plane crashed in Herefordshire, killing all onboard. The top secret nature of his work even prevented his own obituary from being printed in newspapers at the time. He was only 38 years old.
The war years saw continued dominance by 78 rpm records, but in June of 1948, Columbia Records held a well-publicized press conference in New York to unveil the new long-playing 33 1/3 long-playing record, capable of holding over twenty minutes of music on each side. This new, improved version of the original LP helped spur a tremendous resurgence of record sales throughout the U.S. between 1948 and 1958. Sales increased 20 to 25 per cent each year during that period. And, Blumlein’s invention of stereo was revived in the mid-’50s in the U.K and U.S., by both big American record companies (RCA), and small (Remington Records, Decca) in the U.K. Ironically, these companies began to record and sell high-end music, such as classical symphonies, on stereo tape. Before long, it was stereo reel-to-reel tapes, first released by RCA in 1954, that began to attract the attention of audiophiles. For some time, it looked as if stereo tapes would be the next Big Thing. Indeed, it would be another three years before stereo records would finally hit the mass market.
In December of 1957, the first public demonstration of a stereo record for consumers took place at the Times Auditorium in New York. The disk, produced by Audio Fidelity Records, presnted the Dukes of Dixieland on side A, and railroad sound effects on side B. The accompanying publicity campaign prompted other labels to play catch-up in their pursuit of mass producing their own stereo releases. March of 1958 saw the first major stereo releases on records, including Johnny Puleo and his Hamonica Gang, Vol. 1, and Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra.
From that point on, record sales continue to soar, not least among the factors being the rock & roll revolution, which led millions of teenagers to seek out their favorite songs in record sttores after hearing the latest hits on radio. However, it took a full decade for stereo records to secure their place in the recording world, before surpassing mono (the exception being classical music, 90 per cent of which was being recorded in stereo by 1967). But not every consumer was willing to run out and purchase a new stereo system to replace the trusty Hi-Fi set. Stereo needed to earn the trust of the listening public.
And, not every recording artist placed a priority on stereo right away, either. For instance, the Beatles, with their producer George Martin, famously mixed their landmark 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in mono first, taking great care in doing so. When it came time to work on the stereo version, the group wasn’t nearly as interested, leaving that work to Martin, who devoted to it a fraction of the time he had spent for the mono mix.
Interestingly, the August, 1967 issue of Saturday Review, George R. Marek predicted the arrival of a new medium for playing music, in a piece he wrote speculating what records might be like in 1987: “The physical characteristics of a record may be further improved…It may be possible to stamp them from material which cannot be scratched or warped. An electronic device or a laser beam may scan the grooves to assure listeners of getting records without any ‘typographical errors,’ meaning ticks and pops…Perhaps there will be no needle, no mechanical contact of any kind, the sound being picked up by a light beam.”
In hindsight, Marek’s accuracy was astounding (even if he might have been speaking with audio engineers at the time), considering how the research and development of the CD didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid-1970s, when audio engineers for both Phillips Corporation in the Netherlands, and Sony in Japan, began designing working prototypes for a laser-read audio disk. In 1979, the companies joined forces, pooling their respective resources and advances in development of the technology, and arrived at a standarized set of specifications, including disk size, which were approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1980 (and, at some point during this birth of the CD, the spelling of “disk” mysteriously became “disc”).
Meanwhile, audiophiles continued searching for still greater improvements to the sonic quality of their vinyl records. In America, imported pressings from the U.K. and Germany, and premium Original Master Recordings issued on high-quality vinyl, had mavens salivating. As for stereo equipment, a myriad of high-end turntables, speakers, equalizers, and other components, when used in the right combination, did the best they could to heighten the aural experience for those seeking perfection.
But the hype, interest, and genuine excitement preceding the arrival of CDs in American music retail stores gained momentum, leading to the first releases. The first test CD, pressed at the world’s first CD pressing plant (owned by Polydor at the time) near Hannover, Germany, was Richard Strauss’s Enie Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.
By August of 1982, the factory was ready to begin mass production. The first CD to be manufactured there was the 1981 ABBA album The Visitors. However, the first album to be commercially released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street — albeit released initially in Japan only — on October 1, 1982.
Of course, a CD would be useless without something to play it on. Accompanying the release of 52nd Street was Sony’s CDP-101 player. Six months later, on March 2, 1983, CBS records released 16 titles on CD in the U.S. and elsewhere, essentially opening the floodgates for the new format. By the end of the year, over a thousand different titles were available.
In the next few years, improved availability across all musical genres allowed CD prices to drop. The first to sell one million copies was the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, while another major event took place in 1987, with the roll-out of the Beatles’ catalogue of albums in the new medium.
What did this mean for the LP? The vinyl platter wasn’t in danger of obsolescence just yet, but record stores had already begun to clear room in their bins — originally designed for 12-inch albums — to make way for CDs (the packaging for discs in those days was deliberately sized so that two units could fit neatly across a bin slot originally sized for LPs).
The pristine sound of the CD proved tough competition for vinyl records, which had always been susceptible to scratches, ticks, pops, and skipping needles. There were diehards, however, who preferred what has often been described as the “warmer” sound of LPs, and who resisted the cold perfection of the CD sound.
In more recent years, even the CD has proven to be vulnerable, with the age of downloading and streaming music from various etherial sources, apps, and online services. Still, the satisfaction of actually holding a recording artist’s creative work, complete with cover art and liner notes, has persisted among many listeners throughout the past few decades.
Which brings us back to the resurrection of the LP. In June of 2017, Sony Music Entertainment announced that it would begin pressing vinyl records again the following year, for the first time in nearly three decades. The plan included re-fitting a factory near Tokyo with new record-cutting and pressing machines. This was an unmistakably direct response to the growing demand for LPs, from both older and younger generations — some of whom have grown up never having played vinyl records.
In October of 2021, the Recording Industry Association of America reported that 17 million vinyl records were sold in the first half of the year, amounting to $467 million, double the amount for the same period in 2020. In comparison, 16 million CDs were sold in the first half of 2021, worth $205 million. Even so, the New York Times reported that streaming still commands 84 percent of music revenue in the U.S. But many current stars are all in favor of seeing their latest releases on vinyl — Taylor Swift, Adele, and Olivia Rodrigo among them.
Demands for vinyl releases are actually causing a backlog in the pressing plants, far exceeding their ability to produce new LPs on schedule (the plants shutting down due to Covid has been another factor). And, many are still using machinery that was last used to produce the records in the late 1970s. Such a dilemma was considered unlikely as recently as ten years ago, and time will tell whether the resurgence of LPs will ultimately be chalked up as being just another retro-fad, or a genuine return to how we listened to our favorite music in the “old days.” Viva la Vinyl!
Until next time…
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