Today we are more likely listen to our favourite band via a digital medium, such as compact disc or MP3 files, but in the 1980’s vinyl records still ruled the roost. Cassette Tapes may have been another popular and more portable media format (thanks to the invention of the Walkman) but for home use records were definitely the most popular option.
The humble record was originally invented in 1887 by Emile Berliner, taken the work done on recording sound by Thomas Edison ten years earlier and making it more accessible to the general public. Edison’s solution involved recording sound onto a cylindrical medium, which was cumbersome and hard to manufacture. The record invented by Berliner was basically a flat disc, which was much easier to mass produce, and so the music industry was born.
The first records were made of a material called shellac, which was a resin obtained from the secretions of the lac insect. Sounds disgusting if you ask me. Shellac is a natural plastic that when heated is soft and fluid, but sets hard, so was perfect for creating records. By the 1930’s the use of shellac was phased out in favour of synthetic resins.
Records were initially made to be played at 78 revolutions per minute (RPM), but this speed of rotation could lead to breakages, and it also limited the playing time of a single record, at just 5 minutes for a 12 inch disc. In 1948 technology had progressed to allow the slower 33 RPM record to be produced, allowing around 25 minutes per side. A smaller sized disc followed that played at 45 RPM which allowed the old 78 RPM records to be phased out completely, as the new format could hold the same amount of audio.
By the 1980’s the vinyl record was well established, with albums and LPs (long players) released on the 33 RPM format and singles on 45 RPM. It was always quite amusing to play records back by setting your record player to the wrong RPM setting, so you could make albums sound like they were being sung by the Smurfs, or make singles sound like they were being sung by Bernard Bresslaw.
Unfortunately for vinyl, the compact disc burst onto the market in the mid 1980’s, and vinyl was slowly phased out as CD was more robust. Vinyl records could be scratched all too easily, and they were great attractors of dust. Today vinyl still remains popular with audiophiles, as they feel it produces a truer recording of the original music (personally I can’t tell the difference, but I’m sure they’re right), and it is still popular with club DJs, since they allow some more interesting mixing techniques, the best known of which is probably scratching, the term used to describe wiggling the record back and forth whilst playing to make that odd warbly sound. No prizes for guessing why this technique earned its name!