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Music storage devices have evolved over the years, along with the music itself. We have seen the transitions cylinders to records, from records to 8 tracks, from 8 tracks to tapes, from tapes to CDs, and from CDs to streaming!
Each step along the way has shaped the way we preserve and consume music. One of the oldest music storage mediums around is the record. Some refer to it as vinyl, LP, or just as records.
When one hears the term, most tend to think of a black round disk. However, there is a slight difference between each of the above.
Are vinyl and records the same thing? Records are made from several types of materials in different shapes, colors, and sizes. Vinyl is a specific material that records are made of. However, the terms are often used interchangeably since all modern records are normally made of vinyl.
At first, records were commonly made from shellac material. This changed when polyvinyl chloride was created. When records became increasingly popular, polyvinyl chloride was the most accessible material to make them with.
Over the years, there has been no differentiation between records and vinyl. However, officially vinyl is a type of record.
It can be said that the most popular material used to make a record in a given period is the common term used to identify it. Since in former times, records were popularly known either as shellac records or phonograph-records.
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Analog Versus Digital Music Storage Mediums
As mentioned before, music and how we store music has evolved over time. At first, we had analog music storage devices that used mechanical systems to store sound. This form of storage was used to create phonographs and phonautograms.
Then electric power came into being that made way for electronic techniques for analog music storage. This caused wire recording and tape records to be developed and increased the home entertainment industry.
Analog music storage systems keep music in or on a device as a continuous sound, versus digital storage that represents sound as discrete numbers.
Analog Music Storage Devices
Mechanical analog music recordings originated from phonautograms. The design had a horn or tube attached to a stylus with a sharp head that vibrated with the sound signal.
One had to speak or play directly into the horn or pipe to create a stable enough vibration for the sound to be inscribed on the surface of a gramophone, phonograph, or vinyl record.
Electronic analog music recordings created cassette tapes and wire recordings. The first wire recording was done using a telegraphone or wire recorder. This machine was created by Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen who used electromagnetism through steel wire wrapped around a bass drum to record sound.
The process is similar to what is used for radio broadcast and telephones, where an electronic signal is transmitted from one form to another (sound). While the telegraphone had an exciting recording process, it was challenging and dangerous to maintain and produced poor sound recordings.
Cassettes had magnetic coated polyester-type strips inside of them that were sensitive to soundwaves. The tape was encased in a rectangular plastic casing. Inside were two reels, one with a roll of a cassette tape, and the other was empty except for a piece of the tape attached to it.
This design allowed for reel-to-reel audio tape recording. The tape spins from one reel to the other to either record, play, or erase the sounds on it.
Even though cassette tapes allowed for sound to either be recorded or erased, it still had flaws. Tape speed was predetermined by manufacturers, which consumers were unable to change.
This affected overall sound quality since the devices used to play the tapes also had different rotation speeds. Sound frequencies were either too high or too low or had a lot of noise.
The tape was also prone to tangling as well, which made inventors seek more convenient ways to store music.
Digital Music Storage
With the rise of technology came the digital age and another evolution of music. While analog recordings stored music as a continuous sound, digital recordings estimated digital signals into distinct numbers.
Some were stored on physical mediums like compact discs (CDs), which transformed the Walkman from using tapes to CDs. Most digital musical storages are accessed through digital audio recordings, online music stores, and internet file sharing.
A Brief History of Records
A record is a music storage medium on a flat disc with modulated spiral grooves on the surface. When placed on a record player, a stylus runs along the grooves and plays the sounds stored on the device. The grooves usually begin at the edge of the disc and end in the middle.
Vinyl records became possible through the creation of tinfoil phonographs by Thomas Edison in 1877.
Tinfoil phonographs were created to record and playback sound. After soundwaves were recorded by phonautograms, which were created in 1860 by Edouard-Leon Scott, but could not be replayed.
The phonautograph transcribed soundwaves to paper or glass to visually demonstrate sound.
It is unclear whether Edison had seen this invention, but he created the phonograph that recorded and played sound. The designs were similar, both had a tube where the sound went in, attached to a stylus that vibrated and inscribed the soundwaves on the material inside the device.
Edison first tried to inscribe on wax paper, but no evidence proves it could be replayed. Several months later, he found success when he switched to wax paper with tinfoil wrapped around a grooved metal cylinder.
This invention showed that not only could sound be recorded, but also replayed.
Edison created many versions of this phonograph that could play a cylinder and disc sound recording. Due to the poor sound quality, this early version of the phonograph was only used for displays.
Edison was prompted to try other materials and created a hollow wax cylinder along with an improved phonograph to record and play sounds with.
This design was more durable than previous prototypes and catapulted the mass-produced sound recording industry during the late 1880s.
Even though Edison had experimented with disc recording, it was the wax phonograph cylinder that dominated the market. During this time, Emile Berliner created a device called the gramophone, which used discs to record music.
These were lateral-cut discs made in the United States of America and sold only in Europe. The discs were approximately 5 inches in diameter and played on a hand-cranked machine, but produced shallow sound quality.
Moreover, the gramophone and discs were used mainly as toys or displays at that time until Berliner reinvented them in 1894.
Both creations co-existed in the market, but Edison’s phonograph dominated until the 1910s. By this time, Berliner had partnered with another man who helped improve the gramophone and discs.
However, both were dominated by Blue Amberol Records that was made from a plastic material called celluloid and was more durable than both Edison’s and Berliner’s creations.
In 1919 the patent for laser-cut discs expired, which allowed more companies to copy the design. Each company used different materials and coatings, but shellac became the most popularly used material after a while.
Though it was brittle, it was easily accessible until World War II.
Mailing shellac records was risky because of their brittleness and supplies drastically reduced during the Second World War. Then polyvinyl chloride became more accessible, and vinyl records were made.
Vinyl records were more durable and produced better sound quality. They could be shipped or mailed without breaking but were prone to scratches and dents. Nevertheless, vinyl was now the preferred analog record-making material and has been ever since.
Although music has changed a lot over the years, in recent years records have been making a comeback. Many people enjoy the superior sound that they produce while other people like the nostalgia of having an item from many decades ago.
As of recent years it has been the younger generation that has brought about the revival of records (as evidenced in the video below).
Records and vinyl are terms that are often used interchangeably especially in modern times. Originally records were not called vinyl since they weren’t made of vinyl for the first few decades of their use.
Although it is not absolutely correct to refer to all records as vinyl, most records that are being produced now are all made of vinyl material.