The 70th Anniversary of The Vinyl LP: Part 2

by Jack B. Stephens

More By Jack B. Stephens

In the first part of this series, we covered the beginning of the types of recorded format which included the phonograph cylinder and the first flat record known as the 78rpm. These formats would eventually lead to what we now know as the vinyl LP, which we are celebrating the 70th Anniversary of this year. The typical vinyl LP is 12 inch in size, plays at a speed of 33 1/3 rounds per minute (rpm), is black in color and contains many minutes of recorded material. Although these records have been known by many names such as albums, vinyl and 33 1/3s; the tag LP is key to what made this format the most popular of all then and now. LP stands for “Long Playing” which was something that the cylinder and the 78 were not capable of since they could only contain a short amount of recorded material. We will now investigate how the vinyl LP came into existence.

Phonograph cylinders and 78rpm flat records suffered one major common flaw. That was that they could only accommodate a very limited amount or recorded material. Typically, most could only hold 3 to 4 minutes of information. At a time when classical was the most popular musical genre, this limitation created a problem for listeners although most people were willing to deal with it since there was no other way to enjoy their favorite works. Composers, record labels and developers were aware of this flaw however and sought to overcome it. In fact, classical music was the main reason that research and development began on creating a format that would allow listeners to enjoy the entire movement of a symphony without having to get up and down to switch 78rpm minutes every few minutes.

There were other problems with the 78 as well such as less than spectacular sounding playback and fragility with the shellac on which they were recorded. One drop of a 78 usually resulted in a record being shattered into many pieces. In fact, 78s were often broken into pieces simply during storage. Developers for record labels and musicians sought to overcome this short time limit and the fragility of the shellac material used to record the material on. The also strived to come up with a better sounding experience for their listeners.

The solution for addressing the limited amount of time available on a 78 was a longer playing record. RCA Victor began working on a solution in the 1930s and did in fact create a long-playing 12-inch record made from a flexible plastic vinyl known as Victrolac that played at a speed of 33 1/3 rpm. These early vinyl records were able to accommodate considerably more recorded material due to closely spaced grooves. Another noticeable benefit was that they had much less surface noise than the shellac 78. Vinyl had been used briefly for 78s during World War II when shellac supplies were limited; however, at the time it was not seen as the material that would eventually become the industry standard. The RCA Victor records, known as “Program Transcription” discs were commercially available; however, they were not successful due to their high cost and the lack of affordable equipment available for good playback. The discs needed to be played with a smaller needle due to the smaller grooves and the majority of phonographs of the time did not have this capability. Therefore, the sound quality was lacking and consumers did not jump on the bandwagon. This was also during the Great Depression when consumers did not have the type of money to spend on records and equipment.

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However, Columbia Records was also interested in using vinyl for a narrow grooved long-playing record. They began work on improving the recording and playback as well as developing a less expensive and more reliable playback system for consumers. This work would result in the prototype of what we now know as the Vinyl LP.

The result was the first true Vinyl LP produced on June 21, 1948, by Columbia Records which was unveiled at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City at a press conference. That LP was “Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor” performed by Nathan Milstein with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. This event represented a huge development since before the LP came into being, 78 RPM records were the standard format for recorded music. This new 33 1/3 RPM record could hold up to 20 minutes of recorded material instead of 3-4 minutes. As previously noted, during this time period classical music was the most popular form of music and no piece lasted only 3 to 4 minutes. The LP meant people could buy the whole piece on one side of an album and they did not have to continue to get up to switch records. The sound quality of vinyl was also superior. The 33 1/3 LP was made possible because of a slower speed plus a narrower groove than the 78 RPM. This new type of groove is often referred to as the microgroove.

Another big advantage was that the materials used to make the vinyl LP were considerably more durable resulting in less frequent breakage. The majority of vinyl records are made from a substance named polyvinyl chloride. The material is flexible and not brittle like the shellac used in the making of 78s. This meant that a vinyl record being dropped or mishandled would typically not shatter leaving loss as well as a gap in the piece. Vinyl records are more prone to warping and scratching if mistreated than the 78; however, this was a small price to pay for the benefits offered by the long-playing record.

There was still demand for what we now call singles and in 1949 this new type of vinyl was used to record them. However, this invention initially began as a competing vinyl format produced by RCA Victor and was part of the rivalry between the company and Columbia. The discs were 7 inches in size and became known as 45rpm Extended Play (EP) records which like the 33 1/3 LP also had a smaller groove, required a smaller stylus needle and played at a slower speed than the 78. This created what was known as “The War of the Speeds” between the two competing companies. However, the battle was short since the EP was not a huge success. The end result was that the 33 1/3 became the predominant format for longer playing albums and the 45 became the preferred method for shorter duration recordings which we now know as singles containing one song on each side of the disc.

The 45 did have the ability to contain longer amounts of recorded material; however, the majority of 45s typically remained as rather short songs. A major reason that single 45s remained short in time is that they were not considered radio friendly. It was actually considered a bad thing if a single lasted more than 3 or 4 minutes as far as radio was concerned. Singles lasting 5 minutes or more were often frowned upon and not played. There were much longer songs released on 45 throughout the years that were huge hits on radio. Most notably is The Beatles biggest hit “Hey Jude” which lasted more than 7 minutes. Interestingly enough, this 45rpm single celebrated its 50th Anniversary on August 26th, 2018.

Vinyl became the king of mass produced music recordings by the 1950s and while 78s were still being produced they were quickly fading into oblivion. There were several years that singles were released on both 78s as well as vinyl 45s. One reason for this duplication was because jukeboxes were extremely popular during this era and many were designed to play the 78rpm format. There were also older consumer phonographs that did not play the newer vinyl formats. The vinyl format uses a much smaller needle than the shellac 78 because of the narrow grooves. The new phonographs beginning in the 1950s typically contained two types of needles that could be easily switched simply by flipping the needle to whatever format was playing, one for vinyl records and one for 78s. It was always extremely important to use the correct needle to avoid damage to the record. These phonographs also were capable of playing four speeds which were 16, 33, 45 and 78.

The vinyl LP was and is the most successful of any of the recording formats although there have always been competing formats which have come and gone during this 70-year period. I have already spoken about several of the reasons why this is the case. We will continue to explore many interesting competing formats that were developed during all of these years in future articles in this series. We will also discuss other aspects of the LP that contributes to its success such as the sound quality that has never been reproduced, the artwork that graces its outer and inner covers, the concept album which would not have been possible without the increased time limit, the eventual fall of the vinyl LP along with its resurgence and many other factors as we continue this series.

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