As we continue our celebration of the 70th Anniversary of The Vinyl LP, it is important, interesting and informative to recognize the various recorded formats that preceded it, competed against it, and tried to take the Vinyl LP down. When the majority of people think of records or whatever term they may use, they think of three types. Those are the 10-inch 78rpm, the 12-inch 33 1/3rpm and the 7-inch 45rpm. These are definitely the standards; however, after the phonograph cylinder faded and the flat record came into existence there were actually several sizes, speeds, vinyl groove types and other material types that were developed. The ones we will cover here did not ever become standards, but that was not due to a lack of trying. Some were predicted to become new ways of listening to music; however, none ever lived up to that hype. Some caught on for a short period of time only to fade into obscurity. However, these are not only interesting, but they are also an important part of recorded music history. It is also important to cover more than just than the shellac of the 78 and the vinyl of the LP in explaining the endurance of this format. To gain a true appreciation, we must also explore the media that was not shellac or vinyl, such as magnetic tape and laser.
The first format we will cover is one that was briefly mentioned in the article about 78rpm records. That was the Edison Diamond Disc which existed from 1912 until 1929 and was marketed by Thomas A. Edison, Inc on the Edison Record label. At first glance they appear to be a thick cut 78rpm 10-inch shellac flat record; however, they were certainly not typical 78s. First off, they are a quarter of an inch thick which was considerably greater than a normal 78. The thickness of course also made them more durable. They were more likely to chip than to shatter into a million pieces. They were made to revolve at around 80rpm and were manufactured starting with a wood-flour core which was bonded to a celluloid base and then sprayed with a condensate.
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These types of records were supposed to be played only on the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph which had a permanent conical diamond stylus. They were incompatible with lateral groove record players such as the Victor Victrola. I had my first encounter with some of these one Christmas morning when I was growing up. I opened up a present and inside were these records that I had never seen before. I wasn’t sure what to say. My parents had been to an estate sale at some very old house and found these. They were quite remarkable and I still have them. I actually did try playing them. They did play which is surprising since I now know they shouldn’t have. This is because of the way the grooves were made. They have what is known as hill and dale or vertical grooves meaning that they played in an up and down mode similar as that used for the older cylinder records. Other records of the time contained side to side or lateral grooves and the stylus played at a right angle to the surface of the record. Using a phonograph with the steel needles of the time or the types of needles that would come later would result in damage to the records. In addition, playing them with the wrong needles and equipment resulted in hardly any sound coming from them. However, even though the format produced higher quality and fidelity, they eventually failed because of the proprietary nature of having to have the Edison phonograph plus the higher cost of the records and the equipment to play them on. The selection of artists recording them was also somewhat limited especially since Edison himself picked who and what he wanted recorded. One type of music that was not included was jazz which was very popular during the era. As a note to serious collectors of record formats, there were some 12-inch Diamond discs manufactured in 1926 which were, in fact, long-playing records containing 40 minutes of music. These are very rare and valuable so grab them up immediately if you ever see any.
Another obsolete format is the 16 2/3 record mainly in the 1950s and 1960s. These are normally referred to as 16rpm records. They played very slowly but could contain up to 20 minutes of audio per side. Typically, they were a vinyl 7-inch recording; however, the size was not standard as they were also made in sizes of 9, 10 and 12 inches. The larger records could contain even more time. Due to the slow speed, the sound quality was typically poor and most were used for spoken word. There were some that were used for background music in stores, restaurants and the like. Radio stations often used these pre-recorded discs for shows, interviews, and documentaries.
The 16rpm does have some claims to fame though. What was known as “Talking Books” were manufactured for the blind which was the forerunner of the audiobook that later became popular for many except they were on different recorded formats. Children’s books were also sometimes recorded on this format. A major developer of the 16 2/3 format was the Seeburg Corporation which created the Seeburg 1000 Background Music Machine. This system used a 9-inch vinyl record with a middle hole similar to that of a 45rpm disc and played at 16rpm. Both the records and this system are very rare. The 16rpm record was also used for the short-lived, but interesting concept of a record player in a car. Chrysler created Highway Hi-Fi which allowed a record player to be installed in a car. Although the idea was met with huge interest, it was not a successful venture and only lasted from 1956 to 1958. Sales of the 16rpm format were always low and they were hard to find. Many record stores never bothered to even carry them. Most were for commercial use only which again were used by radio stations. However, most turntables contained the 16rpm setting all the way through the 1970s. The majority of people didn’t even really know what that speed was for. The speed was somewhat of a mystery to most. During the time that turntables contained various speeds, particularly the 16 and 78 settings, it was often a form of entertainment for younger people to play 45s and 33 1/3s at these other speeds. I will admit that my friends and I often did this and got several laughs from the practice.
Pathe Records was actually a business founded by Charles and Emile Pathe who were two brothers in France. They followed a similar path as did Edison and actually began with selling phonographs by Edison and Columbia along with cylinder records made by these companies. However, they began experimenting and designing their own phonographs and pre-recorded cylinders using elements from the aforementioned companies. They started selling these in 1894 and expanded with offices and recording studios in other countries. Pathe Records eventually became the largest manufacturer of cylinder records and phonographs in France. However, they never made much headway outside of Paris. By the early 1900s, they changed from manufacturing the phonograph cylinder to the flat disc as this format became more popular. They used some unusual techniques for recorded material to be different as well as to avoid patent infringement from companies such as Edison and Columbia. One of their most interesting early developments in 1906 was a flat record in which larger than normal grooves were recorded vertically instead of side to side which was somewhat similar to the Edison Diamond Disc. To play these, the listener needed special equipment which was made by the company. These discs played at 90rpm and what made them very unusual was that the discs played in a quite different pattern from the norm. Instead of playing like other flat records, the beginning of the first groove started near the center of the disc and played outwards instead of inwards. By 1916, this practice was discontinued; however, Pathe Records continued to produce other unusual formats with their major claim to fame being the creation of the largest flat records of all time. These were made from shellac and some were quite large at 20 inches in diameter although there were various sizes pressed. The 20-inch records normally played at a speed of 120rpm although some ranged from 80 to 100rpm. These large records played on a phonograph called the Pathephone Majestic. However, the large size did not add anything to the quality of sound plus they were really too big to be considered practical. They were also very fragile and more expensive than other flat records. The large records never reached much commercial success. Pathe Records existed until the late 1920s when they merged with the American Record Corporation in 1929. What made Pathe so interesting is actually what brought them down. Simply stated, the company experimented with so many different sizes, speeds and formats that there were several compatibility issues as well as confusion for buyers and listeners.
The Electrical Transcription Disc was also quite large with a size of 16 inches in diameter. These were mainly used for radio broadcasts and played at a speed of 33 1/3rpm. The audio quality of the format was quite high. Each side of the Transcription Disc could contain up to 15 minutes of audio which was actually not much considering the size of the record. The reason for this was that they had really wide grooves which improved the audio quality which was something that radio stations wanted. They also had very large spaces between songs which was yet another plus for radio broadcasts. There were also no songs placed near the label to prevent any distortion. The wide grooves were particularly important to radio stations since they gave the disc jockey the ability to cue up another song during commercials or other breaks in the broadcast. However, this was later achieved by DJs having two or more turntables on which they could have various records cued up to prevent any dead air time. Magnetic tape also came into existence with the reel to reel tape player. New ways of accomplishing a successful radio broadcast killed the Transcription Disc plus this type of format was rarely used for commercial purposes.
The 7-inch 45rpm record was released in 1949 by RCA shortly after Columbia released the 33 1/3rpm 12-inch Vinyl LP. Columbia actually released the 45rpm record the same year as RCA, but RCA initially became more known for them. They were seen as a replacement for the 78rpm since they were much more durable, smaller and like the 33 1/3 album contained much higher quality sound. This makes sense because they are both made the same materials and contain the same type grooves as the Vinyl LP. In the first pressings of the 45rpm, they were made of colored vinyl with each color representing a different type of music. There was a total of seven colors used. This practice was soon discontinued. The 45rpm is a true single and is what music charts such as the Billboard Hot 100 once represented. In fact, Billboard did not allow any single to be on the Hot 100 that was not physically released as a 45rpm until the beginning of 1999. Singers and bands would often release a 45rpm single in advance of an album. The single would often be the promotion of the album and would be what would push the album up the charts. However, that was not their only claim to fame. Many artists never had an album, but several of them did have singles. Sometimes, consumers simply wanted to buy that one song that they heard on the radio instead of buying an entire album. In fact, it is rather interesting that what fueled the idea of people downloading singles on the Internet in recent years is quite similar to what the 45rpm single delivered.
Later, in the 1970s, 12-inch 45rpm singles were released and used by DJs for extended dance mixes. These actually are still made for DJ use. There were also several of these released for extended mixes of other types of music besides dance. I actually consider the 45rpm single as the sibling to the Vinyl LP since they are so closely related. I continue to think that the 45rpm will eventually be back in production. There are still some made, but I believe the demand is greater than what is being produced. Along with the Vinyl LP, the 45rpm is the most collected as far as recorded formats go.
The Pocket Disc made by Americom Corporation debuted in 1968. These flex discs were only 4 inches in size and were paper thin. The idea, as well as the name, came from the fact that the records were small enough so that they could be carried in someone’s pocket. Due to their less fragile nature, they could also ship well in a standard envelope as well. Although they could technically play on a standard record player at 45rpm, Philco actually created a special portable record player on which to play them. The company also manufactured the discs and referred to them as “Hip Pocket Records”. There were actually several record labels that participated in this new format and many artists recorded them. The discs could be found in vending machines and counter displays for as little as 39 cents. However, the Pocket Disc had several major flaws including a time limit of a little more than 3 minutes of music per side, very low audio quality and a lot of difficulty playing them on a regular turntable. Although, artists such as The Beatles, Steppenwolf, The Doors, Sonny and Cher, Aretha Franklin and other artists of the time period did record them they were a commercial flop and lasted for only one year during 1968 to 1969. The idea sounded good at first, but this was also a time that artists were creating longer songs and wanted better, not worse, sound quality. This was possible on a 45rpm as well as a 33 1/3 LP, but not on a Pocket Disc. For example, the Beatles released their best-selling single “Hey Jude” in 1968 which lasted over 7 minutes and was the number one song of the year. A single of this length would simply not fit in its entirety on a Pocket Disc.
The Quadraphonic Record and Stereo System were launched with huge fanfare in 1971. It was marketed as the greatest leap forward in audio sound that would change the way people listened to music; however, it never gained the popularity that was expected. Instead of the typical stereo sound which operated on the right and left channels and was a huge success in the 1960s, quadraphonic sound operated on four separate sound signals which consisted of two left channels and two right channels. These included left front, left back, right front and right back. The records for the system were manufactured from 1971 to 1979. One of the big problems was compatibility with existing stereo systems. If someone did not have the quadraphonic system or a special decoder, then they would simply hear the stereo sound they were used to on these records. It was the first attempt though at Surround Sound which was obviously quite a success. I actually remember being at Sears when they had a quadraphonic stereo system with the four speakers placed in the ceiling corners of the department. It was quite impressive. Much later, I worked in the music department at Sears and was lucky enough to find one of these systems in the store which I still have. The only problem is that not many quadraphonic records were made.
Besides shellac and vinyl, there have been other competitors alongside the Vinyl LP which still remains the king of all recorded music despite repeated attempts to drive it into obscurity. The endurance of the Vinyl LP is truly amazing as we continue to see. These other formats include magnetic tape which was what led some of the formats we have discussed earlier in this article to fade out of existence. We also must explore a laser format, namely the Compact Disc, which came close to the extinction of the Vinyl LP.
The Reel-to-Reel Tape was the first magnetic tape sound reproduction produced. It was originally developed for non-commercial use as far back as the late 1920s mainly for spoken word. The first prerecorded music reel-to-reel tapes were not introduced in the United States until 1949. The Reel-to-Reel Player worked with two reels, with one containing the recording and the other reel being empty providing the take-up reel. The magnetic tape from the source was loaded through and under the tape head and attached to the take-up reel. Although the sound quality was quite good, few artists released titles on the format. Several record labels released Reel-to-Reel tapes including RCA and EMI. EMI released several titles by the 1960s although there were still not many artists represented. Sales remained poor since they were more expensive than the Vinyl LP and more cumbersome for the listeners who had to not only by the player but also had to thread the tape through various guides and rollers from one reel to the other. This proved to be a complicated process by the casual listener. By the 1970s, Reel-to-Reel tapes had pretty much disappeared from the market especially due to the introduction of the 8-Track Tape and Cassette.
The 8-Track Tape is a magnetic tape recording that was first created in 1964 and was first known as Stereo 8. There were other earlier attempts at creating an endless loop tape cartridge that were not successful. The technology was popular from 1964 through the mid-1980s. One of the main reasons for its creation was to house the tape within a cartridge so that the user did not have to go through the process of loading and threading as was the case with the Reel-to-Reel tapes. Another big reason for the interest in its creation which contributed to its huge success was the idea of having a music system in automobiles. As we discussed earlier in this article, this was first attempted with 16 2/3rpm records using Highway Hi-FI which was introduced by Chrysler in the late 1950s. Although that system was a huge commercial flop, the idea remained in focus due to the fast-growing automobile industry. The 8-Track Tape proved a success and achieved this idea. Ford began offering the 8-Track Tape players as a factory installed option for some of its models in 1966 which proved successful. This led to all Ford models offering the option by 1967. Because of the growing popularity of the 8-Track, other automobile manufacturers followed suit. Listeners began to want the 8-Track system in their homes as well so that they could take the tape from their cars to their homes. However, there was another magnetic tape system that had been developed at about the same time as the 8-Track called the Compact Cassette which was smaller and actually had more desirable qualities for the listener.
For whatever reason, the Cassette was slower to gain attention than the 8-Track Tape, but that would soon change. 8-Track Tapes had some rather irritating qualities such as switching tracks in the middle of songs and sometimes getting jammed causing the music to stop. It was fairly common for people to have to use items such as cardboard, matchbooks and similar items to be stuck under the tapes to keep them playing. By the late 1970s, 8-Track tape players were becoming less popular in both cars and homes as Cassettes became more common. 8-Track Tapes were pretty much phased out of music and department stores in the early 1980s but did remain fairly popular until later in the decade.
The Compact Cassette was another magnetic tape sound reproduction which actually arrived in early 1963 slightly before the 8-Track Tape; however, it was much slower in gaining popularity. This may have had something to do with the automobile being heavily involved in the creation of the 8-Track for their dream of a music system in a car. The Cassette was actually designed for dictation machines and attention to sound quality was not as pronounced as the 8-Track which may have been another reason for its initial slow growth. However, as manufacturers discovered the potential of the Cassette, more attention was given to increasing the fidelity and by 1968 the first Cassette players were designed for use in automobiles. However, the 8-Track was still the king of magnetic recording and its decline would not happen until later in the 1970s. During the 1970s, music and department stores typically had several large cases of 8-Track tapes for sale along with a very small case for cassettes.
Popular artists of the time would always release a new album on both Vinyl and 8-Track, but many did not bother with the Cassette. However, as the sound quality of the Cassette increased, they began to be seen as a more convenient, effective and portable way of listening to music. There were several benefits to the Cassette including a smaller size, the lack of a song being split in half during playback which was common on the 8-Track as it switched tracks and the lack of jamming. Also, Cassettes became popular as far as making your own tapes for the car and the home. Some 8-Track Tape decks were made that allowed the user to record their own tapes; however, this never became as popular as it did with Cassettes. The Cassette was simply more user-friendly than the 8-Track. With the creation of the Sony Walkman in 1979, the popularity of the Cassette exploded. The players became the standard in cars as well replacing the 8-Track. However, another technological advance loomed on the horizon that would eventually take down the Cassette. The name of this new device was the Compact Disc that would create chaos both for vinyl and magnetic tape beginning in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The Compact Disc was a new recording format developed by Philips and Sony in 1982 which would take the world by storm and create major problems for the future of magnetic tape and vinyl recordings. The CD is a digital optical disc data storage format so it was unlike anything that existed before it. Instead of the recorded music going through a tape head or requiring the use of a needle on a vinyl record, the system used a laser beam to decode the information on a small disc. The launch of the CD was accompanied by a huge advertising campaign which literally made the format sound indestructible. According to the advertising of the time, the CDs could be scratched, mistreated or anything else imaginable and would still play flawlessly. However, that claim to fame was not really true since as listeners found out that CDs were indeed susceptible to damage which would cause problems for playback. A scratch or even a speck of dust could cause the laser to skip parts of the music or stop. However, the CD did, in fact, take over both in automobiles, in homes and in music stores. Many artists began to quit making their albums available on vinyl records as the CD was supposed to replace them.
Cassettes also suffered and by the early 2000s CD players had replaced the Cassette in automobiles. The Sony Walkman was replaced by the Sony CD Walkman. Record and department stores began to carry only CDs and Cassettes and quite suddenly it became hard to even find a Vinyl LP or a 45rpm record. Many consumers actually did not like this rather fast switch from one format to another since their home equipment still consisted of turntables and tape decks. They were somewhat forced into buying a CD player whether they wanted one or not. The sound quality of the CD was good; however, it lacked the warmth of the Vinyl LP as well as the 45rpm vinyl single. However, there was another creature developing through the Internet that would send the CD into decline. Suddenly, listeners could download any song they wanted on the Internet for free through file-sharing services such as Napster. Although this was not considered legal due to copyright infringement, this did not stop the practice even though legal suits were taken out against people. Companies such as iTunes began offering single songs as digital downloads for a price and have proven to be a success although there are still file sharing services. Streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and radio stations also became popular. However, for many listeners, something seemed to be missing and that was the ability to actually have something they could see and hold. Many wanted a physical object again.
There is no doubt that the Vinyl LP took quite a while to come into existence and even after it did there were several attempts by many to come up with other recording concepts. We have covered several of these in this article; however, there are even more to discover. These were all significant threats to the standard Vinyl LP. At one point with the introduction of the CD followed by Digital Downloads, the format basically became obsolete. Stores quite carrying them, artists quit making them, consumers began throwing them in the trash and all appeared to be over for the Vinyl LP. However, as we have seen in recent years even when the format was discarded as obsolete, the Vinyl LP has once again risen from the ashes with rising sales each and every year. Turntables have appeared once again at every price level. Stores such as Best Buy announced that they would quit carrying CDs, but would continue carrying Vinyl. At one point, the store did not even carry Vinyl or turntables. The resurgence of the Vinyl LP is truly something nobody ever expected. There were always audiophiles who would continue to say that the sound of Vinyl could never be reproduced; however, these people were a minority for many years. Now, people of all ages are once again collecting and enjoying Vinyl. Today, more pressing plants are opening since the demand from consumers for vinyl has increased to the level that the few remaining ones simply could not meet the need. Artists have seen this demand and many, if not most, are once again releasing albums on vinyl. There is something about holding a physical object that has the sound quality and warmth of a Vinyl LP that simply seems irreplaceable. That’s not to mention the ability of a singer or a band to have a format that allows artistic expression as a cover for their work. Album artwork is once again something from the present and not simply something that existed in the past.
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What’s the connection between the Beatles’ George Harrison, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and Chrysler cars? The Highway Hi-Fi: a vinyl record player that just happened to be the world’s first in-car music system. It appeared 60 years ago this spring, in 1956, and should have been a smash hit.
In the late 1940s, record sales were great. The Depression and the war had passed and America was entering a new period of comfort and affluence. Just sit back and relax, Truman was going to take care of everything. But there WAS one little problem……the records themselves.
If you’re looking for a prime example of what Toffler wrote about in Future Shock, look no further than analog tape. In little more than a decade, the two-inch multitrack tape machine has gone from studio staple to relic rarity.