Audio Format Wars III: Columbia Goes Long

We have toured through the history of the phonograph record. We began with the earliest battle of formats when Edison’s cylinder lost out to Berliner’s disc. We also examined Edison’s second try at a disc with a “hill and dale” recording system where the music lived at the bottom of the groove, which lost out to the more common “lateral” discs where the sound information made its home on the groove’s sidewalls. When we left off around 1925 when an electrical recording process took over for the original acoustic method, something that remained pretty much state of the art for the next twenty-plus years. The record-buying public didn’t know it, but there were some big changes in store once the war was over in 1945 – changes that would prove to have some long legs.

By 1947 the American record-buying public had been spinning ten inch shellac discs at 78 rpm (and in large numbers) for around forty years. When we consider how quickly technology was transforming in almost every field during those years, it is amazing that the format remained current for as long as it did. Make no mistake, there had been great improvements in fidelity since the years before WWI when the lateral-cut disc was becoming the lingua franca of recorded music. Electrical recording was the biggest, which swept the industry between 1925-27. But as far as the public was concerned, that change was gradual. The new electrical discs would still play on old-style acoustic players and new electric players with loudspeakers instead of horns would still play the old records, making them sound (somewhat) better too. But the old-style 78 rpm disc had a number of drawbacks.

For starters, the shellac discs were brittle and easily broken. Have you ever dropped an old 78 rpm disc on a hard surface? You will probably only do so once because it will almost certainly shatter into several pieces. Columbia made some attempts to improve on this situation by making its discs using a fiber or cardboard core, but the playing surface would crack just the same, rendering the disc unusable (even if the shards were held together).

The other problem was noise. For as hard and brittle as the shellac disc was, it was highly sensitive to scratches and other imperfections caused by normal handling. Even a new 78 came with a fair amount of background noise and once they began to wear that noise could become unbearable. Also, the grooves would wear rapidly in the era when tone arms were heavy and steel needles were not changed frequently enough – a new needle for each playing was usually recommended.

If you have always wondered what these records sounded like at their very, very best, I found a video of a fan demonstrating what he believes is a never-before-played disc from 1949 (he gets it on the turntable at about 2:30). It is not, as you can see, of audiophile quality.

Of course the biggest problem was playing time. Music buyers had been stuck with a three to five minute playing time (depending on whether the disc was 10 or 12 inches in diameter) since almost forever – or at least since they stopped taking Thomas Edison seriously as a purveyor of audio equipment. While longer works were always offered before the age of the LP, those were difficult to record and labor-intensive for listening. Classical and operatic recordings were very much under the thumb of the engineers who had to get the piece to sound right cut into multiple five (or so) minute segments. Then the listener faced a constant need to tend the record player, which was an inconvenience.

Yes, there were automatic record changers, but they were only on the most expensive players and did not always work as flawlessly as they should. This RCA unit from 1931 swaps discs at about 0:55 and again about 4:25. For the engineering inclined, I’ll bet you a nickel that you won’t be able to tear yourself away from this video that shows the guts doing their synchronized ballet.

There were some changers that were quite elaborate and would flip records over, like this 1930 unit by Capehart (from Fort Wayne, Indiana, thank you very much) that flips its disc at about 0:40 . . .

or this newer Capehart from just before WWII that may have been the ultimate disc changer of the 78 rpm era. If you can ignore the music choice quite foreign to a machine of this era, this one does its magic with a flip at about the 30 second mark and a disc swap at about 3:30. I understand that the Capehart system was “the Cadillac of record changers” (back when that term really meant something.) Actually, I could just stop here and watch these complex, finicky designs all day long (and there are many others), but I will tear myself away so that we can proceed towards the future.

There had been a couple of attempts at a long-playing record before the format finally got traction. We previously touched on Edison’s long-play 78 rpm microgroove disc from the late 1920’s that had provided up to twenty minutes of playing time on one side of a 12 inch record. Unfortunately, the combination of expensive special playing equipment and an extremely limited selection of titles coming long after Edison’s vertical-cut technology had lost the format wars resulted in the system being dropped about a year after introduction.

RCA Victor was the next to make a stab in 1931 with a 12 inch shellac disc that played at 33 1/3 rpm. Called Program Transcriptions, these were another retail flop that lasted about as long on the market as the Edison system had lasted, and for many of the same reasons.

The sound quality was little better than a standard disc, especially once RCA started issuing existing old-tech selections on the new discs. Some were shellac, and had more background noise at slow speed, while some were a plastic compound called VictroLac and would be all but destroyed after several plays with the heavy tone arms.

Worst of all, the new players were really expensive. The $295 radio/phonograph shown in this ad cost about half as much as a new Ford automobile in 1931 – which would have posed a challenge in good economic times, but was a disaster in a deepening depression when sales of even normal records were in a free fall. The format had made some sense, based on 33 1/3 rpm discs of 16 inches that were used in broadcasting beginning around 1929. Those commercial transcriptions migrated onto a material called Vinylite that was softer and quieter than the shellac disc – undoubtedly aided by wartime shellac shortages.

But retail record buyers in 1940 were playing the same records on the same equipment as had been available in 1925 – only the music had become more modern.

It was on the eve of WWII that RCA’s arch-nemesis Columbia began work on a different kind of long-play disc, one that would would not get a retail introduction until June of 1948. The Columbia disc was a true revolution (sorry) that resulted in markedly better sound quality than the old disc due to looking at almost every part of the recording and playback process. The new discs were an early vinyl compound and used microgrooves cut at about three times the density of the common disc Also, they were played by a lightweight tone arm to reduce wear. Finally, gone were the fat, quickly dulled steel needles, replaced by long-wearing jewel styli – commonly either sapphire or diamond. The ability to store 45 minutes of high-quality music on a single 12 inch disc proved popular – so popular that the basic format remains viable nearly seventy five years later.

And why, you ask, was 33 1/3 rpm chosen as a target speed for these greatly improved discs? It appears to have been a simple issue of gear reduction. When electric motors first began to displace spring-driven phonographs in the 1920’s, the industry standard soon became a motor that spun at 3600 rpm. All subsequent turntable speeds were the result of drive gear reduction so that the same motor turned the disc more slowly. Also, the 33 1/3 rpm speed (which had become the standard for radio transcription discs after the death of the RCA retail system) turned out to be the optimum tradeoff between sound quality (that favored higher speeds) and playing time (which required lower speeds). And it isn’t like there is such a thing as a constant speed on a disc, which sees the stylus moving through a disc really fast around the outer rim and much more slowly when it reaches the inside grooves. So the answer is – that’s is just what they decided to go with. But do not ask me why 78s have never been called 78.26 rpm, which is what they pretty much are. I have no answer for that one.

These were not, by the way, the first “record albums”. That term came from the book-like collection of sleeves that allowed a collection of records to be sold together.

However, now the buyer could get the same 8 songs on a single “popular” series 10 inch disc, and 10 standard-length songs on the larger 12 inch disc. The new LP allowed a stack of discs that could be measured in inches instead of feet for a decent music collection.

The LP of the 1940s truly revolutionized recorded music by freeing performers from the time constraints that had plagued recorded music from its beginnings. While much popular music remained a roughly three minute phenomenn, the worlds of classical, jazz and later rock took advantage of the ability to stretch a performance out for twenty minutes or more on a single side. Not until the era of home-use magnetic tape and later the CD was that threshold smashed again.

Beyond the technical achievements, Columbia made one sound business move that neither Edison nor RCA Victor had made with their earlier long-play discs – Columbia freely licensed the technology to other record companies and equipment manufacturers so that the format took hold in a broad way, and very quickly. This time, the high-end Admiral console shown in the ad was less than 1/3 the cost of a new 1948 Ford – and that included a television set!

Although the old 78 remained a popular choice into the early 1950s, the handwriting was on the wall and that medium went out of production (at least for the US market) between 1957 and 1959 (depending on the source you find). And about the time the 78 went into its final swoon, the 10 inch format in general did the same thing as the LP standardized at 12 inches after about 1955.

And the 12 inch vinyl LP has not been out of production since. Yes, the 1-2-3 of the 8 Track, the Cassette and the CD gave it a scare, but it seems that the vinyl LP remains the favorite medium for high quality analog recording. There are not many things that have remained fundamentally unchanged since 1948, but the vinyl LP is one of them.

Coda:

“But Wait! You did not even mention the 45 rpm disc?” That is correct, astute reader, I did not. That turns out to be a fascinating chapter all its own, one to which we will return at some future date.

24 thoughts on “Audio Format Wars III: Columbia Goes Long

  1. J.P. another great entry! I could watch those auto disc changers all day, hypnotic! What’s very interesting to me, is the noise associated with playing a brand new 78 disc. Who would believe that there was that amount of background noise on those old discs, possibly much of it disguised by the playback system? As a long time thrift shopper, I used to run across those “albums” of 78’s all the time, usually symphony, and usually missing a disc of two, so not worth buying; but many in good shape still out there.

    We have a local guy, Dewey Gill, that plays big band between 9 am and 12 noon on Sundays, over 30 years now, on a local low power station run by the Milwaukee School of Engineering (WMSE, and check it out, easy to stream). He plays a large selection of 78’s and V-discs, which all sound relatively decent, so I’m guessing there’s some sort of electronic filtration those in the know can utilize to reduce that surface noise? Must be. I know he used to haul a separate 78’s turntable down to the station every Sunday, before they bought him one, so I know he’s playing the original source record.

    Just read the other day that latest figures available, which might have been 2019, show that new vinyl outsold CD’s by over a million units! Long live analog vinyl!

    https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/mandatory-milwaukee-dewey-gills-big-band-program-on-wmse-is-essential-sunday-listening/

    How brittle was old recording media, there’s always this:

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    • Yes, “signal to noise” was a problem before the LP. I have occasionally run across a place online where someone makes several plays of an old record using different cartridges and different arm weights (if I remember it correctly) and there is a difference in the several results. And then there is another rabbit hole (which I have avoided) about EQ curves which can be digitally applied to playbacks, since the recording industry did not standardize this until 1954, which had every record company’s output sounding different. Even on a basic phonograph, the tradeoff is with the treble setting – turn it up to get more out of the music and you get more background hiss too. Some of the stuff I have featured are transfers from 78s and some of them can sound decent if the one doing the transfer knows their business.

      I know, aren’t those changers amazing? My mother’s aunt was married to a doctor and they had one of those Capehart systems in their house. I asked her about it one time and she said that theirs had to get sent back to the factory for some work during the War, and it was never right after it came back because it would break records. But it was in a beautiful polished cabinet and wired into a setup that had radio station pushbuttons and a speaker in most of the rooms – it had to have been the ultimate audio setup when they built their house in the late 30s. And by the mid 70s when I was talking with her about it the entire thing was virtually useless unless you wanted to listen to AM radio.

      And oh my, the poor guy with that wax cylinder. A relative had one of those old Edison cylinder machines – I never saw it play, but I knew that it was really, really delicate.

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  2. I still have my Pioneer stereo with speakers from the 1970’s – with extra stylus….awaiting vintage status in a corner of the basement storage room…in the original boxes too. Loved the ads – my mother’s first tv in 1954? was 12 inches, we’ve a photo of it somewhere, and I have a distinct memory of my uncle reclining in his lazyboy beside his entertainment centre, listening to Frank Sinatra albums after work.

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    • Joni, I love the “entertainment center”, or “stereo console”! My parent had a Magnavox system well into the 70’s, they preferred music and radio to television, and were opera buffs, and when I was growing up in Chicago, I remember my mother listening to live broadcast church singers on Sunday from the black south side Baptist churches, and having some Mahalia Jackson discs. They didn’t like “parts” stereo systems and preferred a “piece of furniture”, with everything self contained, including speakers. You’d slide open the top, and the turntable would be in there, with an AM/FM receiver, and a well for storing LP’s, that could also be used to install a reel-to-reel player. I’ve met a few people that find those at yard sales and revamp them with modern goods inside!

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      • I was always kind of jealous of those kind of systems. Our “good” phono (from pre-stereo days) was a big suitcase portable from the late 1950s (a Mitchell, a brand that I can find virtually nothing about online) that usually sat on a table with the lid up. The one I was given as a kid that was sort of mine was a little RCA unit that only played 45s, that I think my mother had probably bought in the early 50s when they were new. That was the state of stereos in our house until the early 70s when I got my own Mitsubishi stereo system with a built in British BSR turntable.

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      • JP we had one of those suitcase portable’s too….and I can remember wearing out my 45’s listening to it. I took it to first year university with me too. I also vaguely remember a child’s one. We didn’t upgrade to the bigger systems until later after my dad had sold a farm.

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      • Andy, my parents had the big wooden stereo piece of furniture in the 1970’s too, but it also played (or eventually chewed up) eight track tapes too. I think it had a radio too. It took up way too much room in the dining room, but was useful for setting extra food platters on top at Xmas, Thanksgiving. When my mother moved off the farm in 1996 the stereo went to the junkyard. That’s interesting that people are up-cycling them now.

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    • I think your 1970s vintage stereo equipment may be at peak value these days – hopefully the speakers are still in good shape and not degraded from age. I read somewhere that vinyl records outsell CDs these days, and both of my children own turntables.

      We never had the entertainment center or console, but I went into many homes that did, where the stereo and television were part of the same unit. I think it was probably my mother’s practical side that recognized how not all of those components break or get old at the same time – you don’t necessarily need a new stereo when you need a new tv.

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      • There’s a guy that lives down the block from my brother that refurbishes stereo speakers of yore! I once left a pretty high end set of stereo speakers in an outdoor storage space facility (in a locked space, of course, I should have said “non-climate controlled), and two years later, they were shot. It’s all about the “cone” material of the speakers. Even high end speakers not that long ago could have paper based cones (altho usually some sort of paper ‘sandwich’),, now everything is polypropylene or some other material, but there’s plenty still made of paper or paper sandwiches!

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      • I’m amazed that your children own turntables. although I had read that vinyl was making a comeback. Our only record store which had been in business for 30 years and hosted First Friday music events, closed a few weeks ago, the owners wanted to retire but couldn’t find anyone interested in the business. My stereo is packed up in it’s original boxes, in a far corner behind a whole bunch of other boxes, so if I get a chance to clean out this winter, I’ll see what shape the speakers are in. I could advertise it, with the model number on one of those websites. I wouldn’t mind parting with it, as it just takes up too much room. I also have a compact Sears combo album/cassette tape/cd player which I bought for $100 which will do for any old stuff I want to listen to. My parents bought me the stereo in 1976, and I think they spent $700 on it. I was in second year university and so busy with labs and classes that it seldom got listened to. I didn’t ask for it, but my dad had bought my older sister one (she wanted one), so I suppose he thought it would only be fair if I had one. My system was the envy of the dorm floor though. My dad had sold a farm and had some money by then so he splurged on one of those big stereo wood entertainment units which took up way too much room in the dining room. It played those short lived eight track tapes too…or rather it chewed them up!

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      • My kids buy all of their vinyl on Amazon. 🙂

        In the mid 80s one of my bosses moved and he asked if I wanted his old stereo. He had bought it about 1971 and it was a pretty high end Pioneer at the time, with beautiful (and big) walnut-cased speakers. His wife wanted them gone and I paid not a lot for them. They were great for several years, then got used less and less frequently. The amp eventually picked up a hiss after operating for maybe an hour, and I eventually caved and bought a “home theater system” that came with little 4 inch cube-shaped speakers. I was prepared to be disappointed, but surprised myself when I decided that they sounded better than my huge old Pioneer units. It may have been age (they were probably approaching 30 years old by then) or it may have just been more modern design of the new ones. I sold the old ones at a garage sale years ago and have not missed them.

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      • PS. JP, do you remember how much you spent on your first Mitsubishi system in the early 70’s? I might have the $700 mixed up with the tv they bought me after graduation?

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      • I think mine was probably around $100, which was not really cheap in 1971 or 72.

        It was still kind of early in the era of Japanese electronics, and Mitsubishi branded them as MGA. I found a picture of my old unit online. I still have this one in the basement, but have probably not turned it on in 20 years.

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      • Joni, I was managing a department with about 15 or so people in their 20’s (this was up to about 4 years ago), and most of them had “commandeered” their parents turntables, and were always asking people like me (in my early 60’s), if I had any vinyl I wanted to “get rid of”!! They were all into it big time!

        I had to tell them that I had sold off most of my records when CD’s were coming in (except for my esoteric jazz stuff). I openly admit that I always thought vinyl sounded better, but I was so ham-fisted, it would only take a couple of plays for my records to be pretty scratched up. I used to tape my favorite albums on reel-to-reel or cassette, just to preserve them with only one play. I had a couple of really great turntables myself: an expensive B.I.C. that got stolen in a studio break-in, and a high end Technics that burned out a direct drive motor in a move, but by that time, I was generally all CD.

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      • I got lucky and bought a turntable right before they started to go away – a Technics direct drive linear tracking unit that still works just perfectly after all these years.

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  3. I can remember my parents’ old albums with the hissing noise and growing up I probably thought it was just dust or some fine particles had collected as they turned around. I remember my father wiping the records with a silicone cloth of some sort before putting them on the spindle. I thought it was interesting that the speaker in the first video opened the brand-new dust jacket cover and found blemishes on the record, long ago fingerprints or packing issues, evident after 79 years. I can remember my parents handling their records very carefully by the edges, so I guess it was for fingerprints, though I can’t remember doing that with my LPs, so likely they were less fragile. We had a squarish stero console on high legs for the albums and at Christmas time my parents stacked up the holiday 45s to play my 45 rpm records for me. They were in various colors – light blue, yellow, red and green for the classics like “Frosty the Snowman”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – I think we had the Chipmunks album, not sure on that.

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    • Joni, I remember we all had this record cleaning brush that stored the liquid in the body of the brush. You’d put some liquid on the leading edge, and then roll the brush on the record surface, wet side to dry, as it spun around, before putting the needle down. It always pulled a lot of junk out of the grooves. Funny, but I tried to find it on the web the other day, but they must be out of business, altho there are similar brushes from different manufacturers. Back in the 80’s there was a high end stereo shop in Milwaukee that had an actual record cleaning machine, and they would clean your old vinyl for a couple of bucks a disc. It made a startling difference. When I found great old jazz vinyl in the used record shops, I’d take it over there to get cleaned, and then on first play, I’d record in on reel-to-reel or cassette for every day listening.

      Even late series vinyl was susceptible to fingerprints, scratching, and just crap. It didn’t help that they put even high end records in the crappiest cardboard and paper sleeves. That cheap cardboard shed a lot of crap onto records. Even back in the 80’s, I stated taking my records out of the paper sleeves and putting them in aftermarket high quality paper sleeves lined with poly: no scratching. If the original sleeve didn’t have any printing on it, I just tossed it; if it did, I saved it in the album jacket with the newly sleeved record.

      Funny how those old hi-fi systems lend another layer of memories to holiday event! My Dad could listen to opera on cassette with a boom box, but my Mom always had the big family set up, and we played Christmas music cassettes and albums on her Kenwood system!

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  4. You are correct J.P, boy, that brings back memories! I bet I have the brush packed up in my storage space, but the “juice” is long gone. I looked on line and people are selling them “used” on Amazon or eBay, but they’re not made new, as far as I can tell, and all the used ones have no more of the fluid…

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  5. I love how the first video shows fingerprints on the edge of a newly-opened disc, even though it’s so meticulously packaged in paper and box. You’d think, as delicate as the 78 was back then, they’d package them using gloves. Also interesting to read about the original definition of “album” – makes total sense. Finally, I always contrasted “LP” with a 45, not a 78, but maybe that’s because my 1960’s childhood was all about 45’s. Glad to hear the 45 earns a future J.P. post of its own 🙂

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    • I suspect that if someone had opened those records in 1949 or 1950, the smudges from the hands of factory workers would have wiped off more easily, so perhaps those oils degraded the material when they sat undisturbed for 60-70 years.

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