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.
“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.