Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Remembering Vinyl Records

I suppose that my generation is the last to actually play music on vinyl records. In the Eighties, the Compact Disc or CD was introduced. And while vinyl records held onto the market for some time after that, the CD soon made the vinyl record obsolete.

Of course, records were not always made of vinyl. The original flat disc records (invented all the way back in 1888 by Emile Berliner) were made of a combination of shellac and slate dust. These records were somewhat durable. Unfortunately, they were also somewhat brittle. They could be easily broken. It was during World War II that the U. S. government first used vinyl in the manufacture of records. The government would send records to our POWs overseas to keep up morale. Unfortunately, the shellac and slate dust records often broke in transit. The government then started making the records on vinyl, which was much less likely to break. It was in 1948 that vinyl was first used commercially. Columbia Records introduced the LP (Long Playing) record. Perhaps because of the size of the discs (about 11 inches), they were made of vinyl. Vinyl then replaced shellac and slate dust in the manufacture of records.

While vinyl was much more durable than shellac and slate dust, it also had its downsides. Vinyl could be scratched, resulting in a record hanging. Vinyl records also had to be cleaned regularly to preserve their quality of sound. Unlike CDs, the music on most vinyl records would be accompanied by popping, crackling, and hissing sounds. Vinyl records were also very susceptible to heat. A vinyl record left in the sun would warp completely out of shape. And although more durable than shellac and slate dust, they could be broken.

An alternative to vinyl records had been invented before the vinyl record even had been. Audio tape was developed in 1944. In the beginning, audio tape was a bit too awkward to be commercially viable for home use. With the development of the 8-track tape and then the cassette tape, however, audio tape became a viable alternative to vinyl records. The advantages of 8-track tapes and cassette tapes were that they were portable. They could be played in a car on a a car stereo or anywhere else on a portable player (such as a "boom box" or Walkman). Despite this, neither 8-track tapes nor cassette tapes never really challenged the supremacy of the vinyl record. I suppose this is because tapes wore out much more swiftly than vinyl records did and in some ways were more vulnerable. Tapes were just as vulnerable to heat. The tape could also get torn or, more often, eaten by a tape player.

The Compact Disc was invented by James T. Russell, developing the prototypical disc in 1965. Russell continued his work on the CD throughout the Seventies, despite the fact that very little interest was being expressed in his ideas. Finally, in 1979, Russell and his company, Battelle, licensed his system to Sony and Philips for mass production. After two years of development, the first CDs were on store shelves by 1982. The prices of the average CD (much more than either vinyl records or audio tapes) and the scarcity of titles available on CD prevented people from adopting it over night. Over the Eighties, however, as CD prices dropped, more and more CDs were being sold. By 1992, CDs were the dominant audio format and vinyl was more or less obsolete.

CDs are more durable than vinyl records, but I must admit that in some ways I miss vinyl. Actually, I am not so sure that I miss vinyl as much as I miss the packaging. The relatively large size of vinyl LPs allowed for detailed art on their sleeves' covers. The sleeves of some LPs would even fold out like a book, with additional art inside. Yet other LPs included "extras," such as posters. Perhaps the most famous "extras" were the cutouts included with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Because of their relatively small size, CD cases have little room for extras.

Regardless, vinyl dominated the audio market for nearly fifty years. It will be interesting to see if the CD lasts as long before another format is invented that could replace it.

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