A Brief History of the Turntable and Vinyl Records


The turntable as we know it today has only been around for about seven decades, but its technological roots go back more than 160 years.

In 1857, the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville presented his phonautograph. He used a vibrating diaphragm and a stylus to record sound waves by tracing them on sheets of paper, but he could only visualize sound waves and therefore could not reproduce them. It was this concept that led to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877.

The ancestor of the turntable, Edison’s phonograph initially comprised a grooved cylinder wrapped in tin foil (the recording surface) that could be turned by a crank. When sound entered the mouthpiece, the sound waves vibrated the diaphragm and the attached needle, creating indentations in the sheet. Edison soon replaced foil with wax for its better sound and improved durability.

Ten years later, in 1887, came the next peg along the line of turntables: the gramophone. Patented by Emile Berliner, the gramophone used a needle to trace spiral grooves laterally on a cylinder. Soon the cylinders were replaced by flat discs, initially made of rubber, then later of shellac.

By the turn of the century, these discs – or rather “discs” – were mass-produced and the design of the gramophone had been modified to make it more functional in the home.

While the horn needed to amplify sound was initially large, it was modified by American phonograph and record brand Victor Talking Machine Company to tilt so that the whole device could fit in a cabinet. Device name: Victrola.

A 1920s HMV acoustic portable. Image courtesy of PMC

A 1920s HMV acoustic portable. Image reproduced with the kind permission of PMC

By the 1930s, hand-cranked players were superseded by their electric successors, and after the growing popularity of bulky turntable systems with built-in amplification and speakers, came the rise of the dedicated hi-fi record player. .

Radio Corporation of America had purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, and the new RCA Victor had not only begun selling 33⅓ rpm records, but also knocked out the Duo Jr, the first component turntable designed to be plugged into radio sets. , negating the need for a phonograph’s built-in amplification and speakers. It retailed for an affordable $16.50 (equivalent to around $233 today).

It’s fair to say that this product was a significant step in the journey to the split vinyl system.

Turntable types: idler wheel, belt drive, direct drive

The Acoustic Research AR turntable.  Image via Vinyl Engine

The Acoustic Research AR turntable. Picture via Vinyl Engine

The turntables on the shelf today will mostly be belt drive systems and, less commonly, direct drive systems, but early turntables sported what are called idler wheel designs.

The first stereo turntables were record changers capable of playing multiple records in succession. The discs would be stacked on a spindle on top of each other, and when one of them finished, the player would automatically spin the next disc. Less flipping, more listening. In order for the turntable to spin at the right speed under the weight of a handful of records, torque was important, and so the idler wheel drive – a rubber wheel that came out of the motor and was under the platter, acting to isolate motor vibrations from impacting the platter and, therefore, music playback – was the ideal drive system.

But the crazy wheel method had its drawbacks. As the wheel was coupled to the motor, vibrations from it could impact the sound of the record, and the single-disc turntable that emerged did not require such a high-torque system.

The belt-driven turntable was a much more efficient, simple, and cost-effective method, with a motor on the side driving a rubber belt that wrapped around the outside of the turntable to spin it. The belt absorbed vibration, helping to isolate motor noise from the platter. In the mid-1960s, Acoustic Research’s AR turntable (pictured above), which pioneered the three-point suspension turntable design, was among the most popular of the first wave of designs belt driven.

The original Technics SP-10

The original Technics SP-10

Last but not least, direct drive was invented in the early 70s by none other than Panasonic’s Technics brand, debuting in the classic Technics SP-10 turntable (pictured above).

Here, the platter sits on a drive motor that spins at 33 1/3 or 45 rpm. Unlike idler wheel and belt drive designs, there should be nothing to replace or repair, with no belt or wheel. The downside was cost, which is why you’ll tend to only find direct-drive turntables on high-end turntables.

A brief history of vinyl records

A 1955 Collaro record player. Image courtesy of PMC

A 1955 Collaro record player. Image reproduced with the kind permission of PMC

First, the paramount speed. The crudeness of the crank mechanism on early turntables meant that it was difficult to set a record speed standard. The first common speed appeared at 78 rpm in the early 1900s when electric turntable motors were introduced. Why 78? Because the engines were running at 3600 rpm with a 46:1 gear ratio, producing 78.26 rpm.

The records themselves were initially made of shellac, but resin shortages during World War II prompted manufacturers to press on vinyl instead.

Then came a whole different kind of war: a format war. While Colombia Records developed the 33 ⅓ rpm (“long play”) LP format in 1948, RCA Victor released a 45 rpm format almost immediately to counter it. Both record types featured narrower (or “micro”) grooves—typically 0.001 inches wide, compared to 0.003 inches for a 78—designed to be traced by a smaller stylus.

After experimenting with the initially less popular 10-inch and 12-inch formats, which could produce three to five minutes of audio respectively, the industry settled for the 7-inch and 12-inch formats. The 12 inch 33 ⅓ rpm LP prevailed for albums, while the 7 inch 45 rpm record became the more specialized “single” format. The briefly popular 78s disappeared in the 50s.

And what about the sound itself? For quite a while, the discs were mono. Stereo recordings did not arrive in earnest until the late 1960s and early 1970s, initially hampered by the fact that radio stations did not have the equipment necessary to play stereo recordings. By the mid-1970s, the majority of vinyl releases had moved to stereo. During mono playback the stylus moves horizontally, on stereo recordings the stylus moves both horizontally and vertically. No small change.

And then came the “vinyl revival”

Pro-Ject Juke Box E: an all-in-one turntable, just add speakers

Pro-Ject Juke Box E: an all-in-one turntable, just add speakers

The 70s were the golden age for all things vinyl. But all good things must come to an end, and with the popularity of cassette tapes, followed by CDs in the 80s, vinyl quickly became a thing of the past.

But you can’t keep a good thing. And the much-talked-about vinyl revival has seen an unprecedented resurgence of the aged format, as music fans young and old are discovering the beauty of physical media and the fun of taking the time to sit down and listen to a piece of music ( then stand up and turn it over).

Naturally, we’ve also seen a resurgence in record players, not just classic low-budget, high-end turntables, but also in the form of all sorts of contemporary spin-offs of turntables – from those compatible with Spotify to Bluetooth and even vertically oriented. bridges.

There are digital turntables with USB outputs that can be used to turn your vinyl into digital files, and Bluetooth turntables that can wirelessly stream your vinyl turning to Bluetooth speakers or headphones.

Many modern turntables also have built-in phono stages, allowing you to connect them directly to an amplifier, while we are also seeing more speaker-based turntable systems, with both built-in phono stages and amplification (and sometimes even speakers).

The return of turntables and vinyl doesn’t seem to be going anytime soon either. U.S. revenue from vinyl album sales at highest level since 1986, year-end annual report shows report by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), which says revenue hit $1 billion in 2021 after a 15th consecutive year of annual growth in record sales.

And who knows, soon there might be another chapter in turntable history with none other than HD Vinyl


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