The turntables we have today are well designed and some are even compact compared to the larger-sized rickety old record players of the past. Despite the change to a more compact and modern design, today’s turntables still contain the basic components that make up the record player since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.
The phonograph is the earliest machine able to reproduce and record sounds. With the advent of cassette tapes and CDs, it seems the turntable will come to its end like all older technologies. Record player sales did plunge in the 1980s, but curiously, vinyl records and players did not die out. Instead, the vinyl is enjoying a renaissance, with record sales in the US growing at a steady pace for more than a decade. This has ensured the enduring popularity of the humble turntable. How did vinyl survive CDs and technology such as Spotify and Apple Music?
The Modern Vinyl Record Player
The turntables of the past work something like the phonograph. We can playback a record by placing the needle of the player at the start of the groove and turning the handle. This caused the needle to trace the pattern of the recorded sound. As the needle vibrated, the sound waves generated from it was amplified by the horn.
Today’s vinyl records have not changed much in principle. They feature micro-grooves that are traced by the stylus to reproduce the sound of the original recording. And the modern turntable, instead of featuring a needle, comes with an intricately made stylus at the end of a tonearm. The stylus is usually made from a minuscule piece of diamond attached to a flexible metal strip, although materials such as ruby, sapphire, boron, and even cotton fibre can be used.
As the turntable spins the record, vibrations travel through the stylus and into the cartridge, where coils in a magnetic field convert the kinetic energy from these vibrations into an electrical signal. These signals are amplified by a preamp or phono stage which then powers the speakers. The resulting sound is much crisper and cleaner than the vinyl of the past.
The emergence of the cassette and CD
The start of the 1980s saw the emergence of the music channel MTV, playing for 24-hours on TV and becoming a part of pop culture. Albums continued to deliver music with the return of singles releases. Vinyl sales began to see their decline with the upcoming cassette tape.
Cassettes made it easier for people to consume and manipulate music. Their low cost opened up opportunities to bedroom hip-hop artists sampling and remixing music. The durability and portability of cassettes encouraged underground music and the Sony Walkman in 1979 allowed us to listen to music on the move without having to lug around a large boombox.
The CD, launched in 1984 created another cheap and easy way to listen to music. Vinyl fell out of favour and became an antique collectible at old antique shops and independent record stores.
Music downloads and Spotify
Music file-sharing sites brought music downloads to the world. Vinyl seemed doomed to be consigned to the history books. The launch of iTunes and the iPod made it even easier to listen to thousands of songs in the consumers’ pocket compared to cassette tapes and CDs.
Digital music downloading gave way to music streaming with Spotify and Apple Music today. The emphasis of music now shifted back to singles instead of albums with people choosing their rights to consume single tracks as opposed to full albums. The fate of the album is now at the mercy of streaming algorithms.
How did vinyl make a comeback?
The popularity of digital music should have killed off vinyl but curiously, it didn’t. Since 2006, vinyl record sales have been rising steadily. They are still making up a marginal percentage of music revenue.
One key reason for vinyl’s revival could be the feeling of nostalgia in owning your own library of physical records. The pride of owning your music collection was erased when the music industry went digital. We can buy albums and tracks online but we can’t display them on the shelves at home. Digital music has also killed the past time of leafing through well-worn sleeve notes to interrogate the lyrics of our favourite songs.
There’s also the distinct joy of visiting record stores and checking out new music by going through creatively designed record album covers. Digital music also cannot replace the excitement when one finds a rare gem in the record shop.
Why vinyl and not cassettes or CDs?
Additionally, there is the warm analog sound of a record spinning on a turntable, with pops and crackles adding charm to the music. But why have cassettes and CDs fell to the wayside when vinyl is making a comeback? It could be attributed to the fact that these two formats don’t offer striking artwork like a vinyl record. They also do not offer the analog charm of a vinyl record.
If you are thinking it’s the older generation bringing back vinyl records, it’s actually not. It’s the young people who are leading the revival. Buyers of vinyl records in the UK are 57 percent more likely to be younger than 25 than buyers of other formats.
It may be surprising if not shocking to see the revival of vinyl amidst rapid technological advances. If you think the record industry is only surviving, think again. It is thriving and may continue to in the years to come.