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Long-Playing Record

Long-Playing Record

The long-playing, or LP, format for sound recordings was one of the most important innovations in entertainment technology after World War II. In addition to extending the duration of recordings, the microgroove long-playing vinyl record brought new levels of fidelity to recorded sound. Its wide acceptance by listeners worldwide ensured that this was to be the primary format for sound recordings from its commercial introduction in the 1940s until the emergence of digital recording in the 1980s.

The search for a longer playing format for sound recordings began immediately after the invention of the phonograph in 1877. The technology was aimed at the business user, and the two-to three-minute playback of the cylinder was too short for the phonograph's intended use as a dictating machine. One of the major advantages of the disc over the cylinder format was that it was easier to extend the play of the disc by increasing its size. By the first decades of the twentieth century the playing time of discs had been extended to seven or eight minutes, but this was still too short to reproduce the classical music and speeches of leading politicians to which owners of talking machines wanted to listen.

The development of a long-playing disc was undertaken by several companies for different reasons. Western Electric's system of synchronized sound for movies was introduced in the early 1920s. It employed oversized 16-inch discs with a playing time of about 20 minutes. This system was improved in the 1930s and 1940s: more and more sound signals were inscribed in the smaller grooves to bring greater fidelity in the playback. During World War II, chemical manufacturers created new plastic materials which were applied to a variety of uses. "Unbreakable" long-playing vinyl records of popular music, the V discs, were sent to American troops overseas during the war, establishing an important precedent for the long player. Vinyl records were more durable and could take longer grooves than the hard shellac discs used for commercial recordings.

The recorded sound industry viewed the postwar economy with some apprehension for it had spent much of the 1930s facing precipitous drops in demand for its products. It hoped to win over the postwar market with technological improvements such as automatic record changers and exaggerated claims of the fidelity of its recording systems. The Columbia Company developed a long-playing record in its research laboratories under the direction of Dr. Peter Goldmark. Columbia was a long-established company, manufacturing talking machines and records in both cylinder and disc formats since the turn of the century. It knew that a long-playing record would open up the market for recordings of classical music and attract the attention of audiophiles, encouraging other users to desert the 78 revolutions per minute shellac disc for the new format. Goldmark and his team of engineers brought together many innovations of recorded sound in their long-playing technology, some of them stretching back to the early part of the twentieth century. To achieve a playing time of 30 minutes, the groove in the record had to be nearly half a mile long. Instead of the normal 80-100 grooves cut per inch, the 12-inch-diameter long player was cut with 224-260 grooves per inch, and hence the term microgroove was used to describe these records. A permanent jeweled stylus with a synthetic sapphire or diamond was used instead of the usual steel needle: an innovation first introduced by Thomas Edison in 1913. Manufacturing the new long-playing records demanded unprecedented standards of cleanliness and precision, and Goldmark embarked on a crusade to clean up the Columbia record pressing plants.

When executives of the Columbia company announced the long-playing record to the press in 1948, they portrayed it as a revolutionary new technology that would take "the musical world by storm." This was more a marketing ploy than an accurate depiction of the development of the technology—most of the innovations in the new product had been made years before, even the playing speed of 33-1/3 rpm dated from the 1930s when it was used in long-playing transcriptions of radio programs. Nevertheless, the Columbia company touted its long-playing record as a major event in the history of sound recording and eagerly expected the rest of the recording industry to adopt it. Columbia miscalculated the reaction of RCA, long its rival in the record business and a company that prided itself on being the leader in new technology. RCA had developed a long-playing disc in the 1930s, but it had failed to catch on. When RCA heard of the Columbia research project it hurriedly introduced its own micro-groove, 45 rpm, seven-inch disc, and the "Battle of the Speeds" was on. This delayed the introduction of microgrooved discs because the customer had to choose from four speeds of revolving disc: 78, 33-1/3, 45, and 16 rpm.

It was not until the mid-1950s that the 12-inch disc established itself as the format for long-playing records, and the introduction of the Westrex stereophonic sound system in 1957 made it the format for high fidelity recordings. As had been expected, lovers of classical music and audiophiles embraced the new long-playing disc. The record companies were kept busy transferring their recordings of orchestral music from piles of 78 rpm shellac discs to one long player.A new source of music for the long player was found in the Broadway play; the sound track for My Fair Lady was the best-selling long-playing recording of the 1950s, and it was followed by soundtracks from other plays and films. Artists like Frank Sinatra moved into the long-playing format in the 1950s, producing thematic albums such as Come Fly with Me, which contained songs about travel. Yet pop music—music for teenagers—stayed on the 45 rpm single format. The single was cheap (less than a dollar), easily carried around, and the three-minute playing time was perfect for AM radio, which wanted lots of time between songs for commercials.

In the 1960s, most recording artists released material on long-playing discs, which were now called LPs. (The term "album" came from bound albums of 78 rpm discs which were the stopgap long players of the 1930s and 1940s.) In popular music, the LP was simply a compilation of 10 to 13 three-minute songs which had been released on singles. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of 1967 is acclaimed as the first concept album in which the whole of the recording was more artistically significant than the parts of the songs. It was followed by numerous concept albums as rock artists now saw the LP rather than the single as the format for their music. Packaging two LPs in one cover gave even greater length to the concept album and encouraged rock groups to embark on more ambitious projects, such as the Who's rock opera Tommy. The LP permitted the length of a song to extend beyond the three-minute limit set by the 45 rpm single and AM radio. In the 1970s some adventurous groups, such as the Allman Brothers, released albums of live music with one track covering a whole 20-minute side of an LP.

The introduction of digital recording on the compact disc in 1982 was supposed to make the vinyl LP obsolete by the end of the decade, but that did not happen. Although the CD had the important advantage of not deteriorating with every play, and it clearly sounded better, millions of consumers chose to stay with the scratches and nicks of their beloved LPs. Although the playing time of the CD was more than 70 minutes, most performers of popular music still made recordings which stayed within the 40-minute duration of the LP. The long-playing record quickly disappeared from the shelves of the major music retailers but continued to be sold from specialist shops which dealt solely in the obsolete recordings. Manufacturers of turntables and styli kept in production throughout the 1990s, supported by record collectors who were loath to move into the digital format, rap and hip-hop performers who sampled and scratched records to make their music, and disc jockeys who still used discs in their shows. Although technologically obsolete, the long-playing vinyl disc will survive at least until the beginning of the twenty-first century.

—Andre Millard

Further Reading:

Gellat, Roland. The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877-1977. New York, MacMillan, 1978.

Goldmark, Peter. Maverick Inventor: My Turbulent Years at CBS. New York, Dutton, 1973.

Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles Recording Sessions. New York, Harmony, 1988.

Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Read, Oliver, and Walter Welch. From Tin Foil to Stereo: The Evolution of the Phonograph. Indianapolis, Howard Sams, 1977.

Sanjek, Russell. American Popular Music and Its Business. New York, Oxford University Press, 1988.

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