2017 was the twelfth consecutive year of consistent sales growth for vinyl records. Despite the rise of downloads and streaming, it seems that nothing can beat the full, rich sound that comes from playing a grooved disc, imperfections and all. Last year, sales of vinyl records increased by 26.8% on 2016, with physical records accounting for 14% of the album market – numbers not seen since the early nineties. The resurgence in popularity has meant new facilities are opening and audio purists have more choice again over materials used. Records have changed a huge amount over the years, here we take a look at the chemical composition of music through the ages.
Wax cylinders were the forebears of vinyl that we know today. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph using cylinders wrapped in tinfoil, a huge advancement at the time, but concentrated his efforts on the lightbulb. From there Alexander Graham Bell and his Volta Laboratory created wax cylinders. Inspired by Bell’s advancements, Edison returned to the fray and joined forces with the chemist Jonas Alysworth to develop a superior brown wax for recording cylinders. The developments by the scientists were watched keenly by the American Graphophone Co., who hired people to copy Edison’s recipe. Upon replicating the formula, the company filed a patent on the wax and took Edison to court! The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court in 1905, but set the tone for the following years.
These early wax recordings sounded great but they weren’t durable, would warp with changes in temperature and were easily scratched. Experiments with different formulas and materials moved quickly, with many rival companies vying to find the perfect model to take to mass market. In 1890 Emile Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone, introduced flat disc shaped records, the shape being far easier to store and transport than cylinders. Five years later, in 1895, Berliner introduced discs based on shellac – a resin secreted by female lac bugs, mixed with clay and cotton fibres. This brittle and inexpensive composition dominated the industry until the early 1950s.
Introduction of Plastic
Edison and Aylsworth advanced the chemistry of records in 1912 when they brought in Condensite, a phenol-formaldehyde resin similar to Bakelite which had been invented five years previous. The sound and finish were far superior to shellac, but the high price of Condensite meant it wasn’t as popular.
The first vinyl long-playing record was launched in 1930, the 30cm flexible plastic discs were used for DJ copies as they shipped well and had superior broadcast sound, but didn’t prove popular with the general public. As shellac became harder to source throughout the war effort, record companies began to move away from it. In 1948 Columbia Records started selling Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) long playing records, or LPs, which had a quieter surface, stored more music and were far less brittle than shellac discs.
Following the tradition of rivalry and secrecy, big record labels introduced their own heavy PVC and styrene formulas with different finishes. MGM had Metrolite, Mercury Records – Merco Plastic, Decca Records - Deccalite and Regent – Sav-O-Flex. All boasted the claim ‘Unbreakable Under Normal Use’.
PVC remains popular today, the crystalline structure means its strong enough to support a groove and withstand the needle without damage.
These days compositions optimised for thick, heavy records with deep grooves are preferred as they give a better-quality sound. With the advances in plastic composition since the heyday of vinyl, we’re sure that the best is yet to come.
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