Getting in the Grooves: A Beginner’s Guide to Vinyl Records
There’s no question that audio streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music are revolutionizing the way we can instantly access music at any time. But over the past decade or so, vinyl has seen a resurgence in popularity, spawning a new generation of vinyl lovers who appreciate the time-honored format of musical playback.
If you’re completely new to vinyl and are looking to get into it, we’ve put together a vinyl 101 that should answer any questions you may have about getting started in the world of wax.
You may be wondering why someone would opt for vinyl records over the millions of instantly available songs available via the internet. Every vinyl buyer has their own reasons, but here are some of the main appeals of vinyl records.
A physical connection — It’s safe to say that in terms of the buying and storing of music, vinyl provides the most hands-on, tactile experience. The music industry is a huge, fast-moving beast, and for some, there is a comfort in slowing the pace down and buying a packaged product that allows them to physically connect with the music they purchase. The playing of a vinyl record is also a tactile ritual that requires one to physically place the needle onto the disc, something that can feel a lot more special than simply tapping a screen.
Visual appeal — The rise of digital music has fettered the visual aspect of music releases, but this can be preserved through physical music releases like vinyl records that proudly exhibit the artwork/aesthetic of the release. Records often come with added extras such as lyric sheets, printed inner sleeves, posters, or booklets that can complete a visually pleasing package. It could be argued that the most visually pleasing way to own a musical release is owning a vinyl copy.
Collectability — Many records are collectible and collecting records can be a dangerously addictive hobby. Records are often released on multiple ‘pressings’ over the years, which can have differences in aesthetics, details, and sound quality. Some pressings are much rarer than others, making them highly sought after. We will explore records pressings later on in this article.
Sound quality — There is an argument across the board on what musical format brings the best sound quality, but many audiophiles insist that vinyl provides the best listening experience.
A Brief History of Vinyl Records
In July 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a device for the mechanical recording and reproduction of sound. Edison’s phonograph recorded sound onto a sheet of tin foil wrapped around a hand-cranked cylinder. A sharp stylus responded to vibrations and translated them into vertical grooves in the foil. Although this was a groundbreaking invention, tin foil was not a reliable practical material for accurately recording sound for commercial or artistic purposes.
While Edison pursued other ventures, advances in sound recording technology were made by scientists Charles Sumner Tainter, Alexander Graham Bell, and Chichester Bell at the Volta Laboratory in Washington state. After five years of research, the trio of innovators introduced wax-covered cardboard cylinders as a sound recording medium for the phonograph and invented the ‘lateral’ recording method. Differing from Edison’s vertical recording method, the lateral recording method used a cutting stylus that moved from side to side in a zig-zag pattern across the wax in response to sound vibrations. These innovations allowed the trio to introduce their own version of the phonograph, named the Graphophone.
The invention of the Graphophone inspired Thomas Edison to return to his work on the phonograph. He opted for a thicker, all – wax cylinder and by 1888, Edison’s Perfected Phonograph had been introduced as a commercial record player. Edison’s Perfected Phonographs were initially installed as jukeboxes in up-market restaurants and taverns before becoming a household item for the wealthy.
Edison’s all-wax cylinders were used to record instrumental music and monologues and sold to the public. The grooves in these early ‘records’ would wear out after a while and owners could have the wax shaved down so that new recordings could be made onto the same cylinder. Edison’s phonograph cylinder created the recorded sound market toward the end of the 1880s and dominated it through the early years of the twentieth century.
The wax phonographic disc was introduced by Emile Berliner in 1889 along with his disc-playing system, the Gramophone. Berliner pressed his 7″ discs under the label Berliner Gramophone, the first disc record label in the world. The new, laterally cut discs of shellac were of poor sound quality in comparison to Edison’s wax cylinder, but engineer Eldridge R. Johnson produced a new motor for the gramophone that significantly improved the system. In 1901, Johnson and Berliner came together to form the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Based in New Jersey, the Victor Talking Machine Company went on to become the largest producer of phonographs and phonographic records in the early 1900s. The company also adopted the iconic painting “His Master’s Voice” by Francis Barraud as a trademark, using a simplified version of the image on their record labels.
In 1929, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company and the ‘His Master’s Voice’ trademark, forming RCA Victor. The company still exists today as RCA Records under parent company, Sony. In the late 1940s, RCA Victor and Columbia Records introduced the first microgrooved vinyl discs—the modern vinyl record. RCA Victor produced the first 45rpm records, while Columbia Records produced the first 33rpm ‘LP’s. These new formats replaced the traditional shellac discs that ran at 78rpm, and remain the fundamental formats for vinyl records to this day.
While shellac records were delicate and brittle, the new vinyl records took the world by storm with their flexibility, durability, and sound quality. The invention of the vinyl disc also revolutionized the design and production of the systems that played them. Over the next three decades, vinyl turntables boomed in popularity, with new technology making systems more affordable than ever. Vinyl records remained the most popular musical format until the late 1980s, when CD’s headed the digital music takeover.
How to Start Playing Records
To start playing vinyl at home, you will need one of two options; a turntable with a separate amplifying system, or an all-in-one turntable with built-in speakers. For better sound quality, you will want to go for a turntable that needs a separate amplifying system, as you are then benefitting from the separate power of the turntable, the amplifier, and the speakers. This isn’t to say that all-in-one record players aren’t worth considering, however. There are plenty of quality options out there, some of which can also be connected to an amplifier.
Standout makers of record players include:
- Music Hall
For anyone looking simply to just get set up and going quickly and easily, Audio-Technica’s AT-LP120-USB is a solid choice. It’s recommended often for beginners thanks to its accuracy, sound quality, and built-in phono preamp which makes it a cinch to connect to a stereo system. Plus, you can digitize your vinyl records with its USB port.
Available for $299 at Amazon.
Where to Buy Vinyl Records
These days, you can buy vinyl from a whole range of different stores, including online outlets. But just like fashion, one should be mindful to support brick-and-mortar record stores to keep that side of the industry alive. Although record stores will have certainly profited from the vinyl boom of the last decade, there will always be online competitors that will try to undercut the physical stores.
Shopping in record stores will also widen your peripheries by exposing you to artists you may not have heard of. I often visit record stores, like what I’m hearing on the speakers, and leave with a new record from someone I hadn’t previously known. Record stores are also the main outlets for second-hand and vintage records. Good stores will let you examine the disc and listen to second-hand records before you buy them. You can also trade or sell your unwanted vinyl at your most record stores.
How to Identify Record Pressings
As mentioned earlier in this article, most records are released in different pressings respective of the country they are produced in, label they were released on, or year they were pressed. The first pressing is pressed from the original master recordings, often making it the most sought after, but not necessarily the rarest or most collectible. The rarest pressing is defined on a case-by-case basis.
If you are thinking about collecting records and trying to get your hands on specific pressings, here is a brief guide on identifying pressings, using Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin III as an example.
A catalog number for the pressing is typically featured on the sleeve or disc label in one location or another. Pictured above is the label for the first pressing of Led Zeppelin III which indicates its catalog number of ‘2401002’ on the right.
Matrix number / Runout
A matrix number is an alphanumeric code stamped or hand-etched into the run-out groove area of a record. Different pressings have different codes or words etched into the run-out.
Artwork, Details, and Physical Differences
Different pressings of records can vary in their immediate appearance, with artwork being the most obvious. The above images show three different pressings of Led Zeppelin III, all pressed in 1970, the year of the release. On the left is the original British pressing, in the center is a French pressing with alternative cover artwork, and on the right, a Japanese pressing with a pink obi strip.
In cases where the artwork remains the same, there may be other features that will separate that pressing’s counterparts such as lyric sheets or printed inner sleeves.
How to Care for Vinyl Records
Records are pretty durable, but here are some tips that will help to keep your vinyl in tip-top shape and sounding great:
- Store records upright — It is best to store your records upright instead of piled up flat to avoid the disc inside imprinting on the sleeve, a form of damage known as ‘ring wear’.
- Avoid direct sunlight — Direct sunlight or immense heat can cause records to warp, which will affect playback. Store your records away from direct sunlight.
- Handle your vinyl correctly — Handle your discs around the edges, minimizing contact with the grooves.
- Use dust sleeves — Use plastic dust sleeves to protect your record sleeves from excessive wear and dust.
- Clean your vinyl — If your vinyl becomes dirty or dusty, gently clean the affected areas with a vinyl cloth and some vinyl cleaning liquid if necessary.
Now that you’re set up to groove, what records are you looking forward to spinning? Let us know in the comments!