How Do Vinyl Records Work?
It’s something we’ve all wondered, haven’t we? How does a needle moving around a hunk of plastic allow us to listen to our favorite music? How can sound waves be recorded, etched into a vinyl disk, and played back through a speaker for us to enjoy? It’s strange, isn’t it, how it’s easier to wrap your head around playing a digital file on your computer, or how you can store data on a CD, but this medium, over a century old, is the most difficult to comprehend? Maybe the air of mystery is part of the appeal, after all, there’s a definite sense of wonderment that comes with dropping the needle on a vinyl record that can’t be replicated by simply pressing “play” on your streaming service of choice.
At Victrola, there’s nothing we love more than vinyl. The nostalgic popping when the needle hits the record. The ritual of sitting down to take in an entire side. Flipping it over for more music. Given our passion for vinyl records, we thought it would be helpful to put together a sort of Vinyl 101 primer. How do vinyl records actually work? How do we record music onto them? And how does a record player play them back?
In the old days, and we’re talking the late 19th century, records were quite different than the ones we know today. Thomas Edison’s phonograph recorded and stored sound by etching the electrical signal of sound waves onto a tinfoil cylinder using a needle, which would record the sound wave signal by cutting a groove. The process was then reversed, with the needle tracing over the groove to produce sound through an amplifier.
Shortly thereafter, Emile Berliner came along to make some much needed modifications to what was then a costly, complicated process. Berliner swapped the tinfoil cylinder, which degraded quickly, for a flat disk in which grooves would be cut by a needle. A second needle would be used to play the sound back on his new invention, dubbed the gramophone. While Edison’s phonograph could both record and play back sound, the gramophone could only play sound back. This may sound inconvenient, but it allowed records to be produced separately, and produced en masse, leading to consumers being able to listen to music in their homes for the first time.
Once the digital age came about, the process began to change. In its digital form, music, like all information is stored as numbers, which are compressed to take up a miniscule amount of space. Digital recording is typically done with a tiny electromagnetic arm writing information onto a disk moving at a high speed. Digital masters can be used to create vinyl records, but the sound is not nearly as warm and robust as an analog master.
With vinyl’s resurgence in popularity, many production companies have resumed using analog masters. Today, the process of producing a vinyl record using an analog master isn’t all that different. The master copy is made by a stylus cutting grooves into a round disk. That disk is then used to produce the master copy, which has ridges instead of grooves, essentially a “negative” of the record. That master is then pressed into softened vinyl, forming a vinyl record as we know it.
And now, the fun begins. How do our record players play the music back? To simplify it, the record player’s arm has a stylus on the end that reads the grooves of a record and generates an electric signal that will be carried out by an amplifier. Sounds pretty easy, but let’s complicate it and dive into each part of the process. When a record hits the platter of a turntable and begins to spin and create sound vibrations. The needle of a record player acts as one part of a transducer, which is what converts mechanical energy (vibrations) into electrical signals we can hear. The needle moves along the grooves of the record, reading the information, which is then sent up the tonearm and converted into electrical energy, sent into the amplifier, and out through speakers.
Still sounds complicated? Yeah, we know. Fortunately, you don’t need to pass any kind of test to listen to your favorite music on vinyl. Victrola makes it easy to shop for a record player that meets your needs and the vinyl to go with it. Maybe you’re just getting into vinyl and want to break in with our Re-Spin Sustainable Record Player. Maybe you’re someone who likes to listen on the go with the Revolution GO Portable Record Player. Or maybe you’re a seasoned listener who wants to play vinyl through their Sonos system with Victrola’s Stream line of wireless turntables. Whatever your preference, Victrola’s got you covered.