In today's digital age, you may or may not be familiar with old-school vinyl records. They do seem to be making a comeback. Or, maybe you're a vinyl record aficionado, with a collection of vinyl records covering every wall of shelving in your house.
Whichever way you lean, you may or may not fully understand exactly how vinyl records work. It can be a bit of a mystery, for sure. Granted, it’s a man-made mystery, but a mystery all the same. Sound waves, you say? Etched and recorded so they can be played back? What kind of voodoo is this?
Relax. We’re not talking voodoo, friends. Merely technology and the major moves and advances in said technology that have been made over the years.
With modern music today, sound waves are basically stored on tiny computers. That’s not too hard to fathom, since computers today are smaller than ever with tons of room for digital information. The microcomputers available in this generation can house everything from photos, to videos, to games and apps, to text files, to music.
Music is merely information, just like everything else. In digital form, that music (or information) is stored as numbers. Actually, more accurately, it’s stored as long strings of numbers which are then compressed to take up only a tiny bit of space.
Digital information can be read in a number of different ways. A computer hard drive reads and records sound by moving a tiny electromagnetic arm on a disk that spins at high speed. The arm writes that information in little magnetic zones.
Music can also be stored on flash memory music players by recording sound using something called transistors. Transistors basically amount to tiny electrical switches. And of course, there are compact discs. CD’s record information as numbers too, but they are pressed into the disk using a laser and create microscopic little bumps called pits. Does your brain hurt yet?
With the arrival of the digital age, all of these modes of recording and retaining information could be stored and saved even if there was no power source. Unfortunately, the digital age has some drawbacks, especially when it comes to music. Music just doesn’t have quite the same full, robust sound with a digital recording that you get with analog listening.
Long before the digital age came along, devices like Thomas Edison's phonograph were born. The phonograph is considered the granddaddy of modern record players today. The word phonograph actually means sound-writer. Essentially, the phonograph recorded and stored sound mechanically by etching sound waves (or more accurately, the electrical signal of the sound waves) with a needle, onto tinfoil cylinder.
The cylinder was rotated by a hand crank and the needle moved to cut a groove into the tinfoil, recording the sound wave signal. A needle and amplifier were used to reverse the process (in the case of the phonograph, the amplifier was a horn) and the recorded sound was then played back. Of course, the phonograph had many limitations, but it was the early vision of what would later become known as the record player.
Originally, Thomas Edison created the phonograph as a way to record dictation, with intentions for using it in office work and as a way for teachers to record lessons. His very first recording was said to be a recording of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb.” Unfortunately, phonograph recordings weren’t very practical as the tinfoil didn’t last very long and the phonograph device itself was too complicated for most people to use.
Not long after Thomas Edison set aside his vision to work on other projects, Emile Berliner came along and developed similar technology, except instead of etching grooves to record sound waves into a tinfoil coil, the grooves were cut into a flat disk using a needle. Another needle was used to read the grooves and it was called the gramophone. It has a much closer resemblance to record players today.
Unlike the phonograph, which could record and play sound from one machine, the gramophone could only playback sound. Disks (or records) to play on the gramophone were made separately, which opened the door to recordings being produced in mass to be shared with listeners over and over, using the gramophone to play them. Sometimes the terms gramophone and phonograph are used interchangeably, but both are considered early precursors to modern-day record players and used the needle and groove design that has lasted through the ages.
The main difference between the phonograph created by Thomas Edison, the gramophone, and the record players that are still around and used today, is that the phonograph and gramophone were both completely mechanical technology. Record players, however, especially modern-day record players, use a combination of mechanical and electromagnetic technology to record and reproduce sound waves.
How Do Vinyl Record Players Work?
Vinyl record players are electromagnetic devices that change sound vibrations into electrical signals. When a record spins, it creates sound vibrations that get converted into electrical signals. These signals are fed into electronic amplifiers. Electric amps vibrate and feed the resulting sound into speakers, which amplify it and make it louder. Record players still use the whole needle and groove methodology that a phonograph used, although record players today are much more high tech.
So how do they work exactly? The needle, or stylus of a record player is one of several parts that make up a transducer. A transducer is what changes mechanical energy into electrical energy and changes electrical energy into mechanical energy. The whole system contains a stylus, magnets, coils, cantilever, and a body within a cartridge. The mechanical energy from the sound waves is converted into electrical energy, which is then sent into the amplifier and out to the speakers.
When a vinyl record is made, a needle is used to create grooves in the vinyl that is basically recorded information of the desired sound or music. A needle (or stylus) is also used to read the information contained in the grooves, playing it back so that we can hear the recorded information. On the left side of the groove and on the right side are channels of audio information that makeup stereo sound.
Fun factoid; once upon a time, records were made of rubber. Now, they are vinyl. Another fun factoid; the little grooves in a record would be roughly 500 meters long if you were to unwind it into a straight line.
A master copy of a record is made using a stylus to cut grooves into a round disk. It’s sent off to be formed into a master copy of the record. The master copy is ridged instead of grooved. It’s basically the “negative” imprint of the record which is formed into a stamp of sorts. The stamp is pressed into steam-softened vinyl, using a hydraulic press. The vinyl disc is cooled with water and viola… a finished vinyl record is born.
Once a vinyl record is made, it is played on a record player. A record player is sometimes called a turntable. Turntables spin wheels using an electric motor. Some are called direct-drive turntables, which use gears to turn the table, and some are called belt-drive turntables, which use a rubber belt and central axle to turn the table. It’s important that the turntable spins at just the right speed, because a turntable that spins too fast makes a sound resembling The Chipmunks, and a turntable that spins too slowly makes a sound resembling Eyore.
The cartridge and stylus of a record player trace the groove in the record to reproduce the sound information contained there. The tip of a stylus (also called the needle) is made of industrial diamond, a hard, impure substance that’s molded into a point that’s shaped like a cone and attached to a little strip of flexible metal.
The needle is attached to the tone arm of the record player and is the part that rests in the grooves that have been cut into the vinyl and traces them, following line as the record spins on turntables. The vibrations that result run through the cartridge and converts the vibrations into an electromagnetic signal that is amplified and ultimately produces the noise that we call music.
Vinyl records and record players became more popular over time, but originally, they were only designed to produce monophonic sound. With the advent of stereophonic sound technology, it made it so that two sound waves could be recorded to play tracks at the same time. This dual playback of sound waves created a richer, more robust sound that could be pumped through two speakers instead of just one.
The history of vinyl record players and how vinyl records work is long and colorful. Ultimately, vinyl records and record players sparked revolutions that allowed listeners to experience greater diversity in the music they listened to, giving people wider access to different styles and varieties of sound. Plus, records gave musicians the ability to share their art with more than just the locals, which helped to grow the music industry into the behemoth it is today.