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Vinyl 101: What is a Vinyl Record and How Do They Work?

What is a Vinyl Record

I’m sure many of us have come across vinyl records before – in our parents’ or grandparents’ homes, browsing through thrift stores, or watching movies set in decades past. These large, round, flat discs often spin on record players and accompany the crackling sounds of decades gone by. Vinyl records may seem like relics of the past, but they offer a unique music listening experience that many audiophiles still enjoy today. In this article, I’ll be exploring exactly what vinyl records are, what materials they are constructed from, and how they work to produce the beloved analog sound.

What is a Vinyl Record?

Vinyl records go by many names – you may know them as LPs, phonograph records, gramophone records, or simply just records or vinyls. A vinyl record is an analog sound storage medium that was widely used to store music before modern digital formats and MP3s. Vinyl records were the dominant form of music distribution from the 1940s up until the 1980s. While sales dropped off with the introduction of CDs, vinyl records have seen a resurgence in recent years as music enthusiasts rediscover their warm, rich sound.

Vinyl records come in a few standard sizes:

  • 12-inch LPs (long playing records) – These can hold around 22 minutes of audio per side, for a total of 44 minutes. 12-inch records spin at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (RPM).
  • 10-inch records – These hold around 12 minutes of audio per side. 10-inch records play at 78 RPM.
  • 7-inch records – These are known as 45s due to their play speed of 45 RPM. 7-inch vinyls typically contain one song on each side.

In addition to releasing music, vinyl records were also popular for recorded speeches, radio broadcasts, comedy albums, and educational records. Today, vinyl records are beloved by audiophiles and music enthusiasts, both for their history and unique sound. Vinyl collecting has become a popular hobby. Rare, mint condition, or limited edition vinyl records can sell for thousands of dollars amongst collectors.

What Materials Make Up a Vinyl Record?

What Materials Make Up a Vinyl Record

The key component of a vinyl record is the material it’s named after – polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. PVC is a synthetic plastic polymer material that is created through the chemical processing of ethylene and chlorine. By combining ethylene and chlorine and putting the resulting mixture through polymerization, producers can create a PVC resin.

This PVC resin is then used to produce vinyl records. Pure PVC on its own would result in a very weak vinyl disc, so other chemical additives are incorporated into the resin mixture:

  • Carbon black – Finely ground carbon is added to the PVC to reduce static electricity and improve the physical strength of records.
  • Plasticizers – These chemicals increase the PVC’s flexibility and durability. Common plasticizers used include dioctyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalate.
  • Stabilizers – These additives help protect the vinyl from the degrading effects of heat and ultraviolet light exposure. Calcium-zinc stabilizers are often used.
  • Lubricants – Compounds like fatty acids, esters, and metallic soaps are added as lubricants to improve the flow of PVC through record presses.
  • Pigments – While pure PVC produces a translucent product, carbon black is added to create the standard black color of vinyl records. Other pigments can produce colored vinyls.

The resulting PVC compound is then mixed with the additives at high temperatures to produce the viscous material needed to manufacture vinyl discs. While most vinyl records are black, special colored vinyl releases have become popular, often used for limited special editions.

Why Are They Called Vinyl Records?

Early audio recordings were made on phonograph cylinder records made of wax, lacquer, celluloid, or shellac. These were simply called “records” or referred to by their material names, like shellac records. Eventually, the shellac records transitioned to a new plastic-based material – PVC. PVC records became known as “vinyl” records based on that key material component. The name stuck, even as records transitioned from pure PVC to more complex plastic compounds.

What Does a Vinyl Record Do?

Vinyl records provide a means of storing analog sound recordings. Their spiral grooves contain variations in depth that translate to different vibrations of a stylus, creating an analog signal that can then be amplified and converted into sound. Some key features of vinyl sound storage include:

  • Analog encoding – The sound wave information is stored through continuous physical variations in the vinyl grooves, not through binary digital encoding. This allows for subtler nuances in sound.
  • Multiple tracks – A typical LP vinyl record stores multiple audio tracks by dividing sections of the spiral groove to store distinct recordings. Short gaps in the grooves separate each track.
  • Playback with a turntable – A vinyl record cannot play back its sound without a turntable (also known as a record player). The turntable spins the record at a constant speed and the stylus converts the groove information into audible sound.
  • Distinctive sound – Vinyl records produce a warmer, richer sound than digital files. The analog method provides more intimacy and realism. Vinyl also has a unique crackling sound that many music fans find pleasing.

Overall, vinyl records provide an analog storage medium capable of holding high-fidelity sound in the spirals of PVC discs. This analog approach creates a listening experience considered more natural and realistic by many audio enthusiasts.

How Does the Technology of a Vinyl Record Work?

How Does the Technology of a Vinyl Record Work

Vinyl records leverage analog sound technology that dates back to the late 1800s. The basic foundations are simple, even if the engineering is complex. Here’s an overview of how vinyl records work:

  • Spiral groove – A vinyl disc contains a single spiraled groove that starts on the outer rim and works inward. This groove can be up to 1/200th of an inch wide.
  • Groove variations – This spiral contains continuous side-to-side and up-and-down deviations that correspond to the original sound wave information. Louder sounds create wider grooves, higher pitches create faster side-to-side changes.
  • Stylus vibrations – As the record spins clockwise on a turntable, a stylus moves through the groove from the edge to the center. The stylus vibrates based on the shape of groove, in response to the recorded sound waves.
  • Electromagnetic cartridge – The stylus assembly rests inside a cartridge that contains a magnet and fine wire coils. As the stylus vibrates within the magnetic field, it generates an very faint alternating electrical current in the coils.
  • Amplification – This weak electrical signal is then amplified and sent to speakers which convert it back into physical sound waves that we hear as music.
  • Continuous process – As long as the record spins at a constant speed and the stylus stays in the groove, this electromagnetic conversion of vibrations to electrical signals produces a continuous analog playback of the original sound waves.

This ingenious process allows the microscopic bumps and wiggles of a plastic disc to reproduce expansive, high-fidelity music. It’s a testament to the physics of vibrations and electromagnetism.

Are Vinyl Records Made of Wax?

With the term “record” often associated with wax phonograph cylinders used in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some people assume that modern vinyl records are also made of wax. This isn’t the case – as covered earlier, today’s vinyl records are made of PVC plastic, not wax.

However, wax did play an important role in early sound recording:

  • Phonograph to gramophone – Thomas Edison’s original 1877 phonograph used tin foil wrapped around a grooved cylinder to record indentations made by a stylus. Emile Berliner’s gramophone in 1887 switched to wax cylinders.
  • Graphophone – The graphophone, created by Alexander Graham Bell, also utilized wax cylinders wrapped in graphite-coated paper. Graphophones produced clearer audio than phonographs.
  • 78s – Eventually, the shellac 78 RPM records transitioned to vinyl in the 1940s and 1950s. But early 78s were made of shellac resin molded over a wax disc recording.

So while wax was an integral material in early sound recording, the “vinyl” in vinyl records refers to the PVC plastic that modern vinyl is made of. Wax cylinders have not been mass-produced or used commercially since the early 1900s.

The Allure of Vinyl Records Endures

Despite facing stiff competition from cassettes, 8-tracks, compact discs, and digital audio files over the decades, vinyl records have demonstrated incredible staying power. Much of this persistence comes from vinyl’s unmatched sound quality and warm analogue characteristics. The tactile, ritualistic process of interacting with vinyl offers an experience that digital files have struggled to replicate. For many listeners, vinyl just feels real in a way that other music formats can’t compete with.

There’s also the nostalgia factor. Vinyl invokes distinct sounds, smells, and sights that remind us of past decades and our childhoods. Flipping through the artwork and liner notes of vinyl albums creates a more immersive experience compared to a digital playlist. Vinyl has an identity and culture that other formats lack.

While vinyl sales dropped off substantially in the 1990s and 2000s, vinyl records have made a strong resurgence in recent years, with over 18 million vinyl albums sold in 2017. It’s clear that the unique vinyl sound, listening experience, and cultural identity will keep vinyl spinning for years to come. So as digital music gets colder and more clinical, vinyl’s analog warmth will continue to attract new generations of listeners.

The Bottom Line

Vinyl records have a rich history and cultural allure that makes them more than just old technology. The PVC platters artfully store music in spiral grooves to produce an authentic, organic sound. The records spin on turntables, where styluses vibrate and amplify these variations into a full music experience. Though facing competition from newer innovations, vinyl’s warm analog sound and vintage aesthetic ensures vinyl will keep spinning into the future.

Vinyl 101: What is a Vinyl Record and How Do They Work?

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