On Record Store Day 2017, let's celebrate the revival of the long playing record, aka the LP

Sunil Sampat

Apr 22, 2017 15:46:52 IST

There is some romance, bordering on mystique, to watching a circular turntable platform going around at precisely 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (rpm) with a twelve inch vinyl record placed on it, while a precision diamond stylus tracks the micro groove on the record disc. Connected through a suitable amplifier and good, high fidelity (hi-fi) speakers, this exercise produces music of a quality that seems to excite connoisseurs of good music. This is the long playing record (LP) record which reproduces sounds in the analog mode, considered to be the ultimate serving of sound for music buffs.

In keeping with the current trend of designating special days for events and occasions, 22 April is commemorated as Record Store Day. De facto, it is the celebration of the return of the long playing record. Plenty of fuss is made of this remarkably resilient long playing record — and with good reason!

The LP is indeed an instituion among audiophiles. Photo courtesy: Jean Scheijen/Freeimages.com

The LP is indeed an institution among audiophiles. Photo courtesy: Jean Scheijen/Freeimages.com

The long playing record is indeed an institution among audiophiles. The LP came into being in the 1940s. Until that time, music was recorded and reproduced on a more primitive groove on a shellac disc. This disc had two major disadvantages. The shellac was a hard, brittle material which broke into pieces if impacted or if it fell to the ground and two, it could only capture and reproduce about three minutes of music. The stylus used were fairly large metal needles which had a life of about ten playings — or only about a half hour of music after which the reproduced sound was muffled and a new needle was needed.

In reality, this shellac record was quite an improvement on earlier, much more primitive music reproduction systems. However,  the arrival of the vinyl 10-inch and 12-inch discs heralded the era when listeners could enjoy lengthier recorded music passages and live concerts. This surely was a boon to the music industry in general and a large incentive to musicians who could now express themselves fully.

The vinyl long playing record had a long, unchallenged run until the arrival of the small cassette tape. A small plastic cassette could hold the music of two LPs; cassettes were also easily portable, although they didn't sound as good as an LP. These devices found a very popular application in car stereo systems; till this time car riders could listen to sounds only on the radio. The cassette also had the advantage of being able to have music recorded on it; and many transferred their LPs onto cassette tapes.  Thus the cassette tape became the "dynamic" mode of music 'on the go' with portable players like a Walkman, music in outdoor settings in 'boom boxes' and, of course in cars. The LP was restricted to home use. Even in the home, the cassette intruded onto its space and many discarded the bulkier LP in favour of the cassette tape.

The rapid rise in technological development brought in the Compact Disc (CD). It is interesting to trace how the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated the development of new materials and miniaturisation in a big way. In the 1950s and '60s, the quest for 'the final frontier' — space — led to an accelerated development of new materials, especially plastics of several types and the tiny electronic micro chip for the "space project". While this enabled the US to put a man on the moon in 1969, it also led to highly beneficial spin offs for the common man. Thus, we see the huge advancement in areas such as communication, automobiles, building materials among others.

The compact disc with it's clean, digital sound was very appealing to listeners of music, thus pushing the LP further back as a popular medium for sound reproduction. This has remained so for almost  25 years. However, digital technology turned out to be a double edged sword for the compact disc. For one, the digital sound from CDs caused "audio fatigue"; it was not possible to listen comfortably to digitally reproduced sound for long spells of time. The LP always produced a 'warm' sound, closer to actual live performance. The other major consideration in the downfall of the compact disc was the ease with which it was copied. Later, of course, huge quantities of recorded sound could be stored on tiny devices. Thus CD manufacture was no longer economically sustainable. Sadly, this led to the closure of music stores all over the world. This in turn has impacted the income of musicians  and poses a real threat to their creative process.

Meanwhile, almost as a counter revolution, the LP has staged a marvellous comeback! The LP has been marketed as the finest and purest medium for serious listeners. The new LP made is of a heavier 180 gram vinyl material, supposedly capable of superior sound reproduction. The turntable, also having benefited from technological strides, has kept pace with the LP. Apart from being a boon to the audiophiles, this new revival of the long playing record will work positively for the music industry in general. That's enough reason to celebrate several days a year of the long playing record!

Happy listening.

Updated Date: Apr 22, 2017 15:46:52 IST