Analogue audio memories (part 1): Vinyl records

Cassette tape

I stumbled across this poster recently and – aside from the fact that you probably have to be of a certain age to understand why cassette tapes and pencils went together – it got me thinking about the various audio storage and playback formats which I have come across in my lifetime.

Image courtesy of http://www.demotivation.us

By my reckoning there have been seven distinct mainstream formats (excluding streaming services such as Spotify) in my lifetime: vinyl records, reel-to-reel tape, 8-track, compact cassette, compact disc (CD), MiniDisc and MP3 players. The first four of these employ analogue media, the last three digital, with the humble cassette tape being the last bastion of analogue audio. And yet, as digital audio has improved geometrically in terms of storage capacity and reduced cost, the cassette has only become effectively obsolete in the last few years.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised I have a wealth of cherished childhood memories associated with each of the four analogue media mentioned above. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t swap my iPod and CD library for the world. But for all the rational benefits of having my entire music collection stored in digital format in my pocket, my heart will always belong in an altogether more primitive era.

So, anyway, here is an unashamedly personal trip in three parts down memory lane looking back at my experiences with analogue audio. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Vinyl records

A late-20th century record player (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Before the cassette came the first audio format I grew up with in my formative years: vinyl. Records and the turntables used to play them on are a technology whose origins can be traced back all the way to Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877. In the case of the records with which I grew up, sound is recorded as scratches etched into the grooves of a vinyl disc, typically seven or 12 inches in diameter. As the disc is rotated at a set speed on a turntable, a needle (stylus) traces the contours of the grooves, vibrating and reproducing sound.

It takes a person of a distinct (middle) age to immediately recognise the significance of the numbers 16, 33, 45 and 78 as the standard speeds (in revolutions per minute) of records, with 33rpm the primary speed for LPs (long-playing records, or what we would now simply call albums), while 45rpm was the domain of singles. Even now, long after records have passed into mainstream obsolescence, much of the terminology associated with them still survives (or is at least understood): singles, B-sides, 7-inchers, 12-inchers, and so on.

Records were my entry point into the world of music. As a young child of about four – slightly older than Isaac currently is – my dad introduced me to the joys of vinyl. There is a certain tactility associated with handling records which has been lost in subsequent formats which are both more compact and more robust. I remember dad teaching me how I should remove the disc from its cover – usually a cardboard sleeve containing a paper inner which fitted snugly around the vinyl – taking care to handle it gently only by its outer edge. There then followed a precise ritual of lowering the record onto the central spindle of the turntable, setting it rotating at the correct speed, gently applying a hand-held soft brush to the surface to clear dust from the surface, and then carefully lowering the stylus (which, in itself, required regular cleaning) on to the outer grooves of the disc which fed the needle onto the recorded surface.

From this flimsy and yet seemingly magical arrangement the most wonderful sounds would then blast out over the speakers. I’m not entirely sure why, but I can distinctly remember listening to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and The Wombles’ Remember You’re A Womble from that period. And I can recall the sense of excitement I felt when dad bought a new turntable and set up his old one in my bedroom for me. It was like a first coming-of-age, being entrusted with a system so intricate and requiring such care to operate. I was seven.

For such a simple technology, vinyl records produced wonderfully rich sounds – tangibly better than CDs did for several years – but there were many drawbacks. Discs needed to be stored carefully to prevent them warping, and they were easily damaged. It didn’t take much to snap a record into pieces, and the surface was easily scratched, resulting in sound drop-out or the needle skipping. Dust on the disc or stylus could also cause the needle to jump, as could a slight jolt to the turntable, or even placing it on a less than flat surface. And, of course, you could not record your own music on to vinyl – you bought pre-recorded singles or albums, and if you wanted to create your own recordings you had to copy them to another format.

It was little surprise that subsequent technologies soon sent the humble vinyl record spiralling into inexorable decline as all but specialist users switched to cassettes and CDs. Album sales on vinyl declined rapidly throughout the 1980s in favour of the newer formats, and singles sales rapidly followed the same route. Nowadays turntables and vinyl recordings are the domain of a tiny minority.

I can count the number of LPs I ever bought on the fingers of one hand. I stopped buying seven-inch singles in the mid-1980s, and by my reckoning bought my last 12-inch single in 1988. I haven’t played a vinyl record or owned a turntable for 20 years. And yet I miss the joy of handling a vinyl disc with the reverence it deserves, or sitting back and reading the accompanying sleeve notes. Of all the various formats I have experienced first-hand, it is the only one I have seen evoke genuine passion in people. While I would never go back to using cassette tapes, a small corner of me still longs for a turntable on which to play Wombles songs.

Aficionado that he is, my dad has recently transferred all his surviving vinyl albums (at least a couple of hundred of them) to iPod format using a USB converter. Part of me is insanely jealous of that: the part of me that is still a four-year old boy.

Next post: Reel-to-reel and 8-track.

Analogue audio memories:

Reel-to-reel and 8-track

Cassette tapes