More than a digitally perfect CD, and way more than a compressed audio file downloaded to a portable device, a vinyl record is a record, if you will, of an artist or genre at a particular moment in time. From the pantheon of 1950s jazz to the Psych records of the 1960s, vinyl records in their original jackets deliver sound as well as sensibility. No wonder contemporary artists like Pearl Jam and Radiohead insist on releasing their new work in a variety of media, with vinyl at the top of the list.
Vinyl records were not the first form of analog sound recordings. Cylinders came first, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. Edison did a great many things right, but his phonograph cylinders were bulky and expensive to produce, so in 1887, Emile Berliner invented a gramophone that could play flat discs. By 1929, the cylinder was dead.
The earliest records were not even made of vinyl. Some were fashioned of hard rubber but most were pressed out of shellac, which was a mixture of resin and fiber (cotton was commonly used). Shellac records had their drawbacks (they were so brittle that if you dropped one it was likely to crack or shatter), but the format lasted until about 1950 when vinyl finally took over.
The first vinyl records had actually been manufactured by RCA many years before, in 1930. Those discs were 12 inches in diameter and meant to be played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, or RPM. Although vinyl records generated a lot less playback noise than shellac, the Great Depression was no time to be introducing a new entertainment product with limited manufacturer support, so vinyl didn’t catch on then.
In 1948, Columbia introduced its trademarked 12-inch, 33 1/3 LP (for Long Play). RCA countered with a 7-inch, 45 RPM EP (for Extended Play) disc. For two years, consumers faced a format choice that caused phonograph manufacturers to equip their devices with both 45 and 33 1/3 playback speeds (many companies also added 78 since that format was still quite popular). As we now know, vinyl 33 1/3 LPs prevailed, while smaller, 7-inch vinyl 45s were used for singles.
Vinyl records had numerous advantages over shellac, with durability and sound quality being the top two. But vinyl was hardly a perfect medium. The discs warped when subjected to high temperatures or improper storage, and they tended to acquiring a static charge, which meant they attracted a lot of dust. You could wipe the dust off the disc, but you had to be careful because the discs were very easy to scratch. In most cases, this use caused hiss; in some cases, a record’s groove would be so damaged that the needle would keep skipping back, providing the source for the phrase "broken record."
So why collect imperfect vinyl records when CDs offer the same music but without the background noise caused by a needle moving through vinyl grooves? Many people believe the sam...
DJs like vinyl, too, because it gives them more control over the music they are playing than if they were spinning CDs—it’s like the difference between driving an automatic versus a car with a 5-speed manual transmission.
Beyond these differences, there is the fun of collecting itself. In some cases, as with early pressing of the second and third Grateful Dead albums, the vinyl versions are the only way to hear what those records sounded like before they were digitally remastered.
Album art is another reason to collect vinyl. For the Rolling Stones’s "Sticky Fingers," artist Andy Warhol created a cover that featured an actual working zipper; some years later, artist Robert Rauschenberg designed a clear plastic cover for the Talking Heads’s "Speaking in Tongues." The Who’s "Tommy" came with a booklet filled with art and lyrics, and if you want a copy of The Beatles’s infamous "butcher" version of "Yesterday and Today," you’ve got to go back to the original vinyl.
Also collectible are the 45s. Motown 45s features artists from Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder, and few logos in popular music are as iconic as the crowing rooster on the yellow Sun Records label, especially if the name of the recording artist at the bottom of that label is a guy named Elvis Presley. Finally, thanks to their retro-looking labels, 78 records are appealing, regardless of who was recorded.