30. Is it a record?

Back along when the world was in black and white, ‘records’ were thin discs of black shellac (the resin of a female beetle, believe it or not). They were 10 inches (254 mm) in diameter with a hole in the middle. A spiral groove ran from the rim to the centre on which were ‘indentations’ which carried analogue sounds. The sound was re-created by placing a needle in the groove and rotating the turntable, which carried the record, at 78 rpm. The record player was called a gramophone. The turntable was powered by a spring which was wound with a handle and the tiny movement of the steel needle was amplified by a mica disc to some form of cavity e.g. a horn which amplified further. The record usually had another recording on the reverse side and labels on each side to identify the music.

Such then was the home sound system of my childhood, but in a technological explosion in the 1950s records became discs, shellac was replaced by polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and the power was electricity for both the motor and the amplification through loudspeakers. With such advances, it became possible to have discs of differing sizes 7, 10 , and 12 inches; then they mucked about with the speed 16, 33, 45 and 78 rpm. This was an attempt to a) get more information on a disc, b) make the disc more portable and c) to improve the quality of the sound. This sound quality became known as high-fidelity and hi-fi was the holy grail of what we now call the nerds of the period. Large sums of money was spent by people, who could afford it, to achieve perfection by controlling the speed of rotation to the nth degree and the weight applied to the sapphire or diamond stylus, which had replaced the steel needle. When stereophonic sound came along then the grounds for acoustic pretension knew no bounds, even if it meant sitting at the apex of a triangle subtended by two sets of speakers called woofers and tweeters and which cost a fortune.

The standard LP (long playing record) was the 12 inch version which carried several tracks on both sides and was later called an album. Single songs were on 7 inch discs and the standard optimum speed was set at 33 rpm LP and 45 rpm otherwise. It should be noted that one of the selling points of LPs was the design of the sleeve or cardboard jacket that it came in. These were the very early days of TV and few people had their own means of recording from radio or TV so the purchase of recordings was the only way most people could listen to their favourite star when ever they wanted to. This resulted in the rise of the pop-star, groups, recording studios, TV programmes like Top Of The Pops, and the hit parade.  The Top 20 was an eagerly anticipated 1 to 20 chart of the best selling records, usually broadcast on a Sunday night on radio, when the Saturday sales had been tallied. This was also boosted by cafes (and later, pubs) which had record-playing machines called juke-boxes which played singles for anyone prepared to pay. At home the gramophone became a record-player, which might play a stack of discs, one after the other. These were often portable and could be played in your own room while parents might boast a radiogram, which combined radio with record player in one polished item of furniture.

For a short time cassette recording was king. You could buy your album on a pocket size cassette tape and play it on smaller and smaller portable machines. It was no good for single recordings, but you could record directly from the radio and make your own album. In the world of the pretentious the car version took over, and things like 8-track stereo with 10 inch speakers in the back would make your ears bleed. It was always a joy when their cassette player ‘ate the tape’.

It wasn’t until 1982 that the CD (compact disc) was born. Now an ubiquitous part of our computer storage, the retail CD was an audio device which gradually replaced the disc album. The cost of the player and its unsuitability for singles, meant that it never vanquished the record player entirely. Since then it has matured into storage of data and a reincarnation in 1995 to DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) which like its older sibling can be recorded over more than once. Of course there are the born-again record listeners who claim that the CD does not have the ambience of a record and this has resulted in sales of turntable record players.

I seldom hear of the discos of my children’s youth. Record shops where teenagers used to listen, in a booth, to the latest hit with their friends, or pore for hours over which album to choose are gone. I hope the music channels I see while idly browsing through my digital TV are an adequate substitute for the young nearly-adult and not just enjoyed in private.

As I write type this in to my desktop computer (although I could have dictated it directly), I am listening through my old hi-fi speakers, to a track,  that I have downloaded from the web, to the same pc. I have it saved on my hard-drive along with thousands of others and I can cast it to my tablet or phone, should I choose to. If I use them then I would use headphones or earwigs so that I do not intrude on others, but I fear that the world would cease to intrude on me and that would be sad.


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