Turn! Turn! Turn! A History of Turntables
Through the years, on occasion, recording industry experts have sounded the death knell for the turntable. All have been proven wrong. Despite countless threats to the vinyl format—whether it be commercial radio, cassette tapes, compact discs or mp3’s—LPs and the machines that play them have not only survived, but often thrived. Audiophiles swear by the unparalleled fidelity of vinyl, and in recent decades, club disc jockeys and hip-hop artists have transformed the turntable into a musical instrument in its own right.
Vinyl record player history dates back to 1877, when Thomas Edison announced his invention of a device that would record and replay sound. The phonograph, as it was called, functioned by inscribing and retrieving audio information on a sheet of heavy tin foil wrapped around a cardboard cylinder. Three years later, Alexander Graham Bell improved that technology with the development of the graphophone, a device that retained Edison’s cylinder but used wax instead of tin foil as the recording medium. Both devices were marketed in the late 1800s—often as office dictation machines or as coin-operated record players stationed in public arcades.
The first turntable as we know it arrived in 1895, when German-born American immigrant Emile Berliner introduced a commercial version of a record player he had been developing for seven years. Utilizing a flat disc instead of a cylinder, the gramophone, as it was called, garnered wide public acclaim. Unlike Edison’s cylinders, gramophone records—made first from hard rubber, then from shellac, and later from vinyl—could easily be mass produced. As a result, the gramophone dominated the consumer market, with companies such as the Victor Talking Machine Company marketing “Victrolas” to the public.
The invention of the low-cost radio in the aftermath of World War I threatened to bankrupt the recording industry. Ironically, however, radio technology led to improvements in record-making, specifically through the use of electronically amplified disc cutters. By 1925, all phonograph discs were being manufactured utilizing this new technology.
During the 1930s and 1940s, phonographs and phonograph records continued to improve. In 1931, Columbia introduced the first “long playing” record. Resembling the LP with which we’re all familiar, the 12-inch diameter disc was designed to be played at 33-1/3 rotations per minute. Companies such as Stanton—which in 1946 began manufacturing an easily replaceable phonograph stylus—made the turntable an even more practical commodity for consumers. Still, throughout the 1940s, 10- and 12-inch shellac-based 78-rpm discs continued to prevail.
With the introduction of the modern LP and the 7-inch 45-rpm disc, in 1948 and 1949, respectively, the modern turntable came into its own. Sales of record players got a further boost when mass production of stereo albums began in 1958. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the affordability of turntables—both stand-alone and console varieties—made the device a fixture in most homes. Not even the emergence of cassette tapes could dethrone the turntable as the centerpiece of the typical audio system.
Nothing threatened the demand for turntables more than the introduction, in the 1980s, of the compact disc. Even in that case, however, turntables and LPs turned out to be the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes. While modern recording media has moved increasingly toward ease-of-use—often at the expense of fidelity—astute music lovers have turned to the tried-and-true, dropping a needle onto a vinyl platter and enjoying the distinctive sound only an LP can provide. Moreover, recording artists and club DJs have employed turntable technology in the service of their art.
Today’s manufacturers of turntables have kept pace as well, augmenting proven technologies with new features that address the desires of contemporary users. The aforementioned Stanton is a prime example. In addition to emphasizing high-quality torque motors and ultra-stable platters and tone arms, Stanton turntables offer such features as key correction, reverse play, up to 50% pitch adjustment and S/PDIF digital outputs. The company’s USB turntables, which come bundled with easy-to-use software, bridge the worlds of analog and digital as well. In a word, the modern turntable retains its preeminent spot in the world of consumer audio, utilizing proven functionality perfected in the past hundred-plus years while keeping pace with today’s fast-moving innovations.