Diamond Life

From Hi-Fi World - November 2006 issue


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Diamond Life

In the early twentieth century, the analogue disc was a luxury item bought by dedicated enthusiasts, and so it is a century later. In the meantime however, it became a mass music carrier the like of which the world had never seen, says David Price...



Ever stopped to wonder why a fair sized chunk of the world’s specialist high fidelity industry concerns itself, often obsessively so, with catering for a format that has its roots in a one hundred year old technology, and one that hasn’t actually changed for fifty? Either the world has gone mad, or there must be something special about the vinyl Long Playing record.

Who would have thought that in 2006, some twenty five years after the introduction of the world’s first mass digital music carrier (the Compact Disc), and some fifteen years after the mainstream music industry stopped servicing it, that vinyl is thriving?


Many indie, rock and pop bands routinely offer their new albums on vinyl too...

Cultural commentators pontificate about its style ‘cachet’, and the fact that ‘retro’ is back. Collectors talk lovingly about everything from those lavish twelve by twelve inch sleeves – and even the smell of the discs themselves. Dealers talk about the irreplaceability of these audio ‘artefacts’, and how they tie buyers in with the time and place they were released. But the reason this month’s issue of Hi-FI World is a vinyl special is simply this – the vinyl disc remains the highest resolution format available to audiophiles.


After a decade of gloom as they watched the CD replace the LP as the world’s mass music carrier, mid-nineties vinyl junkies were surprised to see sales figures moving upwards. Driven by the dance music explosion, that time saw twelve inch singles push black plastic sales upwards, and at the same time a number of small specialist record labels started producing audiophile vinyl reissues.


The vinyl LP's heyday was during the mid-seventies rock era...


Nineties dance scene drove sales of 12" vinyl singles strongly, but they're now in decline...

Now though, ten years after that first sign that there was life in the old format yet, twelve inch single and LP sales are again on the wane. Chris Green of the British Phonographic Institute told Hi-Fi World that it’s clear that LP sales are falling. “In 2000, LP sales accounted for 0.6% of the market, compared to 0.2% in 2005”. The figures are stark; 751,857 LPs sold in 2000, 351,224 sold in 2005. The 12” single market is no more cheery. In 2000, 4,012,110 twelve inchers were sold, in 2005 that had dropped to 2,076,425. Confusingly though, the 7” single market is going great guns. “To put the figures into context a little, 7” singles accounted for 5% of singles sold on physical formats in 2005, compared to 0.4% in 2000”, says Chris Green. The numbers are impressive; 201,380 7” singles sold in 2000, 1,072,608 sold in 2005.

So in terms of the big numbers, it’s a mixed bag. Bizarrely, as MP3 downloads have almost killed the CD single dead, so the 7” vinyl has risen, phoenix-like, from obscurity and is thriving. It has come full circle; it was a cheap, disposable but loveable and collectable entry-point into owning music from an artist, and that appeal holds true today too. It’s become the currency of collectors – for example, the best-selling 7” in the year to March 2005 was via Iron Maiden. Elsewhere, the format is dominated by a new generation of UK rock acts including the Libertines, Babyshambles, Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand.


BPI Chairman, Peter Jamieson, commented that, “Despite the incredible growth in download sales, there is still a huge demand for the collectible physical formats. It would be wrong to write-off physical formats just yet. Record companies are committed to meeting consumer demand in whatever format people want their music.”


Just as the 12” single was buoyed by the mid-nineties dance music explosion, so it is suffering as house music and rave culture have dwindled. The general LP market is also falling slowly, and what’s remaining is rapidly being filled by specialist releases – in short, it has now almost completely transformed into a niche, collectors format. The fact that sales of audiophile reissues are growing strongly [see THE SOFT PARADE] shows this in no uncertain terms. It betokens the wholesale abandonment on the part of the mainstream music industry of the vinyl LP, and a move to audiophiles and collectors – this is precisely where hi-fi buyers come in.


Just as the major labels are doing ‘reissues’ of classic albums on CD, so a vast number of specialist labels are coming out with very high quality audiophile vinyl reissues. Classic Records’ Kai Seemann believes that it, “relates to the disappointment of digital media. When we started, with Classic Records launching one year later, the CD was ten years old and the public then realised that the promises of ‘the pure and perfect sound, forever’ were not true. After the CD hype, the audiophiles started hearing again - with obvious results.”


Sundazed's Tim Livingston concurs, “Some music fans like to hold a record in their hand, I like that picture sleeve, those liner notes, all of that. Downloads sales only affect the digital scene. I think that the growing numbers of people dedicated to vinyl love the physical aspect. Vinyl is a sound, it’s a feel, it’s a smell. It’s all there.”


LP & SACD: two hi res music discs - one 1982 vintage, the other 2004; guess which sounds better?

The continued increase of interest in vinyl during the last few years is also partly attributable to the murky futures of both DVD-Audio and SACD. The new high resolution digital formats have completely failed to capture the imaginations of audiophiles. The repertoire for these formats remains limited and the title selection can be described as haphazard. It’s also very hard to get unless you buy via a specialist retailer. Seemann adds, “I have information from Universal Music that it is now to ‘reconsider’ the future of SACD as a format for the company. You know that when the majors leak information like this, it’s the first step for them to step out of the medium. And if Universal ceases release of SACD, others will follow.”


Behind the scenes, vinyl’s continued presence has surprised many industry professionals. EMI’s record pressing boss Bob Bailey told Hi-Fi World that the business underwent an unexpected transformation in the nineties. “The huge drop in demand for vinyl in 1992 looked like the writing on the wall for the format - EMI was anticipating it surviving only a further six to nine months before they were going to stop the presses for good. But the early nineties dance music boom kept the 12” single presses rolling and then audiophile vinyl appeared on the scene, sparking a fresh demand for premium quality LPs. So, rather than abandoning vinyl as anticipated, EMI invested vast sums on upgrading its existing presses and installing new ones! Vinyl didn’t die, it changed”.


There you are, sat at a large kitchen table with a large world map sprawling to its four corners, entitled “Vinyl Production”. On it are highlighted territories showing where vinyl is made. In the UK, you see the major labels such as EMI and its imprint Parlophone, the associated Virgin group, Sony/BMG, Warners plus Universal. Then there’s the reissue outfits such as Pure Pleasure, Simply Vinyl and Radioactive. In Germany, there’s Speakers Corner, SPV and majors such as Universal Germany. In Italy, there’s the giant Abraxas label with its many vinyl imprints such as Get Back, Earmark and Akarma. In the USA there’s Classic, Sundazed, Mosaic, Cisco, Norton, Analogue Productions, DBK Works, Lost Highway, OJC, Groove Note, Mobile Fidelity and more plus the American majors such as Warners, Rhino, MCA and now Sony who produce their own vinyl.


Then you can add the gamut of indie, soul, reggae, dance and avant garde labels in all these territories from the likes of Domino, Warp, Mute, Rough Trade, Sub Pop and Matador plus limited run sets in the latter and other territories such as Korea and Japan. And they said vinyl was dead...


Mobile Fidelity was one of the first audiophile vinyl specialists, way back in the late seventies.

Well, it is, as a mass medium - there’s no way you can argue it’s a mass music carrier anymore, but it still serves a role as the audiophile format of choice for vast numbers of people. Contrary to the expectations of many, the wholesale switch to CD created a business opportunity for those prepared to take vinyl into the upmarket and/or specialist category. For them, there is no vinyl revival. Their business was good then, it’s even better now – steadily improving and reaching a level that is finally attracting media interest.

Evidence can be sourced via Pure Pleasure Records’ MD, Tony Hickmott, “I hear people saying there is a revival but I suspect it’s related to [more] people jumping on the bandwagon. Vinyl has never not been here. At Greyhound Records we imported vinyl continuously from 1981", he said.


Tim Livingston, Sales Director for US-based Sundazed concurred, “Our company started in 1988 and we’ve been producing vinyl the whole time. Sales have always increased but over the past three years we can’t make it fast enough – our sales have risen by 40% over the past two years alone.”


German audiophile specialists, Speakers Corner, also declared that, from its inception, it has never reported a growth in turnover of less than 10% compared to the previous year. Its latest figures, 2004 compared to 2003, shows an increase of more than 20%. That level of performance is being reflected world-wide. In addition, its major markets have been consistent right from its launch in 1993: the UK, Germany, USA, Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and Korea were on board from day one. However, a lot of additional countries have since joined that list including east European countries, during the late ‘90s plus, in the past year, the Philippines, South Africa and Turkey.


”A huge help for all of us, in the ‘90s,” said Speakers Corner MD, Kai Seemann, “was the increasing interest of youngsters under 25, who had grown up with CD and thus regarded vinyl as ‘cool’. Clubs and bars played vinyl again. If you wanted to be taken seriously in this scene, any new release had to be published on vinyl, too.”


Classic Records re-release of Genesis's 'Foxtrot', in all its gatefold glory.


Sundazed’s Livingston also believed that younger people are starting to ‘get’ vinyl, not just audiophiles, “There’s a couple of record fairs that we do. In one big event, the annual WFMU Record Show, in New York City, we get young kids coming up to us asking us about new releases. They’re into it, it’s growing too. They’re eighteen to twenty five and go for obscure psyche titles, Dylan, Otis Redding and others.”


Livingston recognises a romanticism in the rising popularity of vinyl as well as subtle cultural marketing, “there’s a lot of TV shows over here where vinyl and turntables are placed in the scene, for example. Also, we notice that stores over here are starting to feature turntables again. We also believe that people are rediscovering the vinyl sound, the warmer analogue feel. Many forget that some records were meant to be heard that way.”



The story starts a proper in 1877, with Thomas Alva Edison’s wax cylinder, or phonograph. This was the format chosen for the first commercially produced acoustic recording. Although it wasn’t a ‘record’ as we know it, it spawned the ‘recording industry’. By wrapping tin foil around a cylinder, Edison famously intoned “Mary had a little lamb” into a diaphragm which caused a stylus to cut a groove of varying depth on the tinfoil, which corresponded to the movement of the diaphragm caused by the air vibrations that impinged on it.


Then in 1887, Emile Berliner patented a machine that recorded these vibrations on a zinc disc, rather than a cylinder. It imprinted grooves on the flat side of the disc; instead of recording the sound by varying the depth of the groove as per the phonograph, it was cut laterally in a spiral groove of constant depth on a flat disc. Sound familiar? Berliner called it a ‘gramophone record’.

What followed was a protracted period of format rivalry (sound familiar?) from 1894, when Berliner’s Gramophone Company started marketing a 7” 70rpm single-sided disc that played for two minutes at a cost of 50c each. The cylinder and the gramophone coexisted during the first decade of the 20th century, but the gramophone record was easier to mass-produce than cylinders. By 1913, the disc record prevailed and cylinder phonographs were no longer made.


The nineteen twenties saw Western Electric, together with AT&T and Bell Labs, developing an electrical recording system which revolutionised the recording process. Microphones were used instead of acoustic horns, which gave a huge leap in the quality of the recordings. Records were produced double-sided and played for about five minutes per side. In 1925, the speed of a record was standardised in the USA at 78.26rpm, chosen as it was easy to achieve with a 3600rpm electric motor and a 46-1 reduction gear (3600/46 = 78.26).

By 1930, the natural material of shellac was replaced with synthetic resins, but they were still noisy, brittle and easily broken. RCA conducted some research into a new form of record material in 1931 using “Vitrolac” vinyl plastic that recorded at a 33 1/3rpm ‘professional’ speed. This failed to replace the popular 78s at the time, but the lower surface noise and greater resiliency was remembered. Shellac was in short supply, so 78s started to be manufactured in vinyl.


In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the 12” microgroove LP recorded at 33 1/3rpm and pressed in vinyl. Not to be outdone, RCA Victor launched the 45rpm vinyl single in 1949. This was a turning point as the 45 held the same amount of material as a 12” 78 and was lighter and more rugged. It also a low-cost, collectable commodity that made the fifties rock’n’roll era possible. Meanwhile, the improved sound quality of the vinyl LP led to the birth of high fidelity reproducing equipment.


In the fifties, Alan Blumlein’s research into binaural sound for cinemas, patented in 1931, came into play. His system for recording two channels in a single groove of a record recorded at 45 degrees, giving a sum and difference signal, was used by his employer EMI and in 1958 the first stereo LPs were produced.


The 1960s saw the growth of stereo. In 1963, Leak introduced one of the first stereo transistorised amplifiers, the Stereo 30. Early releases, such as George Martin-produced Beatles albums, were mixed in such a way as to showcase the format, but by the late sixties, rock albums used the format in a far more natural way. The quality of turntables, pickup arms and cartridges increased rapidly, and the hi-fi industry became buoyed by its own success. If two was better than one, then four was better than two...


The development of quadraphonic records was announced in 1971, a process giving four separate sound signals from an LP record. A variety of techniques were used, including electronically matrixing four channels down to two. There were two main systems of matrixed quadrophonic records produced, the SQ system from CBS and the Sansui QS system. A different format, CD-4  developed by RCA, encoded rear-channel information on an ultrasonic carrier, which required a special wideband cartridge to pick it up. Typically the high-frequency information wore off after only a few playings, and CD-4 was even less successful than the two matrixed formats. All these formats proved commercially unsuccessful.


No small number of conspiracy theories exist about why LP pressing quality dropped so much immediately before the introduction of Compact Disc in 1982, but suffice to say that the introduction of the convenient, easy-to-make CD did to the record what it had done to the wax cylinder...

Now though, in 2006, who’d have thought that the LP would be around as a purist music carrier nearly a century after its ancestor appeared on the market, with a burgeoning market for audiophile mastered and pressed LPs?


In the early days, discs were cut directly from the live performance and this was an entirely mechanical process. The invention of the electronic valve enabled microphones to be used that were connected to an amplifier which drove the cutting stylus. With the development of magnetic tape recording, a master recording was made on audio tape and this was then used to cut the master record.


Early master records were made using a disc of zinc that had been coated with a thin wax. The recording stylus cut through the wax to expose the metal underneath. The disc was then etched with acid to form a groove in the metal master positive. This was then copied to make a negative copy, which was subsequently used to press the final discs for sale. Later, discs were mastered by cutting the full groove directly into a hard lacquer. The lacquer was subsequently electroplated with a nickel alloy. The metal was then removed from the lacquer to produce a master that was a negative of the original disc. This was then electroplated again to produce a positive “Mother” copy. From this, a number of negative “Stampers” were created to be used in the hydraulic presses to mould the final records. This system allows a large number of records to be pressed quickly by using multiple stampers and all from one original performance, and as the stampers wore out, new ones could be made from the mother positives. Thus was born affordable, mass produced gramophone records – the world’s first mass music carrier...


Direct Metal Mastering - audiophile LP going back to its roots.


LPs were mastered in much the same way, although in the late 1970s, ‘direct-to-disc’ records were produced by the likes of Sheffield Labs for the audiophile niche market, which completely bypassed use of magnetic tape in favour of a high quality transcription directly onto the master lacquer disc. Also during this period, half-speed mastered and ‘original master’ records were released, such as Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s recording of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.


Also in the late 1970s and 1980s, a method to improve the dynamic range of mass-produced records was developed, using highly advanced disc cutting equipment. These techniques, marketed as the CBS Discomputer and Teldec Direct Metal Mastering (DMM), were used to reduce inner-groove distortion. Their success – or lack thereof – remains the topic of heated debates in high end vinylphiles circles to this day!


Commercial pressure to keep manufacturing costs to a minimum resulted in thinner records during the nineteen sixties and seventies, and an increase in the use of recycled vinyl being added to the mix. This resulted in a decline in the quality of many records produced, with poor surface noise and a greater tendency to warp. However, the late seventies saw the birth of ‘audiophile pressings’ that used 100% virgin 180g vinyl. Now that vinyl has become a specialist pursuit, these days virtually all new pressings use virgin vinyl – and pressing standards are generally superb.



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