Thursday, June 21, 2012

Your Mellow and Groove Made Possible by Columbia’s LP

Columbia's first pop 10" LP album

Columbia Records introduced their revolutionary new Long Playing Record format on this date in 1948.  Played at 33⅓ rpm, less than half the speed of the industry standard 78 rpm, the new disks were pressed in soft vinyl instead of hard shellac with a narrow groove.  They could hold up to 20 minutes of music per side and when played with an improved stylus reproduced music clearly and with less distortion from surface noise.

There were antecedents to the long playing format, notably the discs used in the Vitaphone motion picture sound system in the 1920’s and the 16” electronic transcription discs for radio broadcasting beginning in 1930.  Originally recorded on shellac, Columbia introduced vinyl pressing in 1930 and other companies experimented with other plastics.

Columbia released one hundred titles simultaneously in two formats in 1948.  Twelve inch discs were intended for long form classical music, opera, and Broadway scores.  Popular music was released on 10” disks usually with three songs to a side.  By catalog number the first pop album was a re-release of a previous 78 album set, The Voice of Frank Sinatra.

Despite the need of many to upgrade their phonographs to play the new disks, they were phenomenal success and were soon the industry standard.  Columbia’s success allowed to eclipse long time dominant RCA Victor.

Victor responded in 1949 by introducing its own new format, 45 rpm also on vinyl.  The small disks could only hold one song no longer than about 3½ minutes of music on each side.  The company expected to package albums of 45s like they had with 78.  The multi-disc album idea was a bust, but the new format quickly replaced the 78 as the standard for singles.

Together the two formats, after Columbia dropped the 10” LP, would rule the recording industry for 40 years with upgrades including longer content per side on LP that would allow whole Broadway shows to be recorded, and, of course, the introduction of stereophonic sound and multi-track recording technology.

Even the introduction of cheap tape alternatives like eight track cartridge and cassette tapes in the ‘70s mainly captured the market for play in cars, never an option for discs of any kind, and on popular portable devices like boom boxes.  In fact, sales of the cheap tapes often spurred the sales of disk recording to be played on high quality home audio equipment.

The death knell for the LP was the one-two punch of technology.  First the new, light weight and easily portable Compact Disc (CD) that also reproduced sound at high quality—although without the “warmth” of vinyl in the eyes of some audiophiles.  Then the I-pod and downloadable music was a hand grenade that nearly destroyed the whole recording industry.  By the early years of this century, few albums were being issued in vinyl LP format.

A niche market remained for club DJs who could better cue songs from LPs and for Hip Hop DJs who relied on manipulation—hand spinning disks back and forth—for some of the signature sounds of rap.
But vinyl LPs have had a loyal cult following and some artists are now releasing their music again in the format for a discriminating audience.

But the days so many of us remember of lining up at record stores for the release of a hotly anticipated LP by The Beatles or other hot act are now as quaint a memory as the listening booths in stores of an earlier era where Bobby Soxers picked out the latest tunes on 78 from their Big Band idols.

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