The magic of the vinyl record

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The resurgence of vinyl is leading to increased record production across the country, which means independent musicians can seriously consider manufacturing, releasing, and distributing an album on 12" and 7" vinyl.

Disc Makers is thrilled to be part of the return of this medium; vinyl records are part of the origins of the company, which opened its doors in 1946 – long before the creation of the compact disc.

It may be no surprise to learn that producing records on vinyl requires a specific skill set and might require you make some compromises when it comes to reproducing your source material. And while vinyl manufacturing facilities are beefing up production capacity, turn times for vinyl releases are slower and a bit less reliable when compared to CDs.

How vinyl records work

Sound is the vibration of particles across a medium – e.g. water or air – in the form of waves. In 1877, Thomas Edison first developed a way to imprint this information onto tinfoil by etching the electrical signal of a sound wave with a needle, or stylus. Playback was achieved by reversing the process, with the stylus "reading" the vibrations from the grooves and reproducing them through a horn (rather faintly).

A decade later, Emile Berliner used the same principles, recording to a rubber disc, and then shellac – the predecessor of the vinyl used for modern-day release. In the early 1900s, with the advent of electronic amplification, the process was refined as the stylus was connected to an amplifier and speaker which would read that recorded information and create sound waves.

While Edison originally envisioned the phonograph being used as a recording device for dictation and teaching, Berliner's gramophone introduced the era of the recorded musical album, providing a way to mass produce recordings for people to play on systems in their homes. The process is similar to how records are enjoyed today.

A stylus, or record needle, is one component in a transducer – a device that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy (or vice versa). In the case of a record player, one transducer is the cartridge – composed of a stylus, cantilever, magnets, coils, and body – which converts the mechanical energy of the recorded vibrations into electrical energy, which is sent through the amplifier to the speaker. The speaker driver is a second transducer, which converts the electrical energy into sound waves.

A stylus is cone-shaped and typically made from diamond or other gemstone or hard metal. The stylus fits into the grooves of the record, picking up and sending the etched vibrations through the cartridge. The stylus' job is to read all the information in the grooves, which were originally created using another needle as part of a transducer – in this case, converting the electrical energy of the sound waves into vibrations etched into the record grooves. In a stereo record groove, the right channel is recorded on the right wall, and the left channel is recorded on the left.

While mastering engineers preparing a recording for transfer to vinyl will adjust the groove pitch to account for dynamics in the program (i.e., louder and softer sections of your music), there are maximum and minimum depths permitted. Too much low frequency information combined with a lot of information spread across the stereo field can result in the stylus jumping out of the groove and skipping. If the groove is too shallow and narrow, the recorded sound can lose its stereo image and suffer from low volume.

Furthermore, a record only has so much space to contain the grooves. The length of your program – as well as the levels and frequencies contained in your recording – will affect the depth and width of the grooves, and ultimately the quality of the playback. This is one reason why mastering a recording for vinyl release is an important step in creating a high-quality end product.

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Excerpted from Disc Makers' Musician's Guide To Vinyl.

Download the free guide today and learn more about making vinyl records.

Andre Calilhanna is a writer, editor, musician, marketer, massage therapist, and music lover (not necessarily in that order). He's been editing and writing for the Disc Makers, BookBaby, and blogs since 2011.