Revolutions Per Minute

From The Cylinder To The Disk Record…And Back?

Issue 96

When the first demonstrations of sound recording and subsequent reproduction were conducted, using Edison’s original 1877 phonograph, the emphasis was placed on promoting the machine, not the recordings.

In fact, the recording medium was tin foil, wrapped around a mandrel. Removing the recorded tin foil from the machine would render it unusable, as it could never be put back on the machine properly again!

It had not yet occurred to anyone that there would be a market for recordings, which could be purchased and played back on equipment other than the machine which made the recording! The early phonograph did not even provide any means for preserving recordings! A recording could only be reproduced for as long as it still remained in place on the machine, following the recording. It was only possible to discard a recording, with permanent effect, by installing blank tin foil on which a new recording could be made. The life span of a recording was only until it was decided to make a new recording! This obviously also meant that recordings could not be exchanged between different machines!

The exchangeable recording concept was introduced around 1881 with the Graphophone, a development of Bell and Tainter at the Volta Laboratory. It was a similar device to Edison’s phonograph, but used wax cylinders which could be easily stored and reproduced at a later date. Removing them from the machine was easily possible without damage. Furthermore, the Graphophone introduced lateral recording (instead of vertical) as a concept. Edison caught up by introducing his own wax cylinder phonograph shortly thereafter.

Edison Cylinder Records with packages, from 1910 catalog.

The disk gramophone was patented by Emile Berliner in 1887, although the concept had already been described by Charles Cros in 1877. This development maintained the concept of the exchangeable recording. The idea of recording music and selling the recordings was, by now, technologically feasible, both on cylinder and on disk.

German-American engineer Emile Berliner (1851-1929) with the model of the first phonograph machine which he invented.

Initially, the gramophone used metallic disks with a coating of wax, which was removed by the stylus to expose the metallic surface. Acid was used to etch the groove and it was only then that the disk could be reproduced.

Evolution quickly left acid etching behind, with grooves then being cut on soft metallic soap disks, called “wax blanks”, which were then plated to create metallic negatives, to be used for pressing multiple copies of the record in a process very similar to what was described in issues #94 and #95. However, in those days, the wax was vacuum sputtered, rather than silvered, and the pressings were made using a compound consisting of ground slate with shellac as a binder, instead of vinyl.

Cylinder records were made in real time at first. A performer had to repeat the same performance again and again, to create the multiple copies to be sold. Obviously, this was hard work for the performer and was the limiting factor to how many copies could be created (until the performer would pass out or lose their voice, or both).

Enrico Caruso with a “Victrola” brand phonograph.

Eventually, by the mid-1900’s, a process for molding cylinders was developed.

The era of industrial mass production thus began, with the pressed record and the molded cylinder, much to the relief of many recording artists. At first, the cost of the pressed record was much higher than that of the molded cylinder and even the one-off cylinder was a bit cheaper. However, despite the initially lower cost, the nature of the cylinder posed certain technical difficulties, which limited its mass-manufacturability and hindered the cylinder’s ability to compete with the rapid advances which were occurring in the disk world.

A further hindrance to the cylinder was a mess of lawsuits between companies trying to market pre-recorded cylinders, on patent infringement grounds.

While the amount of music which could fit on a disk kept on increasing, the retail price of disks kept on falling, making them more and more accessible to a wider audience. The increasing volume of production translated to decreasing manufacturing costs and plenty of interest in research and development.

On the other hand, cylinders were initially limited to two minutes of music, which was later increased to four minutes, but this was about as good as it would get. The format was stagnating technologically and demand was waning.

Edison Records “Diamond Disc” label.

By the time the electrical era of sound recording had arrived, there was little interest in “electrifying” the phonograph. On the contrary, due to the light weight of the blank wax cylinders, the portability of the equipment and the ability to use it without any source of power other than the operator cranking it, the cylinder remained in limited use for a while longer, for recording in remote locations with difficult access and no electrical supply. The market, however, had been entirely won over by the disk record, by the early 1930’s.

Electrical recording promptly took over from acoustic recording and giant technological leaps kept on occurring, through widespread corporate and academic interest and involvement. The introduction of the Long-Playing record, Microgroove and eventually the commercial Stereo-Disk, kept equipment manufacturers busy and research and development facilities well-staffed with highly skilled scientists.

The disk medium proved practical for the purposes of economical mass production at a high level of quality, while also being convenient for storage. Just think scrolls versus books.

However, what is often not understood is that while the disk record itself is easier to mass produce, everything around it got more difficult and complicated. Making an accurate cylinder recording lathe, for instance, is much easier and simpler than making a disk recording lathe capable of comparable accuracy.

The same holds true on the reproducer end. It is much easier and simpler to make a highly accurate cylinder mandrel than it is to make a record platter. The machine tools commonly encountered in industry are much better suited to machining cylindrical shapes than disk shapes, at a high level of accuracy.

A high quality screw-cutting lathe, for instance, could easily be adapted to cut cylinder records, with only minor modifications. But, to cut disk records, we need what is, in effect, a special purpose machine, which needs to be designed and manufactured solely for cutting records.

When the highest level of sound quality is called for, both disk recording and reproducing equipment end up being big, heavy and remarkably expensive machines, right on the very limit of achievable precision, even with our present state of the art in manufacturing technology.

Especially in the stereophonic era, the technology developed to cater for a market in which the disk record was the dominant format for the distribution of music and recorded music was one of the foremost means of entertainment, both at home and in public.

A “small pressing run” of records to test the waters for an unknown artist was something like 20,000 copies! International superstar artists were selling millions of records and “anything that mattered” was being manufactured in six-figure numbers of copies.

By now, things have changed quite a bit. Cassette tape sales already overtook disk record sales over 30 years ago. The CD was to follow, but both  of these formats eventually died out. The cassette  is making a shy comeback, but still remains far behind vinyl record sales, at present. The CD is a sinking ship with no signs of recovery. But, even vinyl record sales are stunningly low compared to what they once used to be. The virtual world is now offering plenty of distraction and is aggressively taking over many aspects of our lives, with an enormous amount of money being spent on marketing by the companies selling relevant products and by the consumers purchasing ever-more-expensive gadgets offering unlimited access to the virtual world.

Social and cultural changes are happening at a very fast pace. Part of the resurgence in the demand for vinyl records is most probably a result of people beginning to miss real, tangible things around them.

Still, the demand is low. The average order a pressing plant receives nowadays is between 300 and 500 copies. Back in the day you could easily reject 500 records for not being up to spec. But if the entire order is only 300 records, what can be reasonably rejected? Only the successful and established artists nowadays could expect to sell 10,000 copies, reasonably fast.

This is the primary reason behind the complaint about modern records not sounding as good as the old ones. It starts with the recording. If the cost of the recording is expected to be offset over selling 500,000 records, a lot more could be invested than if it would have to be offset over 300 records. This extends to mastering and, of course, manufacturing. The industry is good at figuring out ways to cut corners and still make it viable, but the quality suffers as a result.

In our modern age of low cost plastic consumer devices, rapid obsolescence, virtual reality, and diminishing attention spans, I wonder if a new, electric, stereophonic cylinder format dedicated to short run audiophile releases would be the way to go, by being niche enough to remain below the radar of the forces that hijack and cheapen out everything, while not easily lending itself to convenient mass-manufacturing. Imagine a format designed to remain a high quality medium, by intentionally omitting any features that would make it attractive to those who would abuse it. But do we really need yet another format?

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