This edited article about the gramophone originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 704 published on 12 July 1975.
“Is it a British or a German submarine? We must be able to hear the difference!”
This was the awesome task set by R.A.F. Coastal Command when they approached the Decca gramophone company during World War II. It was a secret assignment and called for a record to be produced which could be used as a training aid to familiarise airmen with the subtle differences made by the sounds of the enemy and our own submarines.
Difficult as the problem was, Decca came up with the answer – a record with such a wide range of sensitive sound that it was completely satisfactory.
Intensive research had produced an exciting new recording technique, stretching the gramophone’s capabilities to a greater extent than ever before. Adapted later for musical reproduction after the war’s end, the process became known as “ffrr” (full frequency range recording,) and Decca took it as their trademark.
It was not long after the war, that another kind of battle began, this time between the rival recording companies.
In 1948, Columbia Records of America held a Press Conference in New York to launch a revolutionary idea, invented by Dr. Peter Goldmark, called the LP (Long Playing) record. Their new 12-inch disc turned out to be made of non-breakable vinyl plastic, played at 33 and a third r.p.m. on microgrooves and lasted 23 minutes per side. It had about 250 grooves to the inch instead of about 80 in the 78 r.p.m. record.
Here, at last, was another milestone in the story of the gramophone. The public, and particularly the lovers of classical music, were enthusiastic over the advantages of the new discs and, in the months that followed, Columbia Microgroove LPs sold well.
Suddenly, Columbia’s great rival company, Victor, jolted them from their complacency, producing a 7-inch microgroove record of their own, but one which played at 45 r.p.m. The “Battle of the Speeds” had begun!
The public were bewildered. Between them, Columbia and Victor had dealt the death blow to 78 r.p.m. records, but no one could tell which disc would replace them – LPs at 33 and a third r.p.m. or Short Players at 45 r.p.m., lasting a maximum of 6 minutes per side. Both were on sale and both suffered because of the public’s uncertainty about the future. People were understandably wary of converting their record-playing equipment to suit one type of record if the rival type was likely to supersede it.
At the beginning of 1950, Victor acknowledged their defeat by issuing the first of their own “improved” LPs, playing at the slower speed, but they continued producing their “Short Players,” which they claimed were the preferred speed for popular music.
Here in Britain, Decca started producing the new LPs, but their rival, EMI, stubbornly ignored them and for some time continued to issue the old 78 r.p.m. records. Eventually, they, too, had to give in, but for the next few years many popular issues were brought out in both speeds to suit most people’s unconverted radiograms.
Slowly but inevitably, the 78 r.p.m. disc gradually vanished from the catalogues and by 1958, it had disappeared.
Meanwhile, hi-fi and tape-recording were gaining ground in popularity. Discerning listeners were turning to new equipment on which to play their records. For those critics of the quality of sound, novel components for genuine high fidelity reproduction appeared in specialist shops. Powerful and flexible amplifiers, lightweight and ultra-sensitive pick-ups and separate loudspeakers could now be obtained. The search for “truth in sound” became something of a fad amongst hi-fi enthusiasts, but the majority of the public continued to buy the radiograms and record-players produced by the large manufacturers of that time.
Hi-fi recordings themselves became increasingly dependent upon the existence of tape recording. By 1950, the old method of direct recording on acetate blanks or wax was abandoned in favour of the use of magnetic tape “masters”.
There were many advantages. Tapes could be edited to include the best of many “takes”; they were capable of being played back immediately, and, should someone accidentally sneeze or cough during a recording, this could be erased without difficulty. Once the performer was completely satisfied with the master tape, the recording could then be transferred to the microgroove master disc.
For the record-buying public, however, tape masters were a mixed blessing. Inferior artists could be made to sound far better than they really were, for a good sound engineer could “cheat” and produce a near-perfect record which the performer could never hope to match in real life. This applied particularly to some very poor pop group musicians who greatly disappointed their more discerning fans when they were seen performing “live”.
In 1959, another Record Revolution happened when stereophonic sound was introduced. Stereo was based on the obvious, simple fact that we all possess two ears and not one, and is roughly equivalent to 3-D in sound form. The type of groove used on a stereo record was finer, practically, the same size as a human hair and was recorded by a combination of the “hill-and-dale” method pioneered by Edison and the horizontal or lateral cut used by Berliner. Two channels were used when recording and a matched pair of loudspeakers, together with a feather-weight pick-up and twin-channelled amplifier reproduced the sound.
The first of these new records were quite different from anything heard before. Listeners were amazed to hear the sound of a train coming from one speaker, appearing to hurtle across the room and disappear into the speaker in the opposite corner. Similar novelty effects were heard using fire-engines and a game of ping-pong was played, making listeners’ heads turn as each table tennis ball was hit over an imaginary net hung across the room.
Music in stereo brought the concert hall right into people’s homes, giving them the illusion that the orchestra was spread out before them.
Since stereo made its staggering impact in 1959, there have been few earth-shattering innovations in the story of the gramophone. The search for absolute perfection of recorded sound goes on, however. Quadrophonic sound, using four channels, is one of the latest advances, but this does not yet appear to have caught the public’s fancy.
From the arrival of the LP onwards, recording companies’ catalogues have been bursting with offerings of every possible kind to suit all tastes. Classical recordings have maintained a steady flow of sales, often subsidised by the enormous profits gained from pop music; complete plays have been recorded by some of the greatest actors of our time; jazz devotees have revelled in their kind of music, while, in more recent years, pop addicts have been delighted with ample helpings of their superstars and an ever-changing parade of groups competing for the “Top Ten”.
Nearly a century has passed since Edison demonstrated his talking tin-foil phonograph, a simple acoustic machine, bearing little resemblance to the ultra-sophisticated electric equipment of today.
It is interesting to speculate what extraordinary improvements the next Record Revolution may bring.
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