How vinyl works

How vinyl records work

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Excerpted from our guide The Musician’s Guide To Vinyl, this post is a quick study of the science behind the magic of the vinyl record

How does vinyl work? Our new guide tells you.

This post was updated April 2017.

Vinyl records are back. Of course, they never really went away, but the resurgence of vinyl means that manufacturing, releasing, and distributing an album on 12″ and 7″ vinyl is – once again – a viable option for your independent release. We’re thrilled to be part of the return of this medium; vinyl harkens to the origins of Disc Makers, after all. And renewing the debate over analog vs. digital recording in an age obsessed with technology and expedience is what we audiophiles live for.

Whatever your reasons for releasing an album or single on vinyl, there are realities to come to terms with, particularly the fact that the “art and science” of mastering and manufacturing has a lot more to do with art when it comes to vinyl records.

Producing quality records on vinyl requires experience, skill, and know-how, and ultimately means more compromises when it comes to reproducing your source material. It’s also important to understand that vinyl manufacturing relies on unique production facilities, which currently translates to much longer production schedules when manufacturing vinyl records, compared to CDs.

How does vinyl work?

Sound is the vibration of particles across a medium – air and water, for instance – 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. Then, with another needle connected to an amplifier and speaker, he was able to read that recorded information and create sound waves.

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.

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, this transducer is a cartridge – composed of a stylus, cantilever, magnets, coils, and body – which converts the mechanical energy of the recorded vibrations into sound waves, which are amplified and broadcast through speakers.

A stylus is cone-shaped and typically made from diamond or another gemstone or hard metal. The stylus fits into the grooves of the record, picking up and sending the etched vibrations through the cartridge, which converts the information into an electrical signal, which is sent to an amplifier that boosts the signal’s power, and then to the speakers, which broadcast the sound.

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. With too shallow and narrow a groove, 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.

Learn more about making vinyl records. Download our free guide, The Musician’s Guide To Vinyl: Everything You Need To Know About Making A Record today!

The Musician's Guide to Vinyl

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17 thoughts on “How vinyl records work

  1. If you saw my comment dated April 21 2017 and have any questions I would be glad to
    try to answer them. Just e-mail me at convert2cd@yahoo.com

    One little comment : during WWII the recording blank discs changed from aluminum acetate coated discs to
    GLASS coated ones. You had to be very careful how you handled and stored them.

    I still have aluminum discs I cut using my professional lathe in the 40’s that are very playable.

  2. Your information on Edison’s recording is not entirely correct. His first recordings commercially did NOT use an amplifier and speaker. His first method was cylinders which lasted 2 minutes. He then put the grooves closer together and increased the playing time to 4 minutes (Goldmark copied his idea to create “microgrove”) Also his groove was vertical-cut or “hill and dale” while others including Berliner were horizontal. The sound was amplified by a horn, NOT ELECTRICALLY. I have several cylinder players in mint condition including a Fireside model that plays both 2 and 4 minute cylinders. Edison realized that with Berliner’s flat disc on the market he would have to have to change so he converted his Diamond Disc machines that were still the verictal cut. They are 12″ and 1/4 inch thick. The play head has a horizontal diaphram with a stylus to provide playing. The heavy head in a free -moving loop travels across the record by a worm drive below which carries the internal sound horn with it. There is a lever above that controls a cable attached to a (“powder-puff”) that moves into the horn to control volume. Still NO AMPLIFIER. The sound like the cylinder unit is provided by the shape of the horn.

    If you have never seen either of these units, the Diamond Disk unit is a solid mahogany floor model and the
    Fireside is a little oak portable with a detachable 2-piece horn.

    I’m 92 and have been recording since I was 14 and have equipment to transfer ANY type of audio to
    another. Cylinders, DD’s, 4 speeds of tape, 8 track, cassette, CD’s, I even have a wire recorder (1938) that
    records on spool of piano wire. I just transfered a wedding from wire to a CD for a 90 year old’s wedding.
    I also do 8mm, super 8 and 16mm film to DVD.

    If you want to see the two Edison units in operation I would be glad to send you a DVD.

    1. Kirke,

      Do you have any videos on youtube of these machines in action? All of that sounds amazingly cool to me!

  3. I was a Mastering Engineer in the 70’s (all Vinyl). It is hard for me to believe that what I just read is a real interpretation of what Record Mastering was all about…..Technically. (left side of groove was for the left channel etc. !)

  4. Edison’s original cylinder records and early gramophone records were mechanical and reproduced the sound mechanically through a horn. They were not electrically amplified.

  5. Edison’s original 1877 cylinder phonograph was a completely acoustic device. Sound impinging upon the diaphragm directly transmitted to tbe stylus, impressing the groove into the tinfoil on the rotating cylinder. Playback was via the same instrument, the groove on the rotating cylinder would transmit the impressed vibrations to the diaphragm via the same stylus, where it was heard. The reproduced sound was extremely faint. Electronic amplification did not exist in 1877, coming about with Lee De Forest’s invention of the triode vacuum tube in 1907. Electrical recording came later, towards the beginning of the 1920s.

  6. Poorly written from a technical standpoint.

    “this transducer is a cartridge – composed of a stylus, cantilever, magnets, coils, and body – which converts the mechanical energy of the recorded vibrations into sound waves, which are amplified and broadcast through speakers.

    The mechanical energy of the needle in the grooves is converted to electrical energy by the cartridge, then through the amp to the speakers. The speaker driver is another transducer with converts the electrical energy to sound waves.

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