The Charm of Vintage Record Players
By Erica Lome
If you were to stroll into an Urban Outfitters today you might be surprised to find portable turntables enclosed in a purple velvet container alongside boxes of vinyl records by contemporary artists. Now offering Bluetooth and other modern amenities, modern record players promise to provide “analog music the encore it deserves.” Designed in pastiche styles that evoke 1920s gramophones or 1940s radio cabinets, record players are increasingly popular among a new generation of consumers.
While the retro appeal of record players has inspired people to return to analog modes of playing music, genuine vintage record players and turntables have lagged behind as collectibles. Even so, people purchasing LPs might wish to know a little bit about this underrated technology, and how it evolved to make music an everyday experience for people all over the world.
Record players traditionally consist of a circular turntable that holds a record in place with a rod installed at the center. When operational, the record turns via a belt drive or electric motors. Cut into the record are micro-grooves which are traced by a diamond-tipped needle. Suspended over the turntable by long metal arm, the tip of the needle reads sound vibrations created by the uneven grooves as it gradually spirals inwards from the outer rim of the record. The vibrations travel from the tip of the needle along the arm to a cartridge which converts them into electric signals. These signals are amplified and returned to the speakers. While the design of records players have changed throughout the years, these components have remained essential.
Record Players: Then and Now
The ability to capture and play sound dates back to the mid-1800s, as scientists and inventors tinkered with telegraphs and Morse code signals to produce better ways to communicate across distances. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, which reproduced recorded sound using tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder, with a stylus producing grooves in the foil linked to a diaphragm responding to sound vibrations. Edison patented his device, but it was not long before competitors sold their own versions of the phonograph. Notable among them was Emile Berliner’s 1895 Gramophone, which used a flat disc rather than a cylinder. An early ancestor of the turntable, Berliner’s gramophones were far more popular than Edison’s. Sound was amplified through a large horn attached to the machine, making it clearer than the faint impression of noise made by earlier phonographs. Similarly, gramophone records (made of hard rubber, and later of shellac) were easier to produce and could be sold to the mass market.
The popularity of gramophones prompted the merger between Berliner and fellow inventor Eldridge Johnson in 1901. The Victor Talking Machine Company, as it was called, quickly began innovating ways to streamline the design for the home. Previously, most people listened to recorded music at phonograph parlors. These parlors provided customers with a device that played music through stethoscope-like headphones for a nickel – a curious mix of the modern day jukebox and personal mp3 player. Johnson and Berliner modified the form of the gramophone to make it more compact: lowering the horn and placing the entire turntable inside a cabinet.
The Victrola made its debut in 1906 and dominated the market. People enjoyed the design of these cabinets, which made the record player look more like a piece of furniture than a state-of-the-art machine. Modern day collectors should note that gramophones with the external horns (which many found so unsightly at the turn of the century) remain the rarest and most expensive on the market.
Correspondingly, furniture designers in places like Grand Rapids soon began manufacturing phonograph cabinets for customers. Nicer models included better wood and hardware, and cheaper ones were merely shells for those who already owned a gramophone or Victrola. The machines themselves were inexpensive enough that they became a ubiquitous part of American households by 1920. The democratization of these record players paralleled the development of new kinds of music in the early twentieth century aimed at a socially diverse audience, such as Ragtime, Jazz, and the Great American Songbook.
By 1925, dominant brands like Victor, Columbia, and Edison encountered over 200 competing manufacturers of photographs in the U.S. In Europe, engineers tried making devices that would stand out on the market. One notable example is the Mikiphone, an early portable phonograph manufactured in Switzer-land in 1924. At less than twelve centimeters (just under 5″), the round aluminum case contained a hand-crank and a resonator for sound projection. Though short-lived, it anticipated later innovations in portable sound devices. Less than two hundred thousand of these devices were produced from 1924-27, and surviving Mikiphones command upwards of $1,000 on the secondhand market.
The inclusion of radio technology in phonograph machines after WWI made them even more desirable, and able to run on electric power – ideal for the modern home. Innovations in electric microphones and amplifiers made records sound clearer than ever, and companies began modifying record players to accommodate these improvements in sound and longevity. Stereo-phonic sound systems allowed for two sets of sound waves to travel into multiple speakers.
The design of record players remained consistent through the 1930s and 40s, until the introduction of the 12-inch LP (or “Long-Playing”) by Columbia Records in 1948. Replacing shellac with vinyl, the new microgroove records spun at 33 ? rpm (revolutions per minute) and could play 20 minutes of sound on each side; earlier versions could only play for five minutes at 78 rpm. Musicians could incorporate multiple songs on one record, ushering in the album boom of the later decades. Companies like RCA produced their own records, which were 45 rpm singles and seven inches in diameter, playing only 10-15 minutes per side. Nonetheless, the EP or “Extended Play” records were popular among artists like the Beatles.
Record players continued to be modified with three or four speed playing capability and the ability to automatically drop a new record atop a finished one via a tall spindle. There was also the innovation of High-fidelity sound, or hi-fi, which distinguished quality record players through their faithful reproduction of sound.
In response to the wave of popular music dominating radio waves, companies began introducing portable record players. Westinghouse Electrical Corporation began selling the Westinghouse Duo in the late 1940s, which played at 78, 33, and 45 speeds. They also included detachable radios. Evidenced by their advertisements, the company hoped to court teenagers, a relatively new consumer demographic. Teenagers and young adults with money to spend were developing a popular culture distinct from their parents, and record players were the perfect accessory for a carefree (and even rebellious) youth lifestyle.
By the 1950s, brands like Motorola routinely manufactured portable players with “hi-fi” sound systems. Utilizing a durable fiberglass container, Motorola’s 1957 Calypso line came in fun colors and included up to four speeds of playability. Closed, the record player resembled a chic overnight suitcase, and when open, the hood acted as an acoustic shell to project sound even further.
Record players followed modern design trends, and quite a few are worth collecting for their unique appearance. Space and Atomic-age design really took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s, impacting the look of everyday household technology from TVs to toasters. For example, the Electrohome Apollo series housed its machinery in a tinted dome, and came complete with two spherical speakers. Similarly, Weltron 2005/2007 turntables resemble UFOs, with their flattened round bodies containing a radio, speakers, cassette deck, and turntable. Further abstracted was the Vision 2000, launched in 1971, in which the turntable appears suspended in the center of a large Plexiglas bubble, conjuring images from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The popularity of record players was not restricted to the United States. In Japan, toymakers mass-produced them in cheap plastic with eye-popping colors and unexpected forms. One of the most bizarre examples to come out of Japan was the AT-727 Sound Burger designed in the early 1980s by Japanese manufacturer Audio Technica as an alternative to the recently-invented portable walkmans. The battery-powered player consisted of two eight-inch arms that clamped 45 and 33.5 RPM records between them, leaving the vinyl and needle exposed.
Although short-lived, the Sound Burger was reportedly popular enough in Japan that Sony tried to make a U.S version which stood upright, called the Flamingo. Flawed from the outset, both players relied on mechanized pressure to move the needle, often damaging the record. However, both models can command between $500 and $1,000 on the secondhand market, making these a unique and visually stimulating collectible.
By the 1990s, it was clear that record players were becoming an obsolete technology. However, turntables experienced a renaissance among the re-mixers and hip-hop artists of the early ’80s such as Grandmaster Flash, who invented the distinctive “record scratch” sound popular in the genre. More sophisticated turntables allowed artists to control two separate records at once and experiment with mixing their sound. Disk Jockeys (DJs) tried using the traditional belt-drive turntables but found that the belt would frequently break from attempts to manually manipulate the record while it was spinning.
Panasonic engineer Shuichi Obata solved this problem with the direct-drive SP10 turntable in 1969, which operated via motor. Since then, direct-drive turntables continue to be produced alongside belt-drive turntables, and the idler-wheel, which uses a system of gears operated by motor. For those who have an SP10 in their attic, these machines will sell for at least a $1,000 online. In August, 2017, Panasonic announcedit is re-launching the SP10 at the IFA 2017 tradeshow in Berlin. Panasonic describes it as the brand’s “most premium turntable ever,” complete with a heavy 7KG platter made of brass, aluminum and rubber. The price is yet to be revealed, but it appears to be aimed at audiophiles able to invest at a high level.
After the advent of digital music and mp3 players in the late 1990s, many began to mourn the loss of vinyl LPs. The once annoying crackle-and-pop noise that alerted people to dust and scratches, or the clicks and skips produced by cheap plastic record players have now become symbols of nostalgia among listeners. The revival of vinyl LPs and record players in the last ten years attests to the desire to slow things down and experience music as the artists originally intended: carefully, methodically, and socially. Among younger generations, an interest in mid-century design has propelled the manufacture of inexpensive record players by companies like Crosley, who go so far as to imitate the look of vintage players from the era.
Record players continue to connect people to an era of music that has become, like these machines, an antique. Yet the phonographs and sound gadgets of yesteryear make for fascinating collectibles by virtue of their unique designs and historical technology. Maybe it’s time to dust off that old LP and give it another spin.
Erica P. Lome is a historian of material culture and the decorative arts, and a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Delaware in their American Civilization and Material Culture program.