This Day in Tech History

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Music Game Changer

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June 21, 1948:  Columbia Introduces LP’s

Columbia’s Microgroove LP Makes Albums Sound Good

On June 21, 1948, at a press conference at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, CBS Board Chairman Ted Wallerstein announced that Columbia Records had designed a 12-inch, long-playing record, manufactured on unbreakable Vinylite, which contained up to 22½ minutes of music per side—and the label was ready to release recordings in the new formats right away.

The new longer-playing records would be more durable than the standard 78s as well as, overall, less expensive: One 12-inch long-playing record featuring an entire symphony would cost $4.85, compared with $7.25 for an album of five conventional 78s containing the same symphony.

Wallerstein’s announcement was astounding, and the public greeted the news enthusiastically. The very first long-playing recording, of Nathan Milstein performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with the New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter conducting, appeared in shops only a week after the press conference. By the end of 1948, Columbia had sold 1,250,000 long-playing records.

Columbia Records microgroove plastic sparked a music-industry standard so strong that the digital age has yet to kill it.

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The Rest of the Story

Columbia Laboratories head research scientist And engineer Peter Carl Goldmark set out with his staff in 1939 to evolve the 78-rpm record forward to 33-1/3 rpm, extend playback time to more than 20 minutes per side, and shrink vinyl grooves to an accessible, acceptable millimeter size.

Peter Goldmark

Peter Goldmark

Before that time, music labels, including Columbia and RCA Victor, for various reasons, had failed to launch commercially successful 33-1/3 records to market.  Although RCA Victor debuted the first commercially available vinyl long-player designed for playback at 33-1/3 in 1931, the Great Depression shelved that ambitious project in 1933.

The Great Depression and World War II slowed everything down, including Goldmark’s team and its microgroove innovations. But once the war ended, the record business boomed, pulling in more than $10 million in sales by 1945. [Cue applause track]

When Columbia was finally freed from geopolitical conflict and able to resolve the LP’s previous technical difficulties — pickups that were too heavy, grooves that were too wide, playback times that were too short, and audio fidelity that was too crappy — everything changed.

“Goldmark assigned individual researchers to individual problems: cutting-motor and stylus design, pickup design, turntable design, amplifier, radius equalization,” Martin Mayer wrote in a history of the LP published by High Fidelity Magazine in 1958.  “The 33-1/3 speed had been established before work began, and it already had become clear that a very narrow groove, something like the .003 inch groove finally adopted, would be necessary to record 22 minutes of music to a side.”

At the time the LP was introduced, nearly all phonograph records for home use were made of an abrasive (and therefore noisy) shellac compound, employed a much larger groove, and played at approximately 78 rpm, limiting the playing time of a 12-inch record to less than five minutes per side.

First LP:  Nathan Milstein performing Mendelssohn

First LP: Nathan Milstein performing Mendelssohn

The first catalogue number for a ten-inch LP, CL 6001, was a reissue of the Frank Sinatra 78 rpm album set The Voice of Frank Sinatra; the first catalogue number for a twelve-inch LP, Columbia Masterworks Set ML 4001, was the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64, played by Nathan Milstein with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York conducted by Bruno Walter. These two albums are therefore the first long players.

Public reception

When the LP was introduced in 1948, the 78 was the conventional format for phonograph records.  By 1952, 78s accounted for slightly more than half of the units sold in the United States.  The 45, oriented toward the single song, accounted for 30.2% of unit sales. The LP represented only 16.7% of unit sales.

Ten years after their introduction, dollar sales of the LP was 58%.  78s accounted for only 1.2% of dollar sales and most of the remainder was taken up by the 45.

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