Record Player: How Does It Work?

Music means a lot to everybody. Just playing a piece of music on a record helps us release emotions, escape problems, or just get really excited and inspired about something. But how does a record player really works? How does it make music by just plugging it on? Also, how does vibration produced in our throats get carried through the air and captured on a record player?

History Of Transcribing Soundwaves

Photo credits: Joe Vasquez

🎶 Detecting soundwaves

For centuries, there were attempts to transcribe sound onto paper. Back in the middle of the 19th century, experts were wondering how sound waves roam through the air and produce vibrations. Inspired by studies of the inner ear, French scientist Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville tried to recreate the eardrum with a thin membrane. Attaching this membrane to an etching pen or stylus, he could track the recorded vibrations that hit that membrane onto a sheet of glass or paper. But it took at least 20 years for anyone to realize that these 2D lines on paper, if turned into 3D grooves in something, could be played back.

🎶 Edison’s lab

The earliest attempts at recording the human voice goes back to the 1870s. And like most inventions of that era, it was developed at Thomas Edison’s labs. Once we had soundwaves figured out, there had to be a way to mark them down somehow and re-play them later. Edison’s labs created a system with a cylinder that’s covered in tin foil with a needle connected to a thin membrane which is the diaphragm. As soundwaves hit the diaphragm, they jiggled the needle, which etched the vibrations and movements into the cylinder. But Edison wasn’t the only one working with its attempts.

🎶 Emile Berliner

Emile Berliner developed a similar system aside from figuring out how to transcribe the soundwaves at Edison’s labs. But, his system had a hand crank that turned not a cylinder but a flat disc cutting 3D grooves of soundwaves directly into it. The needle or stylus would read the grooved, producing a sound that was amplified by a horn or cone creating the gramophone in 1887.

🎶 Vinyl

The first vinyl record was released by Columbia in 1948. Specifically, it was the record named Mendelssohn: Concerto In E Minor on 12 inches. Vinyl records do play on the same initial principle of Edison’s phonograph.
Records In The Modern Times: Talking About Vinyl

After developing the gramophone, it is still almost the same how analog sound is played today. Records work on a similar principle, and only instead of recording it fresh each time, it’s recorded to a master disc and then pressed into vinyl. Today’s record players have the stylus, usually made from diamond or sapphire, attached to a tonearm. That tonearm is the thing you pick and move to put on a record. They can be straight or curved, and there’s some debate as to which is better. And the sound isn’t amplified mechanically. They are carried through the tonearm to the cartridge containing coils in a magnetic field.

The coils receive the vibrations and then amplify them electronically through the speakers. But on a warmer note, many record fans say they sound just that. Record lovers believe that records sound better and warmer than other forms of recording because of their fidelity. But maybe the rise of the record players lately is simply because many vinyl lovers say they have an emotional connection to records.

Analog vs. Digital: Analyzing Their Production

The humble disc record is not often correctly recognized for the impact its development had on the modern world. On the face of it, such records are just literally products that allow artists’ music to be sold to their fans, a concept that itself only reached the mass market about a hundred years ago. The truth is, the impact of this technology goes way beyond the consumption of pop music.

🎶 Printing

In some way, the record’s tightest comparison is the printing press. The printing press is usually deemed one of the most important innovations in history. This is due to its ability to quickly and accurately reproduce ideas in the written word. Which, in turn, significantly accelerated the transfer and exchange of knowledge. The ability to press audio to record so that you can reproduce it in scale did the exact thing for audio. It functioned as a vector for cultural exchange, and the revolution in recording technology ushered in by electronic and audio engineers is the foundation upon which modern communication systems stand.

🎶 Distribution and Sales

These days, most of the music we consume is digital. The internet has changed the way we consume music, the amount of music, and the music itself. Curiously, while this is happening, vinyl is seeing a year-on-year increase in sales. Even more curious is the fact that half of the people who buy an album on vinyl stream it first. It remains a point of contention whether analog formats, such as vinyl, are actually superior to their modern-day digital counterparts.

Is vinyl’s regeneration just shoppers seeing yesteryear’s technology through a yearning for a physical connection to their music, rose-tinted glasses, or does the music really sound better on vinyl?

🎶 Commonalities

To understand the comparison between analog and digital, we need to understand the commonalities first. No matter which format is used, analog or digital, both require audio data to be created by a recording device. The simplest of these would be the microphone, which turns air pressure into either digital or analog signals. This can then be re-played as an analog electrical signal. This talks about the project inside Edison’s labs mentioned above. This invention was the first example of playable recorded sound. And for all intents and purposes, the vinyl record is essentially an alteration of this technology.

🎶 Product

Some vinyl enthusiasts argue that the smooth continuous reproduction of sound from analog to analog is more faithful than digital music. Part of this controversy stems from the distinction in how digital music is replicated. High-quality digital audio is typically sampled 44,100 times per second, and this date is recorded in binary format. Close assessment of the wave function created from binary code indicates that rather than the audio data being smooth and stable like real life, the audio data is craggy and technically non-continuous.

🎶 Frequency

Harry Nyquist (electronic engineer) and Claude Shannon found that we only need to sample each wave at least twice to recreate a frequency. If not, the frequency will only be digitized with a lower version of frequency. The max perceivable frequency a human ear can detect is 20,000 Hz, so digital recordings with a sampling of 44kHz can capture even the highest frequency possible. Thus, the sound produced by a speaker using digital audio is effectively the same sound as analog recordings.

🎶 Constraints

Interestingly, these constraints largely explain both vinyl enthusiasts’ preference for the media and also why some might argue that digital recordings are a superior format for storing audio. The major constraint that impacts vinyl is simply its limit in data storage. This is simple to understand as a 12-inch record can only hold so much information in the format described. Each rotation of the record takes 1.8 seconds, but the question is, how many times that this record can rotate? Two things affect this. The frequencies seen in bass notes need the groove of the record to sway out wider, just as the speaker also hitches out wider when it plays base.

How Is Music Stored On Records?

Storing music on vinyl is the same as Edison’s principle. A 3D representation of a soundwave is physically pressed onto a vinyl record. An imprint is first formed by a cutting head. The cutting head creates an impression that is a direct analog of the soundwave. This process creates a master that will go to create a stamper that molds each record. When a record is played and listened to, the wave frequency that you will hear will rely on how extended out the wave is on the media, and the magnitude will count on the size or amplitude of the wave.

🎶 Modulation

This audio information will be pressed onto the vinyl in one of three fashions: horizontal, vertical, or two-channel.

The horizontal modulation is always preferable over vertical modulation. This is because vertical modulation leads to more distortion and allows for less amplitude due to the inability of the pen or stylus to trace the groove and also a propensity for the needle to bound off the wave if the amplitude is too high. But if we run only horizontal modulation, we can only play audio in mono, and we don’t have stereo separation of sound. Accordingly, we use a compromised modulation of 45-degree in order to allow for the separation of audio from mono to stereo.

🎶 Magnet

As the stylus follows the groove, it moves a magnet wrapped in a small coil of copper wire. This causes an electric current that corresponds to the groove on the vinyl. After this, it corresponds to the physical soundwaves that were initially recorded. The electric current can now render a physical activity of the speakers, which will replicate that sound pretty calmly.

Why Does Record Players Sound Great?

Record players have a great sound indeed. The ritual, artwork, the pure joy of digging through albums at your local record shop, and finding a gem that can’t be streamed are all the things a record fan loves. But! The best defense for purchasing a record player is how great they sound.

🎶 Compression

A record player sounds excellent because there is no compression except for some lossless digital files, like uncompressed WAV files. Digital files, like MP3s, are compressed. How so? There are curves that are nice and smooth, and all of the sonic information is coming through as intended. When a song is in a digital form, information is taken away. Different compression algorithms are used to eliminate less audible sounds to keep file sizes low.

Of course, this doesn’t make digital versions unlistenable. Your brain just kind of completes the missing notes and gaps, like when someone leaves a word out of a sentence. There are different amounts of compression and different algorithms that do this better than others. But the pure sound that you can get in a record is free of this compression.

🎶 Loudness

If you listen to a record from decades ago, the odds are you’re experiencing a recording with an excellent dynamic range. This range refers to the relation of the loudest parts of the song to the quietest. Around the time that CDs became popular, music began being mastered in a way that makes everything loud. Through compression and equalization techniques, songs are pushed to a point where every part of the song is sitting around maximum amplitude. Not only do songs sound better when you can experience the more comprehensive dynamic range, but the sound quality can be affected as well.

When pushing the volume to the peak and sometimes past 0 decibels below full scale, the sound quality can be affected by clipping and distortion. Luckily for records, the format limits the ability to do this. The “volume above all else” process is referred to as the “loudness wars” and happened because the music industry believed that customers thought louder was better. The trouble is, listeners can always turn up the volume, but once that distortion is there, they can’t get rid of it by turning the volume down.

Record Player Mistakes

Here are the common mistakes that a record player holder so that you can avoid them.

🎶 Buying an “all in one” turntable.

The first mistake is buying a suitcase-style or all-in-one record player. This is a very easy misstep to make because usually when you are in a retail environment, the first turntable you are likely to see is going to be a Crosley Cruiser or something similar. This basically destroys your records, is cheaply built, and has terrible sound quality.

🎶 The plural of vinyl is still vinyl.

This is a really minor vinyl mistake, but it is still significant enough to add to our list, especially if you want to look professional. So one or more vinyl is still called vinyl. Do not add “s” at the end or change its spelling to make it plural.

🎶 Do not touch the grooves.

When handling vinyl, a lot of first-time collectors make the mistake of holding the grooves. It would be best if you stop mishandling your vinyl. The proper way to hold the disc is by the edges or the label. This is to prevent scratched and cracks on your disc.

🎶 You are not aligning the cartridge.

When you first buy a new record player, sometimes the cartridge is already pre-aligned from the factory, which is nice. But! In most cases, you have to do it yourself. Also, if you do not align the cartridge, your records are going to sound like crap because the needle is not sitting correctly in the groove. So it’s kind of vital if you want to make sure that your record will sound great.

🎶 Forgot to clean your records.

Records are really dirty, and there seems to be this misconception out there that they’re all supposed to sound scratchy and full of pops and crackles. But the truth is, vinyl can sound really good if you clean it.

🎶 You are not upgrading the paper sleeves.

When you buy them, most records come with cheap paper inner sleeves. This can actually scratch your record. So it’s a good idea to get rid of those and instead replace them with something that is softer, higher quality, and will not scratch your precious records.

🎶 No amplifier.

A lot of times, when people buy a new turntable, they think they can just plug in a pair of headphones and be good to go. But then, you’ll realize that you need some type of amplification like an amplifier or a receiver. So basically, you need four things to make your vinyl setup work: turntable, preamp, amplifier, and speakers.

🎶 Tonearm

Another mistake is not balancing the tonearm when setting up your record player. It is very important that you balance it. If your tonearm is too heavy, your needle is going to carve up the grooves like a steak knife through butter. But if, on the other hand, your tonearm is too light, your needle would jump out of the groove and scratch your record.

🎶 Stacking your records.

Do not stack your vinyl one on top of the other under any circumstances. When you do the stacking, the weight of the records causes them to warp, which is not a good idea. So when you are storing them, always make sure that you stand them up vertically.

🎶 Not taking chances on new music.

When you go first to the record shop and buy a record player, you are going to see tons of albums that you’re already familiar with. So it’s totally normal that you would pick up those records. But every once in a while, it’s really nice to just dig through the crates and pick up something you have never heard of. And, you don’t need to spend a whole lot of money to do that. In fact, most shops usually have some kind of a discount vinyl section. And if you find something in there that maybe has a cool-looking cover, buy it. Because you might really like it even, it’s your first time seeing it. So overall, by taking more chances, you can discover some incredible new music.

Bottom Line

A recording or buying a record player is an intimate decision to have that nostalgic factor. Others like records because they are tangible, and there is something they can really see and feel. Maybe it’s the appeal of the ritual, especially on vinyl. They have a connection every time they take-off of the jacket, place the record on the table, and finally get the stylus, literally on the groove. So while some might get a little down on digital, it can still be awesome. Modern scientists have even found a way to listen to those famous recordings using a virtual stylus.

If you’re into digital music, here are the music apps with the best quality.

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