Understanding Vinyl Disc Technology: records, albums, players

With so many people returning to using vinyl discs, we take a deep delve into what they are and how they work, giving you hints & tips on the way.

Vinyl Record Player Technology Includes:
Vinyl technology - the basics     Turntable     Pickup arm / tonearm     Pickup cartridge     Stylus technology    

In an age dominated by digital streaming and wireless earbuds, the humble vinyl record persists and in fact recent trends show its use is growing fast.

Its crackle and pop, once considered imperfections, have become sonic badges of honour, whispering of a bygone era when music was a tangible experience.

But beyond the nostalgia, vinyl offers a unique sound quality, appreciated by audiophiles for its warmth and richness.

This article delves into the fascinating world of vinyl disc technology and players, exploring their mechanics, their enduring appeal, and their place in the modern music landscape.

Anatomy of a Vinyl Record

A vinyl record is an analog storage medium, essentially a thin disc made of polyvinyl chloride or PVC with microscopic grooves etched into its surface.

These grooves are arranged in a spiral from the outer edge of the disc and the move inwards. These grooves hold the musical information. Essentially there are variations in the grove position that hold the actual sound vibrations.

As a stylus or 'needle' (we should not call them needles as they are quite sophisticated) tracks along the groove, it vibrates with the variations in position of the groove as the disc rotates.

If the grove moves from side to side very quickly, then a high frequency sound is reproduced, but it if moves from side to side slowly, the a low frequency sound is reproduced.

Similarly if there are large variations in position of the groove, then a loud sound is reproduced, whereas if the variations are small, then a soft sound is reproduced.

How the sound is stored and converted

The vinyl disc consists of a long spiral groove in the surface of the vinyl. Without any audio, this would consist of a long curve from the outside to the inside without any variations.

For a mono or monaural disc the sound consists of small variations that are from side to side.

As the stylus tracks the grove, the inertia of the head means that it does not follow these small variations, but the stylus does - the stylus moves relative to the cartridge head.

These tiny vibrations are converted into electrical signals using one of a number of techniques in the head which then passes them onto an amplifier.

For a stereo signal the two walls of the grove are cut at 45° to each other. As the walls are at 45° to each other the vibrations can be recorded independently enabling the tracks to be totally separate.

Vinyl record groove format
Vinyl record groove format

The right hand channel is recorded onto the wall of the grove which is closest to the outside and the left hand channel on the inner wall.

When the signal in both channels is the equal and in phase, the groves move laterally, but when they are out of phase it moves vertically.

Within the cartridge head there are two transducers: one which detects the signals from the outer wall, and the other from the inner wall.

Making vinyl records

The process of creating a vinyl record is an interesting mix of sound and chemistry as it requires the music or other sounds to be generated and then transferred to the vinyl in a way in which thousands can be reproduced.

The recording is first mastered onto a metal disc called a lacquer. this is done using a machine that cuts the grooves into the lacquer - it keeps the spacing between the grooves jsut right so that sufficient revolutions are gained to contain all the recording, but balancing this with keeping the groove spacing sufficient to accommodate the waves or vibrations in the adjacent grooves from touching or overlapping.

This lacquer is then coated with a thin layer of silver and electroplated, creating a negative mould of the grooves.

The mould is then filled with molten PVC, which cools and hardens into a positive copy of the lacquer, now bearing the music's grooves.

Elements of the record deck

For want of a better term, the record deck is the central element of any hi-fi system using vinyl discs.

The overall record deck consists of several elements, all of which are crafted to give te optimum performance and to enable the music contained on the vinyl disc to be extracted and passed on to an amplifier and loudspeakers.

The main elements of the record deck itself include the following main elements:

  • Turntable:   The turntable itself has a platter which is a circular rotating platform onto which the discs are placed. Typically it is around 12 inches in diameter to correspond with the diameter of the long playing discs. The platter spins at a precise speed determined by the size and format of the record. Normally 78 revolutions per minute was used for much older records, then 45 rpm for singles which were typically 7 inches in diameter and then 33⅓ which was used fort he 12 inch long playing albums.

  • Pick-up arm or tonearm:   This arm, pivoted at one end, traverses the surface, of the vinyl disc as the groove moves it steadily from the outer circumference towards the centre. The the section where the head is mounted is angled so that the best compromise of presenting the stylus at right angles to the direction of the groves is achieved for the whole playing area. The arm also has a bias weight to counteract the natural tendency for the arm to move towards the outside of the disc during playing.

  • Pick-up cartridge:   Attached to the tonearm's tip is the cartridge, which houses the stylus (needle). This delicate component picks up the vibrations caused by the stylus riding the grooves. The cartridge may use one of a number of techniques and technologies to convert the stylus vibrations into electrical currents. Some are moving iron, others moving coil and others are ceramic.

  • Stylus:   This fine needle, often made of diamond or sapphire, makes physical contact with the groove walls, translating their movements into tiny vibrations.

Each of these elements is essential to the operation of the overall record deck.

The Vinyl Advantage: Why Analogue Endures

We live in a digital world where sound, video and everything else is near perfect, but often people feel it lacks some of the character of the analogue technologies - their imperfections actually added to the experience of listening.

There are many reasons why people prefer vinyl over the other techniques for listening to music.

  • Warmth and analogue character:   Vinyl boasts a unique sonic quality often described as warm, rich, and organic. This is due to the inherent analogue nature of the format, which incorporates imperfections of the recording including the increase in background noise as the record wears, the clicks caused by small scratches and the lessening of the high frequencies as the record wears, unlike the digital sterility of CDs or MP3s.

  • Selecting the records:   Thumbing through a collection of albums in a shop or some else's collection has a much greater fascination that selecting a tune or album in a streaming service.

  • Cover art:   The cover art was a real feature of long playing albums. This could not be fully replicated even with CDs or cassettes, let along what you see on streaming services.

  • Community of enthusiasts :   Vinyl collectors and enthusiasts form a passionate community, sharing their love for the format, discussing rare finds, and attending record fairs. This sense of belonging adds to the overall vinyl experience.

Vinyl is a well established part of enjoying music at home. It gives a unique experience that provides a warmth and character not available with the more exact CD and streaming technologies.

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