A Brief History of Vinyl Records

Vintage photo of woman with vinyl records
Galt Museum & Archives/Flickr Commons

Vinyl records brought music listening to living rooms in a revolutionary way. The mass market availability and multi-track format, coupled with the evolution of home audio equipment allowed music listening to become even more individual and personal. More than a century after the invention of the flat disc recording, Wrensilva’s true passion for vinyl honors the legacy of the original hi-fidelity format.  Let’s dig into the history of vinyl records together.

Table of Contents

Origins and Early Development of Vinyl Records

The Evolution of Vinyl Record Technology

Vinyl Records: A Timeless Musical Medium

Origins and Early Development of Vinyl Records

The first flat disc acoustic recording was developed by Emile Berliner in 1901 on a 10-inch, shellac record that spun at 78 revolutions per minute. By 1910 this was the standard and it remained the go-to for nearly 50 years. Although a great fit for recording, shellac is easily breakable and at 78rpm, these records could barely fit a three-minute song on each side. 

With the introduction of vinyl (plastic) in the early 1940s, and the evolution of electric recording, Columbia Records (the first actual record label as they are known today) was able to produce the very first 12-inch, 33 ⅓ rpm vinyl “LP” (long play) record in 1948. These new records could hold multiple songs - 20 minutes each side - and became the favored format, leaving 78s behind. 

Jukeboxes and radio stations at the time still preferred the one-song format, so a new option emerged with the 7-inch 45rpm, produced by RCA Victrola in 1949.

The vinyl format reigned supreme for decades, hitting 341.3 million annual sales in 1978, according to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) data.

Columbia Records label
Columbia Records first 33 ⅓ rpm vinyl LP
Mendelssohn's Concerto in E Minor” by Nathan Milstein on the violin with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bruno Walter. 

Vinyl Records in the Music Industry

Before that first “long play” record in 1948, the 78 format was limiting for both the artist and the listener. Three minutes on each side meant that an artist could only release two tracks at a time. The listening experience required that you were never far from your stereo to flip the record over. When a vinyl disc could hold a whole album’s worth of tracks, music creating and listening as we know it changed forever.  

With the LP format established, the recorded music business was truly on its way. By the early 1950s Columbia was joined by RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol and Mercury as the big five major labels. 

The Evolution of Vinyl Record Technology

In the evolution of vinyl records, the first LPs were recorded in mono, with all instruments and vocals mixed through one channel. Mono recorded music played on a record player was delivered through one speaker.   

For British engineer Alan Dower Blumlein, this was an unsatisfactory listening experience. He developed two-channel, stereo sound in the early 1930s. This new hi-fidelity recording method delivered a playback that more closely resembled a live listening experience.   

Although stereo recording was possible in 1933, it wasn’t until 1958 that stereo sound recordings were widely available. By then, record player manufacturers had caught up with the new technology to offer upgraded stereo equipment, and with that came the need to educate the public on the superior stereo listening experience.  

Stereo Imaging Graphic
A graphic detail, from an RCA inner sleeve, shows listeners how new stereo technology operates. From the collection of Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder

Vinyl Records in the Face of Technological Challenges

Record labels started releasing pre-recorded music cassettes in the mid-late 60s, but they were not seen as a viable challenger to vinyl until 1979, when Sony released the Walkman. The Walkman took music to the streets, literally, with a personal, portable format. Cassette sales exploded and by 1983, surpassed vinyl, but there was a new format on the rise: the compact disc. 

Promising higher fidelity, durability and larger storage capacity, CDs (spurred on by the introduction of the CD Walkman) overtook cassette sales in 1990. Vinyl loyalty remained strong in the hip hop and electronic music scenes, but the mainstream masses turned to this new option for portable, on-demand music listening.   

The audio tech development over the course of the 20th century served recorded music well. Higher fidelity, portability and multiple format options to choose from (LP, cassette, CD) provided music fans with the best of all worlds. 

Once again, there was another format lurking in the wings. The internet was rapidly innovating from dial-up modem, to high-speed broadband, which opened a whole can of file-sharing worms that turned the music business upside down… but ultimately gave the public what they wanted: immediate access to music at the click of a button or keyboard. 

By 2008 streaming music was gaining steam, but something very interesting was also happening. Vinyl started making a comeback. Fast forward to present day, and you can enjoy music on just about any format you like. They all serve a useful purpose, depending on what you’re in the mood for: the nostalgia of a cassette tape, the ease of a CD, the immediacy of streaming, the collectability and rich sound of vinyl. Wrensilva celebrates both digital and analog recording. Consoles that switch easily between vinyl and streaming allow you to enjoy music seamlessly, in every room.

White Stripes Collectible Vinyl

Collecting and Preserving Vinyl Records

Debates over analog vs digital sound sent more people back to vinyl to enjoy what audiophiles feel is a truer, warmer sound. Music purists wanted the full experience of placing the needle on the record while looking over the 12 inch sleeve and inserts. 

Truth is, vinyl collecting never really stopped. It just went a bit underground. Collections like Bob George’s more than 47,000 albums in his ARChive of Contemporary Music in NYC certainly didn’t stop when the vinyl format took a downturn. Take a cue from some of the world’s top vinyl collectors - if you care for your vinyl properly, your collection can become your personal, historical archive. 

Bob George in his ARChive of Contemporary Music LP stacks.
Bob George in his ARChive of Contemporary Music LP stacks. 
Photograph: ARChive of Contemporary Music

Vinyl Records: A Timeless Musical Medium

The history of vinyl records is intertwined with the history of recorded music in a way that no other format can lay claim to. The evolution of vinyl records took music from something only heard live in a public setting, to the home audio experience that the music business was built on. Although there are many ways to enjoy music, the nostalgia and quality inherent in vinyl spark enduring popularity. The 12-inch format goes beyond the music to provide a canvas for artwork that further expresses an artist’s vision. Liner notes offer a look into who and what it takes to record a record: recording studios, mastering houses, and a list of all the musicians who participated in the recording. 

Wrensilva injects creativity and craft into everything we do by working with music producers, sound engineers and recording artists to deliver the warm, finely tuned sound that the music deserves. It’s a listening experience that truly honors the craft of music making.