The Phonograph

Vinyl is making a comeback.

The first recorded sound was Thomas Edison’s voice, captured on phonograph in 1877 reciting part of the nursery rhyme song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Then, ten years later Emile Berliner created the first device that recorded and played back sound using a flat disc, which became the forerunner of the modern vinyl record.

Over the next six decades records and record players were improved and standardized and by the 1970s, record player technology had evolved to the point where it has changed little in the last 50 years.

During that time cassette and eight-track tapes came and went. Then CDs came along followed by MP3 players, which were replaced by cell phones that now control the audio and video media we now consume.

Now, vinyl is making a comeback and Tami got me one of those vintage-looking phonograph/record players and a couple of vinyl albums for Father’s Day this year. I had not paid much attention to the vinyl revival because I really enjoy the high-quality audio of digital music downloaded to my iPhone.

But, from the moment I removed that vintage phonograph (although it has CD, FM radio and Bluetooth features) from the box and set it up, I was back in touch with my younger self! Music was a big part of my family when I was growing up. As a young child I I listened to music from my dad’s old 78 rpm records and my older brother’s 45 rpm records.

As a teenager I always had a record player (and eventually a stereo record player) in my room to listen to the latest vinyl record single or album.

After listening to music digitally for so long I had forgotten the appeal of playing a vinyl record. Unlike digital music, with a vinyl record you interact with the music by actually holding the songs in your hands, placing them on the turntable, carefully setting he needle on the record to start the music and then watching the stylus move from outside to in as the record spins.

It’s hypnotic and satisfying listening to–and watching–the music play from a vinyl record!

This whole process of the stylus tracking through the tiny grooves in a round chunk of polyvinyl chloride to replay music is much more compelling than any digital playback system. The tactile aspect of vinyl records simply cannot be replicated digitally. And, it’s this tangible quality that likely gives vinyl records their broad appeal (or else there’s just a whole lot of us old guys still around trying to remember our glory days).

The charm of vinyl records is that you don’t just hear the music, you can participate in the mechanical process of generating the musical performance!

What has been fascinating to me about the record player is the kids’ reaction to it. Playing music from vinyl records is like a mysterious, alien technology to them! It’s the children of the digital age having an analog experience that they can’t quite grasp.

So, I let Kaleb put on a record for me. I assumed he would know how it works. But, he set the needle to the inside of the record and then tried several other spots on the record until I yelled out for him not to scratch it up. Then I showed him how the starting point is the outside of the record and the stylus moves inward by itself (because of the rotation of the record).

He didn’t get that you can actually see the various songs on the record and their starting and ending points. And, he wondered why the display on the phonograph didn’t show what song was playing and how you were supposed to know that. I told him that you had to read it for yourself off of the record jacket. (I don’t think they’ve figured out how to embed metadata on vinyl yet.)

I’m sure I derive some (much) satisfaction from the fact that the kids are baffled by this vinyl technology in our home and have to ask me how to work it, when it’s usually me asking them how to work some digital device.

I guess it just underscores the truth in that old saying–what goes around comes around.

Pun intended!!

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