History of the Record Player Part II: The Rise and Fall

In our last installment of History of the Record Player, we left off right as the technology behind the record player was about to skyrocket exponentially, growing its market and widespread popularity through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, we’re going to delve further into the advancement of turntable technology, including high-fidelity, the separation of the record player from the turntable, and the development of two of the world’s leading turntable manufacturers: Technics and Dual.

Let’s quickly go over the last bits of history from Part I, starting with the development of what we now recognize as the modern LP, which was released in 1948, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of the 7-inch 45-rpm disc in ’49. Leading up to the development of hi-fi and stereo were these advancements, the ones mentioned in Part I, as well as upgrades in amplifier design, such as attention to frequency response and higher power output to remove distortion upon play. Then came the Big Boom of sound: hi-fi and stereo recording/playback.

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Enter the Golden Age

Stereo albums were first released in 1958, to much excitement. In fact, one of the major players in turntable production, Dual (which, incredibly, formed all the way back in 1907) introduced some of the first stereo playback turntables to the market. However, playing back records in stereo had some downsides, including the lack of completely discrete L and R channels which can’t reproduce an entirely accurate soundstage.

“High-fidelity” was a term popularized by marketing during the ‘50s to denote the most faithful reproduction of sound that could be made and played back. Hi-fi really bolstered the presence of the audiophile in the purchasing industry, giving them reason to collect separate parts based on specific characteristics they wanted to acquire for their rigs. Turntables, preamps, power amps and speakers all became desirable for different reasons, whether it be their build, tonal quality, frequency response and more.

Because hi-fi recording and playback developed so swiftly throughout the sixties and seventies, it’s easy for us to look back and consider this the golden era of home audio equipment. Manufacturers produced a significant amount of their products with the beloved tubes that are so highly sought in both modern and vintage gear nowadays. This was also right before the introduction of solid-state equipment and its absorption into the mainstream.

Turn, Turn, Turn: Evolution of Golden Era Turntables

Let’s take a brief look at some of the iterations of the turntable and audio playback that developed throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some ideas never took, while some persisted to today, and still others burned bright and fizzled out before their time. We’re going to visit everything from self-changing record players to quadraphonic sound. Then, we’ll delve into the underground scene that kept turntables alive after their downfall in the ‘80s: turntablism.

Though high-fidelity turntables had been in production since hi-fi was introduced to consumers, the world’s first automatic high-fidelity turntable wasn’t released until 1963. Up until this point, Garrard and Dual dominated the record-changer market, but it was Dual that beat Garrard to the punch with its release of the Dual 1009. Distributed worldwide, the 1009 gave listeners the sound quality of hi-fi with the convenience of using a record changer.

Technics, the other conquerer of the turntable market, was formed in ’69 and quickly rose to fame for their widespread production of direct-drive turntables, like the SP-10. They actually were the first to even release direct-drive tables to the market and the SP-10 hit professionals hard, with the SL-1100 being released a few years later for consumers. The SL-1100, predecessor to the famed SL-1200, was actually used by DJ Kool Herc, one of the forefathers of modern turntablism, but we’ll get to him in a moment.

Strange Seventies

The seventies gave birth to many bizarre, interesting pieces of equipment and sonic concepts. For instance, one of the most popular pieces of home audio equipment in the ‘70s was the integrated music center, which most often contained a turntable, radio, tape player, preamp, and power amp all in one. The integrated music center, though short-lived, included some of the most unique and flamboyant pieces of audio equipment ever seen, such as the pod-like Vision 2000 and the enormous Hitachi SDT-900M.

Separate methods of turning vinyl discs developed over the course of the ‘70s, too. The idler-wheel drive was popular during this time, but often criticized by audiophiles for is excess noise. An idler-wheel drive used a rubber wheel that functioned by motor, and the motor vibrated. You can guess what that did to the quality of sound. However, the belt drive was developed only a few years after the idler-wheel, designed specifically to succeed where the idler failed: fidelity. Belt drives turned records with, you guessed it, an elastic rope or belt that could absorb the vibrations from the record. Though the belt does wear out over time, it was leaps and bounds better in terms of sound quality than the idler-wheel drive.

One of the more unique inventions built off of the turntable and stereophonic sound was quadraphonic sound, which both lived and died in the ‘70s, though it did lead to what we now know as 4.0 surround sound. Quadraphonic sound used four channels with speakers positioned in four corners of a room to reproduce signals that were independent of one another. This type of playback ended up being kind of niche, like a lot of gear marketed to audiophiles in this time.

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Turntablism, the Savior Subculture

But, of course, the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, and almost immediately the popularity of the record player declined. In the early ‘80s, the Compact Disc, CD for short, was released worldwide, along with CD players. They became extremely popular, shooting to the most-used method of audio playback with impressive quickness, particularly as the price of CD players declined. CDs were easily portable, boasted impressive technical specifications, and could even be played in cars. They seemed to outstrip vinyl in almost every way in the eyes of the population. However, one subculture kept the turntable vibrantly alive throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s: turntablism.

Turntablism, though not in the form we know it as today, essentially began in the ‘30s and ‘40s with experimental artists such as John Cage. Turntable use in music creation grew, and the first remixes were created, generally accredited to King Tubby in the late ‘60s. The turntable fell into the hands of hip hop DJs in the late ‘70s, with people like DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa being heralded as the forefathers of turntablism. All three used the turntable in unique and innovative ways to further techniques used in hip-hop music.

For instance, Kool Herc's signature breakbeat, which extends the break, or the climax of the song, indefinitely. Herc did this by using two copies of the same record on two separate turntables and using a mixer to switch back and forth between the two, thereby looping the breaks to a rhythmic beat.

Scratching was invented by Kool Herc’s protege, Grand Wizzard Theodore. You all know what scratching is -- that zippy ripping sound you get when you put your hand on a turning record, frequently used for comedic effect in TV and movies. Though Grand Wizzard Theodore was the first to develop scratching, Grandmaster Flash was the first to get it on an album. The song “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was released in 1981, and is the first instance of scratching appearing on any record.

Turntablism as a term wasn’t used until the 1990s, though it grew and flourished as a culture in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s. Most of the mainstream population, however, turned in their turntables and record players for CD players and Discmen, leaving those trusty turntables to gather dust in basements, attics, and pawn shops across the nation.

Many believed the inventions and release of the CD would be the ultimate downfall of the turntable; however, they were most certainly wrong. A modern-day resurgence of vinyl and, consequently, the turntable has occurred, turning vinyl pressing, vintage turntable hunting, and gear refurbishment into legitimate, money-making businesses. We’ll explore this and more in the final installment of the History of the Record Player.

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