Douglas B. Holmes

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Physical media: the record


Douglas Holmes, Doctorate of Music in composition with a specialty in computer music and minor in multimedia





Have you listened to a record?

  • Was it monophonic, stereophonic, stereo, or Quadraphonic?
  • Do you, or do you know anyone who collects records?



Differences between physical and streaming media

The First Sale Doctrine, 17 U.S.C. 109 - Limitations on exclusive rights: transfer and copy of media

Giles, David & Pietrzykowski, Stephen & Clark, Kathryn. (2007). The psychological meaning of personal record collections and the impact of changing technological forms. Journal of Economic Psychology. 28. 429-443. 10.1016/j.joep.2006.08.002. (link)

Eichler, Amelia, "The Death of Physical Media: The Dangers of Streaming and the End of the Home Library" (2019). University Honors Theses. Paper 803. (link)

Guo, Yiqian, "The Comeback of the Medium: The History and Contemporary Revival of the Vinyl Record Industry". SHS Web Conf. 155 02015 (2023), DOI: 10.1051/shsconf/202315502015 (link)

Di Leo, J. R. (2020). Vinyl Theory. Lever Press. (link)

Wohlfeil, Markus. “Vinyl Records: The Future of Consuming Music?” (2019). 23rd Academy of Marketing Science (AMS) World Marketing Congress - Conference 2020
University of Queensland, St Lucia Campus Brisbane/AUS, July 14th-17th, 2020


Story about buying and copying records

Increased noise levels every copy: analog media (python code demonstration)
Record1-turtle (python - turtle code demonstration)


Physical and engineering characteristics

How does a record reproduce the sound?

  • Theoretical frequency response beyond 20-20kHz and a dynamic range of about 75 dB
  • The record groove is a continuous path.
  • Sound waves are modulated at 45 deg angles on the sides of the groove.
  • For stereo LPs the right signal is the groove face closest to the outside of the disc.
  • The width of a record groove: average micro groove about 2.5 mil. (this is a variable depending on the dynamic change. the grooves can be small in quiet passages (1.7 mil) to loud passages (7.0 mil.)
  • The width of a record stylus: pre-1960s mono conical stylus 1 mil. (25 microns = 0.001 inches), stereo 0.7 mil. (18 microns)
  • The movement of a record stylus in record groove
  • Sytlus movement animation (mono and stereo)

When recording mixing and mastering for a record master:

  • RIAA Curve (record filtering standard. aka de-emphasis curve)
  • Physical relation between the record grooves and the stylus has limitations (frequency response and dynamic range)
  • Beware of frequencies below 40Hz (causes excessive needle swing)
  • Center Lows below 100Hz, and stay near center up to 400Hz
  • Keep lows in phase (in general phase difference affects the physical movement of the cutter and can cancel out or even irregularly cut the disc)
  • Overly loud highs can overheat the cutting head causing noise and distortion. (HH, symbols, percussion, and even electric guitar)
  • Vocal sibilance can cause distortion watch 6 to 12kHz (de-esser)
  • Avoid Brick wall limiters (mastering and mixing) cause lower dynamic record response
  • Leave headroom in the mix and master (3-6dB)

Deep Groove Mono and the Great Groove Width Mystery. April 6, 2018 / Richard Capeless at Deep Groove Mono. This article describes the change in record grooves and stylus-use in mono record production and the effect on playing mono records.

RIAA Curve: The 1954 Turntable Equalization Standard That Still Matters. from LedgerNote

Tone Control (RIAA filter circuit) from John Broskie's Guide to Tube Circuit Analysis & design



How a record is manufactured

Manufacturing sequence (each side of the record)

  • Cut lacquer master on a lathe (positive). For early records the signal was directly from mics, then tape decks, and now digital files.
  • Metal Master (negative) is created by electroplating the lacquer master creating a negative. (modern presses for short runs can press at this point)
    • coat lacquer master in sliver
    • electroplate silvered master with nickel and copper
  • Mother (positive mold) electroplate the metal master to make a more durable copy of the lacquer master.
  • Father (negative stamper) electroplate the Mother to make a durable pressing plate (more nickel)
  • Using hydraulics (pressure and heat), press PVC between two plates (sides)
  • Record (positive) label pressed directly into PVC
  • Advancements: Direct Metal Mastering (DMM). Neumann VMS 82

How Vinyl Records are Made - The Sound and the Story (1956) RCA Victor

Neumann VMS 82 (DMM) and other disc-cutting videos


Records the first marketable sound media.

Thomas Alva Edison (Feb 11, 1847 to Oct 18, 1931)

Advances in cylindrical media technology Edison and competitors

  • Wax cylinders (wax-covered cardboard)
  • Engraved sound into wax
  • Prerecorded material mold into hardened wax (Gold Moulded Records)
  • More plays before degradation
  • Various RPM (up to 4 min duration)
  • Archived recording of cylinders (UC Santa Barbara)

Emile Berliner (May 20, 1851 to August 3, 1929)

  • Credited for the platter record in 1887 (later Gramophone)
  • Used flat shellac discs to reproduce sound (easier to mass-produce)
  • Moving to rubber discs
  • Inventions include the contact microphone
  • His work was instrumental to broadcasting
  • "The mocking bird" recorded April, 21, 1899

Advancements platter disc made by competitors

  • Diomand Discs (Edison 1912-29). Use of a diamond-tipped stylus
  • Old pal (Why don't you answer me?) 1921 (archival recording)
  • Maufaturing procedures (video)
  • Standardization of 78 RPM (3 to 5 min per side) Gramophone

*in his own words: this recording was made in 1927 and is sometimes mistakenly cited as his original first 1877 Telegraph Repeater. The quality of this example is much higher than his original invention could produce. But I believe the voice inflection of excitement in achieving his goal is true.

Brahms Speaks and Plays in 1889 Recording from Catapulting into classical @

Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies from The Library of Congress

Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry from The Library of Congress

Note: The cost of mechanical technology during this era made recorded sound media and players a luxury item not everyone could afford. Even though record sales in the mid-1920s boasted over 100 million units per year, people would overwhelmingly seek live performances and buy sheet music to play themselves at home. Radio was developing and the cost of a radio receiver was more affordable and had better sound quality. Broadcast of live studio-performed music was in fashion. The record industry was headed for a decline.


Radio Broadcasts, The Great Depression, and War

Radio Broadcast

  • Cost of radio receivers dramatically fell in the mid-1920s
  • A cleaner more affordable source for music
  • Music performed in radio studios and simulcast events
  • Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and National Broadcast Corporation (NBC) began using commercials to recuperate the cost of broadcasts
  • Federal Radio Commission was established in 1927 (assign frequencies, break up monopolies, and regulate content)


  • Not a new novelty (end of the 19th century) Automatic Coin-Operated Phonographs.
  • By the mid-1930s they become widespread
  • Listening parlors, restaurants, juke joints
  • Increased record productions
  • At table remotes, a larger selection of singles
  • Begin charting the popularity of selections
  • 45 RPM

pre and post-WWII advances

  • New cartridges and transport systems were designed
  • New manufacturing techniques extended the duration
  • Microgroove technology extended the playtime of an LP double-sided record (about 45 minutes)
  • Full-range frequency recorders
  • Magnetic tape encoding
  • Solid state transistors invented (1947)
  • New microphone technology that extended the recordable frequency range

The New 45 (RCA VICTOR 1949)

  • The new rca-victor record story
  • colored vinyl associated with the type of music
  • Microgroove/extended play (4 to 5 min. per side)
  • The record was designed with a larger centering hole
  • A larger spindle on the player with a fast-acting mechanism for dropping the next record from a stack.
  • Mechanized and weighted tone arm
  • Users can make their own play-lists by stacking singles
  • Even larger format music was designed in box sets designed to play a sequence of 45s

Documentary details President Hoover and radio history from Iowa Broacast News Association

American Jukebox history (pictures and information on American jukebox manufacturing)



A transition from monophonic to stereophonic and beyond

Early pseudo stereo recordings

  • Early studio 78rpm recordings were made with separated master and backup wax mastering discs
  • Many times separate microphones were used as a source for each master disc
  • Master and backup discs were pressed and marketed in different parts of the world (broadcast)
  • "Duke" Ellington studio sessions
  • Early symphonic recordings recording of Leopold Stokowski and Philadelphia Orchestra
  • Researchers have combined the master/backup pairs to show the unplanned stereo effect

Alan Blumlein (1903 -1942)

  • British telecommunications
  • Cited by the Audio Engineering Society "... the invention of Stereo on the 14th December 1931 when Alan was just 28."
  • Develops and patents stereo microphone technique
  • Develops a stereo disc cutting technique (horizontal and vertical grooves).
  • Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Symphony Orchestra playing Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony K551. Blumlein stereo recording at Abby Road Studios 1934

Emory Cook (1913 - 2002)

  • Cook Labs Records(1948-1965)
  • Developed binaural records
  • Two separate monophonic record grooves (completely isolated)
  • Developed a tonearm with two separate cartridges, and a binaural preamp
  • Sold clip-on cartridge to retrofit existing tonearms
  • Recorded music from around the world
  • The duration of 12" binaural records was limited
  • Donated the collection to the Smithsonian Institution (1990)
  • Le Jazz Primitif from Trinidad (Cook binaural recording) a digital release on Smithsonian folkways recordings
  • Demonstration of a Cook binaural record

Record standardization

  • 1950s Recording Industry Association of America set EQ standards
  • Low Frequencies (lowered) and High frequencies (boosted)
  • Opposite EQ setting built into record preamps (boosted lows, lowered highs - hiss reduction)
  • Variable Pitch (the space between grooves) for LP Records
  • Preview head added to mastering tape machines automating variable pitch size
  • Stereophonic records released in 1958 by RCA Victor

#Blumlein a website dedicated to "the first name in stereo" after the 2017 Recording Academy Technical Grammy was awarded posthumously

Alan Blumlein and the invention of Stereo from EMI Archive Trust. Has video of his stereo model and video of early texts recordings of his stereo microphone

Cook Labs records, from the Smithsonian Institution

History of 3D Sound Braxton Boren American University

Early 78rpm Stereo with Stokowski & Elgar - Barry Fox explains (Youtube video)


Magnetic tape and Broadcast Development of multi-channel and video

Magnetic tape

  • Ampex begins work on commercially available players (inexpensive, intended for voice)
  • 1947 Ampex model 200A - ran at 30 ips (Bing Crosby used for prerecorded broadcast)
  • Better tape and multiple channels made stereophonic recordings possible at 15 ips
  • Mid-50s Ampex worked with Les Paul to develop 8-track (not widely used till the mid-60s)
  • An Overview of Ampex History (play video)

Radio and Television broadcast

  • In the 1950s a push to broadcast stereo signals
  • First stereo broadcasts were made using companion channels on AM and FM
  • A format that is backward compatible is developed (middle/side encoding)
  • Pre-recorded radio programming using audio tape
  • Television moves into color
  • Video recordings on tape were developed (rotating tape heads)

Museeum of Magnetic Sound Recording (website)

The only record pressing plant in Texas has been rescued. Article from the Vinyl Factory