On June 21, 1948, Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records walked into a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City with what looked like an ordinary record collection under his arm. They sounded a little bigger than the standard 10-inch 78 rpm records made of brittle shellac and limestone dust that had been the staple of the recorded music industry since Emile Berliner had demonstrated his gramophones 50 years earlier.
But they weren’t 78s. Wallerstein was there to introduce the all-new long-running album, a 12-inch slab of polyvinyl chloride, a durable plastic invented by tire company BF Goodrich in 1926 and used at the origin for sewer pipes. Using new precision lathe cutting technology, very narrow (0.003 inch) grooves, each of these new discs could comfortably hold 22 minutes of music per side while spinning at 33 1/3 times per minute. This was a significant increase from the five minutes that could fit on a 78. For the first time, an entire symphonic movement could be heard without interruption.
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The LP changed everything in recorded music. RCA, Columbia’s arch-rival, was initially hesitant to adopt the format and tried to compete with its own microgroove format: the 7-inch 45 rpm single. But after a marketing contest that ended in stalemate, the industry embraced both formats, a situation we still experience today.
There have been a few improvements to vinyl over the decades. Stereo recordings first appeared on vinyl in 1958. Half-speed mastering, something that promised greater fidelity, was touted as the ultimate in sound reproduction for a time and is still in use today. today. Direct-to-disc was a fad that emerged in the 1970s and has mostly died out. Supersense was an interesting idea but ultimately impractical and expensive. And over the past 20 years, 180 gram vinyl has become the standard weight for records.
Beyond that, however, the technology of music in the grooves of a spinning disc hasn’t changed since that day in New York. The only other advances in analog recording technology came with magnetic recording tape (reel tape in the 1950s, and 8-track tape and cassette, both in the early 1960s). Since the launch of the compact disc in December 1982, the emphasis has been on preserving music through digital means. CDs and various digital file formats (MP3 and its descendants) were the only survivors of this transition. Does anyone remember the Elcaset? DATE? CDC?
Music reproduction by analog means has been stuck in one place for decades. So far, apparently.
T Bone Burnett, Grammy Award-winning American producer and guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band in the 1970s, is obsessed with analog sound. He finds digital recordings cold, shrill and generally sonically unpleasant. Listening to music on vinyl is much better, but it’s 74-year-old technology and has its own downsides. If he wanted to achieve the sound reproduction he craved, Burnett knew he would have to invent something totally new.
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Last week, Burnett introduced Ionic Originals. It is an aluminum disc painted with lacquer that contains a spiral groove that loops from the outside to the center. In other words, it sounds a lot like a vinyl record. Images released by Burnett show him holding what looks like an oversized CD with clearly visible grooves on its surface.
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But there are key differences between these Ionic Originals and old-school vinyl. I quote the press release:
“An Ionic Original is the pinnacle of recorded sound. It’s archival quality. It stands the test of time. It’s one of a kind. Not only is an Ionic Original the equivalent of a painting , but it is a painting. It is a lacquer painted on an aluminum disc, with a spiral engraved on it by the music. This painting, however, has the additional quality of containing this music, which can be heard by placing a stylus into the spiral and rotating it.
“To describe the quality that elevates analog sound above digital sound, the word ‘warmth’ is often used. Analog sound has more depth, more harmonic complexity, more resonance, better imaging. Analog has more feel, more character, more touch. Digital audio is frozen. Analog sound is alive.
Burnett plans to market his new format through a new company called NeoFidelity Inc. The first release(s) will be newly recorded Bob Dylan originals. Other than that, Burnett left us short on specifics.
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For example, how is this music recorded in the first place? One would assume that it is dropped onto analog magnetic tape and then somehow transferred to disk. But what is the nature of this transfer? Can these records be played on a standard turntable with a normal tonearm and cartridge configuration? When will the general public be able to get their hands on any of these things? How much will they cost? And will retailers dedicate shelf space to these things?
So far we have no idea. But we must remember that the recorded music industry has its own graveyard of forgotten musical formats and devices.
And Burnett surely learned something from the failure of Neil Young’s Pono, his high-resolution digital music device. To the right?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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