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LP Album

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LP Album

This article is about vinyl records. For music albums in general, see Album.
At top, format logo used on early issues. Below, a typical LP, showing its central spindle hole and label surrounded by the grooved area. Five separate "tracks" are visible, but all are parts of one continuous spiral groove
Media type Audio playback
Encoding Analog groove modulation
Capacity Originally 22 minutes per side, later increased by several minutes, much longer possible with very low signal level
Read mechanism Microgroove stylus (maximum tip radius 0.001 inches)
Dimensions 12 in (30 cm); 10 in (25 cm)
Usage Audio storage
Extended from 1948
Extended to Present

The LP (Long Play), or 33⅓ rpm microgroove vinyl record, is a format for phonograph (gramophone) records, an analog sound storage medium. Introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, it was soon adopted as a new standard by the entire record industry. Apart from relatively minor refinements and the important later addition of stereophonic sound capability, it has remained the standard format for vinyl albums.

Format advantages

At the time the LP was introduced, nearly all phonograph records for home use were made of an abrasive (and therefore noisy) shellac compound, employed a much larger groove, and played at approximately 78 rpm, limiting the playing time of a 12-inch diameter record to less than five minutes per side. The new product was a 12 or 10-inch fine-grooved disc made of vinyl and played with a smaller-tipped "microgroove" stylus at a speed of 33⅓ rpm. Each side of a 12-inch LP could play for more than 20 minutes. Only the microgroove standard was truly new, as both vinyl and the 33⅓ rpm speed had been used for special purposes for many years, as well as in one unsuccessful earlier attempt to introduce a long-playing record for home use.

Although the LP was especially suited to classical music because of its extended continuous playing time, it also allowed a collection of ten or more typical pop music recordings to be put on a single disc. Previously, such collections, as well as longer classical music broken up into several parts, had been sold as sets of 78 rpm records in a specially imprinted "record album" consisting of individual record sleeves bound together in book form. The use of the word "album" persisted for the one-disc LP equivalent.


Soundtrack discs

The prototype of the LP was the soundtrack disc used by the Vitaphone motion picture sound system, developed by Western Electric and introduced in 1926. For soundtrack purposes, the less than five minutes of playing time of each side of a conventional 12-inch (30 cm) 78 rpm disc was not acceptable. The sound had to play continuously for at least 11 minutes, long enough to accompany a full 1000-foot reel of 35 mm film projected at 24 frames per second. The disc diameter was increased to 16 inches (40 cm) and the speed was reduced to 33⅓ revolutions per minute. Unlike their smaller LP descendants, they were made with the same large "standard groove" used by 78s. The groove started at the inside of the recorded area and proceeded outward. Like 78s, early soundtrack discs were pressed in an abrasive shellac compound. They were played with a single-use steel needle held in a massive electromagnetic pickup with a tracking force of five ounces. By mid-1931, all motion picture studios were recording on optical soundtracks, but sets of soundtrack discs, mastered by dubbing from the optical tracks and scaled down to 12 inches to cut costs, were made as late as 1936 for distribution to theaters still equipped with disc-only sound projectors.[1]

Radio transcription discs

Syndicated radio programming was distributed on 78 rpm discs beginning in 1928. The desirability of a longer continuous playing time soon led to the adoption of the Vitaphone soundtrack disc format. 16-inch 33⅓ rpm discs playing about 15 minutes per side were used for most of these "electrical transcriptions" beginning about 1930. Transcriptions were variously recorded inside out like soundtrack discs or with an outside start. Some were recorded with a vertically modulated "hill and dale" groove, as this was found to allow a wider dynamic range and an extension of the high-end frequency response, not necessarily a great advantage in practice because of the limitations of AM broadcasting. Initially, transcription discs were pressed only in shellac, but by 1932 pressings in RCA Victor's vinyl-based "Victrolac" were appearing. Other plastics were sometimes used. By the late 1930s, vinyl was standard for nearly all kinds of pressed discs except ordinary commercial 78s, which continued to be made of shellac.

Beginning in the mid-1930s one-off 16-inch 33⅓ rpm lacquer discs were used by radio networks to archive recordings of their live broadcasts, and by local stations to delay the broadcast of network programming or to prerecord their own productions. In the late 1940s, magnetic tape recorders were adopted by the networks to prerecord shows or repeat them for airing in different time zones, but 16-inch vinyl pressings continued to be used into the early 1960s for non-network distribution of prerecorded programming. The LP's microgroove standard started to be incorporated in the late 1950s, and in the 1960s the discs were reduced to 12 inches, becoming physically indistinguishable from ordinary LPs. Unless the quantity required was very small, pressed discs were a more economical medium for distributing high-quality audio than tape, so the use of LP-format transcription discs continued into the 1980s. The King Biscuit Flower Hour is a late example.[2]

RCA Victor

RCA Victor introduced an early version of a long-playing record for home use in September 1931. These "Program Transcription" discs, as Victor called them, played at 33⅓ rpm and used a somewhat finer and more closely spaced groove than typical 78s. They were to be played with a special "Chromium Orange" chrome-plated steel needle. The 10-inch discs, mostly used for popular and light classical music, were normally pressed in shellac, but the 12-inch discs, mostly used for "serious" classical music, were normally pressed in Victor's new vinyl-based Victrolac compound, which provided a much quieter playing surface. They could hold up to 15 minutes per side. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, was the first 12-inch recording issued. The New York Times wrote, "What we were not prepared for was the quality of reproduction ... incomparably fuller."[3][4][5] Unfortunately for Victor, it was downhill from there. Many of the subsequent issues were not new recordings but simply dubs made from existing 78 rpm record sets. The dubs were audibly inferior to the original 78s. Two-speed turntables with the 33⅓ rpm speed were included only on expensive high-end machines, which sold in small numbers, and people were not buying many records of any kind at the time. Overall record sales in the U.S. had crashed from a high of $105.6 million in 1921 to $5.5 million in 1933, because of competition from radio and the effects of the Great Depression.[6] Few if any new Program Transcriptions were recorded after 1933 and two-speed turntables soon disappeared from consumer products. Except for a few recordings of background music for funeral parlors, the last of the issued titles had been purged from the company's record catalog by the end of the decade. The failure of the new product left RCA Victor with a low opinion of the prospects for any sort of long-playing record, influencing product development decisions during the coming decade.


CBS Laboratories head research scientist Peter Goldmark led Columbia's team to develop a phonograph record that would hold at least 20 minutes per side.[7] The team included Howard H. Scott, who died September 22, 2012, at the age of 93.[8]

Research began in 1941, was suspended during World War II, and then resumed in 1945.[9] Columbia Records unveiled the LP at a press conference in the Waldorf Astoria on June 18, 1948, in two formats: 10 in (25 cm) in diameter, matching that of 78 rpm singles, and 12 in (30 cm) in diameter.[10] Although they released 100 simultaneously to allow for a purchasing catalogue, the first catalogue number for a ten-inch LP, CL 6001, was a reissue of the Frank Sinatra 78 rpm album set The Voice of Frank Sinatra; the first catalogue number for a twelve-inch LP, Columbia Masterworks Set ML 4001, was the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64, played by Nathan Milstein with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York conducted by Bruno Walter. These two albums are therefore the first long-players.

Public reception

When the LP was introduced in 1948, the 78 was the conventional format for phonograph records. By 1952, 78s accounted for slightly more than half of the units sold in the United States, and just under half of the dollar sales. The 45, oriented toward the single song, accounted for 30.2% of unit sales and 26.5% of dollar sales. The LP represented 16.7% of unit sales and 26.2% of dollar sales.[11]

Ten years after their introduction, the share of unit sales for LPs in the U.S. was 24.4%, and of dollar sales 58%. Most of the remainder was taken up by the 45; 78s accounted for only 2.1% of unit sales and 1.2% of dollar sales.[6]

Competing formats

The LP was soon confronted by the "45", a 7-inch fine-grooved vinyl record playing at 45 rpm, introduced by RCA Victor in 1949. Originally expected to compete with the LP, boxed "albums" of 45s were issued, as well as "EP" (Extended Play) 45s, which squeezed two or even three selections onto each side, but the 45 succeeded only in directly replacing the "78" as the format for issuing "singles" of individual popular songs.

Reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorders posed a new challenge to the LP in the 1950s, but the higher cost of prerecorded tapes was one of several factors that confined tape to a niche market. Cartridge and cassette tapes were more convenient and less expensive than reel-to-reel tapes and became popular for use in automobiles beginning in the mid-1960s. However the LP was not seriously challenged as the primary medium for listening to recorded music at home until the 1970s, when the audio quality of the cassette format was greatly improved by better tape formulations and noise reduction systems. The 1983 world-wide introduction of the digital Compact Disc (CD), which offered a recording that was normally noiseless and not audibly degraded by repeated playing or slight scuffs and scratches, eventually succeeded in toppling the LP from its throne as the initially high prices of CDs and CD players continued to fall.

Along with phonograph records in general, some of which were made of other materials, LPs are now widely referred to simply as "vinyl". From the late 1990s and growing steadily through the 21st century onwards, a renewed interest in vinyl has occurred and the demand for the medium has been on a steady increase yearly in niche markets, particularly among audiophiles, DJs and fans of indie music. Most sales of music are of compact discs or digital file formats because of their generally cheaper prices and wider availability.[12]

The common practice for musicians in recent years has been to release a vinyl, CD, and digital download at the same time. In most cases if one invests in the slightly higher price of a vinyl, they are also given a CD or digital download code free of charge with the purchase.

Playing time

Owing to marketing attitudes at the time, the 12-inch format was reserved solely for higher-priced classical recordings and Broadway shows; popular music appeared only on 10-inch records. Executives believed classical music aficionados would leap at the chance to finally hear a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart concerto without having to flip a seemingly endless series of four-minute-per-side 78s, but popular music fans, used to consuming one song per side at a time, would find the shorter time of the ten-inch LP sufficient. This belief would prove to be erroneous in the end, and by the mid-1950s the 10 inch LP, like its similarly sized 78 rpm record, would lose out in the format wars and be discontinued. Ten-inch records would reappear as mini-albums in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States and Australia as a marketing alternative.

When initially introduced, 12-inch LPs played for a maximum of 45 minutes, divided over two sides. However, in 1952, Columbia Records began to bring out extended-play LPs that played for as long as 52 minutes, or 26 minutes per side. These were used mainly for the original cast albums of some Broadway musicals, such as Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady, or in order to fit an entire play, such as the 1950 production of Don Juan in Hell, onto just two LPs. The 52+ minute playing time remained rare, however, because of mastering limitations, and most LPs continued to be issued with a 30- to 45-minute playing time throughout the lifetime of their production. However, some albums would eventually exceed even the 52-minute limitation, with single albums going to as long as ninety minutes in the case of Arthur Fiedler's 1976 LP 90 Minutes with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, made by Radio Shack.[13] However, such records had to be cut with much narrower spacing between the grooves, which allowed for a much smaller amount of dynamic range on the records, and meant that playing the record with a worn needle could damage the record. It also resulted in a much quieter sound. Other notably long albums included the UK version of The Rolling Stones' Aftermath, with each side exceeding 26 minutes in length; Genesis' Duke, with each side exceeding 27 minutes; Bob Dylan's 1976 album Desire, with side two being just shy of thirty minutes; Brian Eno's 1975 album Discreet Music, whose A-side exceeded 30 minutes; Miles Davis' 1972 album Get Up with It, totalling 124:15 over four sides; Todd Rundgren's 1975 album Initiation, totaling 67:32 over two sides, as well as his band Utopia's 1974 self-titled debut, which totalled 59:17 over two sides, and his 1973 album A Wizard, A True Star, whose second side reaches almost thirty minutes; La Monte Young's Dream House 78' 17", whose two sides were each just under 40 minutes (the running time of the album is indeed 78:17); and André Previn's Previn Plays Gershwin,, with the London Symphony Orchestra, whose sides each exceeded 30 minutes.[14] Single-LP releases of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony contained over 30 minutes on each side, with the third movement split into two parts. Spoken word and comedy albums, not having a wide range of musical instrumentation to reproduce, can be cut with much narrower spacing between the grooves; for example, The Comic Strip, released by Springtime Records in 1981, has a side A lasting 38:04 and a side B lasting 31:08, for a total of 69:12.

In any case, the standard 45-minute playing time of the LP was a significant improvement over that of the previous dominant format, the 78 rpm single, which was generally limited to three to four minutes. At around 14 minutes per side for 10-inch and 23 minutes per side for 12-inch, LPs provided a measured time to enjoy a recording before having to flip discs.

Some record turntables, called record changers, could play a stack of records piled on a specially designed spindle and arm arrangement. Because of this, many multiple-record sets were released in what is called "automatic sequence". A two-record set would have Side 1 and Side 4 on one record, and Side 2 and Side 3 on the other, so the first two sides could play in a changer without the listener's intervention, and then they could simply flip the stack over. Larger boxed sets used appropriate automatic sequencing (1+8, 2+7, 3+6, 4+5 for example) to allow for ease of continuous playback, but difficulties if searching for an individual track.

In contrast to compact disc players, very few record players, e.g., laser or selected linear tracking turntables like Sharp RP-107/117,[15] could provide a per-track programmable interface, so the record albums play in the same order every time. As the LP achieved market dominance, musicians and producers began to pay special attention to the flow from song to song, to keep a consistent mood or feel, or to provide thematic continuity, as in concept albums.


Vinyl records are much more vulnerable to scratches than CDs. On a record, a scratch can cause popping sounds with each revolution when the needle meets the scratch mark. Deeper scratches can cause the needle to jump out of the groove altogether. If the needle jumps ahead to a groove further inward, information gets skipped. And if it jumps outward to the groove it just finished playing, it can repeat in an infinite loop, serving as the simile for things that continuously repeat ("like a broken record"). Additionally, records used in radio stations can suffer cue burn, which is a result of putting the needle on the record and then backing it up approximately a quarter turn so that it will play at the proper speed when the DJ starts the song. When this is done repeatedly, a hissing sound will preface the start of the actual song.

The large surface area of the record, being vinyl and therefore susceptible to becoming statically charged, pulls dust and smoke suspended particles out of the air, also causing crackles, pops and (in the worst cases of contamination) distortion during playback. Records may be cleaned before playing, using record cleaner and/or antistatic record cleaning fluid and anti-static pads.[16]

Since LP discs are delicate, as well as heavy for their size, people are less inclined to lug a stack of them around – for example, when visiting friends or when traveling – than a similar quantity of music compiled onto 90-minute cassettes, compilation-tapes or today's digital formats.


The average LP has about 1,500 feet (460 m) of groove on each side, or about a third of a mile. The tangential needle speed relative to the disc surface is approximately one mile per hour, on average. It travels fastest on the outside edge, unlike audio CDs, which change their speed of rotation to provide constant linear velocity (CLV). (By contrast, CDs play from the inner radius outward, the reverse of phonograph records.) This allows the lock groove effect used by The Beatles on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, on which the last track, "A Day in the Life", runs into a continuous loop that will repeat as long as the record player is on.

LP pre echo
The empty space before the start of the music has been amplified +15dB to reveal the pre-echo.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Thin, closely spaced spiral grooves that allowed for increased playing time on a 33⅓ rpm microgroove LP led to a tinny pre-echo warning of upcoming loud sounds. The cutting stylus unavoidably transferred some of the subsequent groove wall's impulse signal into the previous groove wall. It was discernible by some listeners throughout certain recordings but a quiet passage followed by a loud sound would allow anyone to hear a faint pre-echo of the loud sound occurring 1.8 seconds ahead of time.[17] This problem could also appear as "post"-echo, with a tinny ghost of the sound arriving 1.8 seconds after its main impulse.

The RIAA equalization curve (used since 1954) de-emphasizes the bass notes during recording, allowing closer spacing of record grooves and hence more playing time. On playback, the turntable cartridge pre-amplifier reverses the RIAA curve to flatten out the frequencies again.

Fidelity and formats

LPs pressed in multicolored and clear yellow vinyl

The audio quality of LPs increased greatly over time. Some significant advances in LP landmarks are:

  • Stereo sound, 1958
  • Helium-cooled cutting heads that could withstand higher levels of high frequencies (Neumann SX68)—previously, the cutting engineer had to reduce the HF content of the signal sent to the record cutting head, otherwise the delicate coils could burn out
  • Elliptical Stylus (marketed by several manufacturers at the end of the 60s)
  • Cartridges that operate at lower tracking forces of circa 2 grams, beginning from mid-60s
  • Half speed and ⅓ speed record cutting, which extend the usable bandwidth of the record
  • Matrixed quadraphonic records (SQ, QS, EV-4, UHJ)
  • "Discrete" quadraphonic CD4 records, which enabled frequencies of up to 50 kHz to be recorded and played back
  • Longer-lasting, antistatic record compounds (e.g.: RCA Dynaflex, Q-540)
  • Better stylus tip shapes (Shibata, Van den Hul, MicroLine, etc.)
  • Direct Metal Mastering
  • Noise-reduction (CX encoding, DBX encoding), starting from 1973

Early LP recordings were monaural, but stereo LP records became commercially available in 1958. In the 1970s, quadraphonic sound (four-channel) records became available. These did not achieve the popularity of stereo records, partly because of scarcity of consumer playback equipment, competing and incompatible quad record standards (each of which were compatible with two-channel stereo equipment) and partly because of the lack of quality in quad-remix releases. Quad never escaped the reputation of being a "gimmick". Three-way and quadraphonic recordings, which were favored and championed by artists like Leopold Stokowski and Glenn Gould,[18] are now making a modest comeback, with older masters being turned into multi-channel Super Audio CDs. (However, a fair number of new surround recordings—primarily classical—are being made for SACD and Blu-ray Audio.)

The composition of vinyl (more precisely, a co-polymer of vinyl chloride acetate) used to press records has varied considerably over the years. Virgin vinyl is preferred, but during the 1970s energy crisis, it became commonplace to use recycled vinyl—melted unsold records with all of the impurities. Sound quality suffered, with increased ticks, pops and other surface noises. Other experiments included reducing the thickness of LPs, leading to warping and increased susceptibility to damage. Using a bead of 130 grams of vinyl had been the standard, but some labels experimented with as little as 90 grams per LP. Today, high fidelity pressings follow the Japanese standard of 160, 180 or 200 grams.

Besides the standard black vinyl, specialty records are also pressed on different colors of PVC or special "picture discs" with a card picture sandwiched between two clear sides. Records in different novelty shapes are also produced.

Disc jockeys

Disc jockeys (or DJs) in clubs still rely heavily on vinyl records, as cuing tracks from cassette tapes is too slow and CDs did not allow creative playback options until quite recently. The term "DJ", which had always meant a person who played various pieces of music on the radio (originally 78s, then 45s, now cuts from CDs or tracks on a computer) – a play on the horse-racing term "jockey" – has also come to encompass all kinds of skills in "scratching" (record playback manipulation) and mixing dance music, rapping over the music or even playing musical instruments, but the original dance club (non-radio) definition was simply somebody who played records, alternating between two turntables. The skill came in subtly matching beats or instruments from one song to the next, providing a consistent dance tempo. DJs also made occasional announcements and chatted with patrons to take requests while songs were actually playing, similar to what radio disc jockeys have been doing since the 1940s.


Vinyl records have enjoyed an increased resurgence amongst a younger generation in the early 2010s. Vinyl sales in the UK reached 2.8 million in 2012, the best year since 1991 when CDs were taking off.

See also


External links

  • Dreams of Vinyl: The Story of the LP record by Jac Holzman
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