Whether you’ve seen them buried in your parents’ belongings, hanging around a thrift store, or in old movies, you’re bound to have come across vinyl records at least once before.
The thin disc is often associated with phonographs, gramophones, and more recently, record players.
Without going into too much detail, vinyl records are analog sound storage mediums made out of a synthetic material called PVC. The discs store music in spiralled grooves that can be played on a record player.
Of course, there is a lot more to it than that concise explanation.
You may still be wondering what exactly a vinyl record does, how it works and maybe even why it is called that in the first place.
Keep reading for all the answers to your burning questions.
A vinyl record is what most people are referring to when they talk about vinyl, LPs, phonograph disc records, gramophone records, or even just records. While they may go by many names, they are all the same and they do one main thing: store music. Before technology took the world by storm, people enjoyed music in their homes by using the humble vinyl record.
Vinyl records have been well-loved over the years and are a collectible item for vinyl enthusiasts and hobbyists. The standard size for a vinyl record album is a 12-inch LP but there are also 10-inch and 7-inch records that typically store EPs.
You can find more information on LPs in Vinyl VS Record: Are They the Same Thing? What About an LP?
Vinyls are made of a material called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is a synthetic man-made material that is a type of plastic. If we go deeper and look at its chemical structure, we can see that it is a combination of ethylene and chlorine that has been processed in a particular way to create PVC resin.
This substance is clear by default, meaning that vinyl records can easily be produced in all sorts of colors.
So then why make most of them black? Indeed, you can find vinyl records that are red, white, or any color under the sun.
But most manufacturers choose black and it isn’t necessarily just for the convenience of picking one color for mass production. The longevity of a record is extremely important both for people who want to enjoy their music for a long time and for people who collect for the value of the record.
Cleaning plays a part in that longevity, which you can read all about in How To Clean Vinyl Records Safely & Without Damaging Them. Correct storage is also paramount, which we cover fully in Storing Vinyl Records – Vertically, Horizontally & In Heat.
However, neither of these things will outdo the longevity of the record itself, which comes from how it is manufactured. The black color in records comes from manufacturers adding carbon to the mixture.
They do this because carbon has conductive properties and can help to reduce the static of the record, making the cleaning and storage process a bit more favorable.
Some say that the addition of carbon also helps to increase the strength of the record since the bonds between carbon atoms are extremely strong.
Interestingly enough, vinyl records weren’t always made out of polyvinyl chloride. Up until the 1940s when manufacturers started using PVC, records were usually made out of shellac. And in the time period, before PVC was used, people used to refer to the discs as 78s or shellacs.
With some people referring to records by the name of the material used, in the time of shellac, it’s no surprise that it continued when the material changed.
When manufacturers started to phase out shellac and use polyvinyl chloride, people began calling them vinyl records based on the polyvinyl part of the material name.
Simply put, vinyl records store music in an analog form. In terms of its primary purpose, a vinyl record is no different to a CD or even your smartphone music library. However, while a smartphone stores music in a digital format and can play the same music it stores, analog music is slightly different.
Analog music stores, like vinyl records or cassette tapes, require some kind of mechanism to essentially translate the analog signal and play it out loud. In the case of vinyl records, this is done by a record player.
When we look at the anatomy of a record, we see that it can store multiple tracks on one disc, depending on how much surface area is available for the grooves. This is determined by how big the record is. Typically, grooves run on both sides of the disc so that more tracks can be stored and you can simply flip over the record when you have completed the one side.
Each track on a record is separated by a break in the grooves so that you can distinguish between each song. Different sized records store a different number of tracks, so full albums are usually stored on a 12-inch vinyl record whereas a smaller 7-inch record can store one to two tracks.
As we know, the spiraled grooves on the vinyl record store music. However, it isn’t the spirals that you can see with the naked eye that is important, it’s the depth pattern of each groove. The spirals may look flat but inside each groove is a groove pattern that almost resembles a mountain range.
Each peak and valley of the groove pattern causes the stylus to rise and fall ever so slightly. The up and down movement of the stylus is a vibration and so, when the stylus glides through the grooves as the vinyl record turns, it causes the stylus to vibrate.
It is these vibrations, as an analog signal, that is read through the stylus and translated through the cartridge to produce an electrical signal that can then be amplified.
The whole process may seem like magic but it is fully based on science. It starts with mechanical energy in the form of vibrations, which are then converted into an electrical signal which can then be used to produce sound waves that we hear and enjoy as music.
The production of sound waves is achieved through vibrations as well, so you can even think of it as a full-circle moment of us simply hopping between vibrations and electrical signals.
The short answer is that modern vinyl records are made of polyvinyl chloride, not from wax. However, there is such a thing as a wax record that is indeed made of wax. The wax record was a cylinder of wax used with phonographs and graphophones to record sound and play it back from the record.
Vibrations would be etched into the hollow cylinder to capture the sound waves and then reproduce them by reading the wax record. The concept of a wax record is very similar to vinyl records but they are not commonly used today.
Vinyl records are music storage mediums that have stood the test of time and have stuck around long enough for us to still enjoy them today. These discs hold groove patterns which create vibrations that can be read and amplified by a record player to produce wonderful music.
They have been made form various materials over the years but modern-day records are made from polyvinyl chloride, hence the name vinyl records.
- Hands-On: Victrola Premiere V1 Music System Review
- How to Clean a Record Player (& Needle) – With Photos
- Vinyl VS Record: Are They the Same Thing? What About an LP?
- How to Fix a Warped Record: Is it Possible to Unwarp Vinyl?
- How Much is a Record Player? Are They Worth the Cost?
Trent is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado.