Everything that was once in fashion, sooner or later, comes back into vogue. Let’s retrace the history and evolution of the turntable from 1877 to today.
The record player and gramophone were the main music reproduction systems used from the 1870s until the late 1980s. The gramophone, ancestor of the turntable, converted the oscillations of a needle inserted into a groove engraved on a cylinder or on a graphite plate into a sound vibration of the air, which was rotated by a spring-loaded mechanism by means of a crank.
The evolution of the gramophone is the record player, an electronic device where a vinyl disc is rotated by an electric motor and a head equipped with a diamond point, transforming mechanical vibrations into an electrical signal. The head works through a coil and a magnet and the signal thus generated is then electronically amplified and spread by one or more speakers.
At the beginning of the 90s, a format of much more comfortable dimensions and capable of guaranteeing audio quality without rustling and jumping was given up for dead, beaten by the convenience of the CD. And yet, despite the setback in that decade, since the 2000s, vinyl has returned to growing relentlessly, first jumping into the hands of fans and collectors, who have never wanted to abandon the eternal charm of the stylus on the grooves, then becoming a real mass phenomenon.
When we talk about the evolution of music, we usually focus only on the aspects of quality and comfort: digital formats, compared to analogs, would be better on paper in reproducing all the nuances of sound, as well as much easier to listen to. But is it only the desire for quality that guides the user to purchase?
But let’s go back, where it all started.
The French scientist Charles Cros presented on April 18, 1877 a theory on the functioning of a hypothetical phonograph. He made no practical apparatus.
In 1887 Charles Cross exposed the principle of a sound reproduction device to the Academy of Sciences, which he called a “paleophone”, of which he came to make a model.
A few months later Thomas Edison built his first “phonogram”, or “phonograph”. This Edison device was presented at the 1889 universal exhibition and used a cylinder as a recording medium and used a vertical movement of the stylus. The sound pressure was translated into the depth of incision of the sulcus.
In 1897 the scholar Emile Berliner developed the gramophone, using a disc with horizontal movement instead of the Edison roller. The discs were 5 ″ in diameter and recorded on one side only. In 1895 the 7 ″ discs were introduced, followed in 1901 by the 10 ″ ones.
Following technical improvements, it was possible to start recording some successes of the great musical repertoire on discs, thus ensuring their enormous diffusion and great commercial success. In 1908 the disc recorded on two sides met the favor of the public and so the technology of the disc became more and more popular, also due to the lower price.
The first 78 rpm recording was a “Carmen” by Bizet and a “Concerto for two violins” by Bach in 1910, followed by an integral recording of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” in 1913.
Discs and cylinders competed in music formats, but demand was very low. The recordings were easier to produce, manage and archive.
In 1927, Dual, the largest turntable manufacturer in the world, presented the combination of the spring action and the electric motor, the Elektro Feder Motor, a dual-function turntable that later became a trademark.
With the Great Depression, the record industry and turntables were in serious trouble. But in 1934 RCA Victor started selling Duo Jr, a turntable connected to a radio speaker; meanwhile, DJs who played records on the radio were known as pancake turners.
The vinyl record replaced carbon as the base material for making the records. The vinyl acetate disc, in its 78, 33 and 45 rpm versions, was the most popular medium for the reproduction of sound and in particular of music.
This method of reproduction was enormously successful: “furrow” and “stylus” remained the fundamental components since the hi-fi era and only with the advent and spread of the compact disc did they lose their dominance. The superiority of “vinyl” as the most faithful means of reproducing sound was never questioned by other forms of recording or media.
The 1960s were the years of the record boom and all the greatest artists invested more and more on LP / EP / 45g recording, collecting millions of copies sold; however, the need arose to design portable turntables.
Thus the famous Mangiadischi was born, a battery-powered turntable that allowed you to listen to music in your car and outdoors.
In 1965 the Panasonic division of “Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.” launched Technics, a brand designed for the thriving hi-fi market and in 1969 they presented the SP-10, the first turntable that used a direct drive motor instead of a belt.
The Technics SL-1100 and SL-1200 turntables, respectively from 1971 and 1972, were designed for home use, but the latter were purchased in the burgeoning American disco scene, and later in the hip-hop community.
Paradise Garage DJs such as Larry Levan and Kool Herc, the father of both music and hip-hop culture of the seventies, initially used high-end Thorens equipment, but in 1979 the Technics 1200MK2 arrived, a robust product with pitch control (or vari-speed) which for more than 30 years has been a point of reference for DJs all over the world.
The CD began to have great success (in 1988 in the United States the sales of CDs exceeded those of vinyl records) until the definitive absolute success as an almost universal means of sound reproduction. Another recording medium appeared on the market in 1987: DAT (Digital Audio Tape).
From a qualitative point of view, the DAT has represented an improvement for the reproduction and conservation of sound, but has found commercial success almost only in professional environments of sound treatment. In the mid-80s the Disco Mix Club (DMC) was born in England, the most important organization and competition for DJs in history.
After a couple of decades of experimental prototypes, the ELP LT-1XA laser turntable appeared, the world’s first laser turntable. In practice, the laser was used to read the contents of the vinyl and the result of this reading was the same as that obtained with a conventional pick-up.
Pioneer on the other hand was experimenting with CD turntables that aimed to replicate the experience of handling vinyl, especially with the 1994 CDJ-500 and then in 2001 with the famous CDJ-1000. The great DJs of that time, from Sasha to Jeremy Healy, were still using vinyl.
Companies like Numark, Vestax and Gemini were launching competitive turntables, but Technics continued to dominate the market.
With the advent of digital music files, the vinyl market quickly died down. For example, from the 2007 CDJ-400 onwards, USB ports have been included on all Pioneer CD turntables. For a while it seemed that the future of turntables could be completely virtual, with laptops, mice and MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface).
Software like Ableton Live and Native Instruments Traktor have given DJs the ability to loop, automatically sync, and add effects to a level that DJs from previous eras would never have imagined. Alongside these developments, new types of turntables began to appear.
In 2014 Pioneer celebrated its 20 years in the DJ world with the launch of a classic device revisited in a modern key: the professional PLX-1000 turntable.
Vinyl therefore became fashionable again in the world, unknown to entire digital generations; hence Panasonic’s decision to put the Technics Sl-1200 turntable back into production.
In 2006, according to an estimate made by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the vinyl records sold amounted to 3.2 million. This meant a 53% increase in vinyl sales compared to 2015, numbers comparable to the state of the art in 1991.
Technics, on the occasion of IFA 2017, one of the oldest technology fairs in Germany, has decided to present the new SP10-R, turntable with a direct drive platter which, thanks to the combination of the state of the art on the front of the analog and digital technologies, guarantees reproduction fidelity never experienced before.
In addition to the new coreless direct drive motor and dual lateral rotor drive, already present in the SL-1200G, the new Technics SP10-R turntable is also equipped with stator coils on both sides of the rotor to increase dynamics and the accuracy of the sound.
The model is currently in the prototype phase, while final marketing will take place starting from the summer of 2018. It should follow the footprints of what were the glorious SP-10MK2 and SP-10MK3.
At IFA 2019 Audio Technica presented the AT-LP5x direct drive USB turntable, successor to the 2016 AT-LP5 award-winning.
Like its predecessor, this new turntable has a J-shaped arm, an aluminum platter and a USB output for digitization.
While the LP5 was limited to support for 33 and 45 rpm, AT-LP5x adds that for 78 rpm playback.