On June 21, 1948, Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records walked into a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York with what looked like a collection of ordinary records under his arm. They seemed slightly larger than the standard 10-inch 78 RPM records made of brittle shellac and limestone dust that had been the bedrock of the recorded music industry since Emile Berliner demonstrated his gramophones 50 years earlier. .
But these weren’t 78. Wallerstein was there to introduce the new full-length album, a 12-inch slab of polyvinyl chloride, a durable plastic invented by the BF Goodrich tire company in 1926 and originally used for sewer pipes. Using new precision lathe cutter technology, very narrow slots (0.003 of an inch), 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 significantly more than the five minutes that would fit in a 78. For the first time, a full symphonic movement could be heard without interruption.
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The LP changed everything about recorded music. Columbia’s arch-rival RCA initially refused to adopt the format and tried to compete with a microgroove format of its own: the 7-inch 45 RPM single. But after a marketing jousting ended in a deadlock, the industry embraced both formats, a situation we still have today.
There have been some improvements to vinyl over the decades. Stereo recordings first appeared on vinyl in 1958. Half-speed mastering, something that promised higher fidelity, was touted as the ultimate in sound reproduction for a while and is still in use today. Direct-to-disc was a fad that appeared in the 1970s and has mostly died out. Supersense was an interesting but ultimately impractical and expensive idea. And in the last 20 years, 180-gram vinyl has become the standard weight for records.
Beyond that, though, the music technology in the grooves of a spinning record hasn’t changed since that day in New York City. The only other advances in analog recording technology have come with magnetic recording tape (reel-to-reel tape in the 1950s, and 8-track and cassette both in the early 1960s). Since the debut of the compact disc in December 1982, attention has focused on the preservation of music through digital media. CDs and various digital file formats (MP3 and its descendants) have been the only survivors of that transition. Does anyone remember the Elcaset? DAT? DCC?
Music playback through analog means has been stuck in the same place for decades. Until now, it seems.
T Bone Burnett, the Grammy Award-winning American producer and guitarist for Bob Dylan’s band in the 1970s, is obsessed with the analog sound. He finds the digital recordings cold, strident, and generally sonically off-putting. Listening to music on vinyl is much better, but it’s a 74-year-old technology and it has its own drawbacks. If he wanted to get the sound reproduction he craved, Burnett knew he would have to invent something entirely new.
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Last week, Burnett introduced Ionic Originals. It is a lacquer-painted aluminum disc that holds a spiral groove that winds from the outside to the center. In other words, it is very much 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. Quote from the press release:
“An Ionic Original is the pinnacle of recorded sound. It’s archival quality. It is future proof. It is one of one. An Ionic original is not only the equivalent of a painting, it is a painting. It is lacquer painted on an aluminum disk, with a spiral engraved by music. This painting, however, has the added quality of containing that music, which can be heard by putting a stylus on the spiral and spinning it around.
“When describing the quality that elevates analog sound above digital sound, the word ‘warmth’ is often used. The analog sound has more depth, more harmonic complexity, more resonance, better image. Analog has more feel, more character, more touch. Digital sound is frozen. The analog sound is alive”.
Burnett plans to market his new format through a new company called NeoFidelity Inc. The first releases will be some newly recorded Bob Dylan originals. Other than that, Burnett has left us short on details.
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For example, how is this music recorded in the first place? One would assume that it is placed on analog magnetic tape and then somehow transferred to disk. But what is the nature of this transference? Can these records be played on a standard turntable with a normal arm and cartridge setup? When will the general public be able to get their hands on one of these things? How much will they cost? And will any retailer dedicate shelf space to these things?
So far, we have no clue. But we must remember that the recorded music industry has its own graveyard of forgotten music formats and devices.
And surely Burnett learned something from the flop of Neil Young’s Pono, his high-resolution digital music device. Right?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster for Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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