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A Memory of Sound: A Brief History of Vinyl

For the audiophiles, this one is a passionate debate.

Few things are as hotly debated and contested as the age-old question: Are vinyl records better than digital recordings? You might as well ask why the chicken crossed the road.

On the one hand, for all its perceived richness and fidelity, a vinyl recording is vulnerable to physical wear and tear precisely because of its analog nature: dust and repeated plays will inevitably run any well-loved record down to scratchy inaudibility. On the other hand, leaps in computer memory technology have enabled the creation of better, near-lossless digital recordings.

As mathematician Katrina Morgan pointed out in Scientific American, a lot of factors go into sound quality and it’s difficult to definitively say that vinyl is better than digital.

“(Vinyl) captures a physical process whereas digital uses mathematics to reduce the process to finite bits of information. What, if anything, is lost in that reduction is difficult to pinpoint,” she said.

One thing is certain: vinyl is here to stay. It used to be that LPs were compared to CDs, whereas today’s enthusiasts extol it over streaming audio. But no matter what new digital formats emerge, vinyl continues to enjoy an enduring popularity across generations.

But what fascinates me more than finding an answer to the debate is looking at the history of the debate itself.

One thing is certain: vinyl is here to stay.

The quest for accurate, on-demand sound reproduction dates back thousands of years, to the beginnings of civilization and perhaps even beyond. One of the oldest examples of musical notation is over 3,000 years old, from a Babylonian tablet called Nabnitu XXXII. And the problem isn’t just limited to music: in the first century CE, Heron of Alexandria supposedly made a machine to replicate the sound of thunder to announce the entrance and exit of gods in theater plays.

It wasn’t until 1857 that the technology finally caught up, enabling the precise recording of sound onto a physical medium. Inspired by anatomical drawings in a physics textbook he was editing, French printer and bookmaker Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville sought to mechanically replicate the human ear by attaching a stylus to an elastic membrane. The device, which he dubbed the “phonautograph,” could record sounds directly onto paper or smoked glass. Alexander Graham Bell, before he invented the telephone, even took things to the extreme: he constructed a phonautograph out of a corpse’s ear.

But as it turned out, sound recording was an altogether different problem from sound reproduction. And so phonautographs came to be used mainly for studying speech patterns.

It was only through the persistent experimentation of a young Thomas Edison that, two decades later, a practical device that could both record and play back sound was developed. Early Edison phonographs recorded on tinfoil cylinders, which were eventually replaced by wax. His rival in the recording business, Emile Berliner, invented the gramophone and the flat disc records that we’re familiar with today. Originally made from glass, vinyl records proved to be both easy to handle and to mass produce.

That was in 1887, and records have remained largely unchanged since then. Part of their enduring allure is the straightforward simplicity of the basic technology: a spiral groove mirrors the waveform of the original sound. It’s a full physical embodiment of the audio, lossless and captured down to the minutest details, a wave of sound rendered forever in hard plastic.

In contrast, we’re taught that digital music is made up of bits and bytes, ones and zeroes, that sinuous soundwave hacked and chopped to pieces and frozen up for serving.

And, certainly, the bulkiness of an LP compared to a CD or even a diminutive MP3 player could easily mislead one into thinking that vinyl technology is cumbersome—but therein lies its charm, and perhaps a vital clue to its enduring popularity.

In 2014, researchers from the University of Iowa discovered that people don’t remember things that they hear as much as things that they see and touch. Participants in the study were subjected to auditory, tactile, and visual stimuli and asked to recall their experiences over time. It was found that they more readily recalled things that they had seen and felt, than heard.

“Our study suggests the brain may process auditory information differently than visual and tactile information,” corresponding author Amy Poremba explained to the Huffington Post.

There’s definitely something to be said about the whole experience of vinyl, from the act of admiring an album cover to pulling the record out of its slipcase to placing the needle gently onto its surface. It’s a very palpable engagement of the senses, what many enthusiasts feel is almost akin to a ritual.

And this, perhaps even more than the audio itself, might be what makes vinyl a literally memorable experience—one that will always be talked about, and perhaps debated upon, for still more generations to come.