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A phonograph record (also known as a gramophone record, especially in British English), often simply record, is an analog sound storage medium in the form of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove. The groove usually starts near the periphery and ends near the center of the disc. At first, the discs were commonly made from shellac; starting in the 1940s polyvinyl chloride became common. Since then, gradually, records made of any material began to be called vinyl records, or simply vinyl.
The phonograph disc record was the primary medium used for music reproduction throughout the 20th century. It had co-existed with the phonograph cylinder from the late 1880s and had effectively superseded it by around 1912. Vinyl records retained the largest market share even when new formats such as the compact cassette were mass-marketed. By the 1980s, digital media, in the form of the compact disc, had gained a larger market share, and the vinyl record left the mainstream in 1991. Since the 1990s, vinyl records continue to be manufactured and sold on a smaller scale, and are especially used by disc jockeys (DJs) and released by artists in mostly dance music genres, and listened to by a growing niche market of audiophiles. The phonograph record has made a niche resurgence in the early 21st century – 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. in 2014, a 260% increase since 2009. Likewise, in the UK sales increased five-fold from 2009 to 2014.
As of 2017, 48 vinyl record pressing facilities remain worldwide, 18 in the United States and 30 in other countries. The increased popularity of vinyl has led to the investment in new and modern record-pressing machines. Only two producers of lacquers (acetate discs) remain: Apollo Masters in California, and MDC in Japan.
Phonograph records are generally described by their diameter in inches (12-inch, 10-inch, 7-inch), the rotational speed in revolutions per minute (rpm) at which they are played (8 1⁄3, 16 2⁄3, 33 1⁄3, 45, 78), and their time capacity, determined by their diameter and speed (LP [long playing], 12-inch disc, 33 1⁄3 rpm; SP [single], 10-inch disc, 78 rpm, or 7-inch disc, 45 rpm; EP [extended play], 12-inch disc or 7-inch disc, 33 1⁄3 or 45 rpm); their reproductive quality, or level of fidelity (high-fidelity, orthophonic, full-range, etc.); and the number of audio channels (mono, stereo, quad, etc.).
Vinyl records may be scratched or warped if stored incorrectly but if they are not exposed to high heat, carelessly handled or broken, a vinyl record has the potential to last for centuries.
The large cover (and inner sleeves) are valued by collectors and artists for the space given for visual expression, especially when it comes to the long play vinyl LP.
The phonautograph, patented by Léon Scott in 1857, used a vibrating diaphragm and stylus to graphically record sound waves as tracings on sheets of paper, purely for visual analysis and without any intent of playing them back. In the 2000s, these tracings were first scanned by audio engineers and digitally converted into audible sound. Phonautograms of singing and speech made by Scott in 1860 were played back as sound for the first time in 2008. Along with a tuning fork tone and unintelligible snippets recorded as early as 1857, these are the earliest known recordings of sound.
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Unlike the phonautograph, it could both record and reproduce sound. Despite the similarity of name, there is no documentary evidence that Edison's phonograph was based on Scott's phonautograph. Edison first tried recording sound on a wax-impregnated paper tape, with the idea of creating a "telephone repeater" analogous to the telegraph repeater he had been working on. Although the visible results made him confident that sound could be physically recorded and reproduced, his notes do not indicate that he actually reproduced sound before his first experiment in which he used tinfoil as a recording medium several months later. The tinfoil was wrapped around a grooved metal cylinder and a sound-vibrated stylus indented the tinfoil while the cylinder was rotated. The recording could be played back immediately. The Scientific American article that introduced the tinfoil phonograph to the public mentioned Marey, Rosapelly and Barlow as well as Scott as creators of devices for recording but, importantly, not reproducing sound. Edison also invented variations of the phonograph that used tape and disc formats. Numerous applications for the phonograph were envisioned, but although it enjoyed a brief vogue as a startling novelty at public demonstrations, the tinfoil phonograph proved too crude to be put to any practical use. A decade later, Edison developed a greatly improved phonograph that used a hollow wax cylinder instead of a foil sheet. This proved to be both a better-sounding and far more useful and durable device. The wax phonograph cylinder created the recorded sound market at the end of the 1880s and dominated it through the early years of the 20th century.
Lateral-cut disc records were developed in the United States by Emile Berliner, who named his system the "gramophone", distinguishing it from Edison's wax cylinder "phonograph" and American Graphophone's wax cylinder "graphophone". Berliner's earliest discs, first marketed in 1889, only in Europe, were 12.5 cm (approx 5 inches) in diameter, and were played with a small hand-propelled machine. Both the records and the machine were adequate only for use as a toy or curiosity, due to the limited sound quality. In the United States in 1894, under the Berliner Gramophone trademark, Berliner started marketing records of 7 inches diameter with somewhat more substantial entertainment value, along with somewhat more substantial gramophones to play them. Berliner's records had poor sound quality compared to wax cylinders, but his manufacturing associate Eldridge R. Johnson eventually improved it. Abandoning Berliner's "Gramophone" trademark for legal reasons, in 1901 Johnson's and Berliner's separate companies reorganized to form the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey, whose products would come to dominate the market for many years. Emile Berliner moved his company to Montreal in 1900. The factory, which became the Canadian branch of RCA Victor still exists. There is a dedicated museum in Montreal for Berliner (Musée des ondes Emile Berliner).
In 1901, 10-inch disc records were introduced, followed in 1903 by 12-inch records. These could play for more than three and four minutes, respectively, whereas contemporary cylinders could only play for about two minutes. In an attempt to head off the disc advantage, Edison introduced the Amberol cylinder in 1909, with a maximum playing time of 4 1⁄2 minutes (at 160 rpm), which in turn were superseded by Blue Amberol Records, which had a playing surface made of celluloid, a plastic, which was far less fragile. Despite these improvements, during the 1910s discs decisively won this early format war, although Edison continued to produce new Blue Amberol cylinders for an ever-dwindling customer base until late in 1929. By 1919, the basic patents for the manufacture of lateral-cut disc records had expired, opening the field for countless companies to produce them. Analog disc records dominated the home entertainment market until they were outsold by digital compact discs in the 1980s, which were in turn supplanted by digital audio recordings distributed via online music stores and Internet file sharing.