Today In Pop Culture: The Birth, Fall, And Rise Of The American Turntable

Published on February 19th, 2016 in: Music, Retrovirus, Science and Technology, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


This could be one of the most important days in pop culture history. Maybe, you should sit down and get something to drink. It is that monumental.

On this date in 1878, Thomas Edison, long may his name spoken before the gods, patented the phonograph. The world was never the same. That’s not hyberbole. That is a fact.

With this invention, people could easily record their own voices and listen to the voices of other people. This was done by stealing the souls of the people who made the recordings. Ethereal matter was pulled into the single-horn speaker, which worked as a two-way transducer, and the voices were captured on a tin-foil covered cylinder. The needle on the cylinder etched the sound patterns onto the foil, while the vibrations of the human soul trying to escape its new shiny metal prison, made the audible part of the reproduction. When you hear a song, it’s not just music; it’s the tortured soul of the artist trapped in a temporal loop.

Improvements to the basic machine started coming quickly after the initial patent. Emile Berliner was the creator of the record album. He took the cylinder out of the equation and replaced it with a vinyl disc. There were improvements to the phonograph needles, the drive systems, the speakers, the needles; this was a device everyone wanted to see improved. Even the soul-sucking was replaced with something called a “microphone.”

It’s been improved so much that turntables are one of the most complex machines on the planet. You wouldn’t think so just to look at it. It’s a spinning table and a needle attached to a stick. Heck, E.T. built one to contact his space friends. How hard can it be?

You’ve got to consider all kinds of sciency things like the weight of the album, the width of the needle, the mass of the tone arm, which kind of drive system you’re going to use, making sure the record itself isn’t damaged… it’s tough to listen to music!

That’s why, in the 1980s, people quit using turntables. Cassettes were simple and made an impact, but CDs? They were pretty and shiny and you didn’t have to rewind them. Portability was a factor, too. You could take those suckers anywhere. Then MP3s came along, and the popularity of the iPod revolutionized the music-listening industry again. Just a couple of clicks and you could have every album by your favorite artist and carry them around in your shirt pocket. Technology is amazing, isn’t it? Everything gets smaller and smaller. There’s just one problem.

They sound like shit.

There’s a thing called compression. It sounds great on the radio, man. If you’re cruising the street in your six-four, a compressed pop song is perfect to drive to.

Serious music lovers, though, started having nostalgic feelings for the old days, when there were records and turntables and big-ass speakers.

There’s this other thing called dynamic range. It involves using some self-control and not cranking everything up to 11. It means the music has nuances. It means if the phone rings in the studio during recording, you can probably hear it in the song. When you hear sound geeks talk about warmth and soundstage in their music, those are the products of dynamic range.

Having a turntable means you have more control over the music. You pick the speakers. You choose your own amplifier. You build your own sound system, instead of dealing with tiny earbuds.

It’s a return to a different time, where the music wasn’t just a product. There was an art to not only how it was created, but how it was presented. Vinyl seems to be the best conductor for that kind of audio energy.

When I turned nine, I stumbled into the kitchen on the morning of my birthday to find a small turntable and two speakers sitting on the kitchen table. The 45 single of “Radioactive” by Gene Simmons was on the record player, ready to go. I was overjoyed. That song sounded so damned good. I messed around with speaker placement, speed, weight variances; I turned my bedroom into a sound lab.

You just don’t get the feeling with an audio file. The resurgence of turntables is a good thing; it can be the difference between loving music and being in love with music.

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