The LP arrives
Format wars … a tale of forgotten formats.
Edison’s cylinders v Berliner’s flat discs
Phonograph v Gramophone
78 rpm disc v 45 rpm disc
45 single v LP
tape v disc
open reel tape v cassette
cassette v 8-track
Video 2000 v Sony U-Matic
VHS v Betamax
cassette v mini-disk
Walkman v Discman
CD v vinyl
CD v DAT
Laser disc v DVD
DVD-Audio v SACD
CD v download
Download v streaming
(My wife will inform anybody that all my choices have been “Betamax.” OK, but it IS way better than VHS. We did buy laser discs. And one day that DAT player in the attic may be worth something.)
RCA Victor v Columbia
In the late1940s, RCA Victor and Columbia were the two major players in competition for the new vinyl format. Their domination in America didn’t extend to Europe. Through a series of early and abortive business alliances,
EMI in the UK and Europe owned the Columbia brand name. They also owned the “Nipper” dog logo, which was RCA’s American trademark. RCA Victor was distributed by Decca in Britain. In the British Commonwealth, that Nipper trademark belonged to EMI’s His Master’s Voice label, and was also used by their Continental European partner label, Odeon. Columbia’s record division had to be known as CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) in most of the world, and in the UK was distributed by Philips until 1962, when they finally launched their own CBS label.
In the UK, EMI and Decca were the major players. Both were umbrella companies, with a series of sub-labels.
See above for RCA Victor’s 45 rpm, 7 inch solution. Columbia invented the LP.
(see also: 78 minus 33 = 45)
When sound movies were introduced in 1927, the first soundtracks were on a series of Electrical Transmission discs playing at 33 1/3 rpm. RCA Victor had been the instigator. The concept of slower speed / longer playing time was introduced, but these early discs were made of shellac material too coarse for microgrooves, and the needles were too blunt, and the arms too heavy for finer needles. They were also 16″ in diameter and could hold eleven minutes of sound … matched to the length of a 35 mm film reel. Film soon moved to a soundtrack recorded on the film stock.
Wartime V-discs were made of vinylite, but it was expensive … too expensive for putting a classical piece or musical on a set of multiple 78s. Vinylite was the way, but they had to get a sufficiently long programme on one disc. They also knew that 33 1/3 was a speed which American radio stations were already equipped to play because Electrical Transmission discs were used for pre-recorded radio programmes..
In 1944, the Allies discovered that the Germans had been developing and using an audio magnetic tape system with Magnetophone recorders. The Americans were quick to ship captured machines back. Tape was an important step in the move to LP, as it removed the problem of length of master recordings. One of those “What if?” questions is what would have happened if Columbia had decided to use open reel tapes as their new medium rather than vinyl LPs. The question of length would have been wide open, so that the playing length we later thought of as natural for an album … between 30 and 44 minutes would not have been a constraint.
The age of the LP had to wait until 1948, when vinyl was used, together with styluses with diamond or sapphire tips, and lighter arms. Columbia introduced the first LPs. Columbia had a major advantage in having worked most with those 1930s shellac LPs, and had assembled master recordings for archiving on Electrical Transcription discs since 1931, which meant they had an archive of recordings which were not exactly “LP ready” but at least existed in eleven minute chunks (say, a complete movement of a symphony) rather than two or three minute chunks.
Who designed the LP? Peter Goldmark claimed that he did as head of research. Edward Wallerstein was President of Columbia Records from 1939 to 1951, and before that had made the decision to archive on those early 33 1/3 discs. He said that the LP was a team development over several years and that a crucial breakthrough was the heated stylus and lightweight pickup, designed by Bill Bachman. Columbia engineers initially played with formats at seven minutes, Ten minutes, twelve minutes and eighteen minutes long.
I kept saying, ‘Thats not a long playing record,’ and (Mr Paley, Chief Executive of CBS) asked, ‘Well, Ted, what in hell is a long playing record?’ I said, ‘Give me a week, and I’ll tell you.’
Edward Wallerstein, quoted in ‘360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story’ bySean Wiletz.
Wallerstein spent a week timing works in the firm’s classical repertoire and came up with a figure of seventeen minutes per side … roughly the length of Beethoven’s Eroica. This would, he believed, about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record.
Travis Elborough, The Long Player … Goodbye, 2008.
Beethoven was the benchmark. (This will happen again with CD.) Columbia had invested $250,000 dollars ($2,675.000 in 2020 prices) in the project.
By mid-1948 Columbia had issued fourteen LPs, rising to one hundred and one by years end. 70% were classical. 20% were light classical / show tunes. Only eleven releases were “pop” … Frank Sinatra, Harry James Orchestra and Dinah Shore were in the early batch. The classical bias was in the Columbia Masterworks series. They had two sizes, 12″ (with blue labels) and 10″ (with green labels).
Frank Sinatra: The Voice of Frank Sinatra, 10″ LP. Columbia USA 1949
The popular records were 10″ starting with Frank Sinatra’s The Voice of Frank Sinatra numbered CL-6001.
Bruno Walter: Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor, Columbia LP 1948. A generic base cover used for many releases. All that changes is the overprinting and background colour.
The first classical LP was Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor, conducted by Bruno Walter, numbered ML 4001.
The revolutionary new Columbia Long Playing (LP) Microgroove Record plays up to 45 minutes of music on one 12-inch record, or approximately six times as much music as conventional shellac records. After more than a decade of preparation, the world’s greatest symphonies, concertos, tone poems and chamber music are now held in their entirety on one album-length record. Available, too, are sparkling collections of lighter music and popular songs, by leading artists. LP records are made of nonbreakable Vinylite, giving you in addition to the extended playing time the strength of Vinylite discs and their noise-free surfaces. Each LP record consists of scores of microscopically fine grooves, precisely controlled channels capable of capturing the most subtle nuances or most magnificent fortissimi.
1949 Columbia Record Catalog.
Vinyl records it was found got scuffed in the rough paper sleeves used for 78s, and needed a smooth paper inner sleeve.
Columbia stayed remarkably conservative. Classical and Easy Listening dominated. They added Country and Western, then the great John Hammond brought them blues and folk, culminating in Bob Dylan in 1961 (still a folkie). When Dion joined Columbia in 1962, he realized that he was their first real rock and roll signing. He also found they instantly tried to persuade him to record “standards.”
The format war of 1948-50 was short. Columbia realized fast that RCA’s 7″ 45 rpm format was working for popular music, so they produced rival 33 1/3 7″ discs from 1949 until 1951. However, everyone was in trouble. Consumers were faced with the 78 / 45 / 33 choice and manufacturers were slow to tool up to three speed players. No one wanted to commit to only RCA, or only Columbia records. Sales slumped dramatically as people decided to wait and see before buying.
A major wise decision by Columbia was to share the technology free, so other record labels could get on the LP bandwagon. They quietly offered it to RCA before launch, in April 1948, but RCA declined. They soon persuaded Mercury, and more importantly at the time, Concert Hall with its mail order catalogue. British Decca were keen to join in, as was American Decca.
South Pacific: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Columbia Masterworks, USA, 1949
Columbia’s biggest seller was a commissioned version of South Pacific. It was released as a 78 set, then later a 45 set, but the original on LP dominated sales. It set the tradition of stage then film musicals dominating LP sales charts for another fifteen plus years.
RCA bit the bullet in January 1950, announcing sarkily that it would now be releasing “improved” LPs in the 12″ 33 1/3 format. LP was still a Columbia trademark.
Verdi: Rigoletto. The first ever RCA Victor LP, Red Seal, 1950
Within months, Columbia was issuing 45 rpm singles.
In Britain, Decca was the first company with LPs. They waited until June 1950, trumpeted their ffrr recording technique (which had been used on 78s), and were ready to sell their own players. They soon did deals to distribute RCA and Capitol, making them the market leaders. The 45 had to wait until 1954.
Initially, they had no tape recorders … they had to buy an EMI BTR-1 (“British” Tape Recorder One) model in late 1949. So the initial groundwork for preparing LPs was recording existing 78 rpm discs onto 33 1/3 rpm lacquer discs, a painful process resulting in errors and discarded masters … an issue Columbia had avoided with its Electrical Transcription Disk masters.
They were bold with early releases. One of the earliest was Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. AND they had an illustration. They were commendable in commissioning original artwork.
Ernest Ansermet: Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, Decca 12″ LP 1950
Ernest Ansermet: Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, Decca 12″ June 1950
Rival EMI was a laggard, holding off the LP until 1952, and the 45 until 1954. EMI had been quick of the mark in installing tape machines at Abbey Road, and were soon manufacturing their own tape brand, Emitape. They were keeping a careful eye on format, and early engineers favoured tape. However, the comparative cost of tape playing machines was prohibitive. They made tentative plans to introduce LPs in 1949, but it was squashed by then chairman, Ernest Fisk. He believed that post-war rationing and shortages in the British chemical industry would mean vinyl would need to be imported. Perhaps Britain, still occupying Malaya, had a fast track to shellac. He also thought that cash-strapped British consumers in 1949 could not afford to shift to new technology as swiftly as Americans.
The EMI Group associate themselves with the opinion expressed in the Press of various countries that it is in the public interest for the gramophone industry to continue on the sound principle of a common turntable speed: 78 rpm.
EMI Press Release, September 1950
He left soon after (because of?) the release, and EMI started gearing up for LPs and 45s. Both formats were launched in October 1952, and all the early releases were classical, split between the HMV and Columbia labels.
They went solidly for a base label-centred design with overprinting. No art work here! It’s likely that the base design was printed in colour in large quantities, with blank spaces for release-specific information in black and white to be added on a later printing run. They look serious.
Sir Thomas Beecham: Schubert’s 8th / Beethoven’s 8th, Columbia (EMI), UK, 1953
Arturo Toscanini: Brahm’s Symphony No.2, His Master’s Voice, UK, 1953
The LP sleeve note as Literature (or NOT) could be a future category. These EMI releases had the rear sleeves packed with detailed listening notes.They give a history of the piece, then academic descriptions:
1 Allegro vivace con brio
The opening subject hits at no irregularity or disturbance. But the second subject, made up principally of little repeated patterns, oddly starts in D but finished (sic) in C, and has a comic ritardando in the middle.
Arthur Jacobs on Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op.93
Yet neither disc above tells you about when or where it was recorded, or anything about the conductor or orchestra apart from the name. They assume you will know what a ritardando is and notice the change of key, ‘I say, Dorothy, these chaps have just changed key! What do you think about that?’ Maybe they were focussing on Musical Appreciation (in capitals) or maybe they were reluctant to reveal when this material was actually recorded. They also fail to note that as EMI still had an arrangement with RCA Victor (about to shift to Decca distribution) the Toscanini recordings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra are actually reissues of RCA Red Seal American releases (which were recorded in 1951).
DGG had innovated on 78 rpm earlier, managing to get nine minutes a side on 12″ 78 rpm records. Deutsche Grammophon introduced its first LP in1950. It was Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Eugen Jochum.
Philips were even slower. They produced jukebox 45s from 1955, but popular mass market 45s waited until 1958.
See also: The Art of The LP