On display in Renfro Library, Mars Hill College, NC
    (January—May 2012)

* * * Click any image for a close-up * * *

Exhibit Overview. Text TK.

Artistic CDs – Panel 1.

Artistic Vinyl.

Artistic CDs – Panel 2.

Wall Signage. Features CDs with artwork replicating other audio media, and three unique LPs. Top: Spilt Enz's True Colours laser-etched hologram disc (1980). Bottom left: Simple Minds' Once Upon a Time picture disc (1985). Bottom right: Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues, clear disc with rotating color overlays, designed by Robert Rauschenberg (1983).

Exhibit Case 1. From Edison's wax cylinders to vinyl variations of the 1980s.

Wax Cylinder (invented 1888). Thomas Edison's first 1877 recordings were on tinfoil wrapped around metal cylinders. Eleven years later he invented the less fragile wax cylinder, which held about 2 minutes of audio. Later cylinders of celluloid (plastic) held up to 4:30, but they were beaten in the market by less expensive shellac discs in the 1910s.

Shellac Disc (invented 1897). Discs were easier to store and cheaper to manufacture than cylinders. The first shellac discs played at a variety of speeds, holding just a few minutes of audio on a 7" disc. Larger sizes with longer playing times were soon introduced -- 10" in 1901, 12" in 1903 -- and 78 R.P.M. (revolutions per minute) became the usual speed.

Fragility of Shellac Discs. Wax cylinders were subject to melting in sunlight and high temperatures. Shellac discs did not have this problem, but instead were notoriously brittle. This one broke while being gently cleaned, and further pieces can be broken off with about the same amount of pressure it takes to snap a carrot stick.

The Record Album (circa 1910). Shellac discs typically contained only 5 to 10 minutes of audio per side, meaning that longer recordings such as symphonies stretched across several discs. As recorded audio became increasingly popular in the 1910s and 20s, listeners needed a way to keep matching recordings together. The solution (modeled on the photo album) was the "record album," a set of paper sleeves held together in a single binder, with space provided to document the contents of each disc. This is why we still refer to groupings of songs as "albums" today.

Vinyl LP and Single (1948-49). RCA Victor made the first 33 1/3 R.P.M. LP (Long Playing) record in 1931, but it was perfected by Columbia Records in 1948; RCA Victor launched the 7" a year later. As the 33 1/3 LP became the dominant format for albums, so the 45 R.P.M. 7" became popular for single-song recordings, or "singles." The greater speed increased sound fidelity; the smaller size meant more could fit in a small space. Jukeboxes required 7"s with large holes, which in turn required special adapters for home use, commonly called "45 spiders."

12" Single (1973). A happy accident led disco DJ Tom Moulton and engineer Jose Rodriquez to create the 45 R.P.M. 12" single, which sounds richer and fuller than a 7" of the same recording. It became popular in the '70s and '80s, especially in dance clubs. Note here the wider spacing and deeper grooves on the 12", which actually make the pulse of the music visible to the naked eye.

Music Collectors. As with any hobby, record collecting can lead some to be more enthusiastic about cataloging their recordings than actually listening to the recordings themselves. The annotated sleeve of this 7" -- one of dozens of similarly annotated singles recently put up for sale at my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore -- is a fine example of audiophile obsession.

Flexi Disc (1960). The flexi disc (less commonly known as a "phonosheet") enabled very inexpensive manufacture and distribution of recordings, particularly when included in magazines. The technology had been in use in the 1950s Soviet Union to transmit underground data, but was popularized by The Beatles' Christmas flexi discs, mailed to their fan club members from 1963-1969.

Novelty Vinyl. Within the realm of what playback turntables could accommodate, there were few limits on the dimensions of vinyl discs. They could be as large as 16" or as small as 5", and play at 78, 45, 33 1/3 or 16 2/3 R.P.M.; the vinyl could be black, white, any color, or clear; and the label size could be overly large or extra-small. Even shapes besides a circle were possible: see the display at the top of this page for examples.

Quadraphonic Sound (1969). Stereo (2-channel) sound began to replace mono (1-channel) in 1952. 17 years later, the thinking seemed to be: if stereo is twice as good as mono, surely quad (4-channel) would be twice as good as stereo. Ahead of its time, quad never caught on due to format wars and equipment expense... until its resurrection as 5.1 Surround Sound in '90s home theaters.

Sound on Film (c. 1919). The first recorded-sound films were achieved by pairing a vinyl disc with a film reel and playing them (hopefully) in sync. Lee De Forest invented a means of photographically recording sound waves on the film itself, solving the sync issue. The soundtrack here is visible as a thin band on the side of the filmstrip opposite the sprocket holes.

Reel-to-Reel Magnetic Tape (1947). Reel-to-reel tape was the first audio medium on which the average consumer could record easily and inexpensively. As such, it became especially popular in small recording studios, where it remained the medium of choice for nearly 50 years, until the advent of digital recording.

Exhibit Case 2. From 8-track tapes to the iPod, plus recordable media.

Portable Magnetic Tape Formats (1952-). 8-track cassettes and compact cassettes were essentially smaller versions of the 1947 reel-to-reel magnetic tape. 8-tracks contained continuous tape loops, while cassettes started and ended like reel-to-reels. The advantages of both were that they were easier to play and harder to mishandle than open reels, but there were also several downsides.

8-Track Cartridge (1952). The first commercially successful compact tapes, 8-tracks contained 4 parallel bands of audio (times 2 stereo channels, hence "8") which were exactly the same length due to the tape loop. This led to silences after some songs and, worse, the splitting of songs across two tracks with an unfortunate and unmistakable "ka-chunk" sound in the middle as the player switched tracks

Compact Tape Cassette (1963). Compact cassette tapes were an improvement in sound over 8-tracks, and gradually replaced them in consumer popularity over the 1970s and '80s. For much of the 1980s, cassettes were the biggest-selling audio medium. Though eventually surpassed by CDs in the '90s, cassettes are still the format of choice in some countries due to their low cost and high portability, as well their ease of recording and playback.

The Fragility of Tape. In any format, magnetic tape is inherently fragile due to its thinness and plasticity (as any regular user can attest). Tape will melt in heat, freeze and crack in cold, stretch and snap under mechanical duress, and unspool and tangle in rough playing conditions such as in car stereos. Tape also flakes and disintegrates with age, requiring the audio to be transferred to new media for preservation.

Cassette Single (1980s). Cassette singles, or "cassingles," were the tape equivalent of 7" records. Some featured a radio single on one side and a B-side on the other (like 7"s), while others had the same song(s) on both sides, making it unnecessary to rewind for repeat plays. Since tapes could be manufactured to any desired length, the format had a lot of flexibility. When CDs became the most popular format in the 1990s, however, the cassingle vanished.

Microcassette (1969). At one-quarter the size of compact cassettes, microcassettes were the smallest popular analogue recording medium. Their tiny size could only accommodate extra-thin and narrow tape, which caused them to have greatly inferior sound quality, suitable for voice recordings (as in hand-held recorders and phone answering machines) but not for music.

Compact Disc (CD) (1982). The compact disc (CD) replaced fragile tape reels with a hardier single disc. Unlike vinyl records, though, CDs store digital data (not physical grooves) which is read by an optical laser (not a physical needle), preventing physical wear and tear. The first CDs held 74 minutes of audio; later this was expanded to 80 minutes, almost twice the length of an LP record.

CD Variations. Because a CD is read from the center outwards (the opposite of a vinyl record), it's possible to "fill" the center of CD with only enough aluminum layer to contain the audio, leaving the outer ring clear or free for design. CDs can also be cut into shapes other than circles, provided that they have radial symmetry (or else they cause problems in players). One popular shape fits in a wallet like a business card.

3-inch CD /CD Single (1988). Some record companies made 3" CD singles (as opposed to regular 4-and-three-quarter-inch CDs) in the hope that the format would catch on like the 7" single did compared to the 12" album. The format failed for several reasons (3" discs were hard to store, easy to lose, and incompatible with slot-loading players) and mostly disappeared by the early '90s, although it fared better as a data storage medium.

3-inch CD Adapter (1988). One solution to the size problem of 3" CDs was an outer ring adapter -- the literal inverse of the inner "45 spider" used to convert jukebox 7" records to home use. It wasn't long before record companies realized it was simpler -- and cheaper -- just to make a regular-sized CD and fill it with less data, rather than change the physical medium and introduce incompatibilities with CD players.

Digital Audio Tape (DAT) (1987). Sony's Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was meant to replace analogue cassette tapes. Since it could be perfectly copied an infinite number of times -- and could also perfectly copy CDs or any other digital media -- it fell afoul of the RIAA in the U.S. Prohibitive legislation, high cost, and consumer fatigue (people were only just getting used to CDs) doomed the DAT as a popular medium, though it remains in some use in recording studios.

MiniDisc (1992). The MiniDisc was Sony's second attempt (after the DAT) to replace cassette tapes with a digital format. It contained a magneto-optical disc that is only recordable when heated by a laser; for this, plus the avoidance of fragile tape, and find- and read-times as quick as a hard drive, the MiniDisc could have been a consumer success. But recordable CDs & DVDs triumphed instead, and super-high capacity flash drives and iPods were just around the corner.

Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) (1997). The Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) is usually considered a visual medium, but as the "versatile" suggests, it can also be used for audio -- especially data-intensive audio like 5.1 surround sound that cannot fit on a CD. (A DVD can hold up to 25 times as much data as an equal-sized CD.) DualDiscs (2004) feature DVD on one side and CD on the other; since they are not compatible with all players, their future is uncertain.

Digital File Formats (1993) and Players (2001). With the rise of compressed digital audio formats like MP3 and playback devices like the iPod, the popularity of all physical forms of recorded audio media has receded. Yet, just as books are treasured and enjoyed in the Internet age, physical audio media are valued for their elements of beauty and charm that cannot be digitally replicated.

Do-It-Yourself Recording. Prior to the late 1940s, the only way for musicians to share music outside of concerts was to pay recording studios and record plants to record and manufacture vinyl records; a few hundred copies of a 7" single could be relatively cheap, but a nationally distributed LP was a major expense. Tapes changed that overnight, and every medium since then has been available in a recordable version for home use -- and usually cheaply.

Custom Vinyl and Recordable 8-Tracks. Small record manufacturing companies provided artists with an alternative to releasing albums on major labels. This was still expensive, however, and could not be done without professional assistance. For true home entrepreneurs, recordable tapes (first 8-tracks, then compact cassettes) were a much cheaper and more empowering solution to self-distribution of audio recordings.

Mix Tape. Before playlists, iTunes, and MySpace, mix tapes were the way to share your personal taste in music with a friend -- or someone you hoped would become more than a friend. E-mailing a playlist or a download link is no substitute for giving someone a self-recorded, hand-decorated tape to listen to.

Recordable Tapes & CDs.As pre-manufactured CDs replaced cassette tapes, so have recordable CDs and DVDs largely replaced home tape recording. The DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic of recordable discs includes full control over the artwork, which can range from Sharpie scrawls to full-blown printing.

Art of the CD. Text TK.

Variety of Blank Tapes. Text TK.

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