Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/02/22/lps_to_flash/
Happy birthday, LP: Can you believe it's only 65?
From scratchy spinner to flash and now the cloud
This storage medium progressed from spinning disk to flash and then entered the cloud... Sound familiar? It's the long-playing music album and this year marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of its inception.
The 33 1/3rpm vinyl long-playing record was devised in 1948 by Columbia Records and was an upgrade on the prior 78rpm 12-inch shellac records - which were noisy, read by a needle tracing the surface of a spiral grooved track, and only played music for about five minutes.
Some 78rpm records
Like the '78', the 10- or 12-inch long player (LP) used analog recording and was two-sided but the 'microgrooves' were finer, so the track was longer, and the playing time was 20 minutes or more.
Then stereophonic sound was added and the album became the standard way of buying classical music, collections of pop singles and then popular music and songs created as an entity rather than as a set of three-minute singles. There was glorious album art and breath-taking musical adventures but the technology had limitations.
LP record stylus
Records wore out because the needle scratched the microgroove surface and so music and song quality suffered. The LP had to be turned over after 20 minutes to play the second side. The player with stereo amplifier and speakers was not portable. Playing individual songs was a hit-and-miss affair as you had to locate them on the LP's surface.
Vinyl record grooves
In the early '80s, Sony's Walkman became the first popular answer to the portability problem - a small battery-powered tape cassette player with headphones. This was good as far as it went, which was not far enough because the CD - which started catching on towards the end of the '80s - swept the cassette-based Walkman away.
In the the late 1980s, music fans were blown away by the new high-fidelity recording medium. The compact disc is an optical technology, so while the single-sided discs still had spiral tracks, the signals pressed into them were read by laser. Unlike the old LP, there was no contact with the disc's recording surface, which was covered by a transparent layer of plastic. That didn't stop them from getting scratched though.
Album art, CDs and flash...
But CDs were smaller, so sadly didn't offer the vast canvas of the enormous LP album cover. An era of classic album artwork was over.
Vinyl LP Album Art: Close to the Edge - the 1972 album of Brit prog rockers Yes
Just a few years later, the ultimately hard-drive and then flash-memory-powered portable media players began to crush the CD as surely as it had pulverised the LP. The file system of the portable media players meant songs could be found quickly and you could organise your own playlists. You could store these songs on your computer and copy them to others.
Consumer music recording technology came down to a contest between the CD and flash. Flash won, and I'd suggest this is because of the simplicity of the associated purchasing technology. You can now buy just the few tracks you like off the album online as opposed to the whole thing, or even buy the whole thing without the pesky inconveniences associated with walking about, meeting people and leaving the house that one encounters in a meatspace record shop.
The digital music player's convenience and playlist functions were superior for consumers, who preferred not having to put load CDs into a player and carry them around if they wanted to have a listen while they travelled. A flash player could easily carry 500 songs or more - you'd need 25 or more CDs to match that.
Billy Joel CD
The advent of portable media players...OK, the iPod
Apple dominated the portable music player market from the beginning of the noughties onwards with its various iPods*. This is mostly down to the easy integration of its iTunes music software with the Apple Store's payment platform - although many have complained about early glitches like its automatic syncs, format mangling and various other snags. When digital music moved into mobile phones - together with dedicated flash music players - it killed off the CD as surely as the shiny scratch-prone disc had killed off the cassette tape before it.
But the long-playing record hasn't suffered the fate of the CD and the cassette tape. Afficionados still love the warmth of its sound, which they compare unfavourably to the hyper-clean and compressed digital music.
Now music consists of digital files mostly played from solid state devices and not spinning media. Sometimes it comes across a network, from internet radio stations or other sources. The newest, 11th release of iTunes throws your music library up into the iCloud...
And there are plenty of cloud music services around to fill any gaps if you can't find anything in your own digital music library that tickles your fancy and aren't ready to buy something new.
Will commercial data storage go the same way? Will it end up in solid state stores with spinning media consigned to the vaults of old, old technology, aka the *cough* vinyl resting place, as relevant to us as papyrus or clay tablets? Not until solid state foundries have multiplied in number many, many times, for we simply can't make enough of the stuff for wholesale disk replacement. Disk is cheap, disk is good enough and flash will only be used for the data that is needed instantly for a long, long time yet. ®
* The iPod Classic and iPod Mini used a 1.8 inch hard drive and 1 inch Microdrive respectively. It was only in 2005, with the iPod Nano, that flash memory was used.