How Record Players Work

Audio Tech Image Gallery Record players started the trend of portable music by making it accessible to people. See more audio tech pictures.
© Chubykin

If you're in the mood for some good music, you might flip through the neatly shelved rows of album covers, make your selection, and slide the shiny, round disc out of its sleeve. Holding it by the edges, you carefully slip it into place, anticipating the rich sounds you will soon hear. But it's not the sound of a CD playing your favorite music -- it's a record.

As the disc begins to spin on a turntable, an arm drops to the outer edge of black vinyl record. After a brief pause, you are greeted by tunes that sound rich, but not perfect, and sometimes the needle skips across a groove, interrupting a song.


Before the 1970s -- before the invention of tapes, compact discs and MP3 players -- people listened to recorded music on record players. There was no fast forward, rewind or shuffle. Instead, you chose an album and enjoyed about 25 minutes of music by one artist before flipping it over for more or putting another record on the turntable.

From the time the phonograph was invented in 1877 until it was slowly phased out and replaced by other music media nearly 100 years later, the technology used to play recorded sounds changed only slightly. And today, records and record players are even enjoying a comeback.

In this article, we'll look back to see how Thomas Edison's favorite invention works and how it has influenced on culture and society. Up first, we'll see how the idea of recording sound came to be, and whether Edison was actually the first person to discover it.



Edison's Discovery

In 1877, Thomas Edison and his assistants attached a needle to the diaphragm of a telephone receiver with the idea that the needle could be used to etch an impression of sound onto quickly moving paper, thus creating a recording or sound writing.

Edison understood that sound is the vibration of particles across a medium, such as air, in waves. He developed a way to imprint or record the waves so that they could be played back or turned back into sound using a second needle.


He eventually designed a device he called the phonograph that had a brass cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, which rotated and moved lengthwise when turned by a hand crank. On one side was a diaphragm, or very thin membrane, connected to a needle. When sound waves were forced into the receiving end, it caused the membrane to vibrate and the needle to etch a groove into the foil as the cylinder was being turned by the crank, thus recording sound. A second needle and an amplifier were on the other side. When the cylinder was set to the beginning and the needle placed in the grooves, the original sound was reproduced as the vibrations were amplified.

Edison created his first voice recording by shouting the words to "Mary had a little lamb" into a mouthpiece, causing the sound waves to vibrate a needle and etch the nursery rhyme into tinfoil for playback.

The phonograph was a breakthrough, as it had the ability not only to record sound, but to play it back. Edison originally thought that the phonograph would be useful in offices for dictation, for families to record their history or for teachers to record lessons. He considered applying the technology to toys such as talking dolls and music boxes.

But the phonograph proved too difficult for most people to use, and the tinfoil on which the recordings were made did not last. Interest in the machine waned as its applications proved impractical in its current state. Edison put it aside to pursue work on other inventions. When he resumed work on the phonograph nearly 10 years later, another inventor had moved it one step closer to the record player.


Evolution of the Record Player

An old gramophone with a horn and flat disc like this is similar to Emile Berliner's design.
© Tasdemir

Although Edison temporarily stopped work on his phonograph, interest in recording and playing sound was not abandoned. Ten years after its invention, in 1887, a German inventor in the U.S. named Emile Berliner built on the ideas of Edison's design. Instead of a cylinder with the sound etched in tinfoil or wax, he developed a device that rotated a hard rubber (and later, shellac) disc on a flat plate by the turn of a crank.

But unlike its predecessor, the phonograph, Berliner's machine, the gramophone, could only play recordings. So Berliner started the Gramophone Company, which manufactured not only the machines, but the records played on them. What was lost in the ability to both record and play back sound in one machine resulted in a new system whereby mass-produced recordings could be played and shared repeatedly.


Berliner's company merged with that of inventor Eldridge Johnson to become the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. It manufactured and advertised both gramophones and records. Johnson refined the design of the gramophone, which until that time had been dominated by a large horn to amplify the sound. In order to fit more comfortably in a home, the horn was tilted down and the entire device placed in a cabinet. This new design, introduced in 1906, was called the Victrola. Meanwhile, the company also manufactured discs recorded by famous opera singers and musicians, giving the public unprecedented access to music [source: Shoenherr, Morton: Phonograph].

Over time, the design of the gramophone and the recording process were continuously changing, yet the core elements of the needle in a groove remained the same. By the mid-20th century, most households had what was then commonly known as a record player and most recently called a turntable. Its mass popularity lasted until about the mid-1980s when cassette tape recordings overtook records.

We're on our way to finding out what exactly goes on during a record player's playback, but first, we need to understand the basics of how a vinyl record is created.


How a Vinyl Record is Made

The success of the gramophone to play recorded sounds was dependent on the ability to mass produce records.

The process of making records has its roots in Thomas Alva Edison's phonograph. First, a master recording is made, usually in a studio where engineers perfect the recorded sound. Then an object called a lacquer is placed on a record-cutting machine, and as it rotates, electric signals from the master recording travel to a cutting head, which holds a stylus, or needle. The needle etches a groove in the lacquer that spirals to the center of the circular disc. The imprinted lacquer is then sent to a production company.


There, the lacquer is coated in a metal, such as silver or nickel, to produce a metal master. When the metal master is separated from the lacquer, the resulting disc has ridges instead of grooves. The metal master is then used to create a metal record, also called the mother, which is then used to form the stamper. Stampers are just negative versions of the original recording that will be used to make the actual vinyl records.

Next, the stamper is placed in a hydraulic press, and vinyl is sandwiched in between. Steam from the press softens the plastic as the stampers push an impression of the master recording onto it. Finally, the disc is stiffened using cool water.

Once the record is ready to be played, it will need a proper machine to bring its sounds to life. Up next, we'll break down how exactly a record player's components work together to bring you the music.


How Records Are Played

The vibrations from the record's grooves travel up by the needle, through the cartridge and the arm to the amplifier, where they are magnified into sound waves.
©ñaki Antoñana Plaza

For almost a century, the record player was the most common way to listen to recorded music, speeches, languages and lessons. The design has been refined over the years, but the concept changed little, and the basic parts have remained the same.

The turntable is the circular plate on which the record sits. A rod positioned in the center holds the record (which has a hole in its center) in place. The metal turntable is covered in rubber or plastic, which protects the record from being scratched. The turntable rotates or spins with the help of either a belt drive or direct drive system.


The stylus, or needle, is the smallest and perhaps the most important component of the record player. It is made from a diamond or other hard material, shaped like a cone and suspended by a flexible strip of metal. The pointed end is the only piece that touches the top of the record and it rides around the spiraling grooves of the disk, picking up the vibrations which are ultimately turned back into sound.

The stylus sits at one end of the tone arm, which is mounted to the side of the turntable and sits parallel to the record. With the needle or stylus placed in the outermost groove of the record, the tone arm follows the groove as it spirals inward, traveling across the record in an arc as the record spins beneath it. As this happens, the vibrations travel along a flexible metal strip and wires housed in the tone arm to the cartridge in the end of the tone arm. The cartridge receives the vibrations, which are converted to electrical signals through a coil in a magnetic field. The electric signals are carried along wires to the amplifier which enhances the power of the signal. Finally, the signals are converted back to sounds that come out through the speakers.

Initially, recorded sounds were mainly monophonic, meaning all of the sound signals are combined and come through one speaker or channel. The introduction of stereophonic sound systems in 1958 allowed for a richer, more lifelike sound as two sets of sound waves were recorded. When played, the vibrations travel simultaneously along two different channels and are converted and dispersed through two different speakers.

Record players became more common as recorded music grew in popularity, but not everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Read on to discover which famous band leader didn't like the idea of recorded music.


How Records Influenced Culture

The invention of the record player is considered by many to be one of the most significant influences on music and culture. Much of the first recorded music was performed by marching bands, but John Phillip Sousa, one of America's most recognized band leaders, wrote in 1906 that a live performance was unique and that recordings cheapened the experience. He admitted that the machines were "remarkable" and were sufficient for people who weren't able to learn music or attend a performance, but he feared that they would undermine the incentive to acquire musical ability and create original pieces [source: Sousa].

Access to recorded music, however, resulted in greater exposure to a wide variety of music for all types of people. Local musicians who made a recording could share their tunes worldwide. Additionally, recorded music helped begin to bridge a racial divide between whites and blacks in the United States. Black artists' recordings grew in popularity, including jazz musicians in the 1920s, Motown recording artists in the 1960s and most recently many rap artists.


The record industry continued to grow throughout the mid-20th century, but after World War II, portable music became popular. The second half of the century saw music quickly move through a variety of mediums from transistor radios to tape players and most recently to compact disc and MP3 players.

But even as the way people listen to recorded music has evolved over the years, the record player can be considered the trendsetter. And these days, as we'll talk about next, vinyl records are making something of a comeback.


Record Resurgence

The popularity of record players and vinyl recordings peaked in the 1960s, but they are enjoying a comeback among certain music fans. In the early days of hip-hop, disc jockeys in dance clubs wanted to keep people dancing to the best parts of a variety of songs. Using multiple turntables, they mixed music right on the spot. The process, called turntablism, includes cutting quickly between two records, stopping and starting the music, and dragging the needle against the record to create a rhythmic scratching sound [source: Neal]. It's considered by many to be an art, just like playing another instrument.

Also, many music lovers just prefer the sound of a vinyl record. They argue that, despite the occasional extraneous noises on a record from dust or a scratch, vinyl has a deeper, richer sound than a digital version, which can feel too perfect. They also enjoy other aspects of records, such as liner notes, photos, posters and other album extras. And many simply like the social aspect of gathering together with friends or family to listen to music on the record player -- just like people did in the old days [source: Dell].


Learn more about record players by visiting some of the links and related articles on the next page.

Record Players FAQs

How much does a record player cost?
The prices start at around $50, but cheaper ones can destroy records. A high quality record player will cost anywhere from $500 to $1000.
How do record players work?
A stylus touches the top of the record and rides around the disk. It picks up vibrations that are then sent to a cartridge, which then converts them into electrical signals. These signals are sent to an amplifier which converts the signals back to sound through speakers.
Is it worth buying a record player?
If you want the best sound quality, then investing in vinyl probably isn't worth it. CDs are better. But if you have some vinyl records sitting around that you want to play, then why not?
What is the best record player to buy?
According to CNET, the best turntable is the Fluance RT82. It features exceptional musical accuracy and pure analog performance. It costs $300.
Can you hook up speakers to a record player?
Record players can be connected to speakers through amplifiers. In some cases, you may have to buy a preamp with a LINE signal to make this connection possible. A direct connection is always possible with record players that have a built-in preamp.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • BBC News. "HMV Seeks Budding Nipper." 8 Sept. 1999. (3 Dec. 2009)
  • Dell, Kristina. "Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back" Time. Jan 10, 2008. (2 Sept. 2009)
  • Edie, Paul C. "History of the Victor Phonograph." (8 Sept. 2009)
  • Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. "Phonograph." (8 Sep. 2009)
  • Furchgott, Roy. "You Say You Want A Revolution (At 33 1/3) (Circuits)." The New York Times. Dec 2, 2008 (2 Sept. 2009)
  • Lerner, Lee and Wilmoth, Brenda, "Phonograph". Gale Encyclopedia of Science. 4th ed. 2008. (3 Sept. 2009)
  • McGrath, Kimberly A. and Travers, Bridget. "Phonograph." World of Invention. Ed. Thomson Gale, 2006. Student Resource Center - Bronze. Gale (2 Sep. 2009)
  • Morton, David. "Culture and Sound Recording Technology." 1998-2006. (8 Sept. 2009)
  • Morton, David. "History of the Music Recording Industry." 1998-2006. (8 Sept. 2009)
  • Morton, David. "Overview History of the Technologies for Recording Music and Sound." 1998-2006. (8 Sept. 2009)
  • Morton, David. "Phonograph Records from Beginning to End (almost)." 1998-2006. (8 Sept. 2009)
  • Neal, Rome. "Turntablism 101: The Turntable as an Instrument?" 28 March, 2004. (8 Sept. 2009)
  • Pogue, David. "Old records go in, CD's come out." The New York Times. Aug. 17, 2006. (2 Sept. 2009)
  • Pohlmann, Ken C. "Phonograph." World Book Student. World Book, 2009. (31 Aug. 2009)
  • Schoenherr, Steven E. "Leon Scott and the Phonoautograph." University of San Diego History Department. 15 Jan. 2004. (3 Dec. 2009)
  • Sousa, John Philip. "The Menace of Mechanical Music." Appleton's Magazine (through Catholic University of America). 1906. (3 Dec. 2009)
  • Terdiman, Daniel. "Making vinyl records the old-fashioned way." CNET News. June 26, 2008. (3 Dec. 2009)
  • Yale Music Cataloging. "The History of 78 RPM recordings." (3 Dec. 2009)