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Industry: grooving out vinyl’s future

70 years on and the discs are still with us, capturing a warmer sound than any other format.

The vinyl format just celebrated its 70th anniversary, with the first long player released in the US in 1948. Released on Columbia (now part of Sony), it was Mendelssohn's Concerto in E Minor, performed by violinist Nathan Milstein with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.  The 12 -inch 33 1/3 rpm format allowed longer pieces to be recorded. Previously you got three minutes per side. Now you could get 20 minutes a side, an entire classical piece or, two decades later, an entire Grateful Dead guitar solo. 70 years on and the discs are still with us, capturing a warmer sound than any other format. Figures released in America on Sunday July 8 showed that vinyl albums grew 19.2% to 7.6 million units in the first half of 2018. In Australia, the last figures showed that vinyl had grown for a seventh straight year with $1.1 million in album sales.

There would have been greater growth if turntable and vinyl plant technology had advanced. But they didn’t, and supply bottlenecks are common as demand shoots up. That is going to change. Sony Corp is setting up a state-of-the-art production.  Australia’s Zenith Records, which runs two shifts a day to keep up with its international clients, is about to expand from its current three presses to nine. Better still, things are on track for HD Vinyl by mid-2019. The three year old Austria-based Rebeat Innovation received US$4.8 million in funding to develop their patent (filed in 2016), which features laser-inscribed grooves promising longer playing time and louder clearer audio. It’s also more environmentally friendly as no toxic chemicals are used. This month Rebeat will receive the $600,000 laser system it ordered. It’ll start tests immediately. Its target is to display samples at the Making Vinyl conference in October in Detroit. After that, it’ll take another eight months for fine adjustments, which means the first of these will roll out by June.

Many other global tech companies and services have, given Australians’ reputation as early adopters, tended to include Australia among the first markets to get their products. Let’s hope HD Vinyl is one of them. With current vinyl production, where records are made through a third pressing, the long process allows for errors and loss of audio quality. But with HD Vinyl, the record is made from the original stamper, not the third copy – hence, no audio quality loss. The first step is to digitally convert a high-resolution audio file into a topographic 3D map. A precision laser cuts a perfect groove into the ceramic stamper. By controlling the shape of the groove, the space in between is minimised. Rebeat claims that the sound quality is enhanced by 30%. Each side of the record can store up to 30 minutes of music before loss of quality. The good news is that the HD records can be used on existing turntables and work on ordinary styluses.