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How Do Vinyl Records Work?

Everyone knows that vinyl sounds better than anything else for music, but not everyone knows how vinyl records work.

To help change that, we went and talked to some awesome audio engineers who helped explain the process, so we could share it with you.

How Do Vinyl Records Make Sound?

Vinyl Records

A record player is, essentially, a tool that changes vibrations into electrical signals. 

When the stylus runs over the surface of a spinning record it vibrates, these vibrations are converted into electronic signals.

The signals are then sent to an electronic amplifier (or amplifiers).

The amplifiers then convert the electronic signals into sound, which is passed into the speaker, the speaker increases the level of this sound.

You then listen to the sound.

So, How Does That Work?

stylus cartridge

Your stylus is part of a “transducer”. 

A transducer is capable of converting mechanical energy (vibrations) into electrical energy and vice-versa.

It’s not just your stylus involved to do this, it also uses a cantilever, coils, magnets and the “body” which is part of the stylus cartridge. 

But How Does It Know What Sounds To Make In This Process?

Record grooves

Now, that’s a good question, but if you were to place the surface of a vinyl record under a microscope and compare it with a different record – you’d see that each groove (and there is only one spiral groove on a record) is unique.

When the vinyl is made, the grooves are cut to reflect the pattern that the transducer needs to recreate the sound of the music (or speech) accurately. 

This is quite a complicated process and, believe it or not, if you were to straighten out the groove on a record into a straight line, it would run for up to 500 meters!

When records are made, the first copy is made on a “master disc” which is a very hard wearing “negative” (opposite) copy of the finished item.

This master is then used to stamp out the vinyl records as it is pressed into soft vinyl (they use steam to make the surface amenable to grooves) with a hydraulic press. 

You then pop the disc in water to cool it down and harden the surface again and it’s ready to play.

The Speed Matters To The Sound 

The only thing left is to ensure that you play the vinyl at the right speed (traditionally an album was played at 33 rpm and a single at 45 rpm, though there are other speeds including the classic 78 rpm which was used for a long time before 33 and 45 became standard). 

If you don’t play it at the right speed, the transducer will create the right sounds but at the wrong tempo, if you play a 45 at 33 rpm, it sounds like everything has been slowed down.

And a 33 played at 45 rpm, will sound like everyone’s been snorting helium before they made the record. 

Vinyl is, without doubt, the best way to listen to music and it’s not all that complicated to understand how it works, though if you want to build your own transducers, you’ll need to study physics and electronics.