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The Turntable

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Written by Ernesto J. Green Rután on 18th March 2016.

The turntable, sometimes called record player is a piece of equipment used as an audio system for home and commercial entertainment. It is one of the few vintage gear which still is being manufactured and commercialised. The history of this device goes back to 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph for the mechanical recording and reproduction of sound. At the time, many inventors created sound recording devices but Edison's phonograph was able to recreate the recorded sound.

Thomas Edison and his phonograph

While working on the telegraph, he realised that when the vibration of the paper tape on the telegraph device played at high speed produced a noise which sounded just like spoken words. I believe this was a turning point in history, because it paved the way for the fundamentals of recording and reproduction of sound. The mechanical principle of Edison's phonograph was the stylus physical response to sound vibration in a tinfoil wrapped around a rotating cardboard cylinder called recorder. The resulting sound was amplified through a flaring horn or directly sent to the human ears using stethoscope-like ear phones.

The first recorded phrase by Edison was “Mary had a little lamb”.

A few years later, Graham Bell's improved the phonograph with the introduction of the Graphophone which kept Edison's mechanical principles but featured a wax-coated cardboard cylinder.

Graham Bell's graphophone

The phonograph and the graphophone were commercially marketed during the late 1800s. These devices were popular as office dictation machines but produced more profit as coin-operated recording machines in public arcades. Edison kept developing its craft, ventured in the record business and went on to making the phonograph a home commodity.

In 1890, German inventor Emile Berliner created the gramophone. He transformed the wax-coated cylinder into a flat disc made of zinc and coated with wax. The spiral grooves ran from the external surface to the centre of it.

Emile Berliner's gramophone

This disc produced a louder sound because the stylus on the tonearm had a stronger pressure over the groove of the disc. The gramophone rapidly gained mass appeal becoming the industry standard due to the profitable practicality of the distribution and manufacturing process.

Victor Talking Machine record company - founded by Eldridge R. Johnson in 1901 - commercialized the Berliner's gramophone. During Victor's 28 years history sold over 600,000,000 records and contributed to the recording industry commercial and technological development. In 1906, Johnson introduced the Victrola the most popular phonograph player in homes and a great number of it was sold until 1920.

Victor Talking Machine's logo

Victor Talking Machine (Industrial and commercial insight)


During the 1920s and 1930s, companies kept improving the phonograph. The Western Electric Company added electronic improvements to it and soon became used in film speech and transcription discs between radio stations. In 1931Columbia announced the long play record, similar to the LP 12 inches records rotating at 33 1/3 rpm. The long play as the name stated played longer with a better sound quality. This was achieved by using vinyl as the medium (which was harder and thinner), adding more grooves to the record and slowing down the revolution rate of the rotating disc. The LP was major advancement during this period and highly contributed to the development and monopolisation of the recording industry.

After the second war world, the industrial revolution began and the music industry faced major changes. The RCA company introduced the 7 inches 45 rpm records which retired the old 78 rpm discs. During the late 40s the record player was established as a home and commercial audio system replacing its mechanical predecessor.

Technics SL-1200MK2 (analog turntable)

The analog turntable finally was designed as a solid base which hold the motor - the belt/wheel, or direct-drive system- which moves the spinning heavy surface called platter. A mat is placed on top of the platter and record is place on top of it. At the end the flexible weighted-tonearm we find the cartridge with the stylus which traces the grooves of the vinyl, the vibration is translated into electrical voltage and transduce as sound through speaker system.

The turntable gave birth to the disc jockey (DJ) and club culture (from the early French discotheque to the current heavy club system). Countless of musical genres and cultural movements have evolved from the usage of turntables, such as the heavy bass dub sound, disco, hip hop, house, techno, EDM genres and sub-genres that we know nowadays. Radio, television and the entertainment industry have benefited and developed commercially from the playback of pre-recorded sound, initially introduced by Thomas Edison's phonograph.

Turntablism has become an art form thanks to the pioneering work of DJs such as Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, (Jamaican's sound system), David Mancuso (disco), DJ Kool Herc (hip hop) and creative work of DJs such as Grand Master Flash and Grand Mixer D. ST. The mechanical/acoustic sound of the phonograph paved the way for the turntable's analogue sound, and the latter inspired the digital sound (based on the binary system and logic gates). The turntable has revolutionised a whole new profitable industry based on digital DJ/music production hardware and software.

Pioneer CDJ-1000 MK3 (digital CD player)

Pioneer DDJ-SR2 (digital software controller)

Audio digital production has been promoted/supported by DJs producing their re-edits, mash-ups and remixes in their bedroom. In today's digital era, they way we listen to, consume, make music has changed a great deal. Music lovers can purchase and listen to songs from home or mobile using the internet. Many people with limited musical knowledge or resources are able to produce professional compositions with only a computer and pair of headphones.

During the 20th century the analogue-warm sound ruled the airwaves. In the 21st century, the clean- profitable digital sound has become popular due to its affordable, easier manipulation and storage. During 2006 and 2007, the consumption of vinyl dropped down considerably; record sales fell around 200,000 a year due to online downloads and bootlegging in the UK. But since 2015, its vintage-analogue sound has started to win back recognition, fresh consumers have realised about the unmatchable sound quality of vinyl record. I believe the analogue sound remains to be the most accurate and detailed reproduction from the natural source, but I also recognise the benefits and advantages of the digital domain. So, I conclude by saying, a hybrid approach of both digital/analogue technology is the way forward to the production and commercialisation of audio in the 21st century and beyond.


Web links


Brewster, Bill with Broughton, Frank (2012). “The Record Players” - Published by Virgin Books (UK).

Chang, Jeff (2007). “Can't Stop, Won't Stop” - Published by Edbury Press (UK).

Bradley, Lloyd (2001). “Bass Culture” - Published by Viking (UK)

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