Vinyl is a nearly century-old format with a firmly solidified place in the era of modern music. With today’s fast-paced advancements constantly pushing innovation in the world of music creation and consumption, the presence of this timeless physical format provides a sense of comfort, familiarity and groundedness. Even its “imperfections” (surface noise, clicks/static, warp) have become accepted as inherent characteristics that define the sound of the vinyl format as opposed to flaws.
iZotope’s free Vinyl plug-in celebrates this by allowing creators to manipulate these unique vinyl characteristics and apply them into their own productions. One of the parameters found in the plug-in is the Year settings, which models the sound of vinyl records from different decades using various filter responses. And what better way to study these Year settings than by taking a musical trip through each decade: 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 2000s.
Before we get started, go ahead and download the latest Vinyl update for free, below and follow along with the listening journey below by switching from one Year setting to the next as we go through each decade (see screenshot below). But keep in mind that the sound of the vinyl format is significantly determined by many extraneous factors so variations in the sound are to be expected.
To make this listening journey possible, I sought the help of fellow vinyl aficionados who work with the format on a regular basis: Jenn D’Eugenio (Chief of Sales at Furnace Recording Pressing & Founder of Women in Vinyl), archivist Amanda McCabe (Universal Music Group), and mastering engineers Amy Dragon (Telegraph Mastering) & Margaret Luthar (Welcome to 1979).
The introduction of electronic microphones and amplifiers gave the 1930s its "Electric Era" nickname and transformed the sound of recordings made at the time. Suddenly, a much broader range of frequencies are collected, control over balance and sound amplification are all possible. Cut direct-to-disc, 1930s recordings exponentially increased the amount of information written into the grooves for the first but not the last time in history. Today, the hallmarks of 78 RPM recordings are easily identified as pops, clicks, and a fair amount of ambient noise. Compared to previous recordings, there is also a dramatic increase in intimacy that was previously impossible to capture.
Some will say it is cliche, but in my opinion, the recording sessions of Robert Johnson made in 1936-7 embody the sound of this era perfectly. Pops and clicks pepper playback while the day's newest electric innovations allow the emotional subtleties to grab the listener. Johnson's guitar playing set a new standard that continues to fascinate and beguile listeners today. The haunting but intimate sound of “Crossroads Blues” is so iconic it would be impossible to imagine music today without its influence.
The 1950s was a pivotal decade for the vinyl record, with every unfolding event setting a precedent that would determine the sound of vinyl for decades to come. Prior to the ’50s, records were made with shellac—a brittle, fragile material with a higher noise floor. This decade marked a major shift to synthetic PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic which is still used to this day, hence, the word “vinyl” becoming its iconic moniker. Though sonically superior over shellac, it’s not without its disadvantages. Vinyl records may be stronger and more durable, but their soft pliable material also makes them more prone to scratches and warping. Vinyl also attracts dust due to its static charge. These idiosyncrasies remain a characteristic sound of the format to this day, though it’s particularly prominent in music from this era.
The 1950s also marked the US standardization of the RIAA equalization curve which, as we've mentioned in a previous article, allows for more music to fit on a disc. This, along with the battle of the vinyl speeds (from 78 RPM to 33 ⅓ or 45 RPM) marked the advent of the 12” LP (long play vinyl records). And although the first stereophonic records were commercially released in 1957, the majority of vinyl records sold in this decade would still be mono.
The continued prominence of the vinyl format during this decade happened alongside the growing jazz renaissance, with Blue Note Records leading the movement. This decade marked the launch of many iconic records such as John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Miles Davis Volume 1 and 2, and Horace Silver’s Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers below.
“The Sound of the Sixties”—so much could be said about the music from this decade, and the relationship music had with political upheaval and generational discontent. Recording technology vastly improved during the 50s and artists were able to make the most of these advances (multitrack recording, “pop” production, better vinyl pressing technologies, etc). On the consumer end of things, it was becoming more common for anyone to have a playback system - and stereo recording techniques were changing the “space” that artists put their music in.
One of my favorite reference tracks, when I’m working in a new room, is from Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” from the album of the same name. The dramatic panning of the guitars/strings/woodwinds/aux percussion is a good way for me to judge the stereo field of a space. While a classical recording would aim for a more “realistic” interpretation of the acoustic instruments, in this instance the instruments are closer in the stereo field to the listener.
As recording technology improved, so did the need to pay more attention to the high-frequency content, as in what could be cut without damage to the cutting head as well as what could be played back. And sometimes, this required creative solutions!
“…Bell Sound Mastering Engineer, Sam Feldman once told me (1983) that to solve a troublesome "S" on tape, he'd scribble china marker on it as a way to reduce the intensity of the "S," a manual form of HF "automation.”…He also told me that when cutting mono singles[….] Sam knew that he was driving the head as hot as possible if some damping fluid spat out, so he'd drop the level a dB or so until he could cut without spitting.”
- Eddie Ciletti, studio tech extraordinaire, on the 1960’s disc recording perspective
Choosing a track to represent the sound of the 1970s, which is famously known for having a bit of an identity crisis, proved to be a most formidable challenge. With iconic artists like Marvin Gaye, The Ramones, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Donna Summer, Grandmaster Flash, Floyd, Zeppelin, Bowie, ABBA, Patti Smith, The Clash, Boston, Springsteen, Sabbath, Joni Mitchell, The Stones, and of course, the virtually unrivaled success of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, there were a ton of great albums coming out of this decade.
Not only was the music great, but the divergent sound of the 70s was also influenced by new music tech innovations like 24-track recording, vocoders, digital delays, Roland CR-78 drum machine, harmonizers, and portable synthesizers all of which resulted in a vibrant and diverse sonic landscape.
Vinyl was format supreme and enjoyed its swan song decade before eventually being displaced by more portable formats. There is so much stiff competition that it’s difficult to point to one album, but for me, the sound of the ’70s will always be Stevie Wonder. Songs in the Key of Life got a ton of play in my house growing up. Aside from the sentimental appreciation of my youth, Stevie Wonder was a prolific producer of chart-topping singles and full-length albums with the global success that influenced not only the 1970’s sonic profile but generations of artists to come.
The vinyl record’s reign as the dominant force for music consumption began its sudden decline in the 1980s when more portable formats took the spotlight. Cassettes quickly grew in popularity thanks to the historic debut of the iconic Sony Walkman. But it was in 1988 when the fate of vinyl was sealed as the compact discs (CDs) surpassed its annual sales for the first time, with its gradual decline following soon after.
Music consumers in the 80s favored CDs over vinyl for several reasons. The lack of surface noise on CDs enticed listeners with a clearer sound. CDs being digital also rids itself of the physical limitations of the vinyl format (no sibilance distortion, fidelity loss in the inner diameter of the disc, needle skips, to name a few). This decade marked the turning point for mainstream digital music consumption as opposed to the analog formats of the latter years.
As portable formats began to take over, the sound and innovation behind the vinyl format was at its peak with veteran mastering engineers such as Bob Ludwig (Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the USA), Bernie Grundman (Michael Jackson’s Bad) and Doug Sax (Toto’s Toto IV) paving the way for audiophile LP releases in the mainstream music scene. 80s innovations such as the Compudisk also allowed for more music to fit on a vinyl record without sacrificing dynamic range (the Compudisk system remains an indispensable vinyl-cutting tool to this day).
Released in 1985, “Sugarfree” by brother/sister duo Juicy (Chic producer/bassist Jerry Barnes and the late two-time Emmy winner Katreese Barnes) very much reflects the iconic Synth Funk sound that ruled the airwaves during this decade. The song has been expertly cut into the vinyl format by veteran mastering engineer Bernie Grundman, as you can hear from the audio clip of “Sugarfree” below.
In the 90s, vinyl had all but disappeared from the musical landscape, with CDs becoming the format of choice for most. While the music coming out at the time was well recorded, it had a raw and more experimental edge to both the music itself and the methods of recording it. As we transition into the 2000s we begin to see a glossier sound emerge with the use of tools like autotune, voice manipulation, and overall audio filtering. Moving further into the 2010s through to the present day, things have evened out and those choices feel more genre-based and stylistic. Yet one thing that hasn't changed is the desire for the clarity that came from how we heard music in the late 80s and 90s when the CD was king.
While record manufacturing technology hasn't changed much in decades, the technology in which people listen to their vinyl at home has. From an inexpensive Crosley, to a pricier VPI, music on vinyl can sound different on different setups, but universally everyone wants their new records to sound good. The nostalgic crackles and pops from records of other decades could be viewed as pressing flaws vs the medium itself; and the quieter the vinyl, the better.
These days, most vinyl records aren’t cut from analog sources, but from digital files. Pressing these files onto vinyl allows some of that analog warmth to be reintroduced to the music. The vinyl format can enhance and bring a new level of depth to the audio. The recording I've selected of “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star showcases that raw 90s sound. Light and airy, these remastered audio files pressed onto vinyl in 2017, showcase how vinyl allows for more warmth and an additional depth of sound.
Looking back through the decades, there’s no denying the fact that the vinyl format is here to stay. It certainly has its idiosyncrasies—the varying types of surface noise and lack of portability all leading to its momentary demise in the 90s. But it’s these same characteristics that make the format so beloved to this day, especially with the current dominance of music streaming platforms. With great ease in music discovery comes an even greater desire to own your favorite music.
What better way to own music than by collecting vinyl records? It’s the best marriage of sonic, visual, and tactile experiences. Not only does the forced ritual of setting down your record on the turntable entice you to listen to music through loudspeakers, but you’re also allowing yourself to give music the full attention it deserves. And if there’s anything technology and music production trends have proven over the years, there is an inherent beauty in the sound of vinyl and its surface noise.