Category Archives: Technology

Phonograph – HiFi – Stereo

Philharmonic 45 phonograph
Philharmonic 45 phonograph

The late 50s were a turning point in the phonograph industry. Technology had grown to the point where home stereos were possible, although at first it was in the form of large console units. Amplifiers were still tube driven, and speakers were still primitive.

45 records needed an insert or adaptor to fit on most phono players
45 records needed an insert or adaptor to fit on most phono players

The 12 inch 78’s (78 rpm) records ruled for almost 60 years, but by the 60s there were very few being made. The new vinyl 33s and 45s had taken over and were a big improvement in sound quality and durability.

A big part of the improvement came from the quality of the vinyl. Older 78’s were brittle, highly breakable and scratch prone (they were made from a substance similar to furniture shellac). Vinyl was flexible and held a thinner “groove”, the part that held the recording. Where the older 10 inch 78s were good for about 3 minutes, the newer 45’s were only 7 inches and could hold up to 5 minutes. The 12 inch LPs (Long Play) could hold up to 30 minutes per side.
The thinner groove was called a “micro groove” and drove sales of equipment that was capable of playing the new format. The higher quality sound was marketed as “high fidelity”, or “hi-fi”. By the late 50s, technology advanced to stereo recording, with two channels (left and right) recorded on a single track. For a short while, records were released in both stereo and monaural versions, but the new stereo format soon became the standard.

A 78 rpm record
A 78 rpm record

In the early 50s, records were played on a phonograph or record player. By the mid 50’s, it was a Hi-Fi, and starting in the late 50s, records were played on the stereo.
Historians note an interesting theory about the contribution of 45s to the growth of Rock. As radio stations replaced their libraries of 78s with the better sounding 45s, they had an opportunity to “clean house”, and many stations chose to “go with the new”.

8 Track Tapes

Case with 8 track tapes
8 track case

One of the coolest features on the ’66 Mustang was a player for 8 track tapes. It was also available on the Thunderbird and Lincoln models, but the Mustang was still the height of cool and the 8 track was as cool as it got.  from the Auto Parts store. By ’67, 8 tracks were available on all Fords, home units and 8 track boom boxes were available, and you could buy 8 track tapes from most of the record companies at your local record store.

8 Track Tapes Design

8 track tapes are an unusual design. Also known as Stereo 8, eight-track cartridge, eight-track tape, or simply eight-track, instead of being reel to reel like most other tapes, 8 tracks had only 1 reel. Tape was pulled out of the center of the reel to play and wrapped back on the outside afterward. A piece of foil was spliced onto the end of the tape and, as the tape was playing, when the foil passed by, the play heads shifter to the next tracks. There was a “clunk” or “carunk” sound and the music kept on playing. Since it was 8 tracks, and 2 at a time were needed for stereo, the tape heads could move 4 times before they were back at the beginning. At 11 minutes a run through, that gave you 44 minutes total play time. Sometimes the track switch fell between songs, but often songs had to be broken in two or padded with extra filler to help the track switch gap fall in the right place.

Inside of an 8 track cartridge
Inside of an 8 track cartridge

The splice was the weak point on 8 track tapes. It held up for a while, but the heat of storing the cartridges in a car would dry up the lubricant and make the splice slip. They were repairable, but it took a lot of work if too much tape was unspooled. It wasn’t unusual to see broken 8 track cartridges with tangles of tape on the side of the road.
Add another factor of cool, the 8 track players were initially sold as the Lear Jet Stereo 8 and were invented and designed by the company that made Lear Jets. Rights to the technology was eventually sold to other manufacturers. An enhanced version, Quadraphonic 8 track was released in 1970. It sounded great with 4 separate audio tracks, but it was very expensive and used by very few car companies.

8 track usage faded out slowly through the 70s giving way to the cassette. Cassettes were smaller, easier to store than 8 track tapes and took advantage of newer tape technology to produce a higher quality sound. Cassettes were in turn replaced by CDs in the mid 80s. Ughhh, writing this article makes me realize how many times I’ve spent $ on the same music.

Television – the Boob Tube

1960 Philco TV Ad
1960 Philco TV Ad

The Golden Age of Rock, coincidentally, approximates the Golden Age of Television. Both grew out of the postwar boom, Rock grew with the baby boomers and TV grew from wartime electronics technology.

By the 1960s, most homes had a TV set that operated from a rooftop antenna or rabbit ears. Electronics were tube operated, and even though the sets were big, the picture tubes were small. My kids don’t believe any of this, but in the early 60s, color sets (and color programming) were rare, the remote control hadn’t been invented yet, cable and VCRs were still many years away. To top it off, there were only 13 channels on the dial and TV owners considered themselves lucky if they received at least 3 networks with no more than a bit of snow (visual static).

Even so, we fell in love with our TVs and affectionately called them “Boob Tubes”. For the first time, a viewer could take in some of the top music acts without leaving their living rooms. Ed Sullivan brought us the blockbusters, including our first looks at Elvis and the Beatles. American Bandstand brought us a different act with every show, and variety shows such as The Smothers Brothers, Andy Williams, Hootenany, and Hullabaloo mixed music in with comedy.

Surprisingly, one of the earliest musical variety shows was Nat King Cole. His show, broadcast in the late 50s was the first time that a black man hosted a nationally televised show in the US. This was at the same time that Alan Freed was playing Rhythm and Blues music and calling it Rock and Roll to make it more acceptable to whites. Nat King Cole was a trail blazer for the mainstream acceptance of Rock music.

Transistor Radios

One model of the early Regency TR4 transistor radios
The Regency TR4 transistor radio

Transistor radios had been around for a while but it was Sony, a small startup company, and other far-east imports that brought the price down and made “the transistor” a standard part of the baby boomer’s accessories. It weighed a half of a pound, could fit in a pocket, and ran all day on one or two small batteries (the 9 volt was invented to be the same shape as the case). Best of all, they were portable and had tiny earphones, so Rock music could be played without parents listening in.

At the height of their popularity, Sony’s transistor radios went for around $25. That’s the inflation adjusted equivalent of about $200 today, so they weren’t really cheap. By the mid 60s, Hong Kong manufacturers had the price down to about $15. That was still the equivalent of $120 today, so transistor radios became prized posessions.

Along with the portable transistor, car radios took a big step when they moved from vacuum tubes to transistors. Once the tubes were gone, radios came on quickly, and the drain on the battery was a lot less (if you went “parking” with a vacuum tube radio, your battery went dead quickly!).

As compact as they were, early transistor radios were AM only and stereo was a long way in the future. The tuning was a bit fussy, twisting or moving the radio changed the volume and tone, and the analog tuners had trouble holding a station. FM radio broadcasting with its higher frequency response was still a few years off.

When I originally wrote this article, I said that Intel is able to pack over a million transistors into a single chip.  The current count is now over half a billion and still growing. It’s amazing that these early transistor radios did their work with only 4 or 6 transistors.

The Electric Guitar

Fender Stratocaster
Fender Stratocaster

There is nothing more closely associated with Rock and Roll than the electric guitar. It grew up with Rock, and has been onstage throughout The Golden Age of Rock.

Like Rock music, the history of the electric guitar starts early. In the 1930s, jazz musician Charlie Christian was using an amplified guitar for solos, and in the early 1940s, Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker recorded with one, but it wasn’t until Leo Fender introduced the first mass produced model in 1950 with the introduction of the Broadcaster (soon renamed the Telecaster), that the electric guitar became popular.

The Telecaster is still in production today, and is favored by many artist for it’s bright, cutting tone. Fender followed it up in 1954 with the Stratocaster, a 3 pickup model (the Telecaster had 2) that included a cutaway for easier reach to the upper registers, and a revolutionary vibrato or “tremolo” unit that would allow players to bend strings as they played by wiggling the tremolo arm, or “whammy bar”. Along with the Telecaster and Stratocaster, Fender introduced the Precion Bass, or P-Bass, remains one of the most popular basses in music today.

Fender wasn’t the only electric guitar innovator. The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company had been making electric instruments for many years, and their their “Electric Spanish” model, the ES-150, was generally recognized as the first commercially successful electric guitar as early as 1936. It wasn’t until 1952 though, when Gibson launched a solid-bodied guitar designed in collaboration with Les Paul that they gained fame.

Les Paul popularized the electric guitar in the early 1950s with a series of recordings with his wife Mary Ford using several new types of technologic innovations. His invention of multitrack recording, mixing seperate recordings together was made possible by the of introduction of reel-to-reel audio tape recording. Paul would record a track, then record himself playing another part with the first. This multitrack method has become the standard for how modern recordings are made.

Another hero in the history of the electric guitar is Chuck Berry, who established a style of playing in the late 1950s that remains a great influence on rock music. His style today is the basis for stage performances of many groups, and was featured in a famous segment by Michael J Fox in the movie “Back To The Future”.

The importance of the electric guitar to Rock music is demonstrated by the sculptures outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The importance of the electric guitar to Rock music is demonstrated by the sculptures outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The importance of the electric guitar to Rock music is demonstrated by the sculptures outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The late 1960s a new generation of rock guitarists arose, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana. Perhaps influenced by the psychedelic style of the time, they experimented with twisting the sound through amplification, feedback (electronic sound distortion), and add-on electronic devices, extending the musical potential of the instrument.
All of this led to a major change in the composition of a band. Where before the introduction of the electric guitar, a pop band was almost a “mini-big-band”, with horns (usually a sax), double standup bass, and a piano or organ, with the strong sounds of the electric guitar, the 4 man band became popular, with an electric bass, rhythm guitar, drums and a lead. Each of the instruments were strong enough to carry their own part, and versatile enough for each band to create their own style.