A gramophone record (phonograph record in American English) or vinyl record, commonly known as “a record”, is an analog sound storage medium in the form of a flat polyvinyl chloride (previously shellac) disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove. The groove usually starts near the periphery and ends near the center of the disc. Phonograph records are generally described by their diameter in inches (12″, 10″, 7″), the rotational speed in rpm at which they are played (331⁄3, 45, 78), and their time capacity resulting from a combination of those parameters (LP − long playing, SP − single, EP − 12″ single or extended play); their reproductive quality or “fidelity” (“high fidelity”, “orthophonic”, “full-range”, etc.), and the number of audio channels provided (“mono”, “stereo”, “quad”, etc.).
The Phonograph disc record was the primary medium used for music reproduction until late in the 20th century, replacing the phonograph cylinder record, with which it had co-existed, by the 1920s. By the late 1980s, digital media, in the form of the Compact Disc, had gained a larger market share, and the vinyl record left the mainstream in 1991. They continue to be manufactured and sold in the 21st century. In 2009, 3.5 million units shipped in the United States, including 3.2 million albums, the highest number since 1998, and the format retains a niche market. They are especially used by DJs and many audiophiles for numerous types of music.
Such 78 rpm records were usually sold separately, in brown paper or cardboard sleeves that were sometimes plain and sometimes printed to show the producer or the retailer’s name. Generally the sleeves had a circular cut-out allowing the record label to be seen. Records could be laid on a shelf horizontally or stood upright on an edge, but because of their fragility, many broke in storage.
German record company Odeon is often said to have pioneered the “album” in 1909 when it released the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky on 4 double-sided discs in a specially designed package. (It is not indicated what size the records are.) However, Deutsche Grammophon had produced an album for its complete recording of the opera Carmen in the previous year. The practice of issuing albums does not seem to have been widely taken up by other record companies for many years; however, HMV provided an album, with a pictorial cover, for the 1917 recording of The Mikado (Gilbert & Sullivan).
By about 1910 bound collections of empty sleeves with a paperboard or leather cover, similar to a photograph album, were sold as “record albums” that customers could use to store their records (the term “record album” was printed on some covers). These albums came in both 10-inch and 12-inch sizes. The covers of these bound books were wider and taller than the records inside, allowing the record album to be placed on a shelf upright, like a book, suspending the fragile records above the shelf and protecting them.
Starting in the 1930s, record companies began issuing collections of 78 rpm records by one performer or of one type of music in specially assembled albums, typically with artwork on the front cover and liner notes on the back or inside cover. Most albums included three or four records, with two sides each, making six or eight tunes per album. When the 12-inch vinyl LP era began in 1949, the single record often had the same or similar number of tunes as a typical album of 78s, and was still often referred to as an “album”.