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Many Shades Of Play: Records Made From More Than Just Vinyl

Glass, ice, and even chocolate? Check out some of the craziest materials used to make playable records.

As the world’s media migrates to the cloud, those not comforted by the cold touch of life behind a computer screen are turning to the warm sound of vinyl records. Once the preferred material for music distribution, vinyl saw its market stronghold disappear when the ‘80s and compact discs hit the scene. Then, the MP3 put 40,000 years of music at the other end of a mouse click, and vinyl records seemed primed to become nothing more than an Antiques Roadshow commodity.

Despite all odds, the opposite has become true. In a span of five years, or from 2007 to 2012, vinyl record sales more than tripled. In 2007, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) logged sales at $53 million, while just five years later, in 2012, they totaled an impressive $171 million worldwide. That’s infinitesimal compared to 2012’s $16.5 billion profits for the music industry as a whole. But records posted an increase of almost an additional million units sold in 2012 compared to 2011. That’s worth celebrating.

But records aren't immune to technological innovation and have a few tricks up their sleeves as well. Using new technologies, we've seen records ditch the old vinyl trick and start using everything from glass to chocolate to deliver us tunes. Here's a few of the most innovative ones we've seen.

A LOOK TO THE PAST: GLASS

Photo Credit: Rich Strauss, Smithsonian

As futuristic as glass records may seem, they were recorded sounds first safehouse. Above, a National Museum of American History curator has her hands on a glass record used by Alexander Bell to capture a man saying “Mary had a little lamb.” That recording was made over 100 years ago.   

Here’s the same disc in greater clarity.

As the saying goes, history tends to repeat itself, and that seems to be happening as music-makers try their hand at various materials to substitute the fidelity and dexterity of vinyl. Glass records are still used today but serve as a reminder of a time before the concept of what constituted a record was set in stone.

CHOCOLATE

Since 1905, the world has fabricated edible records, but that doesn’t make DJ/producer Breakbot’s limited-edition chocolate pressing of his album By Your Side any less remarkable (or mouthwatering). For one, it’s playable. And it also happens to be a full-length album―making the process of chocolate storage even more impressive.

It was released by Ed Banger Records, and fabricated by the Gelencser chocolate factory. Check out the record itself below and see how it was made in this video.

GOLD & PLATINUM

Even Jay Z's taking note of the humble record's rise back into favor -- just take a look at the opulent  Third Man Records just put out for the Great Gatsby soundtrack. Sure, it's still set on a vinyl base but it's metallized (read: shiny!). According to Third Man, these are the first-ever commercially available records made using these precious metals. Now let's just hope you've got a spare $250 lying around.

ICE

With a single that speaks of fading love, Swedish indie band Shout Out Louds thought that it would be appropriate to release it as a record made of ice. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s called “Blue Ice.”

Using the services of TBWA ad agency, the industrious band designed a mold in which customers could freeze a 7-inch single. Since tap water produced air bubbles in its frozen state, Shout Out Louds discovered that distilled water would provide the surface needed to keep the record from knocking a needle out of groove. A bottle of distilled water is available with the ten limited-edition kits of the single that exist.

WOOD, ACRYLIC & PAPER

This doesn’t mark the first time Amanda Ghassaei, technology editor at Instructables, has tried her hand at reinventing the traditional record. She first gave physical life to her MP3s by converting them into 3D-printable, 33rpm records (which we cover later in this piece). Since she felt that the project had too high a barrier of entry for those of us who are less technicapable, Ghassaei extended the idea of digitally fabricated records to a more user-friendly project.

Complete with laser cutter instructions, vector graphics, and promo video, Ghassaei teaches the curious how to replicate the process of making playable records out of wood, acrylic, and paper.

Unlabeled song on paper record.

Though Ghassaei has only experimented with the three materials shown, she believes it’s more than possible that the process could be tried on others. So get to it!

A LOOK TO THE FUTURE: 3D PRINTED

Using a UV-cured resin printer, the Objet Connex500, Amanda Ghassaei, who also gave us the laser-cut wooden records above, printed out 3D models of audio files in the form of records. If that sounds brain-freezingly complex it’s because it is, as Ghassaei explains below:

“The 3D modeling in this project was far too complex for traditional drafting-style CAD techniques, so I wrote [a] program to do this conversion automatically. It works by importing raw audio data, performing some calculations to generate the geometry of a record, and eventually exporting this geometry straight to a 3D-printable file format. Most of the heavy lifting is done by processing, an open source programming environment that's often used for 2D and 3D graphics and modeling applications. “

Those still in the dark can check out a more easily digestible example of the process below, as Amanda hooks up with Wired to reveal the intricacies of her workflow.

You don’t need to be an audiophile to recognize that the audio quality of the 3D-printed records is fairly low (Ghassaei puts it at “a quarter of typical mp3 audio”). But it’s an interesting experiment that taps into the need for tactile ownership that is partly behind vinyl records’ recent surge in sales. And even at low quality, the songs possess a strange fidelity that make them enticingly haunting, and perhaps something that can evolve into a separate industry.

As vinyl’s meteoric popularity continues, so will the experiments to build upon its lasting legacy. Not content with what vinyl―as a material―provides, some have used unconventional means to reinvent the wheel (or, in this case, the flat disc). Though records have not always been made out of vinyl, and are not always made out of vinyl, their creation has often been pigeonholed by casual listeners. But as 3D-printable records convincingly announce, our idea of the many shades of play remains unfinished.