Flexidiscs? What are they? If you were too young to remember them first time around, or haven’t yet encountered them now they’re enjoying a mini-renaissance, read on to learn about these economical but lo-fi alternatives to conventional solid vinyl records.
What is a flexidisc?
Flexidiscs, also spelled flexi discs and also known as soundsheets or simply just flexis, are just what the name suggests – flexible discs. Think vinyl record, but with the grooves stamped into a flexible piece of plastic, rather than rigid vinyl.
Why on earth would anyone want to do that?
Flexidiscs represent a more economical alternative to pressing conventional vinyl, and so back in vinyl’s original heyday, were therefore often used for promotional or advertising purposes.
Where could you find flexidiscs?
In decades gone by, flexidiscs could often be found inserted into magazines, or mounted onto magazine covers – especially music magazines or music instruction magazines. Because of their comparatively low production cost, they were also often included with fanzines – the DIY, photocopied and stapled magazines covering indie music. They were also sometimes inserted as a bonus disc in limited first editions of conventional vinyl records.
But as they can also include spoken word material, they often appeared in other types of magazines or books too – anywhere accompanying sound was needed.
In fact, not just sound! Computer magazines sometimes also occasionally included flexidiscs of computer code, instead of printing it all. This saved readers the hassle of painstakingly (and accurately) typing the code out themselves. They just needed to connect a record player to their computer and play the flexidisc. Hmm… I’m not sure how much time that would have saved them!
Sometimes, the inclusion of a flexidisc was announced, as this was a selling point: ‘With free flexidisc including exclusive new track from artist XYZ!’
But they could also just be inserted unannounced into magazines.
Flexidiscs could also be bound into magazines. No, this didn’t inherently damage the delicate sound carrier! These flexis were rectangular: the main part was square (with circular grooves, obviously!), but they also featured an additional perforated folded strip along one edge, with the fold being stapled along with the rest of the magazine. And as the fold was perforated, you could easily tear off the square flexidisc to play it.
Bands also sometimes issued flexidiscs to members of their fan clubs, with the Beatles being an example most people will have heard of.
But some flexidiscs were produced by bands and sold via mail order (this was in the days of stamped, addressed envelopes and cheques in the post!)
Lower perceived value
Flexidiscs were never intended to equal conventional vinyl, either in the sound quality they offered or their perceived value in the eyes of the recipient.
In fact, although the inclusion of a flexidisc inside a magazine was often a selling point, some magazines also occasionally featured cover-mounted conventional 7″ singles (usually as a sweetener whenever they increased the cover price!). In these cases, they made sure to mention that the issue contained a ‘free solid vinyl EP’ or similar.
Can you find flexidiscs today?
In the 1990s, due to the increasing popularity of the CD medium, and their decreasing cost, cover-mounted CDs became ubiquitous. And as the internet became established in people’s homes, even cover-mounted CDs were no longer necessary. Magazines could just print a link (nowadays, a QR code) so that readers could hear the music online. As a result, flexidiscs were no longer needed, and by the end of the 1990s, were obsolete.
But, like their solid vinyl siblings and cousin the cassette have done, they started to appear again in the 2010s, meaning these flexible, lo-fi sound carriers could be discovered by a new generation of vinyl lovers. (And writing this article has prompted me to dig out and listen to some of mine!)
How are flexidiscs made?
Flexidiscs are made in a process similar to that for making vinyl records, except instead of being pressed onto biscuits of molten vinyl (actually PVC), which are then cooled to form conventional records, the grooves are stamped onto flexible sheets of polyethylene.
As a result of this, flexidiscs’ sound quality is lower than that of traditional vinyl, and their lifespan is accordingly shorter. Every audiophile’s worst nightmare! For anyone digitising their record collection, flexidiscs are therefore prime candidates.
Unlike conventional records, which generally have a paper label on each side, the label design on a flexidisc is printed straight onto the disc, using the hot foil process.
Label designs therefore have to be fairly simple: text and band/label/magazine logos are OK, but no photos or any kind of illustrations containing fine detail. Expansive areas of solid print, for instance reversing the text out of a coloured background, are also not advisable, as these lead to problems with drying and warping.
Traditionally, flexidisc label designs were always a one-colour print job. After all, the whole point of a flexidisc is that it was a cheap, relatively low quality, disposable item.
But times change, and technology changes. It is now possible to print full-colour label designs onto flexidiscs.
In fact, that’s not all…
Flexidisc FAQ: shapes, sizes, colours and special variants
Whereas most flexidiscs were once round, black and flexible, today a multitude of possible variants are possible.
What shape are flexidiscs?
Usually round, but as mentioned further up in the article, square flexidiscs were produced, so they could easily be stapled into magazine binding.
And see also the section on postcard flexidiscs further down in this article.
What sizes are flexidiscs?
Flexidiscs were and are usually 7″, but they could sometimes be other sizes, such as 8″ or even 5″. The greater the size, the more music can fit on. But don’t expect to find any 10″ or 12″ flexidiscs, as they wouldn’t be very practical!
What colour are flexidiscs?
Flexidiscs were nearly always black – either opaque black, or sometimes a slightly translucent brown/black. After all, the idea of producing a flexidisc rather than a solid vinyl record was to save money.
But over the last 10 years or so, the ‘new breed’ of flexis is becoming just as varied as standard records are. Not only are they now offered in a range of striking colours (red, yellow, blue etc), but it is now also possible to produce picture disc flexis! These feature audio on one side, with one or both sides of the disc being printed with colour designs.
What speed do flexidiscs play at?
Flexidiscs play at either 45 or 33 rpm – just like conventional records.
How much music can fit on a flexidisc?
How much music fits on a flexidisc depends on the size and speed of the disc, the precise nature of the music and the manufacturer producing it. Why does the playing time depend on the nature of the music? Just as is the case with conventional records, louder music takes up more space.
As a rough guide: around 3–4 minutes of music can fit onto one side of a 7″, 45 rpm flexi, and up to 5–6 minutes on one side of a 33 rpm 7″ flexi.
How many sides of a flexidisc are playable?
Most flexidiscs were one-sided, featuring one (45 rpm) or two (33 rpm) songs on one side of an extremely flexible piece of polyethylene.
But two-sided flexis were and are possible. These are produced on slightly thicker, less flexible material.
How do you play flexidiscs?
“Can you play a flexidiscs on a record player?”, you’re perhaps wondering. Yes, of course. That’s what they’re intended for. The procedure is just the same as playing a conventional vinyl record.
Except: not quite…
Because flexidiscs are so light – and flexible – their low mass means they don’t always spin in perfect time with the platter – they stick. In other words: playback problems. But this is a problem that is easily solved – simply place a coin somewhere on the label area, to weigh the flexidisc down.
There’s also another type of flexidisc – postcard flexidiscs.
As the name implies, these are made from a piece of cardboard! This can be rectangular, representing an oversized (7″ x 8″) postcard, or a square. It is also now possible to manufacture shaped postcard flexis!
(I’d loved to have shown a picture or two of some postcard flexis here, but unfortunately, I don’t have any in my collection.)
How are postcard flexidiscs made?
The design is printed onto a piece of cardboard, either in one colour, or in full colour using the standard four-colour printing process.
A layer of varnish is then applied, and the record‘s grooves are then stamped into that!
Postcard flexis – sound quality
The layer of varnish into which the grooves are stamped is obviously much thinner than a traditional polyethylene flexidisc is, let alone a conventional vinyl record. The sound quality and useful life of a postcard flexidisc are therefore not even comparable to normal plastic flexidiscs.
So making a record out of a piece of cardboard results in something which sounds terrible?
Yes, there are no two ways about it. Especially if the music it contains is fairly quiet. Louder music may help mask some of the background noise. Possibly!
Polish postcard flexidiscs (‘sound postcards’)
For those of us of a certain age, the term postcard flexidiscs is virtually synonymous with Polish postcard flexidiscs, also known as pocztówka dźwiękowa – sound postcards.
Music lovers scouring the small ads at the back of music magazines in the 1980s would occasionally see Polish postcard flexidiscs offered for sale.
This was back in the days before home internet, so it was only years later that I found out these were illicit copies of recordings by western artists, whose music was otherwise banned in Poland at that time. That’s about the only thing I knew about them, apart from that they also sounded terrible.
But as a result of researching for this article, it turns out the situation is more nuanced. It seems that the government-approved record companies released Polish music in this format, but under the economic and social system in place at the time, some small private enterprise was tolerated. And some smaller companies were able to obtain the necessary machinery, and press illicit copies of western music smuggled into the country or recorded off foreign radio.
This fantastic, informative video shows you much more than I could ever write about them, as well as giving you a chance to actually hear some Polish postcard flexidiscs in action. Yes, they do sound very lo-fi!
A very unusual and inventive type of flexidisc emerged in Soviet Russia. Illegal copies of western music, which was censored, were produced on X-ray prints that were no longer needed. These were colloquially known as bones or ribs. Imagine going to all that trouble just to hear Elton John!
Since flexidiscs reappeared in the 2010s, it’s no wonder that metal bands have released modern-day picture disc flexis featuring bone designs, intended to resemble these Soviet-era curiosities.
Flexidiscs – summary
I hope you found this collection of flexidisc facts and trivia informative. Perhaps it’s even inspired you to start a flexidisc collection of your own?! Just remember to keep a coin at the ready!
All photos © musicstuff.info. Video Technomoan via YouTube.