Picture discs are to record collecting what a certain yeast extract-based spread is to sandwich-making.
Some people love them, and some people avoid them like they would an insistent and persistent charity collector in a pedestrianised precinct on a summer Saturday afternoon.
But vinyl’s aesthetic appeal has always been an important part of its popularity, so picture discs merely take this logic one step further.
Can you play picture discs?
Yes, most definitely!
Should you play picture discs? Yes, if you want to! (Even though many audiophiles will be breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of it!)
Having said that, some people buy them just to hang them on the wall, as a piece of art.
And in the 1980s, at the back of magazines you could find adverts for companies offering picture disc clocks. These were just picture discs fitted with a clock mechanism, which you then hung on your wall.
People are perfectly within their rights to do either of those things, but I’ve never personally seen the appeal. Why not just get a normal picture or a standard clock?!
Other music fans are happy to buy them and store them with the rest of their collection, but never, or only infrequently, play them. Especially in these days of digital music, it’s usually possible to find the music on other formats. (Which is handy, when you come to consider the sound quality of some picture discs. More further below.)
How picture discs are made
Even though plenty of types of coloured vinyl records are available these days, including lots of stunning vinyl effects (splattered, marbled and all the rest), picture discs aren’t some very precisely mixed type of vinyl record.
In fact, strictly speaking, they’re not vinyl records at all – at least, not in their entirety.
The pictures for each side are printed onto paper and pressed onto a plain vinyl disc. Each side is then covered by a layer of transparent polyethylene film, into which the record’s grooves are pressed.
Picture discs are therefore a sandwich construction, which is why they are thicker and heavier than conventional records.
The plain vinyl disc is usually black, although other colours are possible. However, the colour is only visible around the edges (run-in), or if you peer closely at what’s happening on the inside of the centre hole.
And because the grooves are pressed into a thin layer of plastic film, rather than an actual vinyl record, picture discs are not as durable as black or coloured vinyl records.
The PVC sleeves that picture discs are usually supplied in aren’t as big or thick as the PVC protective sleeves that slip over record sleeves. As a result, they split really easily in transit. If you order a picture disc online, you can pretty much guarantee the PVC sleeve will have split on at least one edge by the time it arrives in the post. It’s not always the shop or dealer’s fault for not packing the record properly – they’re often split by the time record shops receive them.
(And be aware that PVC sleeves are not without their problems – see Caring for vinyl records.)
What do picture discs sound like? OK, bad or terrible?
Is it true that picture discs don’t have the best sound quality?
Broadly speaking, yes, but not automatically.
Do picture discs sound worse than black vinyl or coloured vinyl?
Again, not automatically, as there are picture discs containing music that has been professionally recorded, mixed and expertly mastered for vinyl, before being manufactured as a top quality picture disc by seasoned experts using the best possible equipment.
There is also music which sounds as if it’s been recorded down a mineshaft using the audio equivalent of a pinhole camera, with flat, lifeless production barely affected by inexpert mastering, and then transferred to flimsy, poor quality recycled vinyl at the cheapest pressing plant the record company could find.
But that being said:
You will hear more background noise during playback. When you lower the stylus into the run-in groove of a picture disc, it just sounds different.
And because the layer of film into which the grooves are pressed isn’t as durable as a vinyl record, picture discs’ sound quality also degrades quicker than that of a conventional record. In other words, picture discs wear out more quickly than conventional records.
Don’t panic: I don’t mean you can only listen to them three times, or anything like that. Just be aware that there is a tradeoff between picture discs’ visual appeal and the listening experience they offer.
Shaped picture discs
We’ve looked at the common, or garden, picture disc, but there is an even more striking variant – the shaped picture disc.
Instead of being round, the vinyl is cut to a special shape. That could be a square or triangle, but is often a custom shape to fit the picture used for the design and/or to represent the title in some way. For instance, a record whose title has something to do with trees could be made a tree shape.
Huh? How can you play a record that’s a shape other than round?! After all, the grooves are just a long circle going from the edge towards the centre!
Shaped picture discs typically have the playing area of a 7″ single, with the biggest parts of the overall shape being no larger than a 12″ record. It’s also possible for one to have the playing area of a 10″ record, provided the difference between the size of the playing area and the edge of the record is small enough. And a 12″ square record would also be possible.
Where are the pictures of shaped picture discs?!
At this point, I’d normally be browsing through my collection looking for suitable shaped picture discs to photograph and use in this article. Except there’s a problem: despite having loads of records and plenty of picture discs, I don’t actually have any! Why’s that? Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was young and carefree enough to be buying records week in, week out, the titles released as shaped picture discs usually seemed to be rock or metal records. These are genres which are severely underrepresented in my collection… due to me not liking them. So no guitar-shaped picture discs have ever entered my home!
Not all shaped records are picture discs: it’s also possible to make shaped records in black or coloured vinyl.
Autographed picture discs
An interesting and potentially collectable variant is the autographed picture disc. By this, I don’t just mean that the artist has signed the PVC sleeve the record comes in. (Although of course, that is also possible, and then the sleeve splits in the post. Grrr!)
It’s possible for the artist to sign, number, or otherwise personalise each of the printed pieces of paper that are then used used to make the picture disc. The signature or autograph is therefore beneath the playing surface, and every copy is unique! (This is more practical in editions of hundreds, rather than thousands!)
Picture discs – summary
If you’ve got this far, you will hopefully know a bit more about picture discs than you did a couple of minutes ago: how they’re made, why they don’t – and can’t ever – sound as good as conventional vinyl, and also a bit about a couple of interesting variants.
So while these often really aesthetically appealing records have hardcore audiophiles running for the hills, don’t let their audio deficits put you off too much. If that picture disc you crave looks simply too inviting to resist, buy it! You don’t have to actually listen to it!
All photos © musicstuff.info