Origin of the Record Player
None other than Thomas Edison, the most electric inventor in American history, invented the very first phonograph. This primitive listening device used the energy from a hand crank to power the turntable’s platter and create revolutions per minute. The average user could produce speeds up to 80 RPM. This proved fantastic for the purpose of sound quality potential, but the vinyl cylinders (not even disks!) could only store around five minutes worth of sound on a single side.
How Does a Vinyl Work?
Record players convert vibrations from the grooves on a vinyl into analog sound waves. Unlike the more common digital sound transmission that MP3s and streamable music rely on, analog transmitters omit a continuous signal that varies depending on the pressure of the needle on the grooves. The varying part of the signal, which most audiophiles call the “warmth” or “natural sound” of a vinyl record, is a representation of another time-varying quantity—how intact the grooves are.
The less you play the record, the better it sounds. Every time the record spins, your turntable is tasked with reading and decoding the continuous groove that starts at the edge of the disk and spirals inward in real-time. This process results in music pumping from a vinyl disk, to the speakers, to your ears.
Analog vs Digital
Despite what many vinyl enthusiasts proclaim, very few untrained ears can discern the difference between analog and digital sound, or the music produced by a record as opposed to the music produced by a CD or some other high-quality digital style. The largest differences in sound quality are attributed to the physical quality of the record player, amplifier, speaker, and sometimes the vinyl disk itself.
Unless there is an issue with the device itself—scratches, grease, dirt, deformities—there is little to no recognizable difference between analog and digital media. However, there is something to be said for the aesthetics of the listening device and the intense comfort and nostalgia a record player has that a computer or CD player could never replicate. Record Speeds
The science behind record sizes and speeds is fairly simple to understand. All records are measured and sorted by their RPM, which stands for revolutions per minute. This metric refers to how many times the platter, and therefore the record, will spin completely in one minute.
There are only three speeds in which a vinyl record can be produced:
- 33 1/3 RPM
- 45 RPM
- 78 RPM
Chances are, the records you’d like to listen to are full-size 12-inch records, spinning at 33 1/3 RPM, or 7-inch singles, spinning at 45 RPM. Often, EPs and maxi-singles are produced on 12-inch disks that also rotate at 45 RPM. Make sure you look for the revolution per minute designation on your record before dropping it on your turntable’s platter. If you don’t match your record player’s setting to the rotation needs of the disk, you could distort the record to the point where it would be impossible to play it again.
What has been discovered is that the slower a record turns, the worse the audio sounds. The vibrations produced are more spaced out, so the audio may sound choppy or disjointed. While a higher RPM is associated with higher quality, it in turn loses the amount of information it can store in the grooves on its surface. This means that increasing the revolutions per minute of a disk effectively shortens its playback time.
To recap, the faster a record spins, the higher its sound quality becomes. However, the quicker the record player reads the information stored on the disk, the less information can be stored. This is the paradox of the vinyl record’s set size. Most analog listeners agreed that they could sacrifice some sound quality for more music per disk, making the 45 RPM format the most widely used.
Vinyl record sizes differ based on how much music is stored on the surface of the disk. Records come in three standard sizes: 7-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch. At a certain point, records can become cramped with grooves and have to expand in size to accommodate the extra music play while maintaining the quality of the audio. The grooves are simply too narrow to fit all the detail of multiple sound recordings if this extra area is not accounted for.
The smallest record size is a standard 7-inch single. It was designed to be less expensive than its musical counterparts. However, due to its smaller size, it holds much less music than a full-length album. Many 7-inch singles that were converted to vinyl from albums designed for CDs feature exclusive cuts of songs that are normally extended to the five-minute playing time mark that a 7-inch disk typically allows for.
The most uncommon revolution per minute classification is 78 RPM, which is generally reserved for 10-inch records and most records pressed before the 1950s. You don’t necessarily have to worry about this rare speed unless you are an avid vinyl record collector or you’ve discovered a few boxes worth of disks in your grandparents’ attic that you’re dying to listen to.
The largest record size is a 12-inch album. Each side can generally store up to 22 minutes of music. Vinyl records have reached a limitation in competition with modern media. CDs generally store around 60 minutes of music, whereas an album made for vinyl is capped at around 45 minutes if it takes advantage of both sides of the disk.
DJs have found a way to use the seemingly crippling disadvantage of a disk’s limited size to their benefit. Now, many singles designed for DJ performance are not pressed into the standard 7-inch size disk. Instead, they are produced on 10 and 12-inch records. The extra room on the vinyl record dramatically improves the sound quality of the music and allows for personalized extended mixes, giving the DJ more freedom of creativity without sacrificing audio quality.
In the event that you fall in love with a vinyl marked at 78 RPM, make sure you have a record player that can accommodate that speed. Some players on the market, like the Victrola Bluetooth Portable Suitcase Record Player has a built in 3-speed turntable that can accommodate any standard size record, including your beloved 78 RPM. This player gives its listener the ultimate freedom to play whatever they want, whenever they want to.
Modern albums are often affixed with another metric alongside the revolutions per minute: the weight of the vinyl record itself. New albums, especially from niche artists released through independent labels, have a superior physical quality and will play phenomenally even on an amateur turntable and stereo system.
180 Gram Vinyl
The most popular announcement is that an album has been pressed on “180 gram” vinyl. This is an excellent advancement in the history of record players, especially if you’re an audiophile. By increasing the weight of the disk, the thicker grooves will deteriorate more slowly than the standard thin pressing. This also means that the vinyl will be able to tolerate more uses than before.
Remember that no matter how thick the vinyl, the grooves degrade little by little no matter how well you take care of it. With a thicker record, you can play your favorite songs more often without sacrificing as much sound quality.
Caring for your Vinyl
Taking good care of your vinyl records is just as important, if not more so, as maintaining the health of your record player.
If the disks are clean and free of dust or grime, they will play with substantially fewer pops and clicks. These disruptions happen when the player’s needle cannot read a notch in the groove on the surface of the record. Should you find yourself with a smudged vinyl, it is relatively easy to clean and restore your disk to its proper quality.
If you neglect your records or fail to take care of issues right when you notice them, they can warp. The disk will look bent or melted out of shape in some places. If you’re lucky, a mildly warped album will just sound a little awkward to the ear when you play it.
If the record is warped beyond recognition, don’t bother attempting to play it. Severe warping can occur if a record is exposed to direct sunlight for a significant amount of time or intense heat for any amount of time.
Cleaning your Vinyl
There are dozens of products available on the market, either in your local record store or online, that claim to be the best solution to dirty records. Unless you have a specialized issue with the disk, it’s far easier to skip the gimmicks and get yourself a record brush and a simple record-cleaning kit. You can even use a soft, microfiber towel and a cleaning solution that sloughs away grime without breaking down the fragile plastic.
A Final Word
The world of vinyl is unique, complex, and extremely rewarding. We hope this guide helped you wrap your head around vinyl record sizes!