Records, vinyl, LPs. These are all words that describe the same thing. But this wasn’t always the case. LPs, for example, didn’t enter the lexicon until 1948. And before vinyl, there were only shellac records. Now, as record sales are skyrocketing, the age-old questions are resurfacing. One, in particular, has to do with three numbers: 33, 45, and 78.
These numbers refer to the rate at which the record spins on the record player, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). Most high-quality record players will come equipped to turn at these three standard speeds. But the question remains: What is the difference between these speeds? And why were they chosen in the first place? To answer these questions, we’ll have to take a little dive into history.
A Brief Record History
To give you an idea of how each of these records came into being, here’s a timeline of the major events.
- 1877 – Thomas Edison modeled the first phonograph and recorded his voice.
- 1878 – Music is recorded onto a cylindrical record for the first time.
- 1887 – Emile Berliner developed a method to record onto a flat disc.
- 1901 – 10-inch 78rpm disc record is made from shellac.
- 1910 – 78rpm becomes the standardized speed for all records.
- 1925 – Electrical recording takes over acoustic recording.
- 1948 – 33rpm LPs are released by Columbia Records made of vinyl.
- 1949 – 45rpm records released. Consumers now have three standard speed options.
- 1963 – Cassette tapes are introduced into markets.
- 1979 – Walkman is created by Sony.
- 1984 – Cassette tapes surpass vinyl records in sales.
- 2008 – The vinyl revolution begins as record sales increase.
The Phonograph and The Gramophone
Records were the second generation of voice recording technology. Their precursor was the phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. With his first model ready to launch, he recorded himself, saying, “Mary had a little lamb.” Thus, these were the first words ever recorded on the phonograph.
The cylinder used to record this at the time was large and inefficient. About ten years later in 1887, Emile Berliner improved upon the technology by creating recordings on flat discs, using his patented gramophone. These discs were initially made of glass and were later switched to zinc and eventually plastic.
Shellac: The Natural Plastic
Around the turn of the century, record companies (or soon-to-be record companies) were trying to design the perfect material to produce these new sound recordings on. Plastic wouldn’t be invented for another seven years, in 1907, and scientists were getting creative.
Enter, the female lac bug. Lac bugs, or kerria lacca, are scaly bugs that secrete lac onto trees. This resin can be scraped off, dissolved in alcohol, and reformed into liquid shellac. Shellac is easier to scratch than metal, and it resists moisture, making it an ideal candidate for music records. Although, there’s one downside to shellac. [Insert crashing sound!] They’re easily breakable.
Despite this one fatal flaw, shellac was the main material source until vinyl came around in the 1940s. A lot happened over that time period, and it all began in 1901 with the first ten-inch shellac record, spun at 78 revolutions per minute.
The Magic Number
78rpm records quickly popularized and became the “standard rate” by 1910. This is due to the modern engines at the time that would create these discs. A 3600rpm motor running with a standard 46-tooth gear, do the math and you get roughly 78 revolutions per minute.
The length of each record was barely able to fit an entire song, and some songs had to be finished by flipping the record to the other side.
- 10-inch records = 3 minutes per side
- 12-inch records = 5 minutes per side
- 21-inch* records = 8 minutes per side
(*Most records were 10- or 12- inch; rarely would you find the larger 14-, 16-, and 21-inch records.)
Reign of Fifty Years
For almost fifty years, 78s were the go-to record speed. Back then, people didn’t call them 78 records; they just called them records. It wasn’t until Columbia Records released a 12-inch 33rpm vinyl LP (or Long Play) in 1948 that there was another option. These new records could hold a mind-boggling twenty minutes per side. Whaaat!
During this time, new materials developed, and recording processes advanced. Some notable progressions were:
- Electric Recording in 1925 – Acoustic recording was a slow process where singers or musicians would play into a large horn. The reverberations would vibrate a stylus and create one shellac record at a time. In 1925, electric recordings became possible. Musicians could now record music onto a microphone that could then mass produce records.
- Record Material – Mixtures of shellac and vinyl started to be introduced as early as the 1930s, but early results were met with mixed feelings. Companies were forced to table these ideas due to the Depression. Around this time, some record manufacturers tried placing cardboard material between two layers of shellac to make the records more durable.
Suddenly in 1948, the public was hit with records that contained full-length albums. Entire rock concerts jammed into two sides of a vinyl record. With tighter grooves and a slower spin rate, the 33rpm records left the 78s in the dust. In just ten years, 78s plummeted to only 2% of music sales. And in 1959, the last US-made 78 record was produced.
Not all sales went directly over to 33s, however. Although many did, there wasn’t always a need to use up all 40 minutes of an LP. Jukeboxes, for example, still preferred 78s due to their single-song use. This sparked the creation of a new record only a year after Columbia released 33s.
Introduction of 45rpm
In Mach of 1949, just ten months later, RCA Victor released the new 45rpm record. These 7-inch records could hold about 4-5 minutes of recording on each side, perfect for a single song. With a higher quality than 78s, these records quickly took over the market, outselling even the 33rpm LPs.
At this point, consumers had three choices of speeds. And even they (much like people today) were wondering, what's the difference between 33, 45, and 78 records?
Reign of Thirty-Five Years
From 1949 to around 1984, vinyl records (be they 33 LPs or 45 singles) were the dominant music choice by consumers. Even as new magnetic tape was invented in the ‘60s, it still took almost twenty years before cassette tapes started making a dent on the consumer market. During this time, more surges in technology came about.
- Record Players Improved – Every year, companies would boast about how their record player was one of the fastest record changers in history. Thus, this sparked the war of speeds, fueling innovation in record player technology.
- LaserDisc – LDs were invented in 1978 with grooves so tiny, they had to be read by lasers. These discs could not only record music, but they could record video as well. Due to its initial high costs, these LDs wouldn’t catch on until much later.
There was one other invention in 1979 that struck at the heart of vinyl records.
The Sony Walkman
If you’re on the younger side, you may not remember these revolutionary audio devices. These were the iPods before Apple existed. With the Walkman, you could throw in a cassette tape, put on your headphones, and take your music anywhere—an activity we take for granted nowadays.
The Walkman revolutionized the way people thought about music. Now, music was something they could exercise with, listen to on the bus, or take with them to school. Having your favorite songs in your pocket was a game-changing characteristic of music.
Because of the Walkman’s craze, by 1984 cassette tapes were outselling vinyl records for the first time since their creation.
33, 45, and 78 Today
As time went on and records started to phase out, collectors started to focus on 33rpm LPs. As consumers became accustomed to the convenience of listening to an entire album without stopping, 45s and 78s fell out of style.
Most of the records sold after the ‘80s were full-length 33 LPs. However, some new bands still released an EP (or Extended Play) on a 45rpm record.
78s are hard to come by today. Because companies stopped producing them around 1959, most of the existing records are either lost, broken, or remain in a vinyl collection somewhere tucked away.
2008 and the Vinyl Resurgence
Music lovers were saddened by the loss of a great piece of musical equipment. Some still stand by the claim that vinyl records sound better than digital audio. Perhaps it’s the imperfect quality that people cling to—imperfect, mind you, is a great word to describe humans. Whatever the reason is, it seems that vinyl records aren’t gone for good.
In 2008, vinyl record sales started to increase for the first time in over 20 years. Since then, sales reached an unprecedented 16 million in 2018. For record player aficionados, this is music to their ears.
Long Live Vinyl Records
As records become popularized once again, record players have started to bring in the latest audio technology to improve their sounds. And despite not being able to find many 78 records, most turntables can play at any of the three major speeds. Because at the end of the day, what’s the real difference between 33, 45, and 78? Not much; they’re all music.
Statista. The Surprising Comeback of Vinyl Records. https://www.statista.com/chart/7699/lp-sales-in-the-united-states/
Thought Co. Emile Berliner and the History of the Gramophone. https://www.thoughtco.com/emile-berliner-history-of-the-gramophone-1991854
Wikipedia. Kerria Lacca. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerria_lacca
Yale University Library. The History of 78 RPM Recordings. https://web.library.yale.edu/cataloging/music/historyof78rpms