Vinyl 101: A Guide to Vinyl Terminology

Vinyl 101: A Guide to Vinyl Terminology

If you love vinyl records as much as we do, you probably know the world of vinyl can be pretty daunting. Collecting and listening to vinyl has experienced an incredible resurgence in the last few years as new audiences rush to their local record shops to both grab new releases and hunt for vintage albums. With that sudden popularity boost comes a brand new audience, listeners who have little experience with vinyl and may not know exactly what to look or search for. Like any hobby, collecting vinyl comes with a ton of industry jargon and specific terms that don't really exist anywhere else. With that, we thought we'd put together a bit of a primer, a sort of Vinyl 101 for any new listeners confused about some unfamiliar terminology. 

Record Player vs. Turntable

If you're shopping for a new record player, this is probably the first bit of confusion you'll encounter. What is the difference between a record and a turntable? The terms seem to be used interchangeably without much clarification, so are they the same? Not exactly. Fortunately, we've covered this in a previous blog post. Basically, the turntable is the revolving platter on which the record is placed, while a record player usually refers to an all-in-one unit that has a turntable, preamp, power amp, and speakers. So all record players have turntables, but not all turntables are necessarily record players. Victrola offers a selection of standalone wireless turntables, as well as all-in-one record players, so you can check out the differences for yourself!

Terms to Know:

  • Turntable: The revolving platter on which the record is placed.
  • Record Player: The all-in-one unit that includes a turntable, preamp, power amp, and speakers.
  • Preamp: The component that boosts the low audio signal of the record so it can be picked up by a source.
  • Power Amp: A component that boosts the signal even more so it can be heard out of speakers.
  • Speaker: The component that takes that boosted signal and makes it audible for us to hear.
  • Tonearm: The arm that you maneuver to drop the needle onto a record. It acts as part of the transducer that sends the audio signal to its destination.
  • Cartridge: The device at the end of the tonearm that houses the stylus and reads the information on the record.
  • Counterweight: A weight at the back end of the tonearm that helps to balance the tonearm and create the proper amount of downforce.
  • Stylus (needle): The tiny needle housed in the cartridge that directly contacts the grooves on a record.

Vinyl Record Sizes

If you've been shopping for vinyl, you've probably noticed that records come in a few different sizes, another subject we've previously covered. To break it down, vinyl records come in three different sizes and spin at different revolutions per minute, or RPM. 

  • 7-inch records are the smallest and spin at 45 RPM. Because they can only fit around five minutes of music per side, 7-inch records are generally used for singles, with the lead track on the "A side" and another song on the "B side."
  • 10-inch records are something you'll probably only encounter if you're an avid collector or vintage shopper. These records spin at 78 RPM and were the standard in the early days of vinyl. Because they could only hold around 10 minutes of music in total, they largely fell out of favor in the 1950s when technological advancements allowed for production of larger records. 
  • 12-inch records spin at 33 1/3 RPM and are by far the most common records seen on the market. They are known as LPs (long plays) and hold around 22 minutes of music per side. With the ability to release 45 minutes of music as opposed to 10, artists began thinking about their music differently, with an increased focus on storytelling and the rise of album-focused listening. 

Terms to Know:

  • RPM: Revolutions per minute, the amount of time the record spins on the platter per minute.
  • LP: A "long play," the most common kind of record on the market that generally hold around 45 minutes of music across both sides. 

Analog vs. Digital Mastering

So why vinyl? Well, aside from the unbeatable feeling on dropping a needle onto your favorite record, the vinyl pressing process involves masters that just sound better than a CD or a digital file. Mastering can be done in one of two ways; analog and digital. 

  • An analog master is just that, a master produced with analog equipment. This equipment can be costly, but generally results in a product that sounds warmer and retains the unique characteristics of the equipment used to produce it. 
  • A digital master is produced using digital equipment. These products are more precise and able to emulate analog equipment, but can lack the identifiable features of what they're attempting to reproduce.

So analog is better, right? Not necessarily! A record produced from a digital master can often sound just as good as an analog master, as long as the files are prepared for vinyl. To produce a vinyl record, the files should be a minimum of 96 kHz 24 bit frequency, but shortcuts are often taken and vinyl records are cut from files that are only 44.1 kHz 16 bit, a frequency generally reserved for CDs. If the records are cut from the proper files, it's hard to tell the difference between digital and analog. 

So how are vinyl records made? Another topic we've already covered, thankfully. Essentially, a master copy is produced by a stylus cutting grooves into a round disk. That disk is then used to create the master copy, which has ridges instead of grooves, basically a negative of a record. That master copy is then pressed into softened vinyl, creating a vinyl record.

Terms to Know:

Mastering: Mastering is the final step of the recording process. It is the step in which audio engineers put the finishing touches on the music, such as ensuring consistent volume across the board and achieving sonic balance.

Master Copy: The result of the mastering process. The copy that is used to produce all other copies.