Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in a music format that was once thought to be finished. The vinyl record has made a comeback, and a whole new generation of music lovers are in the process of discovering the joys of listening to music in the way our parents and grandparents used to hear it–this is, aside from a stereo and CD player. Indeed, the vinyl industry has continued to boom in both the United States and internationally, and it looks to be showing no signs of slowing down.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the proliferation of streaming technologies and other digital music platforms via a mobile device, more and more people are finding themselves attracted to vinyl. Audiophiles appreciate the increased sound fidelity and rich tones, while others value the nostalgia and collectability that comes with owning the music you love. Nothing in the digital market compares to the feeling of pulling your new record out of its sleeve and playing it for the very first time.
Vinyl at Its Finest
If you’re only just beginning your journey into the world of vinyl and starting your own vinyl collection, it’s possible that the various formats available might seem confusing. What are the differences between a 7” and a 12”? What’s an LP versus a 45? The good news is that we have the answers. In this article, we will cover, among other topics, the options for vinyl record speeds and discuss their histories as well as what these speeds mean for your records and record player choices.
Here is a list of the topics covered:
- How do vinyl record players work?
- Formats – vinyl record speeds
- What these speeds mean for your record player
In addition to these topics, we’ve gathered some tips for starting a vinyl collection just in case you’re new to the game. Check it out!
How Do Vinyl Record Players Work?
Phonograph technology became popular around the turn of the 20th century as one of the first machines capable of allowing a person to affordably listen to music on a portable basis. The technology developed from a hand-cranked mechanism where the listener had to stand at the turntable and manually spin the record themselves to early iterations of the current automated players.
Vinyl record players use a needle that runs along a series of grooves in the record to pick up sounds that are eventually reproduced by the speaker. The record is created, or “pressed,” by sounds being recorded into a microphone that then stores the sounds in the grooves on the soft vinyl material on the surface of the disc. When the needle on the player then runs over those grooves while the record spins, it reads and reproduces the sounds as recorded.
An obvious drawback to vinyl records is that there is a limited amount of information that can be stored on each side of the disc, since the grooves spiral inward towards the center. In this way, the needle starts on the outside and works in, until the spiral groove ends, and the needle pops up. During the years that the technology has been refined, there have been multiple experiments in maximizing the amount of information storable on a record. These experiments have mainly focused on the speed at which the record spins. Learn more about record players history in our related post.
Formats – Vinyl Record Speeds
The first iteration of the vinyl record player found its speed somewhat by accident. Since the original phonograph machines were hand-cranked, there was a push among inventors from the early years of widespread use to find an automatic solution to spinning the record. Although there are differing accounts as to exactly how the process unfolded, the end result was a machine that turned records at 78 revolutions per minute.
As the new machine became more popular, its limitations became only more apparent. Spinning the disc record at 78 rpm’s (also known as revolutions or rotations per minute) means that a 12-inch disc can only hold between four and five minutes of music. This meant that classical music and popular Broadway tunes could not be played in their entirety without flipping or changing discs. As a result, there developed over the following decades a race to discover and popularize a slower-spinning machine.
The challenge was that records could only be spun so slowly before there occurred a drop in audio quality. The question then became settling on the right balance between the machine being fast enough to sound good but slow enough to store more music on the disc. The result was two competing speeds, 45 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm. Since there was now a situation where three different speeds were present in the market, it became necessary to distinguish between them, leading to the formats we currently have today.
Records today can be found in the following formats, designated by their speed:
- 78s – primarily records produced before 1955
- 45s – primarily used for 7” discs carrying singles or “EPs”
- 33 1/3 – primarily used for long format “LPs” (albums)
- Others – 16 and 8, rarely used but occasionally for spoken word recordings
Although stories about the development of the first automatic phonograph machine tend to differ, it is generally accepted that the speed was an accident. Likely because the motor placed inside the machine happened to operate at a speed of 78 rpm’s, phonographs were standardized at that rate, and recordings were optimized to that speed. Early records were made of Shellac, a wax material that predated the later vinyl versions. Sizes were generally 10” or 12”. Read more in our related blog post about how a vinyl record is made.
The fact that each side of a disc was only able to carry between three and five minutes of music created an obvious limitation that eventually led to the demise of the 78. By 1955, production had all but ceased in this format, to be replaced by longer formats. While 78s did continue to be pressed in isolated instances, today they are mainly to be found only in antique form.
By the mid-1940s, competition sprung up between longer formats looking to displace the 78. One of these longer formats was the 45. Although the slower spin speed meant that more music could be recorded onto a 12” disc, the 45 became the format of choice for singles and EP (“extended play”) releases. Artists would release 7” 45s carrying a signature tune to be played either on the radio or in jukeboxes, and this became its primary use.
It’s somewhat rare to find full LP’s released in 45, but they do exist in some cases. There are groups of audiophiles who swear that the 45 brings with it superior sound quality in comparison to the slower 33 1/3. As a result, some artists will put out special releases of their albums in 45 formats. A general rule, however, is that the 45 is primarily the domain of the single and the EP.
The third common format for vinyl records is the 33 1/3. After its release in the 1940s, around the same time as the 45, the 33 1/3 quickly became the format of choice for LP (or “long playing,” full album) pressings. Since the run time per side for a 12” disc usually comes to around 22 minutes, the 33 1/3 quickly became the ideal choice for classical music and Broadway tunes that the 78 and 45 couldn’t support so readily. As the LP became more popular among recording artists, so too did the 33 1/3 format.
Today, almost all vinyl records that you will encounter in record stores and large commercial retailers are 12” 33 1/3 pressings. As the standard for album releases and record companies, the 33 1/3 became ubiquitous after the 1950s, and if you encounter a vinyl turntable that doesn’t have an adjustable speed switch, it’s most likely fixed to this format.
Others – 16 and 8
It is possible that in rare cases you may encounter records that are designed to be played in a format other than 78, 45, or 33 1/3. 16 and 8 rpm formats have been used in some instances for spoken word recordings, since they’re capable of holding additional material. However, a loss of audio quality does occur with these formats, so it is almost unheard of to find 16 or 8 records with songs and music on them.
It is also worth noting that many of today’s turntables are unable to play at speeds slower than 33 1/3. If you own a 16 or 8 record and are looking for a player, it is recommended that you check specifically to find one that is capable of playing in these formats.
What This Means For Your Record Player
With the variety of record formats available, it’s important to find a record player that accommodates the format you’re most likely to be playing. A majority of turntables have adjustable speed settings that can manage the two most common formats of 45 and 33 1/3, while it’s less common to encounter players that can handle 78s or 16s. Doing a little bit of research into what formats you’re most likely to play can go a long way towards allowing you to make an informed purchase decision on a turntable. Check out our blog, Tips For Choosing the Right Victrola Record Player.
With the vinyl market continuing to grow, the time has never been better to experience for yourself the magic of listening to high-quality music via a record player. Although the variety of available formats can sometimes be confusing to someone who is entering the world of vinyl for the first time, the reality is fairly simple. For questions about pricing, consult our Vinyl Record Price Guide or contact us. Try vinyl today and find out for yourself why so many people are ditching digital.
Record Speed Became 33 1/3 In a Roundabout Way. Chicago Tribune.
The History of 78 RPM Recordings. Yale University Library.
What Does 33, 45, and 78 RPM Mean? Your Record Playing Guide. Fluance.