Let’s Dive Into The Fascinating World of Vinyl Formats
The most commonly found formats are: 33 1/3 rpm on a 12″ disc, 78 rpm on a 10″ disc, and the 45 rpm on a 7″ disc, but we’ll get into those a bit later.
An Obscure Format That Most Older Turntables Support
Let’s start with one of the more obscure vinyl speeds: 16 2/3 rpm (microgroove). This format is exactly half the speed of the more commonly known format of 33 1/2 rpm speed. It originated around 1934, and was still produced in ever lower numbers until around 1964. So what is the purpose of this slower speed? Well for one, they could squeeze 80 minutes of music on the album! Generally these were used as long playing background music in department stores or restaurants.
There was also a 7″ variant that was essentially the same concept as audiobooks on tape. These are quite rare to find as the format didn’t really take off in the home consumer market. The smaller microgrooves made it quite difficult to locate individual tracks on the record, which wasn’t an issue if it was a background music that played from start to finish in a commercial setting. Lastly, with a more limited frequency response resulted in a poorer quality sound.
Alternative Sizes and Novelty Vinyl
Let’s address the image in the title: as you saw there was a lot of different sizes and formats. Well, a lot of them were promotional items, inserted into magazines and other releases. One novelty version in particular was known as the Flexi Disc; it was made of a thin flexible vinyl sheet with a molded in spiral groove. These could contain anything from a music single, a promo of a few songs, and even a computer program!
Another novelty format was used in children’s read-along books. Most of these typically were in 33 1/3 rpm playback format, but could range in different sizes depending on what the publisher decided would work best for their product or promotional material.
Now let’s visit the first mass-produced available format record type, the 78 rpm record.
The 78 or 78rpm record started around 1898, and the disc sizes varied between 12″ and 10″, and even 7″. The speed also varied in the early days; 78, 80, and even 130 rpm were tried. The formats that more or less became the standard were the 12″ at four to five minutes a side to the more common 10″ at three minutes a side.
For the substrate material, a lot of compounds were tried: a combination of rubber, fibres, pulverized slate and limestone. Eventually a compound now known as shellac became the standard. An interesting side note: during WWII, shellac resin became limited due to the war effort, so 78’s were pressed with vinyl!
Shellac is a very brittle material, and easily breakable. Also, if you own a shellac record, use water and a very mild detergent, it’s advised not to clean them with rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol as it can break down shellac (although there are different schools of thought on this). My advice, since you can’t replace them easily, is to be cautious.
So, you have some 78 rpm records from a family member, or from a local shop or flea market. How do you play them? Well, your options are limited depending on what you are using as a turntable. If you happen to have a gramophone that functions with a working needle, then you are set. I would suspect most of us are not so lucky to have access to something like that these days.
However, if you have an old family turntable from the late 70’s to mid 80’s that has a 78 selector switch, you may be in luck! Most of those turntables had a ceramic flip-able needle.
What does that mean?
Well, a flip-able needle is exactly how it sounds. On one side is the standard needle for playing 16/33/45 rpm records, and you would literally move the lever (as you can see, it sticks out from the cartridge), to the other side, and it would have the harder composite 78rpm needle on the other side.
So neither of these options are available to you, you have a modern turntable.
What are your options?
Well, fortunately a lot of modern and traditional cartridge manufactures still produce 78rpm variants that you can swap out your cartridge to play 78’s. This cartridge is just an example, as most major manufactures of your choice also produce a similar product.
The Most Known Formats: 33rpm and 45rpm
Did you know that these two actually started out as competing formats? This 1949 format war helped define the future of records. They were rival and competing formats from two companies. In the 1930s, the 78rpm vinyl had been around for a while, and companies wanted a format that could hold more than 3-5 minutes of music on a side.
Companies had been exploring replacements for the shellac type material, which was brittle and more prone to damage and breakage, as it’s a resin material. The vinyl material replacement would have been much earlier if not for the onset of WWII and the need for materials for the war effort. It is interesting that vinyl was actually used as a shellac replacement for a short while before it became the main standard.
Columbia Enters The Market
In June 1948, Columbia released their replacement idea. The 12″, 33 1/3rd Long Playing record or LP as it’s become known as, was introduced as a suitable replacement for the 78rpm format. Now you could have 45 minutes on a record from a substrate known as Vinylite resin. So why the term LP instead of album?
In a traditional 78rpm release, in order to compensate for longer recordings, the records were bundled in traditional book like album formats, hence the term: album
Since Columbia had trademarked the term LP, if any competitors wanted to release a Long Playing 33rpm record, they would have to pay royalties. To get around this, they would simply refer to them as albums. This is why we tend to refer to them as albums instead of LP’s.
45s The Competitor
Now where did the 45rpm come from? Well, RCA had been developing a few new technologies around the same time, including one that would become the home playing tape. They had a technology for replacing the 78rpm record also happening in the background. Given there was a rivalry happening, Columbia promoted their 33rpm LP heavily in the press and trade magazines at the time.
Columbia had also been working on expanding their offerings with a 7″ 33 1/3rd rpm record format.
RCA Provides Competition
In January 1949, RCA announced their new system to the press. This new format would be a 7″ disc, played at 45rpm based around a new record changer unit. A record changer concept had existed since the 78rpm format, so it wasn’t a revolutionary idea. Since RCA were about a year behind Columbia in their format debut, they spent a lot to promote their new format wherever they could.
So why the larger diameter center hole, and why are UK releases punched with a traditional spindle hole size? Most think it was because of jukeboxes, which didn’t come along until a little later. The home changer units were essentially little jukeboxes and that sizing worked the best for the player.
Also, since this format was mainly marketed for the US, coupled with the changer player, that smaller punch hole came about when turntables in the UK were capable of playing a 45 along with the 33rpm record.
New Format Concepts
RCA also introduced the colored vinyl record concept as a way to market their product. While colored records did exist in the 78rpm era, the variety of colors and styles were greatly expanded upon by RCA.
RCA actually had a color coding scheme assigned to them. Green for country and western. Red for classical, Midnight Blue for popular classics, Yellow for Children’s music, and Black for Popular. They expanded on the colors for a little while as well.
Other than a new concept, design and coloring system- did they sound and play better than the rival format from Columbia? Well instead of 1 12″ record for an album, you would stack the 45’s on the player for a whole album. The RCA player was nimble and quick, and between the end of one record and the drop-down and start of the next was typically about 10 seconds (shorter if the record had less lead in/out times).
Since 45s spin faster than 33s, you can have more waveform definition on the format, which takes up more room on the disc. Essentially you have more physical medium to press your song to, which resulted in higher fidelity.
Another feature touted by RCA was the fact that you could stack the records without damaging them. How was this achieved? If you look closely at just outside the center hole, there is a raised lip of vinyl. This allowed only the center portions of the record to touch and not the recorded parts of the record. This still exists to this day.
So did this new RCA format take off? Not entirely, during this period of time most people preferred the LP, and the Classical music crowd were the highest purchasers of the format.
So what was the underlying reason for the competing formats, and did the colored scheme last? The colored options soon faded away to the all black vinyl format we are familiar with, due to costs of manufacturing.
Now, an interesting thing happened: RCA was able to produce a multi-type player, 33/45/78 as well as reduce the manufacturing costs of the stand alone 45 player- just in time for the arrival of the Rock n’ Roll era of the 50s. The costs were low enough that most teenagers at the time could afford a 45 stackable player for their bedrooms. RCA did a pivot and focused on the single. This proved to be a hit with teens as they could stack their favorite singles in a playlist that they could enjoy.
From that point on, the 45s focused on the singles, and the 33s on the full length albums, although you will find 12″ singles using 45rpm, and 7″ singles using 33 1/3 rpm, as well as repressing using either format. Overall the formats have remained intact to this day.
On an ending note: did you know that those funny little pieces of plastic for the 45s, to adapt to a larger turntable spindle, most commonly referred to as an insert, are in fact called “Spiders” ?
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of The Technical Corner, by Joel Andrews here: https://vinylwritermusic.com/the-technical-corner-archives/
Originally from New Brunswick, Canada, Joel started to really collect vinyl at a time when people were practically giving it away as they moved their collections over to CD. It became clear that he had a strong penchant for how things work when his father arrived home one day to find four-year-old Joel had completely disassembled the family turntable! Joel purchased a turntable when there were only two models left on the shelf, which is still in use today! Joel is into a wide variety of genres, everything from Jazz to Metal and everything in between, and his love for how things work has never faded; it led to an electronics path in college and then computers. His focus has always been on: how do things work, and why? What led to design decisions, how were things improved upon, why did some formats fade while others remained? These days, Joel works as a cloud consultant in Toronto, Canada but still finds time to tinker with electronics and electronic repair when he can.