Not only are vinyl records back, but they’ve returned with a vengeance: they’re even starting to out-sell digital downloads in the United States and around the world. Now we know for the die-hard fans they never left, but for many, vinyl records are a new music discovery. With that new discovery comes a slew of terms and info to digest.
One big question someone new to the hobby might ask is:
What does 33, 45, and 78 RPM mean?
33, 45, and 78 RPM is the speed at which the most common commercially available vinyl records spin at represented in revolutions per minute. The records themselves are often referred to by their speed. As an example, a 7” single featuring a single song is often referred to simply as “a 45”, or a shellac disc is often called a “78”.
Now we do mention 78RPM records because they are often mentioned when discussing vinyl record speeds as an option however they are very uncommon. They are often vintage records that are made of shellac instead of modern PVC records.
33, 45 and 78: Breaking Things Down
Nearly all of the records you can buy is one of three common speeds: 33, 48 and 78 rotations per minute, otherwise listed as RPMs. That term is exactly what it sounds like, referencing the speed at which the vinyl record you’re listening to is supposed to rotate on the turntable you’re using. If you play at the incorrect speed the music may sound a bit funny.
These numbers actually date all the way back to the original phonograph, which didn’t have an automated motor and instead worked off a hand crank. Legend has it that the average user cranked the device at around 80 RPM. As turntables with motors were developed and a standard speed was needed, 78 RPMs essentially rose up to answer that call. This format allowed for about three to four minutes per side.
33 RPM records rose to prominence when record companies realized that they could print information onto a smaller-sized record without losing any audio quality in the process. Suddenly, this format was capable of about a 22 minute playing time per side.
The major advantage that 45 RPM records brought to the table was again one of size. They were physically smaller than 78s, which meant that the records themselves could be produced less expensively. In terms of audio quality, the two were about the same, so that size quickly became a large part of the reason why 45s quickly surpassed 78s in terms of mass audience appeal.
That’s not to say that 78s disappeared entirely – in fact, they were still produced all the way up into the 1950s and beyond. It’s just that in terms of that particular moment in history, new technologies emerged and there was no turning back.
What You Need to Know For Vinyl Record Playback
The most important thing for you to understand about all of this is that not all turntables can play 78 RPM records. Those systems require special needles or an alteration to playback and read information from records with a higher speed. You’ll also likely need a tonearm containing a stereo cartridge and, of course, your variable speed turntable needs to be able to support the 78 RPM speed in the first place.
Thankfully, as records and turntables have returned to their once popular position, there are now commercially available systems capable of playing all three speeds.
At this point, it’s also important to discuss two terms you’ve likely encountered before: EP and LP. EP stands for “extended play” and is almost always used to describe records with between three and five songs on them. LP stands for “long playing,” and essentially denotes a full-length album.
Generally speaking, all of the records that you would see down in a local record store (or a Barnes and Noble) are 33 RPM, 12-inch releases. There are some examples of 45 RPM records in the 12” form factor. They are often part of audiophile pressings or special releases. Single discs are physically smaller – usually 7 inch 45 RPM releases. If you purchased the full length, 12-inch album, you have an LP. If you purchase that 7-inch single, you have an EP.
Oftentimes bands will release multiple 7-inch records to support the various singles on an album, before finally releasing the 33 RPM 12-inch release to stores. A lot of those singles are still sought after because they include B-sides and other rarities, too.