As the world keeps moving forwards into the future and technology continues to wow and amaze us, much of our old technology is being left in the past.
Most of us will have something around the house or stored in the garage that seems somewhat obsolete these days. Maybe you have an old VHS or pre-touchscreen phone, or did you jump on the ill-fated MiniDisc or Blu-ray trends?
The music industry has grown to become one of the biggest in the world, and in the last couple of decades, the technology used in it has developed at an electric pace.
Most music sales are now in digital form, with only collectors or super fans really buying physical copies. As most people play music from their phone, MP3 player, or another connected device, the demand for vinyl records, tapes, and CDs has dropped considerably.
Vinyl records however are enjoying something of a renaissance. Many are saddened by the rapid changes in buying music, so they seek to hark back to days gone by and search out physical records to buy.
Vinyl records have long been the interest of passionate DJs, avid record collectors, and devoted fans, now they’re being sought out by millions of others.
There is now an enormous market for vinyl records, with many raiding their parents’ or grandparents’ old collections and finding some absolute gold.
For those with only a passing interest or basic knowledge of vinyl records, there are actually several things they should know to make the most of their listening experience.
Perhaps the most important factor is understanding what the different ‘RPM’ numbers mean on the records. Most vinyl records are labeled as either 33 RPM (actually 33 ⅓ RPM) or 45 RPM. But what does this mean, and what are the differences?
Read on to discover everything you need to know about 33 RPM vs 45 RPM and prepare yourself for some magical listening experiences.
When Were Vinyl Records Invented?
The earliest precursor to the vinyl records was the phonautograph that was patented by Leon Scott in 1857. This was designed to create a physical representation on paper of sound waves for analysis and not for audio playback.
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, which could not only record sound but reproduce it and play it back. Like with many of Edison’s patents, there is some debate regarding how much he lifted from Scott’s previous work.
The first LP (Long Play) record was created by Peter Goldmark for CBS in 1948. It was a 12-inch record that played at a speed of 33 ⅓ RPM and had the capacity for just over twenty minutes of playback on each side.
What Does RPM Mean?
Quite simply, RPM is an abbreviation for ‘Revolutions Per Minute’, referring to its rotation speed. The RPM of a record states how many times it will turn a full circle on the record player in a one-minute time frame.
There are three industry-standard record speeds which are 33 ⅓ RPM, 45 RPM, and 78RPM. Most records pressed today are in either 33 ⅓ RPM or 45 RPM, with the 78 RPM being somewhat outdated and limited in capacity.
Although there is a general link between size and speed, some records may actually play at different speeds, so further analysis is needed and can be found below.
What Sizes Do Vinyl Records Come In?
Vinyl records come in three standard sizes: 7-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch. Perhaps these days, 12-inch records are the most recognizable and popular, as many modern artists release special editions of their music in this format.
They are a popular choice for interior decor as they are often covered in fantastical or surreal artwork, which can really bring a room to life.
What Are The Different Vinyl Speeds?
Here we will be looking in chronological order at the three standard vinyl speeds that have been used over the years.
Returning once again to Thomas Edison, whose phonograph played records at about 80 RPM. It should be noted that his invention was operated by a hand crank, meaning that the actual RPM could vary depending on the technical efficiency of the user.
Emile Berliner invented the first electric-powered record player in 1888, which created a boom in popularity and saw the industry expanding to meet the new consumer demand.
The record player played records at speeds between 70 RPM and 80 RPM, though it was discovered that around 78 RPM offered the highest quality playback. This led to 78 RPM becoming the official industry standard for record speed.
This allowed manufacturers to produce on a bigger scale and helped more music connoisseurs to enjoy their favorite tunes.
33 ⅓ RPM
As mentioned earlier, technological advancements allow huge jumps in capability and performance. Due to these advancements, engineers were able to fit more content on smaller records without losing audio quality.
This meant in the early 20th century, a new record playback speed was produced, that of 33 ⅓ RPM. Not only did they have a larger capacity than the popular 78 RPM, but they were also cheaper to produce.
It took some time for society to catch up with the 33 ⅓ RPM records, as there wasn’t even a record player on the market until 1948.
The iconic Columbia Records started the mass production of 33 ⅓ RPM record players, which meant people could finally enjoy the 33’s in the comfort of their own homes.
The introduction of 45 RPM vinyl records completely revolutionized the music industry and moved the sales tactics of the record companies into a new, money-spinning direction.
The new records sounded better, were cheaper to produce, and lasted longer than the fragile 78 RPM records. On March 31, 1949, the first 45 RPM record went on sale, a dazzling green vinyl record of the artist Eddy Arnold’s song “Texarkana Baby”.
It was released on RCA Victor Records and the astounding record sales made everyone in the industry, both record labels and recording artists, stand up and take note.
It became evident that there was much demand for the purchase of single records, so this became a key focus of the industry moving forward.
Due to the emergence of the popular 45 RPM records, many manufacturers started building record players that could play both 33 ⅓ RPM and 45 RPM records.
This meant that the now-aging technology of 78 RPM records had become almost obsolete. Though they still remained popular amongst some circles, such as classical music listeners.
Comparing 33 RPM and 45 RPM
Let’s take a look at the differences in audio quality between 33 and 45 RPM records and ask what that means for the listening experience.
A higher RPM means that the record is spinning faster on the player, which generally is considered to provide a higher level of audio quality.
It means that more information is able to pass from the record to the player via the stylus that reads the vinyl, more data is transferred. This allows 45 RPM records to maintain higher levels of audio quality and playback than either 33 ⅓ or 78 RPM records.
This also means they are less affected by distortion on the original recordings or by any little bumps or scratches on the record.
45 RPM records can comfortably and consistently play higher frequencies that sometimes have a tendency to be distorted or lose considerable quality on both 33 ⅓ and 78 RPM records.
45 RPM records offer the highest standard of audio quality due to the reasons mentioned above. Not only is the playback quality improved, but the amount of data contained on the record is also much higher.
This allows for more complicated and interesting musical pieces, compositions, and additional layers of recording. It meant sound engineers and recording artists were able to push the limits of their creativity and that of the technology in their hands.
Record Playing Time
Below, we will examine the playing times of the three standard vinyl records when played at both 33 ⅓ and 45 RPM. The times listed represent one side of the record being played, so double it to work out the full playing time of both sides of the record.
7-inch records play for 7 minutes at 33 ⅓ RPM and 5 minutes at 45 RPM.
10-inch records play for 13 ½ minutes at 33 ⅓ RPM and 10 minutes at 45 RPM.
12-inch records play for 19 ½ minutes at 33 ⅓ RPM and 14 ½ minutes at 45 RPM.
As you can see from the information above, listeners will enjoy a very different experience by listening to different sized vinyl records and playing them at either 33 ⅓ or 45 RPM.
Whilst the audio quality of 45 RPM cannot be matched, the actual record playing time is considerably shorter.
Some users enjoy listening to singles on vinyl and are happy to switch over the record after each track, so a 7-inch 45 RPM record is perfect.
For others who want to lay back and be lost in a musical odyssey, then it’s clear that they would favor the longer playback of 12-inch records at 33 ⅓ RPM.
Although each has its strengths, the choice of which is best is completely down to each individual listener, the record player they have available, and the kind of records they wish to listen to.
A Musical Time Machine
One big reason that people continue to love listening to music on vinyl records is the nostalgic and almost time-traveling feeling one can get when listening in this way.
It’s a sensory experience to close your eyes and hear the faint crackles and pops of the stylus riding the grooves of the vinyl records. Now we are so used to hearing a song online or via digital play, that we rarely even see the artwork for the track or album.
This is a real shame, as the album or single artwork is often iconic and symbolic of the content or message of the music. Some of the most culturally significant and memorable art from the last sixty years is artwork from records.
Many of these images now adorn the bedroom walls and t-shirts of a new generation of classic music appreciators.
Where Can I Buy Vinyl Records?
Record stores used to be THE happening place in many towns and cities across the country and the world. The best place to hear new music, hang out with friends, and dance the night away. Many DJs would seek out mysterious records known as ‘white labels’.
These were early or advanced pressings of as-yet-unreleased music, which was both exciting and something that many underground DJs built up their mysterious reputations with.
As demand for records fell, so too did the need for record stores, which saw huge numbers of them close down.
Even bigger multinational record stores started severely limiting the number and range of vinyl they sold as the demand for cassette tapes and then CDs grew.
As mentioned earlier in the article, vinyl records have been going through something of a resurgence and a renaissance in recent years. This has seen a boom in new independent record stores opening all over the world.
There’s nothing quite like going ‘crate digging’ to find some new, unique and rare records to play and add to your collection.
Look up if there are any record stores in your area and if you’re feeling it, go and check it out to see the sense of community and share in the passion that you can find there.
Due to the increased popularity of record collecting, the market has exploded, with many specialist online stores aimed solely at the avid collectors out there. Though don’t fret! You don’t have to be an expert to start buying vinyl records online.
Of course, most international merchants such as Amazon are useful places for finding vinyl. These sites allow stores to sell new releases, old classics and for individuals to sell off their old collections.
There are tonnes of other online stores now, so feel free to shop around a little and see what you can find.
As mentioned above, many artists and record labels now put out limited releases of new tracks and albums on vinyl, due to the increased demand and nostalgic yearning of the fan base.
Why not check out your favorite record label or musical artist’s website or social media links to see if they have any vinyl out now?
Wow! That was quite the educational insight into the fascinating history of the vinyl record. The information contained within this article will help you take your first steps into the world of vinyl records.
It should help you make sense of those dusty records you found in the attic, have you ever even listened to them? Explore the old records that your family or friends may have lying around, learn about what your parents were into at your age!
We hope that reading this article will encourage you to try listening to more music on vinyl. Why not pick up a cheap second-hand record player? Or if you’re feeling flush, why not go for a magnificent antique player?
There is something pure about listening to a record on vinyl, be it a classic original, a remastered re-release, or a special edition of a modern album.
We hope you have fun on your musical journey.