A Guide to Vinyl Record Sizes and Speeds

As someone who is new to vinyl, you may be slightly confused by the various vinyl record sizes and speeds that exist – the 33, the 45 and the 78. No, the numbers aren’t related to one another in any way, nor do they represent sizes or the number of minutes that the records play for. These are the number of rotations per minute. But, if you’re as nerdy as we are , you may be wondering what the back story is to why the 33 became the most popular format and what made it stand above the others?

Vinyl Record Sizes and Speeds: Early Days

To start with, let’s take a brief look at the history of vinyl. In 1896, the inventor Emile Berliner created the first true disc record which was run using an electric motor for playback. This motor played back a disc at roughly 70 – 80 rounds per minute (RPM). Eventually by 1925, as more manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon, the standard became a record that played at 78 rpm and these became the staple format of the time.

Now, as sound quality goes – the faster a record turns the higher the quality of sound that is created. But this comes at a trade-off of playing time – the faster you spin a record the shorter the time that each side will play due to the limited amount of “information” that can stored on each side.

As technology evolved, new methods of recording audio allowed for more information to be printed on smaller records without losing any of the sound quality. As a result, printing records which played at 33 RPM became more financially attractive to the bigger record companies.

Vinyl Record Sizes and Speeds: The 33 – a new standard

In 1931, RCA Victor introduced the 33 1/3 format, in an effort to boost record sales, but the lack of turntables that spun at that speed combined with the poor sound quality of the records in general, doomed the project to failure. The idea of a slower playing speed however remained, with the obvious attraction being that more music would fit on a record that didn`t spin so fast.

By the mid 1940s, CBS commissioned more research into longer playing records and finally achieved success. Peter Goldmark devised a record that could hold between 220 – 300 grooves per inch (whereas the average until then had been around 85 grooves). The record was designed to be spun at 33 1/3 rpm – which after trial and error seemed to be a speed that resulted in the most attractive comprise between sound quality and length of play. The format was marketed by giving listeners the ability to hear an entire classical performance or symphony without the need to flip the record over.

Shortly thereafter, RCA Victor again responded with a new record format which was played at 45 rpm. While the 45 did not provide any benefit over the 78, it was smaller and became the preferred format for things like jukeboxes, which were hot at the time. By the 1950s, most systems were focused on either playing the 33 or the 45 formats. The 45s were mainly used for singles, whereas the 33s took over just about everything else.

So, there you have it folks – apparently the origin of all record playing speeds was a compromise between sound quality and play time given the technological capabilities and constraints at the time. We wish there was a more exciting story behind this, but really this is one of those VHS vs. Beta or HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray types of stories. The audio/video industry is no stranger to format wars between competitors trying to set a new trend, and this is yet another example of precisely that. One this is for certain, the storage of the big 33s is definitely an art of it’s own – check out our guide to organising your vinyl for some fun ideas!

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