As record collectors, we know 78 RPM discs are different than others. Throughout history, there were once only 78s, aka 78 RPM records, but now we more commonly see 33s and 45s.
RPM means revolutions per minute during playback and tells you how fast the record spins.
78s are the original record, but what makes them so different from the 33 or 45 RPM vinyl records? Let’s take a closer look at the history of these disc records and how they were used to create most sound recordings.
How Records Began
Stepping back to 1890, Emile Berliner created a gramophone that could record and play music on flat discs. These records were the next generation of the cylindrical records that Thomas Edison used to first record his voice. At first, the size and the speed of the discs had quite a bit of range. In 1910, 78 RPM started to be considered the standard speed for phonograph records.
Since 78s were typically 10- to 12-inch records, they only had the ability to record about three to five minutes of music per side. This limited the number of songs that could be recorded per side to one or two.
These first records were made out of shellac. This material is created with a natural resin that the female lac bugs leave behind on trees. The resin is combined with alcohol, which dissolves it, and is reformed into shellac. This new material can easily be scratched, which means that cutting the grooves to create music was simple. Shellac also resists moisture, so this new record type was straightforward to store.
The material was also heavier, with high mineral content that made surface noise when the styli played the record. These discs were also more rigid, so dropping them often resulted in a shattered disc.
Vinyl LP or long-playing records came along in 1948. Also known as 33s, these could hold about 60 minutes of music, which means that an entire album could be listened to without switching discs. These records were also the first to have microgrooves, which are grooves that are four times smaller than what you’d find in the 78s. 45s were then invented to fit inside jukeboxes because they take up less space and hold more music than the 78s.
Even though the magnetic tape was invented in the 60s, it took almost 20 years for them to catch up to and overtake the sale of records. Vinyl records were often the choice of consumers regardless of whether they were listening to modern or classical music.
Playback of 78 RPM Recordings
Not all turntables are capable of playing 78 records. The turntable needs to be able to spin at the proper speed to create 78 revolutions per minute. There are record players specifically designed to play 78s if that is the only type of record in your collection.
Today, most record players are no longer set to a specific RPM speed, but since 78s are no longer in production, playing 78s on this type of turntable may be difficult. You’ll need to have a 78 rpm adapter kit that allows you to swap pulleys in the player.
Once the pulley is switched, the turntable will spin at the speed of 78 revolutions per minute.
Another issue that you need to worry about when playing a 78 RPM record is the stylus you are using. Since these records were designed to be played on gramophones, the grooves in the records are much larger and thus need a larger needle to play the music. When looking for a record player that plays 78s, 33s, and 45s, get one with a cartridge with a replaceable stylus.
The Sumiko RS 78 will track the grooves as intended and reduce the chance of damaging your record collection. Having the proper cartridge alignment minimizes the amount of downtime when switching between different types of records.
Pros of 78 RPM records
- The shellac material prevents the records from warping.
- These records are made of nearly scratch-resistant material.
- Music is unaltered from the original recording.
- Cutting the shellac to record the music is simple.
- These records resist moisture.
Cons of 78 RPM records
- The sound quality on these records is not optimal, so pops and clicks are heard in the recording.
- The records collect dust easily in the large grooves.
- With only a few minutes of music per side, most 78 records were limited to singles.
- Records were brittle, so they shattered if dropped.
Shellac Records vs Vinyl Records Performance
The size is the most notable difference in the performance of 78 shellac records and 33 or 45 vinyl records. The 45s are typically 7 inches, but 78s and 33s can be either 10 or 12 inches. What differences should you be aware of when deciding which record you want to play on your turntable?
- 78s hold about five minutes of music, while 33s hold up to approximately 20 minutes.
- 78 RPM records have a faster RPM speed than both 33 and 45 RPM records.
- 78s have wider grooves than vinyl records, which means that the stylus also needs to be wider.
- 78 RPM records are mono and are only heard through one channel. High-fidelity sounds are heard through vinyl records.
Record Companies Don’t Make 78s Anymore
If you know how vinyl works, you will understand that electrical recordings on 78s became harder and harder to manage. Children’s records were still viable in this market because the youngsters inherited record players from their parents who played 78s.
As the record labels recorded more popular music, vinyl records became more economical because they hold more music per side. In addition, there was a shellac shortage during World War II that sped up the end of the 78 RPM record era. The last 78 records were produced in 1959.
Even though 78s are no longer made, there are still collectors looking for these types of records. Classic albums with music from artists like Larry Clinton and His Orchestra, Elvis, and Chuck Berry have often been sought after. Since the production of these 78s stopped, there are many limited edition records that people search for. Not even the Victrola craze of the 21st century could weaken the resolve of collectors trying to find 78s to add to their collections.
Records Making a Comeback
Records are not a thing of the past. 78s had a reign over the music industry for nearly 50 years. Sales did not decrease until 33s with longer recordings became available. With three record speeds on the market, vinyl records reigned in the industry for another 35 years.
Many audiophiles claim that the audio quality of these vintage records is better than digital audio. Imperfect as they may be, records started to become more popular during the vinyl resurgence of 2008. Since then, sales have continued to grow, and in 2020, the music industry saw record sales reach 27.5 million.