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Music History: What Makes 33, 45, and 78rpm Records Distinct?

The idea for records existed for much longer than the materials for it did. For decades, inventors toyed with different materials, trying to determine which one produced the best sound. They had to be creative, seeing as plastic would not be invented for several more years in 1907.

Vinyl records and long-playing records (LPs) are all terms that refer to the same item. This, however, was not always the case in the past. Vinyl records, for example, did not become widely available until 1948. Before the invention of vinyl, there were only shellac recordings. 

These age-old concerns are resurfacing as record sales continue to rise. One, in particular, includes the numbers 33, 45, and 78. Here’s what music enthusiasts need to know:

The Birth of 78rpm

By 1910, 78rpm recordings had gained widespread popularity and had become the “standard rate.” That is owing to the advanced engines used to produce these discs at the time. A 3600rpm motor coupled with a typical 46-tooth gear produces about 78 revolutions per minute. 

Each record was barely long enough to contain an entire song, and some songs had to be completed by flipping the record to the other side.

  • 10-inch records = 3 minutes per side
  • 12-inch records = 5 minutes per side
  • 21-inch* records = 8 minutes per side

For almost fifty years, 78s were the standard record speed. People didn’t call them 78 records back then—they simply called them records. There was no other choice until Columbia Records introduced a 12-inch 33rpm vinyl LP (or Long Play) in 1948. These new recordings fascinated audiophiles with their ability to contain a mind-boggling 20 minutes per side.

The Sudden Arrival of 33 Records

In 1948, the public was deluged with recordings, including full-length albums—an unprecedented amount for a record to hold. Entire rock concerts may be contained on the two-sided surface of a vinyl record. Because of its more minor grooves and slower spin rate, 33rpm recordings outperformed 78rpm records. Over the course of 10 years, 78s were reduced to fewer than 2% of total music sales. 78rpm records were produced in the United States until 1959 when the last one was manufactured there.

However, not all sales were converted to 33s. Although many did, listening to the whole 40-minute length of an LP wasn’t necessarily necessary. Because of their single-song usage, 78s were still favored by jukeboxes. Only a year after Columbia launched 33s, the development of a new record was prompted.

The Rise of 45rpm

Only ten months later, in March 1949, RCA Victor introduced the new 45rpm record. These 7-inch records could contain about 4-5 minutes of recording on each side, making them ideal for a single song. These records, which were of better quality than 78s, soon took over the market, outselling even 33rpm LPs. 

From 1949 until 1984, vinyl records (33 LPs or 45 singles) were the most famous music format. Although the new magnetic tape was developed in the 1960s, cassette tapes took almost twenty years to impact the consumer market. More technological advances occurred during this period.

What Happened to 33, 45, and 78 Today? 

As records began to be phased out, collectors began to concentrate on 33rpm LPs. 45s and 78s went out of favor as customers got used to the ease of listening to a whole album without pausing. The majority of recordings sold after the 1980s were full-length 33 LPs. Some new bands, however, continued to issue EPs (or Extended Plays) on 45rpm records. 

Today, 78s are hard to come by. Because businesses ceased manufacturing them about 1959, most extant records are lost, damaged, or hidden in a vinyl collection.

Final Thoughts

As records regain popularity, record players have begun to incorporate cutting-edge audio technology to enhance their quality. Even though 78 records are difficult to find, most turntables can play at any of the three main speeds. What is the real difference between 33, 45, and 78, after all? They have almost nothing in common but music.

Are you looking for a place where you can find records in Manchester?  At Music Connection, we have a wide selection of collections to find your favorite records or discover new ones to provide you with an enticing music experience. Call us at 603-644-0199 to learn more! 

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