Record Albums: Just About The Size Of It

Most people today know of only two kinds of record albums: big ones with a little hole that play at 33rpm, and little ones with a big hole at 45rpm. Some remember “grandma’s records,” middle-sized records with a little hole, played at 78rpm. These are the industry standards for the past century, and the majority of record albums fit these conditions. Until the late 1950s, thousands upon thousands of music titles were released on brittle lacquer records, played at a respectable 78rpm that allowed for one good-length song to appear on each side of the record while retaining a wide frequency range. The 78rpm speed became mostly extinct (except for ad hoc conversion of Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, or Alvin and the Chipmunks albums) with the advent of microgroove records, a finer way of recording more information on to an album without sacrificing quality. 33-1/3 rpm was the standard for full-length records holding an hour or more of music, and 45rpm was assigned to ‘singles,’ smaller records used in jukeboxes and for customers looking for a single song.

With the various sizes (7″, 10″, and 12″) and speeds (45, 33, 78), you shouldn’t be surprised that some creative record producers decided to mix it up a bit, producing almost every possible combination of speeds and sizes of record albums. The difference in speed is noticed immediately when the needle is dropped, and the quick adjustment of record player settings allows for these variation from the standard to have existed without too much backlash, as a non-standard CD or tape cassette might.

We’ll start with our reference: the 45rpm single of Babe, by Styx. It is a vinyl record, pressed in the 7-inch-45rpm.jpg1980s using the same technology pioneered 30 years before, and is still the only way to mass-produce records today. Some people might consider it too thin to be a ‘real’ 45; it is about half as thick as the classic 45 that was produced through the 1960s and into the 1970s. As with most 45s, it measures just under 7″, due to the trimming and edging process. The large hole allows for automated equipment, like a jukebox, to thread the record on to the spindle for playing. For some order, we’ll go from small to big. While you might think our reference 45 is the smallest, you’d be wrong.
6-inch-78-rpm.jpgHappy Birthday To You, by the Sandpipers and the Mitch Miller Orchestra

This tiny record measures in at 6″ across — but at a high-speed 78rpm, barely a minute and a half fits on a side. Record players are notoriously tolerant of a wide variety of media, as long as it has a groove, whether it was cut on a high-quality recording lathe or printed on the back of Count Chocula. As record players became more complex, their tolerances decreased; record players with automatic changers detected the inward movement of the arm, causing a rejection in the middle of a song if the recording got too close to the center. This is the reason flexi-disks, the cheap plastic records included in magazines and mailed cheaply, would be quite large even if their audio track was only a thin band around the outside edge. This record is just over the limit; the arm lifted on my player just after the music ended. Next up is a familiar shape — but where’s the big hole?

7-inch-33rpm.jpgDeportee, by Joan Baez

This special-release single was pressed using the same machines as a 45rpm single, detectable because of the raised label area (to protect the grooves as the discs are stacked) and an obvious reference groove where the 45′s spindle hole should go. However, this is not a 45rpm single: its speed, prominently displayed on the label, is 33-1/3 rpm. Many promotional or educational records were released this way, using the 7″ or 10″ record size but recorded at 33-1/3 rpm. The spindle hole is small, I presume, as a visual key to it’s speed. It is also a hint at the record’s non-commercial production.

10″ records, Aerosmith songs aside, are a bit unfamiliar to modern audiophiles — and many might find themselves unable to play the older 10″ albums because of limitations of their equipment. Newer turntables come with only two speed varieties: 33 and 45; 78 rpm turntables died out in the early 1980s. Our next example, however, will work just fine on a modern turntable:


Coming 'Round The Mountain, by Dorothy Shay

This comedy album rode in towards the beginning of the 78 rpm’s demise. It is an early example of the “Microgroove” technology that brought us LP albums, and it’s made of a very modern vinyl composition — and it’s played at 33-1/3 rpm, not 78. However, its label and size harken to the earlier days; while I’m not sure exactly, I think 12″ records weren’t quick to launch to avoid buyer-shock: some older players had trouble fitting the 12″ records, people’s record albums (the actual books records came in back then) didn’t fit the larger records, and they looked familiar to buyers. You can see, in the light reflection, the familiar pattern of audio and track-breaks that are common on modern LPs, but compared to the one-song-per-side 78s this was an unfamiliar sight. This early record, size aside, is nearly identical to modern records in speed, composition, and recording quality — 50 years later.

However, as we’ll see, 12″ record adoption didn’t automatically equal 33rpm LPs.


Silvertone Record Club collection

Before Microgroove and 33rpm, 12″ 78rpm records weren’t the most common format, but they weren’t unheard of. Because a 7″ record could only hold 3-4 minutes of music at 78rpm, the easiest solution was to increase record size and almost double recording time. These mostly contain classical music and opera, music written without recording times in mind. This particular 12″ 78 seems to also be recorded with the narrower Microgroove track, adding to it’s oddball condition.


Class Rock, Tack-Head

We jump over 30 years ahead with this next one: the 12″ 45 rpm single. The technology and cost to produce a 45 and a full-sized record aren’t all that different, but the audio response is very different. DJs began using larger albums in the 1970s, up until today, in order to space the tracks a little wider and add extra frequency response. The 45rpm speed also improves treble audio quality. More common in Europe than the US, a 12″ single may be the rarer version if a 7″ EP had been released, and greater attention was paid to the audio quality, as these were intended for high-end audio.

Now that we’ve covered the 12″ record, we must be done, right? No such luck! Yes, there’s something even bigger than an LP:


Country Hoedown radio program, US Navy (featuring Tex Ritter)

Radio stations and programs often recorded themselves for posterity; scattered versions can be found in a variety of sizes, depending on the recording equipment. The 16″ record afforded much longer recording times — I am unfortunately not familiar enough to know how much fit on a side, but even at 78 rpm it would have to be close to 15 minutes. I don’t even have a player large enough to fit one, although they do still exist. Because of the transient nature of radio, these records are all that’s left of many performances.

While it’s fun for me to show off parts of my collection, collectors should take note: there’s a lot of records out there that might be unusual or rare, but look a lot like their more-common cousins. A 16″ record isn’t easy to miss, but I’d long skipped over 10″ records by assuming anything older than the 1970s was a 78 rpm of some crooner. Many of the odd-sized records do not even indicate their playback speed, so aren’t immediately recognizable as non-standard. By looking for visual cues, and devoting extra time to examining records for extra tracks, groove-size, and the type of spindle-hole, you might discover a recording that you’ve never heard of before. While many 78s found their way on to LPs, and finally to CDs in modern times, the oddball recordings may have ended up on a dead end during their lifespan, even if they were recorded by a popular singer or Grammy-winning band. As with any collection, taking the time to look closer is the way to distinguish the diamonds from the dirt. Record albums might have seemed simple enough — but there’s a lot more to look for than you might have thought!



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Judy After my Mom passed away 20 years ago, I found several blank Silvertone 8" record discs. Are they worth anything? Thanks March 20th, 2011 at 9:35 AM

Jeff Missinne

Jeff Missinne In addition to the variations you have shown here, some others include 45 rpm EP's (Extended Play) with 2 or 3 songs per side, Columbia's 33 rpm singles (a failed attempt to sink RCA's 45 single with a deliberately non-compatible record,) 7-inch "Compact 33" or "Little LPS," a variation on the LP made for juke box use, and audiophile LPS of classical music recorded at 45 rpm. Some "office music" systems used records with non-standard (HUGE) center holes so they could not be played on any other equipment. There were also 16 rpm records, mainly used for "talking books for the blind." The radio transcription you showed played 15 minutes per side at 33 rpm; they had the same thick grooves as 78's and often played inside out (the track starting next to the label and playing outward to the edge.) August 26th, 2013 at 11:23 AM

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