Before mp3s, before CDs, before even tapes or 8-tracks, there were vinyl records. And yet, as music becomes more and more digital, vinyl records endure.
Some of the reason for vinyl’s durability is the sense of nostalgia so many of us feel for the analogue format.
My own memories of playing Dr. Seuss records on my Mickey Mouse record player have always stuck with me, or hearing Dark side of the Moon for the very first time on our old stereo, Pink Floyd resonating with that warm, vinyl tone.
But it’s not just nostalgia. Vinyl records really do sound different – perhaps even better. And it’s a difference you cannot mimic with other formats. It is this difference which still hooks people on the format. For the aspiring vinyl record aficionado, however, there can be a lot of information to digest. Not to worry. Here is a quick introduction to get you started.
What differentiates one vinyl record format from another is the size or diameter of the record as well as the speed at which the vinyl record is played back or its RPM.
When we talk about vinyl records, it is common practice to lump certain playing speeds with certain sizes.
12 inch records, for example, are often associated with a play speed of 33 1/3 rotations per minute. 7 inch records, as another example, are often referred to as 45s because they are most commonly played at a speed of 45 rotations per minute.
While it is routine to pair speeds with sizes, it is not entirely correct to do so. There are 12 inch vinyl records that play at 45 RPM and there are 7 inch records that play at speeds that aren’t offered on regular turntables.
Indeed, vinyl records come in a wide variety of different combinations of play-speeds and sizes. Some formats, such as 45s and 33s, are still manufactured while others, such as 78s, have faded into vinyl record history.
But there’s no need to feel intimidated. The casual vinyl record collector will only encounter two of these formats – 12″ albums that play at 33 1/3 RPM (aka LPs) and 7″ albums that play at 45 RPM (aka singles or EPs).
LPs, short for “Long Play,” are the most common type of vinyl record on the market. LPs are the full albums you find at the record store, packed inside a paper sleeve within a cardboard jacket.
An LP record is 12 inches in diameter and spins at 33 1/3 RPM. The playing time on an LP is up to 30 minutes per side. LPs offer the most play time per side of any vinyl record format.
Singles and Extended Play albums are practically the same. Both are 7″ in diameter and play at 45 rotations per minute.
7 inch vinyl records were introduced in 1949 as a replacement for 78s and were originally called “singles” because they could fit only a single song per side – about 4 minutes.
A few years later, the EP or Extended Play 7″ vinyl record was made available. In contrast, the EP was able to hold just over 7 minutes of music per side. They accomplished this feat by narrowing the width of the grooves on the 7″ album.
Since the EP held more than a single track per side, the term “single” no longer applied. Furthermore, with the rise of DJs and dance music in the 1970s, vinyl records of other sizes, namely 12 inch albums, began to be produced with only one song per side – still very common with rap music instrumentals. That said, record collectors will often refer to all 7″ formats – singles and extended play records – under the larger moniker of 45s.
Standard play records aren’t standard anymore. In fact, standard play records technically aren’t even “vinyl” records. Most commonly referred to as 78s because of their play-speed of 78 rotations per minute, standard play records were the first mass produced format of analogue recording and were actually made of shellac rather than vinyl. These albums held about 5 minutes of music per side and were 10 inches in diameter.
You can still find 78s at garage sales and thrift shops but they are not manufactured anymore – for good reason. 78s have a tendency to break easily and have infamously poor sound quality/surface noise. The majority of vinyl record players and turntables made in the last 40 years do not play 78s and you need a special stylus to play them because of the larger-than-usual grooves.
All records spin, but you already knew that. The rate at which they are supposed to spin is their rpm, or rotations per minute. Most record players have multiple rpm settings so as to accommodate different formats. And while you can play a vinyl record at any rpm, it will only sound right at one setting.
Playing a 33 at 78 rpm will speed up the record so that the songs sound like chipmunks are singing them (yes, that is how Alvin and the Chipmunks got started). Conversely, playing a 78 at 33 rpm will slow the record down and with it the music. While this can be very funny, it does nothing to make your music sound better. However, it won’t damage the record either. So if you enjoy it, go right ahead.
Always handle your vinyl records with 2 hands. This allows you to grasp it from the edges and avoid getting your filthy, oily fingers all over the music. The natural oils and acids on your fingers will actually eat away at the vinyl, corroding it at the chemical level. However, this corrosion takes time and can be prevented by simply cleaning your records.
In order to prevent scratches and cracks in your vinyl, always replace the record into its sleeve and return the sleeve to its jacket. In other words, don’t just toss it onto the couch while you reach for the next one. But neither should you leave the record on the turntable. Even if the lid is closed, the record will get dusty and that dust will need to be cleaned. That’s why the album jacket is also called a dust jacket: it keeps the dust off the record.
Speaking of returning your records to their jackets, any vinyl lover ought to know a few things about proper record storage. The first thing to remember is that, while vinyl records are made out of plastic, that does not mean they are indestructible. Ruining a record takes remarkably little effort. Caring for them requires only slightly more.
Because they are plastic, many environmental factors can contribute to their destruction. We’ve already talked about the oils and acids which naturally occur on the human hand. The full list of things which can conspire to ruin your vinyl records is too long to post here. Heat, acidic liquids, abrasive surfaces, and UV radiation can all damage vinyl beyond repair. That’s right, even sunshine can destroy your records, so keep them safely stored.
Records should be stored upright, on their side. It’s a bad idea to stack them, as this can lead to situations which see your records getting broken. Keep them upright, in their sleeves and jackets, in a cool, dry place. There are several different cabinets and boxes on the market for the vinyl audiophile to ensure the proper storage and longevity of a record collection.
Check out our page on how to store vinyl records for more in-depth information on vinyl record storage and vinyl record storage products.
The best thing you can do for your records is to keep them clean in the first place. But eventually they will get dirty, so you will need to know how to clean them.
The first thing to understand is how not to clean them.
Now, here is what you want to do.
It is a good idea to lightly clean your records before playing them. Surprisingly, this is especially true of new records. Even though a record is fresh out of its sleeve for the first time, that does not mean it is clean. There is a compound on new vinyl records which helps them release from the mold when pressed. Cleaning it before playing for the first time will improve sound quality.
Check out our page on how to clean vinyl records for more in-depth information on vinyl record cleaning techniques and vinyl record cleaning products.
As you get going…
Once you’ve spent some time and money getting into vinyl, there is even more you will want to know. For example, suppose you want to sell part or all of your collection. How do you price vinyl records? What is the best option for a private collector to liquidate some records? On the other hand, suppose that you want to find some rare items for your collection. Knowing how to price records will help you to know how much you ought to be paying.
You will also need to know where to buy vinyl records online, where to buy turntables, and how to get all the cleaning products you’ll need. You may want to seek out shows, conventions, and fairs, much like the one we hold twice a year in Vancouver.
And inevitably, as your collection expands, you will need to rid yourself of your less loved records. Instead of selling them, you may want to consider our charitable donation program. Not only do the proceeds go to support great causes, but it’s a fun way to start your good karma collection.