The Difference Between 33 RPM vs 45 RPM: All You Need To Know

Published Categorized as Vinyl 101

Are you trying to make sense of all the letters and numbers that have come to signpost so much of the record-collecting experience? Are you looking to find out the precise differences in the dichotomy between 33 vs 45 vinyl?

Well, look no further, for today this is precisely what we will be elucidating for you, hoping to enlighten you on some of the key differences and points of consideration for an aesthetic appreciation of the variations between 33 vs 45 vinyl rpms.

33 vs 45 vinyl

Size

One of the central differences between 33 vs 45 vinyl rpm is the respective sizes of these kinds of vinyl record speeds.

Generally, a record that is played at 33 rpm is going to be larger than a record intended to be played at 45 rpm. A record played at 33 rpm will tend to be around 12 inches, in fact. This harkens back to the early days of vinyl technology when Columbia Records began selling these larger discs under the pretext that they could hold significantly more music than any other existing disc at the time, including a whole range of vinyl record types.

This tradition continues to this day, where the dichotomy of 33 vs 45 vinyl comes to symbolize the parallel dichotomy between 12 inch records and 7 inch records. The 7 inch record comes at the task of holding sound from quite a different angle. Where 12 inch vinyl records are traditionally used to hold longer form releases like albums or EPs, the 7 inch has come to hold shorter releases, like shorter EPs and singles.

In fact, the term single comes from these days, when a single set of songs would be held on these 7 inch discs and played at 45 rpm for the sake of higher audio quality.

The lines are not so clear cut, however, as there exist such things as 12 inch singles, which instead of holding a whole album seek to play an extended mix of a single or simply hold a longer form song without sacrificing any of the sound quality.

For this reason, a 12 inch single record spins at 45 rpm usually, particularly popular among various styles of dance music, where the audio quality over massive speakers is integral to the sanctity of the vibes.

speeds of the different record types

7 Inch Vinyl Records

This size of vinyl record is almost certainly going to be played at 45 rpm, having become the standard speed for this kind of disc in the middle of the 20th century. The higher speed is supposedly better for the sound quality of the music imbibed within the grooves, hence why the original progenitor of the gramophone, Emile Berliner, believed that the optimum speed for audio quality was around 80 rpm, and hence why 78 rpm was the go to speed at which to play records for such a long time.

That being said, there are a number of releases (however small) that use 7 inch vinyl records at 33 rpm, though they are exceedingly rare. I suppose it is not hard to see why this might be of use to some, where the binaries of 12 inch and 7 inch records at their regular speeds simply do not offer an in-between upon which to hold an apposite body of music.

10 inch

You are far less likely to find a 10 inch record out and about, unless you are on a particularly thorough sojourn of crate digging or storing records of old. Many manufacturers do not even produce them anymore, hence why there is such a lack of an in between size on the vinyl market.

This was the original size of the vinyl disc, wherein they would be spun on record players at 78 rpm, the proposed ideal speed by Emile Berliner, though a speed that not all turntables can handle these days. They are generally much thicker, and were originally made from shellac, hence why they were considered too unsafe and thus brought out of mass production.

12 inch

As already elucidated (and something vinyl collectors from all over can tell you), the 12 inch record will more often than not be played at 33 rpm, for the purposes of fitting a whole album onto the however many discs make up the entire package.

That being said, there is in some circles a trend of using 12 inch records to house extended singles and / or remixes instead. These records will thus be played at 45 rpm for the sake of better sound quality, though the record player upon which they are played will tend to be more like a big set of decks. This higher sound quality will translate through the larger stereo system upon which these tunes are usually played.

Tracks

Another key difference between 33 vs 45 vinyl records is the amount of tracks that each can contain.

As a 45 rpm record is being played a faster speed, there is an inherent deficit in the amount of tracks that can appear on a disc intended to be played at precisely this speed.

Likewise (and inversely), a 33 rpm record will inherently be able to hold more tracks, owing to the slower speed. This speed means that the cartridge is going to trace the grooves slower and thus will take more time to fulfill the many revolutions upon the record’s surface.

If a 12 inch record has three or more tracks on each side, then chances are that it is going to be played at 33 rpm to accommodate all of the tracks. The same logic can be applied on the inverse, so that any record that has only one or two tracks on each side is more likely to be played at 45 rpm.

There is an increasing trend, however, towards half-speed mastering, which altogether challenges the kind of assumptions we might make about the speed of a record based on the number of tracks.

A friend of mine, for example, was debating for a while whether to purchase a copy of Discreet Music by Brian Eno in its normal form or whether to invest in a version that was mastered at half speed. The former would have meant that the eponymous half an hour long title track would have fit perfectly on to one side of vinyl at 33 rpm, while the latter instead meant that it would have been split onto two sides at 45 rpm. He opted for the latter, against my best wishes.

33 vs 45 vinyl

Sound Quality

One of the central reasons many pledge their allegiance on the side of 45 rpm records is the sheer fact of their sounding better when the record spins on a record player.

Where the record travels faster, there is inherently more vibrational information within the grooves that can be translated into a higher sound fidelity.

Likewise, the inverse is true for a 33 rpm record, wherein the slower speed means that there is inherently less information being imbibed within the grooves at this speed and thus less to speak of with regards to the audio fidelity.

The real trade off here is one of quality and time. Though a record spun at 45 rpm is going to inherently allow for a higher quality of tone within the record groove, it will also make for a significant lessening of the amount of available space on the surface of the record.

In the case of all records, however, (and something one would know if clued up on how are vinyl records made) is that ‘fidelity steadily declines as playback progresses; there is more vinyl per second available for fine reproduction of high frequencies at the large-diameter beginning of the groove than exist at the smaller diameters close to the end of the side.

‘At the start of a groove on an LP there are 510 mm of vinyl per second traveling past the stylus while the ending of the groove gives 200–210 mm of vinyl per second — less than half the linear resolution. Distortion towards the end of the side is likely to become more apparent as record wear increases.’

Thus, no matter what speed a record is played at, it is going to fall prey to the same faults in fidelity towards the center of the disc regardless.

Lifespan

Similarly, and inherently related to some of the aforementioned points, is the longevity of a vinyl record as affected by the speed at which it is intended to be played.

Much as with the previous point, the 45 rpm record seems a clear winner. Operating at this higher speed, there is inherently less damage being done to the surface of the disc, for the needle is spending inherently less time scraping its way along the record’s face.

On the inverse, the argument is that with a 33 rpm operating at the slower speed, it encourages the needle to spend more time dragging itself across the record’s face, as well as spending inherently longer spinning out of its packaging in the first place, all of which means that it is not doing the record the best it could.

45 rpm records also play off of the aforementioned phenomenon, wherein a record’s sound quality inherently degrades towards the center owing to the disc shape that it is constructed from. Closer to the center, the record’s circular grooves become smaller and smaller, offering less and less space and prompting the needle to traverse its face faster and faster.

Operating at a faster speed, a record that is intended to be played at 45 rpm will mean that this part of the record – already so prone to degradation in sound fidelity overall – is prevented from degrading even further and at a faster rate, such as it might on the surface of a record intended to be spun at 33 rpm.

And while the actual speed of these records is 33 and a third revolution per minute, that extra fraction of speed is not going to make enough of a difference in terms of slowing down the degradation of the record overall.

33 vs 45 vinyl

Conclusion

Though it is not necessarily a competition, there are a number of things that a 45 rpm record does better than its 33 rpm counterpart.

The overall quality of the sound within the grooves of a 45 rpm record is inherently better, owing to the phenomenon within record technology which means that a record mastered to be played at a faster speed will at root sound better than a record mastered slower and intended to be played slower.

Likewise, the fact of its being played faster also comes to mean that the degradation of a record that can otherwise not be helped (no matter how delicately one treats it) is slowed down considerably, for the needle that tends to do most of the damage scraping along a record’s surface as it does is spending less time doing so, thus sparing a record’s eventual invalid state for a time longer.

There is, however, a significant trade off with all of these benefits that comes in the form of time. Since a 45 rpm record will be traveling faster, it will be spending less time projecting the music within the grooves forth through the respective stereo system of the user.

Therefore, it will overall be able to hold less music than a record played at 33 rpm. And in an industry where money is increasingly scarce, especially when it comes to any artist actually trying to do something different, this can be a pretty significant deciding factor.

In a similar vein, I imagine that the overload of orders and back logged deliveries that are currently plaguing vinyl pressing plants throughout the western world will play a part in whether a certain record is to be pressed to wax at 33 rpm or 45 rpm.

A slower speed will mean more space to put more music onto one disc, thus saving time and materials in the process. All are factors for consideration.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully, this short but sweet journey through some of the key differences between the 33 vs 45 vinyl rpms has been of some use to you in attempting to make sense of all the numbers and characters that have become signpost symbols dotted throughout the world of the record collection.

Perhaps you will try spinning some of your 33 rpm records at 45 rpm to get a flavor of it, or perhaps you will try the inverse and spin your 45 rpm records at 33 rpm for the ultimate vaporwave and chopped ‘n screwed experience.

FAQs 33 vs 45 Vinyl

Are 45 records better than 33?

While there are certainly a whole host of benefits that come along with a record spun at 45 rpm instead of 33 rpm, it would be wrong to say that one is better than the other. For all those benefits, a 33 rpm record can hold a considerable amount more music than a 45 rpm record can, allowing the record plant to essentially put a whole album onto one disc.

What happens if you play a 45 record at 33?

Not a whole lot besides the record sounding kind of funny. There is an inherently novel quality to this kind of thing at first that should be savored at all costs. In fact, I have found a whole host of albums and singles in my record collection that sound rather interesting, if not quite amazing, when played at the wrong speed. This tends to apply far more for slowing down then speeding up, however.

Why are some records 33 and some 45?

The variable speeds at which a record is pressed has to do with a number of factors regarding the actual music itself. This is a physical format, and so the literal amount of space that the music is going to take up on the physical disc is a prime point of consideration when looking to press a release onto wax. Some releases might need more space to fit on a 7 inch or 12 inch disc, in which case they will likely be pressed to be spun at 33 rpm; inversely, a release might need a higher fidelity owing to various aspects of its production, in which case it will be pressed to be spun at 45 rpm.

How do I know if my record is 33, 45 or 78?

Most records will come with directions on the center label regarding what speed they ought to be played at. However, there are a number of records in my own collection, for instance, that seem to take the speed at which they ought to be played for granted. The only way to find out what speed these records ought to be played is by either listening (if you already know the song well enough) or by googling. I have a Kevin Shields remix of ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ which I had been gifted and thus never really known outside of the vinyl version, and it took me years to realize that I had been listening at the wrong speed the whole time.

Published
Categorized as Vinyl 101

By Robert Halvari

My name is Robert Halvari - audio engineer and a total audiophile. I love vinyl because it has that natural character which brings music to life. I've been using and testing vinyl record players for around 15 years and I'm sharing my love and knowledge of vinyl by publishing all I know at Notes On Vinyl

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