What is a Picture Disc Vinyl? Complete Guide

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Despite being a relatively old invention in the grand scheme of things, many people are still getting their heads around picture disc vinyl and what it is all about. In fact, even having been around for several decades now, there is still ample space for confusion and there are often contrary and heated debates on the subject as far as the eye can see on the horizon of the world wide web.

So, today, we will be exploring what a picture disc vinyl is and how it differs from your regular old black vinyl (hint: not very much at all).

What Exactly is Picture Disc Vinyl?

Certain aspects of record collecting and the knowledge needed to work on it oneself can sometimes seem like rocket science and can sometimes feel rather overwhelming and insurmountable. However, I urge you to reconsider your relation to the picture disc vinyl, for it is does precisely what it says on the tin.

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Where a normal vinyl disc will typically come in the color of black, a picture disc will be a little different. It can, in fact, be easy to confuse a picture disc vinyl with a normal vinyl disc that is colored a little differently. This is somewhat the case, though instead of being alternatively colored, a picture is laid into the face of the disc.

This will usually be the album cover of the album or single in question, meaning that the disc no longer be housed in a typical paper plastic jacket or cardboard sleeve of its own. What use would that be, covering up the picture disc vinyl printed with the album cover or a related image and thus not being able to see it?

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For a picture disc vinyl collector, it is all about the image, and so these types of vinyl records are very often simply kept in clear plastic sleeves, strong enough to cradle the disc and protect it from the harm of outside influences, though with a chemical constitution thin enough to allow onlookers to marvel at it without the plastic getting in the way of such flights of optic fancy.

There are a whole host of picture disc vinyl options to choose from, and chances are some of your favorite music has been rendered onto these kinds of discs. They can sometimes be hard to come by and inherently offer a sort of collectible quality.

Can You Actually Listen to Picture Disc Vinyl?

It is a rather common misconception to feel that, because there is a picture on the disc, a piece of art getting in the way of the metaphorical bullet that is the turntable needle, that we should not play such a record, for fear that it will ruin the picture. Simply, handle these records with care just like the regular ones.

We might even feel as though the disc is not meant to be played whatsoever, some kind of novelty disc record simply meant for display on a wall.

display records on wall

Picture disc vinyl can, however and for the most part, be played just as you would a ‘normal’ black polyvinyl disc. There are no special settings that you have to consider aside from those pertaining to the speed at which the disc should be played, information that should hopefully be found somewhere on the plastic sleeve.

Sometimes, though, the wrong speed can be the right speed. I once bought a dubstep EP by the UK producer Commodo. Without specifying the right speed at which to play it on the sleeve or disc itself, I began playing at the standard 33 1 / 3 rpm and hoped for the best.

The two tracks on the first side of the record sounded fine enough to me, so I continued onto the next side with the same settings, listening to the title track ‘Procession’ at 33 1 / 3 rpm. It was rather slow and arduous, but with a song title like that I thought it was intentional, and did not realise until a good month or so later when listening to the track on streaming services that I was in fact supposed to change the speed once I had flipped the disc!

Nevertheless, the point still stands that picture disc vinyl can be played just like any other vinyl and should be treated as such, even if the needle might gradually wear down the picture on the picture disc and even if they are a little frustrating for storing records.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully you are somewhat the wiser on just what picture disc vinyl is and the specifics of how it differs from what regular vinyl is. Hopefully, too, you are now at least slightly better informed, whether to discuss these things with a fellow audiophile and / or music enthusiast, or even to make a bold investment into the world of picture disc vinyl yourself, for playback purposes or simply for the purpose of collecting and distributing, demanding and supplying.

FAQs Picture Disc Vinyl

Can you play picture disc vinyl?

Yes, absolutely, or at least you can in most instances. There are no specific settings that you need to heed when listening to picture disc vinyl, besides those pertaining to the correct speed at which to play the disc so as to hear it as close as possible to how the artist(s) and producer intended for it to be heard. The picture on the vinyl will, however, wear away slowly over time, and some audiophiles would even suggest that the audio quality and fidelity is inferior on picture disc vinyl.

What’s the difference between a picture disc and a vinyl?

There is not technically any difference because a picture disc is a kind of vinyl. Much like any other vinyl record, e.g. like those which usually come in black, it stores and holds and can play back sound when it comes into contact with a spinning turntable platter and a needle as processed by a stereo system. The only real difference is the fact there is a picture laid into the face of the disc which typically supersedes the album sleeve itself. Some purport that this has a lasting impact on the state of the audio fidelity, though I personally would rather not get into such political debates, preferring myself to stay bipartisan.

Are picture discs worth anything?

This very much depends on what kind of picture disc it is. Sure, picture disc vinyl will inherently fetch a higher price point than usual vinyl, if only for the fact of its novelty and for the specialist equipment that needs to be utilised in order for it to be manufactured, as opposed to normal vinyl which can be far more easily mass produced. Some picture disc vinyl, however, can be especially rare, depending on the amount produced at inception, so keep your eyes on the prize and on the Discogs listings if you intend to make a quick buck collecting.

Are picture discs worse quality?

This is a topic that is up for much debate, though I will only repeat what information I have read in my research. Those that believe the audio quality for picture disc vinyl is worse believe this is because the plastic upon which the grooves are pressed is thinner than usual, likely owing to the massive picture in the middle of the disc taking up a lot of space like a too full sandwich. Other sources suggest that picture disc vinyl is not as durable as regular vinyl, wearing out far quicker because of the aforementioned issue.

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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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