Why Do Record Players Have Different Speeds?


Why Do Record Players Have Different Speeds?

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When we come across different record players, one major thing that you might notice about them is that they have a way to choose different speeds. Why do they have different speed options on the players? Shouldn’t all the players have the same speed? 

Why do records play at different speeds? The main reason that record players have different speeds is because different records are designed to be played at different speeds. Normally a record player will have 3 different speeds of 33, 45, and 78 RPM. You just have to adjust the speed based on which speed the record you are playing needs. 

A few key components play a part in deciding the speed of the record player. In the past, slow music was much more popular, therefore, slow operated record players were developed. However, with the advancement in technology and origination of fast music genres, different record player speeds came into existence.

Most turntables/record players that have multiple speed levels (33/45/78) will have their speeds controlled by a knob or lever. To change the speed of the record player to match the speed that the record needs you simply have to push the lever or turn the knob. 

Some older record players will only have one or possibly two speed but most of the newer players have all three speed options. If you have some records in your collection that are designed to be played at different speeds it is important to know whether your player can play them all properly or not. 

 I should mention that playing records at the wrong speeds won’t hurt the records, they just won’t sound as good. If a record is played slower or faster than it is designed to then it will either sound low and slow or fast and high pitched. 

Knowing the speed that your record needs to be played on and playing it on that speed will allow you to listen to the music on your records as it was intended and at the best possible sound quality. 

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How many speed levels does a record player have?

Usually, there are three-speed levels for a high-quality record player with multiple features. The turntable can be rotated at 33 1/3, 45, and 78 RPM (rotations per minute). These are essentially  the slow, medium, and high-speed buttons that can be adjusted according to what your record needs. 

Early prototypes of the record player played at the speed of 80 rotations per minute. Reducing this speed messed up the sound; therefore, quality music was difficult to produce. But today, because of the creation of excellent quality vinyl records and turntables, the problem has been solved by allowing for three different speeds as needed. 

Even if you have the speed of a record player set the same as another player the speeds can still vary slightly. A more expensive record player will be more accurate with its speed which will in turn produce better sound than a player that is running too fast or slow. 

The speed of the record player depends upon several factors such as the material used, the wear and tear on the player, and what speed it is set at. The speed may also vary from one model to another because of the amount of electricity it uses or the different manufactures setting the speeds slightly faster or slower. 

There is also a possibility of the speed slowing down a little when the cantilever’s needle applies pressure on the record. This is because of the friction between the needle and the record itself. Normally this won’t be a major issue but if your needle needs replaced or has gotten damaged somehow then the needle being on the record could slow its speed significantly.  

 Each specific record that you purchase should have on its label or sleeve what speed it is designed to be played at. It is important to make sure you set the speed properly to get the best possible music. 

Most 12 inch records will be 33 ⅓ RPM while 78 RPM is rarely used for most records. 

How do record companies cope with different speeds while preparing records?

Record companies prepare records by considering the speed ratio of the player. Normally if the songs are more upbeat then they will be made to be used at either 45 or 78 RPM. More traditional speed sounds will be played at 33 ⅓ RPM.  

Most 12 inch records will need to be played at 33 ⅓ RPM while 7 inch records are almost always at 45 RPM. 7 inch records are so commonly played at 45 RPM that they have even become known as 45s. 

Since 45 RPM is considered the standard for 7 inch records, then going with a faster or slower play rate will cause the record to not sound very good. Of course there is something fun about listening to your favorite artist or band sing at a really fast or really slow speed! 

It is important to note that not all 7 inch records are designed to be played at 45 RPM so if your new record doesn’t sound right, double check its label or sleeve and make sure that it isn’t meant to be played at a different speed. 

Historical Aspects:

 Surprisingly, records weren’t originally intended to be played at any of the three speeds that we have today. The original record speed was 80 RPM. These records were designed to be played at a much faster rate but this was difficult for the technology of the time to handle. 

To save on costs record companies began producing smaller records that played at slower speeds. They couldn’t fit as much music on each side of the record but that meant they just made the album shorter or used these smaller records for the most popular songs from an album. 

Since these smaller records had less songs on them and were cheaper to produce, they were also less expensive than their larger counterparts. 

Of course since there were now multiple speeds for records then the players needed to play records at more than one speed as well. Record player manufacturers began making players that would play both of the most popular speeds, the 33 ⅓ RPM and the 45 RPM. Later players were made that played all 3 possible speeds on one device. 

There were a few different benefits to having a 33 ⅓ RPM and a $% over the original 78 RPM or 80 RPM. Some of those benefits are: 

  • Affordability
  • Portability
  • Ease of use
  • Less storage space
  • More music

Of course it wasn’t all pros with these smaller records as the 45s (7 inch records) only held 4-6 minutes of music on each side while the larger 12 inch record player help over 20 minutes, 

Knowing that the 12 inch 33 ⅓ RPM record holds more than the 7 inch record youj would assume that a 12 inch record that plays at 78 RPM would hold more music… but you would be wrong! 

The 12 inch 78 RPM record would normally only hold a single song since they had to space the grooves out on the record so the needle didn’t jump between grooves. The slower 33 and 45 records help much more music than the 12 inch 78 ever could! 

Conclusion

Today, most record players will come with either two or three speed options on them. If the player only has two speeds then it will be the more popular 33 ⅓ & 45 whereas a player with three speeds will also include the less popular 78 RPM option. 

Record players have these different speeds because records were designed to be played at different speeds. You want to make sure to have your player at the correct speed otherwise the record will sound “off” and will either be higher pitched and faster than it should be or sound deeper and slower than it should. 

Although playing a record at the wrong speed won’t damage it it definitely won’t sound the best. 

Want to learn more about record player’s speeds? Check out the video below. 

Matt Robbs

There is nothing quite so enjoyable as bringing back memories from your childhood. We used to spend hours playing pinball in my friends basement and that really got me involved in everything retro!

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