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What happens if you play a 33 record at 45?

Introduction

Vinyl records emerged as a dominant music format in the mid-20th century, succeeding shellac records due to their improved durability and sound quality. These records are discs made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that store analog audio signals in the form of grooves on their surfaces. The playback speed of a vinyl record, measured in revolutions per minute (rpm), dictates how fast the record rotates on a turntable and thus affects the playback duration and sound quality.

Whether you are playing a pressed record, or are looking to make your own record with a service like ours at Freestyle Vinyl (one of the best gifts for music lovers out there, if we do say so ourself), see below for advice on playback speed!

 

Why are 33 and 45 the standard for vinyl spinning?

The Development of 33 1/3 RPM Records:

The 33 1/3 rpm speed was introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records, largely driven by technological advancements and the desire to improve sound fidelity and increase playing time. Prior to this, shellac records typically spun at 78 rpm but were limited in playback duration due to their size and groove spacing. The slower speed of 33 1/3 rpm allowed for longer recording times per side, which was achieved by reducing the width of the groove and increasing the number of grooves per inch. This development was crucial for the adoption of vinyl records as a mainstream format for full-length albums, enabling artists and labels to release longer recordings without compromising sound quality.

The adoption of the 33 1/3 rpm speed also coincided with the introduction of microgroove technology, which further enhanced the ability to capture and reproduce detailed audio frequencies. These records typically play for around 22 minutes per side on a 12-inch LP (Long Play) record, making them ideal for presenting cohesive albums or extended musical works.

The Rise of 45 RPM Records:

In contrast, 45 rpm records were introduced around the same time as 33 1/3 rpm records but served a different purpose. Introduced by RCA Victor in 1949, 45 rpm records were smaller in diameter (typically 7 inches) and designed primarily for single-song releases or "singles." The faster rotational speed allowed for improved fidelity and dynamic range compared to the earlier 78 rpm singles. This format became popular for radio play and jukebox use due to its compact size and ability to quickly change between songs.

The 45 rpm format also featured a large center hole, which made it easier to place the record on a turntable spindle and reduced the risk of damage when changing records frequently. This design innovation contributed to the widespread adoption of the 45 rpm format for singles throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Functional and Aesthetic Considerations:

Beyond technical considerations, the choice of playback speeds also influenced aesthetic and functional aspects of vinyl record usage. The slower speed of 33 1/3 rpm allowed for deeper bass response and extended playing times suitable for album-length recordings, encouraging artists and producers to explore longer and more complex musical compositions. This speed also facilitated the development of concept albums and thematic storytelling in music.

Conversely, the faster speed of 45 rpm was advantageous for maximizing the fidelity of individual songs, particularly important for popular singles that aimed to capture listeners' attention quickly and effectively. The smaller size of 45 rpm records also contributed to their appeal as collectible items and promotional tools for artists and record labels.

Innovations such as picture disc vinyl can be played at either 33 or 45rpm, depending on the production specs.

Cultural and Technological Impact:

The establishment of 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm speeds as standard formats for vinyl records had profound cultural and technological impacts on the music industry. Vinyl records became synonymous with high-fidelity audio reproduction and physical album artwork, fostering a culture of album appreciation and music collectibility among listeners. The format's durability and enduring popularity among audiophiles and collectors have contributed to its resilience in the face of subsequent music distribution formats such as cassette tapes, CDs, and digital downloads.

The adoption of 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm speeds for vinyl records was driven by a combination of technological innovation, functional requirements, and cultural preferences. The slower speed of 33 1/3 rpm enabled longer playing times suitable for full-length albums, while the faster 45 rpm speed catered to the demands of single-song releases and jukebox play. These speeds have remained standard for vinyl records, reflecting their historical importance and ongoing relevance in the realm of physical music media.

 

So What Happens If I Play A 33RPM Vinyl at 45RPM?

Playing a vinyl record at the incorrect speed can significantly alter the sound quality and potentially damage both the record and the playback equipment. Specifically, if you play a vinyl record that is intended to be played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (rpm) at 45 rpm instead, several noticeable effects will occur:

  1. Pitch Increase: The most immediate effect of playing a 33 rpm record at 45 rpm is that the pitch of the music will increase. This happens because the rotational speed determines how quickly the stylus moves through the grooves, and thus, how quickly the recorded sound waves are reproduced. Increasing the speed from 33 rpm to 45 rpm will make the music play faster, causing the pitch to rise accordingly.
  2. Distorted Sound: The increase in speed will also lead to distorted sound quality. The music may sound overly fast-paced, with vocals and instruments sounding unnaturally high-pitched and sometimes unclear or garbled. This distortion occurs because the playback system and stylus are not designed to accurately reproduce the sound at the incorrect speed, leading to inaccuracies in playback.
  3. Potential Damage to Equipment: Continuously playing a vinyl record at the wrong speed can potentially damage both the record and the turntable's stylus (needle). Vinyl records are designed with specific groove dimensions and depths that correspond to their intended playback speed. Playing a record at a higher speed than intended can cause the stylus to exert more pressure on the grooves, leading to excessive wear and even permanent damage to both the stylus and the record itself. This is particularly true if the record is played at a much higher speed, such as 45 rpm instead of 33 rpm.
  4. Unintended Effects on Music: Beyond pitch and distortion, playing a record at the wrong speed can also affect the timing and overall structure of the music. Sections that are meant to be slower or more nuanced may be rushed, and instrumental solos or transitions may not be properly conveyed as intended by the artist.

While it might be an interesting experiment to briefly hear how a record sounds at a different speed, consistently playing a 33 rpm vinyl record at 45 rpm is not recommended. It can lead to significant distortion, potential damage to both the record and the turntable equipment, and a distorted listening experience that does not accurately reflect the artist's intended sound.

 

Are There Other Speeds That Turntables Can Play?

Yes, turntables can play vinyl records at various speeds beyond the commonly known 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm. The specific speeds that a turntable can accommodate depend on its design and functionality. Here are some additional speeds that turntables may support:

  1. 78 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute): Historically, 78 rpm was a standard speed for shellac records before vinyl records became prevalent. These records typically require a larger stylus (often referred to as a "78 stylus") due to the wider grooves and different material characteristics of shellac compared to vinyl. Some modern turntables offer the capability to play 78 rpm records, either through adjustable speed controls or by using a specialized stylus.
  2. 16 RPM: Although less common, some turntables are capable of playing records at 16 rpm. Records played at this speed are typically used for spoken word recordings, such as audiobooks or educational materials. The slower speed allows for longer recording durations on each side of the record.
  3. Other Custom Speeds: Some professional or specialized turntables may have adjustable speed controls that allow for custom playback speeds. These can range from slightly adjustable speeds for fine-tuning playback to more extreme variations for experimental or technical purposes.

It's important to note that not all turntables are capable of playing all these speeds. Turntables designed for home use typically support 33 1/3 rpm, 45 rpm, and sometimes 78 rpm with the appropriate stylus. Professional or DJ turntables may offer more flexibility with adjustable speeds to accommodate different types of records and playback preferences.