Just like any medium for music, there is only so much space you can use to transcribe music onto. Vinyl records share the same limitation and can represent a limited playtime accurately.
A standard 12-inch 33 RPM vinyl record can have a playtime of roughly 22 minutes per side for a total of 44 minutes. A 7-inch 45 RPM record can fit approximately 5 minutes per side for a total of 10 minutes. Generally, any longer, the sound quality would start to deteriorate.
These are the two most common types of records and covers a majority of the market. However, there are many other standards at play, and when purchasing antique albums.
Playing Times of the Many Vinyl Variations
The playing time of a vinyl record depends on total groove length. Groove length is a product of the diameter of the record and how tightly the grooves are packed together.
Listed below are the most common sizes and RPMs you may come across and the advised max runtimes of the combination determined by manufacturers.
|Size||RPM||Runtime per Side|
|12-inch||33 RPM||22 minutes|
|12-inch||45 RPM||15 minutes|
|12-inch||78 RPM||5 minutes|
|7-inch||33 RPM||7 minutes|
|7-inch||45 RPM||5 minutes|
|10-inch||33 RPM||15 minutes|
|10-inch||45 RPM||12 minutes|
|10-inch||78 RPM||3 minutes|
In the early days of vinyl records, 78 RPM was the most common and only provided a total of 10 minutes of runtime. When sound was introduced into movies, the short runtime of these 78 RPM records was insufficient and required longer playtimes.
In 1948 Columbia Records introduced “long players,” or more commonly referred to as an “LP.” LPs were to fulfill the need of longer playtimes by spinning the record at a slower 33 RPM. Reducing the speed so drastically was possible through “microgrooves.”
Microgrooves are just a smaller groove within the vinyl record. These microgrooves required a needle stylus nearly one third the size of a 78 RPM stylus.
Our playtimes have not increased much since then. LPs were a set standard and have stood the test of time.
A 12-inch @ 33RPM or an “LP” with microgrooves is by far the most common in modern pressings, which provides you a total of 44 minutes of music on a single record.
Next up would be your “45s” or 7-inch @ 45 RPM records. 45s are going to be a much shorter 5 minutes, totaling up to 10 minutes for both sides. This limitation results in being able to fit a song or two on each side.
78 RPM records have not been commonly produced since the 50s’. The higher speed of rotation drastically lowers the playtime of an LP to the same duration of a 45.
78 RPM records generally came in a 10-inch variant and made from shellac, unlike modern vinyl records which are made primarily from PVC. 12-inch 78 RPM records were primarily reserved for classical music.
Extended Play and the Affect on Quality
Shortly after the release of LPs, RCA Victor introduced the “extended play” or EP record to compete with Columbia Records. EPs initially referred to 45s that contained more than a single song per side and later refined to any music album containing 4 or more tracks.
These records were able to cram in an extra 2-3 minutes per side of a 7-inch 45 by reducing the size of the grooves at the cost of losing some fidelity.
These smaller grooves reduced the dynamic range of the record. Other side effects include quieter play and more prone to damage by a dirty needle.
An EP generally had a runtime of 10-15 minutes. Some examples of EPs include:
- Elvis Presley’s 1956 EP Love Me Tender
- The Beatles 1967 EP Magical Mystery Tour
- The Kinks 1964 EP Kinksize Session
Columbia Records then followed up by releasing an “extended-play” LP. A 12-inch 33 RPM record with smaller and tighter grooves.
These extended-play LPs allowed a single 12-inch record to have a total playtime of 52 minutes or 26 minutes per side. Broadway plays often made use of extended-play LPs, to reduce further the need to flip and exchange records.
Although, there have been some releases that have broken the mold:
- Todd Rundgren’s 1973 album A Wizard, a True Star where side B nearly reached a 30-minute playtime.
- La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s 1974 album Dream House 78’ 17” had an astonishing playtime of 78 minutes long, 39 minutes per side.
- Arthur Fiedler’s 1976 LP 90 Minutes with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops as the title states had a mind-blowing 90 minutes of playtime.
Many of these records saw a drastic loss in quality by extending the playtime so far.
33 RPM vs 45 RPM
You may be wondering why anybody would want a 45 RPM over a 33 RPM record if it reduces the playtime so drastically. It all comes down to quality.
45 RPM records, in contrast to 33 RPM, are traditionally louder and provide a broader dynamic range due to wider grooves. At the cost of reducing the available playtime of the record by 35%.
What this means is that a 45 RPM single will should better than the same song on a 33 RPM LP although this does not always hold.
As the needle moves closer to the center of the record, the quality of the sound decreases ever so slightly. The record has to store the same length of music over a shorter distance in the grooves.
Extending on this logic a 12-inch 45 RPM record, which is a rising format, is going to be better than any 12-inch 33 RPM record.
Furthermore, due to the fact, the sound deteriorates as you get closer to the center of the platter. The expanded circumference of a 12-inch 45 RPM record of a 7-inch 45 RPM record will provide another increase of fidelity.
In my experience, the production quality of 45s has been a bit hit or miss. However, when I do receive a well-pressed 45, I can immediately tell by the impactful bass provided by the broader dynamic range.