Music History

How Wide Should a Vinyl Record Be?

It’s a more difficult question than you might thing. This is something I wrote for

It’s an easy question for the casual vinyl junkie. “Records are either seven inches in diameter if they’re a single or twelve inches if they’re an album or an EP.”

Really, now? Are you sure? And while we’re at it, do records even have to be round?

When we made the transition from Thomas Edison’s cylinder to Emile Berliner’s rotating disc about 120 years ago, the standard diameter for these newfangled things was generally 7 inches. No reason; it just seemed like a nice size. But in 1901, some wiseass decided that 10 inches was a better side. A wider record meant that the grooves could be spaced out more widely; wider-spaced grooves meant that the grooves could be deeper; and deeper grooves that more information could be stored within then, leading to better sound.

But if 10 inches was good, 12 inches had to be better, right? That size started making its appearance in about 1903 and for some reason spun at 60 RPM instead of the generally agreed-upon 78-ish RPM (it depended on the phonograph manufacturer, the record label and if you were in North American or Britain–let’s not get into the voltage issue here. In the end, though, 78 became the standard worldwide).

Other labels tried different sizes: 8 1/2, 9, 11 3/4, 14, 16 and even 20 inches, making it all very silly for a while. Fortunately by the time we got to WWI, clearer heads had prevailed and the world settled on 78 RPM 10-inch discs, which became the standard for the next forty years. It wasn’t until the late 40s that the 78 was pushed aside by the 33 1/3 12-inch album (introduced by Columbia Records in 1948) and 7-inch 45 RPM single (a creation of RCA in 1949).

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38466 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “How Wide Should a Vinyl Record Be?

  • There was actually no agreement on record size or speed in the early days of music recording (cylinders also came in different lengths, diameters, and speeds). Each company decided for itself.

    The two main disc sizes were 10″ and 12″ after 1900. But there were many variations in diameter, speed, groove size, and groove modulation. Often these were done to get around patents owned by others. The one thing that was truly standard is that all records turned clockwise, and generally the hole size.

    The most common type before electronic recording was 10″ 80 rpm lateral-cut 3-mil groove outside start.

    Other types:

    – Records before 1909 had only one side.

    – Columbia used 10″ and 12″ records 80 rpm vertical cut 3-mil groove outside start
    – Edison used 10″ and 12″ records 80 rpm vertical cut 1-mil groove outside start
    – Victor used 10″ and 12″ records 70 rpm lateral cut 3-mil groove outside start – later went to 76 rpm
    – Emerson used 10″ and 12″ records 80 rpm diagonal cut 3-mil groove outside start
    – Many small sizes were used for children’s records

    The French company Pathe had some strange formats:
    – 10″ and 12″ records 90 rpm vertical cut 7-mil groove outside start
    – 14″ records 90 rpm vertical cut 7-mil groove center start
    – 20″ records 120 rpm vertical cut 7-mil groove center start (I have seen one of these playing)

    When radio stations started broadcasting records and most records were recorded electronically, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) demanded a standardizing of record types. The standard was:

    10″ or 12″ 78 rpm lateral-cut 3-mil groove outside start. Patents had expired, so all made the switch.

    78 rpm was a compromise between Columbia’s 80 and Victor’s 76. This was the first use of 78.

    12″ records were generally used for classical music, because they played longer (up to 5.5 minutes).

    Why do we call it a record album? In the 78 era, an album was a book of record sleeves looking like a photo album.

    I have records in sizes of 4″, 5.5″, 6″, 7″, 8″, 9″, 10″, 12″, and 16″.

    There were 4 other battles for photograph record formats over the years:

    – Pre-emphasis on the recording 1937-1962 (winner RIAA in 1953)
    – Speeds, sizes, and groove sizes 1948-1957 (winners 12″ 33 and 7″ 45, both with 1 mil groove)
    – Stereo recording methods 1953-1957 (winner Westrex 45-45 in 1957)
    – Surround sound recording method 1970-1980 (winner Dolby Surround 1980)


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