Most people also know that records come in two different speeds. The majority of records are played at 33 Revolutions Per Minute, and some, usually singles or special editions, are played at 45 RPM. There is an older format that runs at 78 RPM. This was the earliest format that we’d recognise as a “record”. Your ancestor’s gramophone ran 78 records as far back as the late 1880s.
By today’s standards, 78s are a bit of an odd creature. They only had a few minutes to a side (it is said that’s why modern pop songs are about are 3 - 5 minutes long) and they actually predate vinyl as a material. They were mostly made of a shellac medium, although there were plenty of odd alternatives around. Grooves were a lot bigger on a 78 too. They were often played with something akin to a metal pin. The slang here is why we say “needle” when we’re talking about a diamond stylus that modern turntables use (modern, meaning since the 1960s…). Current generation records have a much finer groove, due to better pressing and cutting techniques. These are referred to as “microgroove” and has been the standard since about 1948.
Still, there’s plenty of 78s lying around. Mostly you’ll find them as antiques or in the odd treasure trove when crate digging through an op shop. You might get a bit macabre and pick them up from someone’s deceased estate sale. Over the last few years, the industry has seen some artists releasing limited editions on 78. Or in the case of Jack White, having a secret 78 track on an otherwise 33 RPM record. These are special releases that are frustratingly difficult to play for most collectors. In these cases it’s mostly been a microgroove pressing, so a current stylus will read the record, it will just need a faster spin.
So how do we go about playing these records?
It’s a little trickier than swapping between the standard 33 and 45 RPM.
Two things are required. First we need the turntable to actually spin at 78 revolutions per minute. That’s pretty obvious. It’s the real defining factor of a 78. Second, we’ll need to determine if we’re playing larger groove records, or microgroove at 78. If it’s microgroove, then we’re done and ready to play. If it’s an antique 78, then we are going to need to get a stylus that will read these different sized grooves.
Pro-Ject turntables offer a few different options to get a platter spinning at 78 RPM. The easiest, and most expensive option is to pick up one of the exquisite Signature series turntable with electronics speed control. These are astonishing turntables for absolute musical bliss. Of course, not everyone wants to spend second-hand-car-money on their turntable.
First, you can take the world’s most popular turntable, the trusty Pro-Ject Debut Carbon and buy a 78 adaptor kit for it. Your local specialist Pro-Ject dealer can help you out with this. It requires you to take the pulley off the motor and replace it with a new one. The motor keeps spinning at its regulation speed, but the new pulley makes the platter spin at precisely 78 revolutions per minute. It seems a little intimidating, because you’ll need to take a screwdriver to your lovely turntable to pop off the main motor pulley and replace it. Then you’ll need to change it back once you want to play regular records again. As daunting as it might sound, I promise that if you have enough manual dexterity to make a sandwich, you’ll have no trouble changing this pulley. This is a great solution if you’ve either want to play some 78s as a novelty once in awhile, and don’t mind going to a little effort for the listening session. It’s also a good option if you want to set up a permanent turntable for 78s.
Debut Carbon Esprit SB
The pimped out version of the Debut Carbon, the Debut Esprit SB is a more convenient method. It’s go onboard electronic speed control for 33 and 45s, but it also comes bundled with a second belt. Change the belt over and the speed picks up to precisely 78 revolutions per minute. This is a much easier solution to try out the odd 78 here and there. You can lift the platter off, and change out the belt in the space of a few seconds, and change it back in the same way.
The second major problem to solve is our stylus. If you are playing older 78s that were designed to work on a gramophone then the stylus needs to be changed out. There’s a nice and easy solution for this on the vast majority of Pro-Ject turntables. Ortofon, who make all of the pre-fitted styli for Pro-Ject, also make corresponding 78 stylus tips. If your turntable has a 2M Red pre-fitted, then the front of it can be replaced by the aptly named 2M78 stylus. Likewise, if your turntable has an OM series cartridge, the OM78 stylus is available. Either of these can be changed out by carefully pulling off the normal stylus and sliding on the new one. Very plug and play. If you don’t have an Ortofon stylus (and why wouldn’t you?) then you’ll need to have a 78 stylus fitted and calibrated by your dealer.
Once you’ve taken these steps you’ll be ready to spin your ancient records and party like it’s 1899!