Whenever I hear 78 rpm records spin, I feel like I've opened a portal to the past. Whether it's Enrico Caruso on a 12" one-sided Victor from 1915 or Charlie Parker w/ Miles in tow on a 1950 DIAL 10", 78's always possess a distinct air of antiquity. For many record collectors, 78's, or shellacs as they are known, represent another tributary to be explored in the quest for musical understanding and enjoyment. Unlike LPs, they are made of shellac which is both fragile and easily damaged by contact w/ many alcohol-based cleaning fluids that work nicely on vinyl (Isopropyl alcohol only). Playback requirements also differ and fall into two distinct camps. One focuses on playback integrity, preservation and restoration, while the other uses original machines from the era of 78's at the expense of those attributes. The latter constituency would include enthusiasts who play 78's on wind-up machines which offer the allure of seeing original Victrolas in action. These period machines use crank (wind-up) technology to set playback speed and have metal pin-like styli which devour the grooves of a disc.
The collector seeking to restore/preserve a 78 collection of value would be inclined to use modern turntables that are either purpose-built or modified. Two fine examples of this technology are the ubiquitous Technics SLP1200 modified by KAB Electronics and the Esoteric Sound Ramses belt-driven table. Both machines accommodate the five speeds that are required for accurate playback of 78's. Five...you ask? Simply put, 78's don't really play at 78 rpm. In fact, the majority come close at 78.26. This applies to 78's produced since the electronic era of recording began in 1926. Previous to that, speeds varied (see chart) and recordings were made using an acoustical method which was essentially the mechanical inverse of the playback process.
|Standard Playback Speeds
|Victor and HMV (early)
|Victor Acoustic (pre-1926)
|Electric Recordings (1926-on)
|Columbia Acoustic and Vertically Cut (old Edison)
In addition, equalization (an extreme Bass/Treble curve) is applied to records upon pressing and later inversely in the phono pre-amp, but for 78's, it varies from the contemporary RIAA standard (around 1955 to present). In fact each record label in the 78 era had its own equalization curves which the serious collector can reference. Moreover, devices which allow you to set these "curves" are available through the retailers mentioned previously.
The final frontier in 78 playback/restoration is the control of excessive surface noise which is inherent in even the most pristine acetate. Many computer programs are available to eliminate this if you want to make transfers to CD. If you are simply listening informally, you will probably be happier with outboard "black boxes" which allow you to suppress noise while you are listening by simply adjusting a few knobs. Probably the most cost-effective device I know of is KAB's VSB+ which provides both variable equalization and a few varieties of noise filters that work transparently in tandem. This unit also allows the listener to play more of the right or left groove wall of the disc and essentially play the side with less noise. Of course all 78's are mono so there is no balance lost.
78's use special cartridges and styli that are different than those for standard LP's. These are mono and track the disc at about 3-4 grams weight as opposed to 1-11/2 grams. Both Shure and Stanton make these but the latter company supports the collector with a large variety of alternately cut styli which can play above and below groove wear for less noise. These also accommodate styli for certain older discs such as Edison Hill and Dale cuts and the acoustic Victors.
Although this may seem like a rather complicated pursuit technically, it's relatively simple once you have some hand-on experience. Ultimately, it's an opportunity to relive history in a rather profound way. If you would like to stick your toes in the glimmering waters of 78 collecting, there is a wonderful group called the Wolverine Society devoted to this pursuit. They have a web site full of information, audio samples, and even videos of old Red Raven 78's which displayed an animated visual as the record played. Other sites of interests are also included below.
This article © 2000 Chris Vollor
gosupercool.com © 2003