Understanding vinyl formats and standards - the practical guide for beginners

33 rpm, 45 rpm, EP, 12-inch, Lp, Single ??...

You are stepping into the vinyl record universe and you are puzzled by the different names you hear. This article is designed for you...

Most frequent standards:

  • 12-inch vinyl record = 33rpm = album - Lp = diameter size of 30 centimeters.

  • 7-inch vinyl record = 45rpm = SP = diameter size of 17,8 centimeters.

Formats vinyles les plus fréquents - Most frequent vinyl formats

Overall :

In a 12-inch (30 centimeters) cover, you find:

  • most often an album 33rpm or LP, with two sides lasting 20 to 30 minutes each.

  • sometimes a maxi-single or EP with one track on each side lasting about 10 to 12 minutes.

Dans une pochette de vinyle de 30 cm - In a 30 cm vinyl cover

In a 7-inch (17 -18 centimètres) cover, you find: 

  • most often a SP or Single with one track on each side.

  • less frequently an EP providing more than two tracks.

2 types de vinyles 45 tours : le Single et le Super 45 tours

Further details

Different glossaries overlap and interfere with one another.

Names in inch refer to dimensions :

  • 7-inch stands for a vinyl with a diameter of 17,78 centimeters.
  • 10-inch stands for a vinyl with a diameter of 25,4 centimeters.
  • 12-inch stands for a vinyl with a diameter of 30,48 centimeters.

Names with rpm indicate rotation speed:

"rpm" means revolution per minute. Vinyls to be played at 33rpm speed usually have a diameter of 12-inch - 30 cm. Their average listening time is 20 to 30 minutes per side.
About some characteristics of the 33rpm:
  • Gatefold albums have a special cover which can be opened in two like the one of a book. There are also double albums, triple albums or vinyl box set.

Différents vinyles 33 tours : gatefold, double-album et Lp

About a few exceptions

Some 33rpm are smaller than the usual 12-inch size. It is a small minority of vinyls size 10-inch (25 centimeters). Most of the time, they are oldies, or rare Punk recordings or very recent music band releases.

  • 45rpm or 45 tours in French :

45rpm vinyls are to be played at a 45 revolution per minute speed. 
  • Small size ones 7-inch or 17,8 centimeters, show a big hole in the middle as they were initially designed for Juke-Box. The listening time is about 5 to 6 minutes. There are two types of 7-inch records
    • The single or SP « Single Play » contains one tracks per side. 

    • EP or Extended Play or Super 45 tours (in French) is a vinyl record with more than 2 tracks on each side in a 7-inch size, rarely released nowadays. In the U.K. usually they have a one track side A and 2 tracks side B. In France, n the 50'ies and 60'ies, they released Super 45 tours with two or three songs on each sides. 

  • The Maxi-Single (Maxi-45 tours or Maxi in France) is a large size 12-inch (30 cm) vinyl record. Its listening time is about 10 to 12 minutes. The recording usually includes only one track per side. They were initially addressed to DJ's.

3 types de 45 tours : single, super 45 tours, maxi 45 tours

SP, EP, LP, are English names that indicates the lisenng time and the number of tracks. 

  • SP = Single Play : one track per side whatever the dimension of the vinyl, 7-inch or  12-inch 
  • EP = Extended Play : a 7-inch vinyl record - 45rpm with more than 2 tracks
  • LP = Long Play : a 12-inch album or 33rpm vinyl.

Another standard, another technology, the 78rpm...

Also called the 78s, they are the oldtimers of the record world. They do not belong to the same category as the 45rpm or the 33rpm. They were made of shellac resines instead of  vinyl. The grooves on the 78s were much larger than the later microgrooves of LPs and 45s and the needles were larger too. 78s were recorded and played back ‘acoustically’, without any electric amplifiers or microphone. The microgrooves are about 4 to 6 times smaller than the old 78s grooves. Therefore it is possible to put more of them on a record side and to obtain a longer track. The microgroove technology gives access to stereophony, helps reduce background noises and improves the sound quality.

78 tours - gramophone - tête de lecture - aiguille et disphragme

The 78s is developped along with gramophones and phonographs, mechanical devices for reading music. Instead of a stylus, there was a big needle for the reading of the sound. The 78s is the means of musical broadcasting during the 1920s to 1950s era, after which the microgrooves supplanted it. The 78s are heavy, thick, black discs, with various diameters from 10 to 12-inch and paper sleeves characterized by a large hole in their middle.

Recordings were usually one track per side. The 10-inch ones, lasting about 3 minutes were dedicated to popular songs and the 12-inch, lasting 5 minutes to classical music.