A Guide to Playing 78rpm Records
By Roger Beardsley
(Versions of this article have appeared in International Classic Record Collector, The Record Collector, The Historic Masters website and elsewhere.)
The idea behind this guide is to help collectors to get the best results from their precious 78rpm records. It is not exhaustive, neither is it highly technical. Whilst it starts from scratch, it is equally applicable to those with some sort of 78 replay system. This is probably the most suitable point to say that electrical reproduction with good, modern equipment is infinitely superior to original 78rpm gramophones, whether electric or acoustic. Even the EMGs (large horn acoustic machines) cannot compete. And of course only modern lightweight pickups can be used on vinyl pressings such as those produced by Historic Masters: not even thorns can be used without damage. However, the upside is that such pressings can produce quite stunning results when reproduced on good, simple equipment.
To play 78s you need the following equipment:
- 1. A turntable with variable speed adjustment, covering a range from about 60 to 90 rpm. Several are available to do this.
- 2. A good quality tone arm, containing a stereo cartridge, and styli that have been retipped for playing 78s.
- 3. An amplifier, preferably one capable of selecting mono as well as stereo. Ideally, it should have a facility for reproducing the different equalisations used in the 78 era.
- 4. High quality loudspeakers. It is easy to think that 78 rpm discs, with their limited acoustic range compared with modern recordings, do not require good loudspeakers. The opposite is true.
The first item you will need is a suitable turntable with variable speed. This is because so many 78s were not recorded at exactly 78rpm: speeds of between 72 and 85 rpm are quite common, with a few higher or lower. Probably the cheapest option is a second-hand variable-speed Goldring-Lenco unit, one of the 'GL' series. They are still easy to find and relatively cheap. They always benefit from some basic maintenance, which will include a new idler wheel. The biggest problem with the Goldrings, is the incidence of rumble. That new idler wheel will help, as will removing, cleaning and regreasing the main bearing. If you cannot tackle this yourself, many specialist hi-fi shops can do it for you. Other turntable types include the STD, which has a useful (though not always very accurate) digital read-out, but which can be a nightmare to repair, since spares are hard to find. Many other types can be found that will play 78s, but not usually with the required speed variation. Garrard 301/401 as they stand only have something like a 3% variation, although can at some expense be modified by Loricraft to give very wide speed control. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Goldring and STD turntables are capable of almost infinite speed variation up to 90 rpm and are thus ideal if you play Pathé discs. The Skytronic range is also a very good (modern) alternative. At under £200, they have all the features of the Technics, described below.
If a larger budget is available, and it is worth relating this to the cost/value of your collection, then probably the best option is the modified Technics SL1200. It is a high-quality, ruggedly built unit, capable of seriously good results. It comes complete with arm and removable head shell, a necessary feature with the need for different styli (see next section). In its normally modified form, the speed variation is between 72 and 85. Sufficient for most purposes, but not all. However it can be altered if necessary, to give speeds of over 100 rpm.
For those wishing to spend more, the Technics SP10 Mk. 2 and EMT 950 are regularly available from firms dealing in ex-broadcast and studio equipment. These however require specialist skills in order to interface with domestic pre-amp/amplifier systems and in both cases, variable speed options may not be installed as standard.
With a suitable turntable, the next item to consider is the cartidge/stylus. Ordinary hi-fi types are not really ideal for the harsh condition of 78 playback. High surface speeds and recorded velocities, warped and badly centred records and heavier playing weights all conspire to upset delicate stylus systems.
Suitable cartridges are the Shure SC35, Shure M44, Stanton 500 series and Ortofon Pro range. All are very reasonably priced, and come with an LP stylus which can be re-tipped by specialist companies with a 78 type. 78 styli have a tip that is much broader than that used for LPs. All of these will track happily at 4/5 grams, the optimum weight given the groove-wall geometry/dynamics of the 78.
Ideally you will need more than one stylus type. This is because standardisation of groove dimensions did not happen until around the 1940s. To comprehensively cover the entire range from 1900 to 1940, you would need styli with tip radii of between .0018" and .0040" with probably something like 10 or more variations in between. However, to play most records well you don't need more than two. The most useful are .0032 and .0028". The .0032" will give good results on most HMV/Victor recordings from the period 1905 to 1940. The .0028" will give better reproduction on most Columbia, Parlophone and Odeon for the same period as well as being good for pre-revolutionary Russian HMVs. Remember, there are no fixed rules. If you have a range of styli, experiment to find out which sounds the best: if it sounds right, it is right!
For those with larger budgets, a greater range of styli will be an advantage although the differences in many cases will not be great. Quite a few early G & Ts and some Fonotipias do best with much smaller styli such as .0018" or .0021". A number of Odeons from the early electrical era will give a lower surface noise with a .0030" as compared with a .0028".
These special styli can be obtained from the Expert Stylus Co. The BBC, studios and engineers throughout the world use them. Expert Stylus Co. is always happy to advise you on the most suitable stylus/cartridge.
Whilst you can have just one cartridge/head shell assembly and change the stylus each time you play a record requiring a different type, the day will come when a finger will slip and your expensive stylus will be useless. It is better to purchase extra head shells and cartridges and keep one stylus in each. To change stylus you simply change the head shell. The best/most suitable type of head shell is the Technics type available readily all over the world.
Having arrived at the point of playing your records on a suitable turntable with the right stylus, you will need an amplifier. Actually, you need a pre-amplifier first, that's the bit with the volume and tone controls on.
Here we run into difficulties. Virtually all pre-amplifiers (or integrated units with pre-amp built in_ that have a disc (phono) input are pre-set to play modern LPs. However, 78s were recorded using very different characteristics and so the replay is different. In simple terms, there is more recorded bass on a 78 and less treble than on an LP. So if we do nothing, the 78 will sound rather boomy at the bottom and dull at the top. The best option is a special pre-amp designed for 78s, but they are not cheap. The basic ones do the job quite well, but if you cannot afford one at all, then reducing the bass with the tone control on your system will help balance the bass range greatly. For the top end, if playing an electrical 78, some treble boost will brighten the sound quite nicely but at the expense of more surface noise. It is a question of personal taste. With acoustic records (and some very early electrics), there is little at the top end anyway and any treble boost needed is likely to be minimal, but again, adjust to taste.
If your control unit has a mono switch, use it. What that does is to parallel the two outputs from the cartridge. This helps reduced distortion and rumble.
Filtering is another question where personal taste operates. Control units such as the Quad series have a variable slope filter that can, when judiciously used, reduce the noise with little effect on the sound because what you are doing is to cut noise that is higher in frequency than the recorded sound. It is an interesting observation that the better the equipment, the less filtering is usually necessary.
A few additional points:
- Keep pick-up leads from the turntable to pre-amp as short as possible. Long leads reduce high frequencies and help to induce hum.
- Hill & Dale discs (Pathé/Edison etc.) need different styli. Edison discs use 0.004" or sometimes less, and some Pathés may need 0.008" ball styli, although many are happy with a .0032". These are also available from Expert Stylus Co. They can wire a cartridge to play these discs when you order your special H & D stylus. Some pre-amp/control units have a lateral/vertical switch that will do this.
- Play clean records. If your records are dirty, the stylus will be tracing the outline of the dirt and not the groove and reproduction will suffer. Even if your records look clean, dirt and the steel or fibre fragments from needles used in the past, will lurk in the grooves. You would be amazed at the residues collected after records are cleaned by a machine. How to clean them depends upon budget. Ideally you should use a machine which will wet-scrub the record and then vacuum it dry. Top of the range is the Keith Monks used by studios. Much cheaper but effective are the Nitty Gritty, Loricraft and Moth machines, but before buying make sure you have a version meant for 78s. Some hold the record down by a vacuum and this dishes the record slightly - not ideal for breakable 78s! Records can of course be cleaned manually, but it is not recommended for the professional.
- On the general subject of reproduction, the most ignored item in the chain from stylus to eventual sound is the loudspeaker. Amplifiers, turntables, cartridges etc. can last almost indefinitely but loudspeakers don't. The suspension system (or surround) of drive units suffer from fatigue and with very old units like the original Wharfedale and Leak Sandwich, the cone suspension will by now, have deteriorated badly. If you decide to upgrade your system, the best speakers that you can buy will be a good investment. Get the dealer to bring them to your home so that you can hear them in situ and check how they handle 78 vocal: very important!
- All vinyl records whether Historic Masters or not, cannot be played on an old gramophone using thorn, fibre or steel needles. They must be played with a modern lightweight pickup.
- One further point. I have not suggested seeking out old, original 78 playing equipment. Unless you have practical experience of it, you are most unlikely to be able to get good results. Old 78-only turntables especially should be avoided. Quad and Leak valved (tubed) pre-amplifiers do have some of the replay curves you need, but unless they have been professionally rebuilt, are unlikely to give good results, and might even be dangerous to use. It can also be difficult to interface them with modern equipment.
I hope that this guide has been of help. It cannot be all encompassing and by its very nature is not technical. Most of the dealers/suppliers listed below will be very happy to give assistance. The are usually enthusiasts too, so do ask.
Suppliers of equipment suitable for 78rpm playback
- Styli and Cartridges: Expert Stylus Co., PO Box 3, Ashtead, Surrey KT21 2QD, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1372 276604)
- Garrard Turntables and Record Cleaning Machine: Loricraft, 4 Big Lane, Lambourn, Berks RG17 8XQ, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1488 727767)
- Record Cleaning Machines: Keith Monks Sound Systems, 29 Tower Park, Fowey, Cornwall PL23 1JD, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1726 833783)
- The Elberg Multicurve Pre-amplifier: Website - www.vadlyd.dk; Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
- Skytronic Variable Speed Turntables: (Cheaper than the Technics, but very good) - Radio Shack, 75 Penny Street, Lancaster LA1 1XF, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1524 381412). If outside UK, then check: www.skytronic.com
- Technics Turntables, Cartridges, Pre-amps, Cleaning Machines and Accessories: KAB Electro Acoustics, PO Box 2922, Plainfield, NJ 07062-0922, USA (Tel. +1 (908) 754 1479). Contact KAB for UK dealers
- Goldring Spares and Service: Technical and General, PO Box 53, Crowborough, Sussex TN6 2BY, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1892 654534)
- Vinyl records pressed from original metal masters: (A shameful plug!) - Historic Masters Ltd., (Ordering Office), Roger Beardsley, 16 Highfield Road, North Thoresby, Lincolnshire DN36 5RT, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1472 840236; Fax. +44 (0)709 2387408; Email: email@example.com; Website: www.historicmasters.org)
The list cannot be exhaustive and may change regularly. With the current upsurge in vinyl production, more equipment may become available.