Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Vinyl “78” Records, Part One:

Do you have a hard time managing all those little CDs? Have you ever figured out who likes to make horrible scratches on them? Do you remember the long-playing, foot-wide “33” records, so easily scratched, that preceded them? Or the little “45” records with one song on each side?

Before all those, there were 78's. They were about the same size as 33's. They scratched so easily that hardly anybody worried about scratching them. They also shattered much too easily. You can fit Beethoven's 9th symphony on one CD. Or, you could also fit it on nine or ten 78's.

By the way, these numbers all refer to the number of rotations per minute each record makes on the turntable: 33 1/3, 45, 78. If the turntable spins too slow or too fast, the music slows down or speeds up, and the pitch goes down or up as well. I hope you've had the experience of playing a 33 at the 45 speed, it's quite exciting. I remember when WQXR played almost an entire Haydn symphony at 45. I listened, incredulous. Was there nobody at the station to hear that no orchestra could play that fast, that no oboe could hit such high notes? The music dropped to 33.3 without warning in the last movement. I suspect that the engineer suddenly noticed that the symphony was going to end many minutes too soon, and figured out why.

I occasionally played a 78 at the 33 speed. I borrowed (from our fine public library, before it burnt down) the recording of Jascha Heifitz playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I wanted to savor his incredible skill and precision in the cadenza. At the slow speed, I could hear exactly how he shifted between notes while playing two notes at once. I did the same for other violinists, smug in my discovery that Heifitz's technique exceeded all the others.

Originally, classical symphonies were released on 78s in an obvious order. The first 78 might have the first movement on its two sides. Then the second movement would be on both sides of the next 78. If it fit. But people did not like to change platters every three minutes, and so changing turntables were invented. You loaded a stack of 78s, and as each one finished, the tone arm slid out of the way, and the changer dropped the next platter, without shattering it (usually). Changers required a change in the manufacture of 78s. Now, the first movement appeared on one side each of the first two platters, etc.

78s were the bane of classical music stations, because unless they were always alert, they played symphonic movements out of order. We all enjoyed catching them at it. Also, attempts were made to build robotic devices that could turn 78s over, automatically. My father remembered watching one of these devices in a store window, systematically picking up each 78 and hurling it at the window. I had two truly traumatic experiences with 78s, that I'll tell you about tomorrow.

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