By Ron Harbidge
78 revolutions per minute records in really good condition sound much better played on suitable modern electrical equipment with the correct profile stylus mounted in a Shure M44-7 cartridge.
Plugged into a Elberg MD 12 Multicurve Disc pre-amp switched on to the correct equalisation connected to high quality amplifier and the sound is amazing with excellent separation and detail .
The only down side is an increase surface noise as most of it is where the middle and higher frequencies are. Having said that, if the records are really good pressings in EX+ condition and played with the correct profile stylus, the surface noise should be minimal. A Shure M44-7 Cartridge is an ideal choice for playing 78 rpm records because the tracking pressure can be increased to 4 grammes for better tracking.
The correct profile styli can be custom made at the Expert Stylus Company (‘Omega House’ 50 Harriotts Lane Ashtead Surrey KT21 2QB). Also customers can get their own styli re-tipped by them.
Usually I find three different profiles are suitable for most 78 rpm records.
- The 1920s – .0040″
- The pre 1939 – .0035″
- 1940 to 1960 play best with a – .0028″ radius stylus
Records in top condition play best with an elliptical stylus as it tracks with greater accuracy.
With regards the Elberg MD12 Multicurve Disc Pre-amp this is custom made in Denmark and details can be found online.
To the best of my knowledge this is the best one available for playing disc records. With regards to suitable turntables, at present I am using a Vestax BDT 2500. This turntable was introduced in 2003 and is very useful because it has very fine speed adjustment from 16-⅔ -90 revolutions per minute.
When the time comes to replace it my choice will be an Audio Technica AT LP120USB which is a high quality 3 speed (33⅓-45-78) turntable. In the early days especially the acoustic era not all 78s were cut at 78 rpm. Cutting speeds varied greatly. In 1928 British Columbia electric recordings were cut at 80 rpm until 1929. By then 78 rpm became standard for all recording companies until the gradual introduction of vinyl microgroove records in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Many 78 rpm records including early electric recordings (1926-29) were surprisingly much higher quality recordings than record buyers originally thought when they were new. Acoustic gramophone and early electric magnetic pickups were very inaccurate. Obviously, it is madness to play 78s in poor condition on a modern system as not only will they sound like chips frying, they also knock chips of a costly custom made correct profile diamond stylus. Poor condition records are best played on old gramophones with thorn or steel needles. Remember to use a new (steel needle) or re-sharpened (seasoned thorn needle) to play each record to minimize groove wear. Loud tone needles must be avoided as these cause most distortion and record wear. The longer lasting Chromium needles never did play the number of sides stated on the packets, – 60 sides or 100 sides without deterioration was a fallacy.
On the same token, it is madness to play Excellent + condition electrically recorded 78s on old gramophones. The highest frequency recorded in the early days of electric recording was 5 K Hertz (5000 cycles per second) and a thorn or steel needle that fills the entire groove will ride over the tiny wave instead of following it. Bear in mind, the modulations get smaller with each revolution as the groove traverses the disc inwards. There is a calculation that can be done to work out the size of the wave-length of any frequency on any part of a record recorded at any constant speed but this one I will leave out because it is complicated to explain.
With care taken, 78 rpm records will last many years played on a suitable modern electrical system as in some ways they were durable than vinyl microgroove records. Shellac (78 rpm) records need to be stored upright in high quality covers in a record cabinet at moderate room temperature. Failure to do so will result in Mycelium, a mould growing on the playing surface that will spread and cause groove damage and they might warp or crack. When dropped on a hard floor or mishandled they will break. Handle records carefully with clean hands and avoid touching the playing surfaces. When mycelium is spotted this should washed off with a mild solution of anti bacterial washing up liquid and, rinsed thoroughly with distilled water rotating anti-clockwise to prevent causing further groove damage. Excess water is removed with kitchen roll and the disc is allowed 24 hours to dry before playing. Never clean 78s with vinyl record cleaner or Methylated Spirits. This will harm shellac.
Originally 78s were made to withstand being played with steel needles mounted in a very heavy pick or sound-box tracking at anything from 40 grammes to 175 grammes. The earlier 78 rpm records were specially cut with a ‘V’ shaped flat railway cutting bottom groove and powdered slate was added as a filler to the shellac to make the discs more durable. The idea was the groove walls of the very hard slightly abrasive disc would grind the needle point to get a good fit in the record’s groove in first few fastest windings. A modern (correct profile) stylus tracks with much greater accuracy than any thorn or steel needle. The first sapphire stylus was introduced in 1947. This was made possible by reducing the tracking pressure down to 28 grammes and attaching the stylus tip to a cantilever with improved cartridge design.