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ONTD Original: Vinyl 101

So you've been seeing your fave artists release songs on vinyl, albums on vinyl, there's vinyl when you shop at Target, it's everywhere. In fact, according to the RIAA, 2020 was the first year since 1986 that vinyl sales surpassed CD sales. Vinyl sales grew 28.7% in 2020, which means if you haven't bought any vinyl, you've probably thought about it.

In 2021 alone, Taylor Swift has broken sales records for vinyl records sold in one week, Billie Eilish has announced no fewer than 7 colored variants of her upcoming album, and there are at least 5 color variants of Olivia Rodrigo's generation-defying Sour. For everyone hopping onto the turntable of physical media with the pop princesses, and for everyone who bought a copy of something years ago but has never listened to it, I am here to hold your hand and guide you through the process. Let's get you up to speed!

I'm going to break this down into a few categories - feel free to skip to any you feel is most applicable to you.

The first thing you should know is that vinyl is a physical medium. It's tangible, you can display the covers on your wall, you can plop the records on a turntable, and they're fairly delicate so unfortunately, they're easy to damage. "Vinyl" refers to the material used to press records, polyvinyl chloride. The actual name for one of these is a phonograph record, or a gramophone record, but over time that has shortened into just "records."

Records are generally released in three formats:


7" - also known as a "45"

Mostly reserved for singles and a B-side. These are primarily used for promo, but can also be fun shaped releases or picture discs. They spin at 45 RPM, hence the name "45." They are also a huge pain in the ass, because you can only play one song before you have to flip. These often have large holes in the middle, which was originally for ease of play in jukeboxes, so you'll need an adapter to play these. The one shown above has the smaller hole for a typical spindle, with a punch-out hole that can be removed if necessary.

12" - also known as an LP (long playing album)

You'll generally find most records in a record store are 12" LPs. They generally play at 33 1/3 RPM, but some audiophile LPs spin at 45 RPM. If you don't know, it's a good bet to say it's 33.

Sometimes singles are released as a 12" single and are also 45 RPM - these are typically for DJs and can hold much longer cuts of songs. Think disco remixes, the 8 minute version of I Feel Love, or Blue Monday. If you're not a DJ, it is OP's personal opinion that 12" singles are a scam not worth buying unless it's a song that you really love!

10" - literally just a "ten-inch" or 78s (specifically referring to 78 RPM records of old)

Ten inches are the least popular of the records you'll find in a record store, though they used to be the only size released. In days of old, songs were pressed on shellac at 78 RPM, making some hella brittle and heavy records that would shatter if you looked at them wrong. There are still myriad jazz and blues releases that were only on these "78s" and could be lost to history. These were made to play on gramophones and would stand up to the high tracking force (more on this later).
**PEDANTIC NOTE** Since 78s are pressed on shellac and not vinyl, they're technically not "vinyl" and would be considered "records." You might find them in a used corner of your local record store.

However, any new release you find on 10" will not be 78 RPM. Sometimes EPs (a few songs, meaning "extended play," but not enough songs for "long playing") are pressed on 10", and sometimes albums are pressed on double 10" at 45 RPM, making an audiophile quality release for collectors. (If it spins faster, more space is reserved for the same amount of "time" on the record, making the sound quality better. More on this later too.)

There are also a few weird releases on 8", 13" and other odd sizes, but those are not what you're going to be finding on a typical day at the record store.

Anatomy of a record

These are the basics. Let's work our way in.

Note: Most records play from the outside in, but very occasionally, there will be a novelty record that plays from the inside out. For this, assume every record plays from the outside in.

The edge of the record doesn't have anything pressed here, and is generally a bit tapered. It's rarely a 90 degree cut. This means that when you place the stylus, you must be careful so that it doesn't slide off the edge. Next you'll find your tracks, and between them, track breaks. So if you want to go to a specific song, you'll have to count which one it is, and drop the needle in the track break before it begins. There is only ever a finite amount of space for the grooves to fit, but conversely, they may be spaced out to give the grooves room to breathe. If one record has more space dedicated to the same amount of time than another record, the one with more space will theoretically sound better.

After the music is over, you'll reach the run-out groove, or dead wax. It's silent here, but you don't want to let the needle spin in this area too long. If Side A and Side B aren't labeled, it's usually in the run out groove. There are numbers here called matrix numbers, which can help identify which version of a record you have (say, if you picked up Rumours in the discount bin and you want to see if you actually bought a rare pressing), and sometimes, a band or pressing plant will engrave words here, a saying or quote that may be relevant to the band. Look here for easter eggs! After the run out groove, you're at the label. Don't play things here unless there is a secret track pressed into the label - you'll be able to see it if so. Here, "side 1" is labeled, but tracks aren't. Side 2 will usually tell. And if not, it's on the sleeve.

Alright, I know what I'm looking for. Where do I go to find them?
There are a few different types of shops that serve different purposes!

1. Your first stop should be your local record store! Most cities have several. There's usually a well-known one, but the lesser known ones are great as well. You might find one that's revered for its used collection, one that has a proprietor who will tell you about his time working as a roadie for Metallica in the 80s, and one that smells like incense and sells oversized posters of Jim Morrison. Hit Yelp for your city and visit a few of them to figure out who is selling what you want. It can feel intimidating at first, but record stores are for everyone and you'll fit right in. A great bonus is that indie record stores frequently have exclusive releases in fun colors. Of course shopping local will keep money in the community.

If you don't have a local record store, if yours is out of the special release you were hoping to grab, or if you just don't wanna leave the house, there are plenty of great independently owned stores online. I have had great experiences with Amoeba, Rough Trade US / UK, and Bullmoose, but most local shops have an online storefront. Vinyl is delicate, and these stores know that, so they will almost always package it so that it won't be damaged in transit.

2. Chains. I don't love this option, but I won't deny they get some cool exclusives. Urban Outfitters and Target frequently have alternate covers or exclusive variants. Best Buy, Walmart, FYE, and Amazon do as well. If you're looking for one of their exclusives, try to find it in store if possible - their shipping is often dicey and there are horror stores the internet over with records showing up mangled from one of these types of retailers. However, if what you're looking for isn't an exclusive, let me redirect you to option 1 - unlike with many items, pricing is rarely better from one of these chains.

3. Record Clubs. This can be a great way to build your collection. They either curate for you, or provide you with a selection of curated new and re-releases. They can have new pressings of classic records that are widely beloved, exclusive colors on new releases, and represses of things that are sought after. However, like any subscription service, beware of auto-renew and hidden costs.

Vinyl Me Please can be pricey - their baseline cost is over $30 per month, and that's for one record - but their subscriptions offer a wide variety for differing tastes and a lot of people love it. Magnolia Record Club is another similar option. Run Out Groove presses limited runs of customer-voted albums, which may have been out of print or hard to find.

There are also record clubs from labels, which generally tend toward more niche offerings, but these releases can be rare and end up being worth a lot. Sub Pop famously had a singles club that sent members a few singles every month, and now those releases can be pretty valuable.

4. Individual Labels and Specialized Shops. If you're a fan of a lot of releases that are coming out of one label, it can be a great idea to subscribe to their newsletter. They are in charge of having their artists' releases pressed, so they may have exclusive variants, rare releases that they "found in the basement," you name it. Some labels I like are Dualtone, Third Man Records, and Polyvinyl.

There are also shops that may specialize in their own versions of releases - Mondo Shop releases soundtracks with gorgeous artwork and usually at least a couple of variants. Newbury Comics is kind of an indie store, but they also have their own variants and have many more pop culture offerings like Funkos and comics. Enjoy The Ride Records is geared toward nerd culture, but they also have some fun soundtracks and some great slipmats, too. Turntable Lab and Sound of Vinyl offer their own variants as well.

5. Your Parents' / Uncle's / Grandparents' Attic. Don't underestimate what you can find stored away. They might have had better taste than you give them credit for. My uncle gave me his copy of The Beatles' White Album and it still had the poster inside, and he said, "Ehhh I don't want to fool with them anymore." This also applies to garage sales, thrift stores, goodwill, etc, but you may have to dig.

6. Discogs. Discogs is a way to catalog all of your records, and those matrix numbers we discussed above can come in handy - on discogs a release can vary from a couple of dollars to a couple thousand dollars, depending on what it is. And if you're looking for last year's UO variant of an album you just got into, but it's no longer available instore, Discogs will have it. You might pay secondhand marketplace prices, but it's a great place to start. And as a bonus, especially since the pandora, many indie stores are listing records on Discogs, so check your seller, you may be supporting a store instead of a flipper.

Also, once you build a collection, you can catalog everything you own in Discogs. I put all of mine in when I signed up for renter's insurance so I would know how large of a policy to buy, and I keep up with it when I purchase new records. This comes in VERY handy when you're at the record store thinking, "Do I own the blue or green version of this?" And you might be surprised, there could be some gems in your collection!

I have so many records already! I just want to play them!

I hear you! But let's do some turntable anatomy first.

So remember how the music lives in the grooves? When you play a record, the stylus "reads" the music in the grooves. If there is too much force from the stylus, over time, it can kind of "flatten" out the grooves, and ruin that beautiful, limited edition splatter release you picked up on release day. This won't happen with one or five spins, but if you listen to a lot of records, they'll thank you for a balanced tone arm (the thing that you move over to play your record).


The worst offenders are the suitcase-style players made by brands like Crosley or Victrola. If it has speakers built in, I gently beg you to reconsider. OP would never shame you for owning one of these - in fact, OP owned one for years in the mid aughts! But if you want to get into collecting, a good rule of thumb is to never play a record that's worth more than your record player. So if you have a treasured red vinyl copy of Taylor Swift's Red, please, please don't play it on one of those suitcase players.

This is a bit more on the high end for a record player, but it'll do just the same for a diagram:

The base can be made out of a few different materials. The heavier this is, the less likely it is to feel vibrations from around the house, and more stable the turntable. The record goes on the platter - these can be metal, acrylic, or glass, but in general heavier = more stable for them as well. People get finicky about the material, because they say that metal causes more static, or acrylic isn't as durable, but that's more audiophile stuff that we're not going to worry about here. You WILL want a slipmat - it keeps the platter from scratching your record, as well as preventing slippage, providing stability, and some of them can have benefits like static reduction. There are loads of fun ones, but a boring one will do the same thing. Put your record on the spindle. If you're playing a 7" with a large hole, use an adapter. Again, there are fun ones, and boring ones.

Let's get to the important part. The tone arm. At the end, the part that touches your record is called the stylus. Most often these are built into a cartridge. Some people call it the needle. It's very delicate and is what will be in contact with your precious record this whole time. You'll move the tone arm over, and if you have a turntable with a cue lever, you'll pull this so that the stylus sets down with an appropriate amount of force. This also prevents that record scratch that can damage your records. The counterweight at the back makes it so that the stylus never applies too much force to your record. Again, we don't want your beautiful records to be ruined!

When purchasing a turntable, it's important to know a couple of things - mainly, does it have a preamp, how do you change speeds, and how do speakers get power? When your turntable sends an audio signal to the speakers, it is VERY quiet, so you will need a preamp to boost this signal. Many turntables have a preamp built in, but some don't, so you should be aware when shopping.

So, what are a few good turntable options?

If you're on a budget, your best bet will be vintage. Every time. Your local record store may carry restored vintage parts, the parents / uncle / grandparents previously mentioned may have a vintage hi-fi you could borrow - for the money, these systems were made to play records, because that's what they had. These weren't a novelty item, so they won't be aesthetically as cute, but they will be much, much more reliable. Craigslist / secondhand sellers are a good place to find vintage audio as well. Also check vintage audio stores around your city and they may be able to help you set up a system.

If you want something new,

Audio Technica LP-60 $119+

I had the previous version of this for a decade. It has since been phased out for a sleeker look, and is still a great buy for $119. If you want USB or Bluetooth, it can be purchased with those included as well (though for a price upgrade too). This one has a preamp built in, automatic tone arm play and return (so you won't have to get up to stop your record spinning), and can be hooked directly to computer speakers. There is a switch for easily changing between 33 and 45 RPM. This is my favorite for vinyl newbies!

Fluance RT-80 $199

The Fluance RT-80 is a step up from the LP60, but still a great buy. This one has an internal preamp, but has a bypass if you want to upgrade in the future. It also has a higher quality tone arm, so tracking force will be a bit more balanced. Fluance has several budget models, so if you are feeling a bit more spendy, I would also check out the RT-82 - it is $100 more, but you get a name brand stylus with a great reputation. This one will require a preamp.

The stylus upgrade can be important because the previous two use a conical stylus, while the name brand ones are elliptical. Here's a bit more from Fluance on that, but basically, an upgraded stylus will allow you to hear more of the music, and can cause less damage over time as well.

U-Turn Orbit $179+

The U-Turn Orbit is a bare-bones record player. It is completely manual, does not include a preamp (though the option is available for upgrade), and to switch between 33 and 45 RPM, you have to physically move the belt, and it is fiddly. A general rule is that with less "features," However, the quality of tonearm and stylus on this one are much, much better than the other two options, so it can be a good place to start if you're serious about the hobby. And it also comes in a lot of fun colors! Upgrades you can make here are wide-ranging, but it will also increase cost. The platter can be upgraded to acrylic, there are considerable options for stylus upgrades, a cue lever can be installed, and more.

Pro-Ject Primary E $250

Again, this is a bare-bones record player. But what you lose in bells and whistles, the quality of the remaining parts make up for it. This basic model comes with a name brand stylus, meaning it can be switched out with upgrades from that brand in the future, and they are made in Europe. It will require a separate preamp. If you want to get a bit more future-proof, their Debut line is widely loved for having excellent sound, build quality, and a carbon fiber tonearm.

The last thing to discuss is speakers. Another rule to remember is to put your speakers on a different surface than your turntable. Vibrations from the speakers can cause the stylus to vibrate and thus, cause sound distortion. For basic models, basic computer speakers will do. Anything powered with RCA inputs will work. As you move up, a receiver + speakers it has to power will be better. But vinyl is all about the sound, so you'd be wasting money to spend a lot on a turntable, but then use cheap speakers with it. Fluance has some speaker + turntable packages that could be worth considering.

Yes, it is a huge investment up-front. But if you're planning to spend a lot of money on a collection over time, it would be like trying to cut filet mignon with a plastic knife to use a junky turntable.

Okay, so now I have a few records in my collection. How do I use them? Where do I put them?

There are a few cardinal rules of haircare vinyl maintenance you should know if you plan to keep them around. Since polyvinyl chloride is a pliable medium, vinyl records can be finicky.

Be cognizant of how you store them.
- Storing them flat can warp your records. Store them upright like books.
- Heat is a no-no. Again, it can warp them. Keep them away from windows, heaters, or any other source of warmth.
- Dust and pet hair are the enemy. If you want to keep your collection in good shape, sleeves are a great way to protect them from dust. These are my fave, but your local record store probably carries them too, and they might be cheaper to buy from them.

Don't touch the grooves!
Pretty simple. The grooves in a record are where the music lives. Anything that works its way into the groove is going to impair the music coming out of it. Hands have grease, dead skin, and lord knows what else on them, and it's really hard to clean a fingerprint from microscopic surfaces - best not to smudge it up in the first place. The outside edge of a record and the label are the best places to handle it - it might take a few tries to get it, but once you do, your collection will thank you!

Clean your records
Dust and dirt in your records can gunk up the stylus on your turntable. Before you drop the needle on a dusty record, use an antistatic brush to remove the dust. Place your record on the platter, hold the brush perpendicular to the surface, and gently rotate the record around. A quick blast of canned air may also be helpful. Sometimes, they are quite dirty - in this case, 91% isopropyl alcohol may be useful in cleaning, and a lot of people swear by the Spin Clean.

I browsed stock photos to find examples for what to do and what not to do:

✅ This hipster dude is holding it by the edges only. Way to go, hipster dude!

🚫 Don't hold a record up to light with your fingers touching the grooves.

🚫🚫🚫🚫 This one hurt me. She is touching the grooves and she appears to be holding it up to her face. Please don't. Faces have more oil than hands. It's a good idea to keep hair away, too.

✅ Storing records vertically!
🚫 Placing records directly on a surface, with sunglasses on top, could cause scratches, which would cause crackling, skipping, or a locked groove.

"Vinyl" is a weird word.

There will always be people who gatekeep a hobby and are jerks about it, but in OP's opinion, it doesn't hurt to learn the lingo of the hobby that has been around since before any of us on ONTD, yes even the olds, were born. English is hard. Grammar is a construct.

It's a noun, but it really only applies for the material a record is made from, and weirdly is like a collective noun, but in this sense it technically still means the material?
✅ "I only buy audiophile pressings on at least 180 gram vinyl." (this guy sucks, don't be this guy)
✅ "I was super excited when I saw they had Evermore on green vinyl!"
✅ "I really wish they'd release the soundtrack for That Thing You Do on vinyl."
✅ "Wow, this store carries so much vinyl!"

It's an adjective, but when you're describing the record.
✅ "Have you seen the vinyl versions of Ariana's albums?"
✅ "Amoeba is my favorite place to pick up some rare vinyl releases."

The individual copy of the album ("album" in this instance is a collection of songs released together) you buy at the store can be referred to as a record, an album, or an LP.

Basically don't say "A vinyl" or "vinylS" and you're good. And if it's part of your lexicon, do you!

The first drop of Record Store Day 2021 is this Saturday. Now you're ready!

Record and turntable diagrams by me (my photos)
Stock photos from Pexels
Record Size Photo
Turntable Retailers: Audio Technica / Fluance / U-Turn / Pro-Ject

How's your vinyl game, ONTD? Drop your discogs below!

from Oh No They Didn't!


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