Thursday, May 12, 2011

Slower Than Slow: 16 RPM Records


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Have you ever heard of a long forgotten vinyl format, the 16 2/3 RPM record? They were half the speed of the 33 1/3 RPM albums that were the traditional standard for recorded music. Most record players in the 1950s and 1960s came with a speed setting to play these long forgotten discs that were considered novelties even during the years they were available.

Because most 16s had big holes and were 7" in diameter many of them could be mistaken for 45 RPMs but the speed allowed for up to 15 to 20 minutes of playing time per side. Just like the other speeds and formats they could be played one record at a time or stacked on a changer for continuous play.


Click on image to enlarge
16 RPM records were too slow for proper high fidelity sound. Because good quality reproduction was not possible they were mostly used as outlets for the spoken word although there were some exceptions. (For example, see this label from a 16 RPM Miles Davis disc on the Prestige label.) Radio stations often used them for pre-recorded radio shows containing interviews, dramas, and documentaries.  More frequently they became the first "Talking Books" for the blind.  Pictured at the top, left, is a 16 RPM record of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine narrated by actor Dan O'Herlihy.

The famous Seeburg 1000 was a record player that was used exclusively to play background music in offices and restaurants. The system used 16 RPM discs that were 9 inches in diameter and could be stacked on traditional 45 RPM spindle adapters. The records for this system were monaural and could play up to 40 minutes per side. Because the Seeburg's usage was strictly intended for background music the sound quality was not a major concern. You can find out a lot more details on this subject here.

Finally, believe it or not, Chrysler Corporation created Highway Hi-Fi, an audio format that enabled the 16 RPM records to be played in their cars from 1956 to 1958. The system employed a sapphire stylus with a ceramic pick up on a turntable that was installed below the instrument panel. A record player installed in a car? Yes, it really happened. Here is the Wikipedia article about it should you be interested in learning more.

It is obvious why the format died. Cassettes came along allowing people to listen to books in their cars or while jogging around town. Broadcasters also discovered superior sounding and more efficient ways to solve their transcription needs but, for a brief era, the 16 RPM record served a specific and useful purpose.

Even back in their heyday 16s were hard to find because most of them were manufactured for commercial usage only. Many retail outlets who sold records didn't even bother to keep them in stock. I have never seen one nor do I know anyone who ever owned one.  Have any of you ever had the pleasure?

35 comments:

  1. I've never seen one of them either, but our old RCA portable stereo had a setting for it. My buddies and I got some hoots one evening playing 45s at 16 rpm. (The stereo also had a setting - and a second needle - for 78s.)

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    1. Yes. I saw a Victrola with this feature. It's a metal lever near the plate,

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  2. I've seen 16s once in my life...about 30 years ago at a garage sale when I was 10. I didn't buy them as I didn't have the option on my stereo, nor do I remember what they contained. (I do, however, recall picking up decent-condition originals...stereo, i believe...of Beatles '65 and Something New at the same sale for cheap.) I'm still waiting to see a few blow through my used-media day job and I've been with the company since '93.

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  3. Thanks for posting this. My church had record players in their Sunday School classrooms that had a 16 RPM setting (in addition to 33 & 45 RPM settings). I've long wondered about 16 RPM records.

    What about the opposite extreme, the 78 RPM records? Do you have any plans to do a write-up on those as well?

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  4. I had at least one 16 rpm record when I was a child - IIRC it was a recording of Quick Draw McGraw (the cartoon character horse of the 60's and 70's).

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  5. I have set of five 16RPM records by the Audio Book Company, Los Angeles, CA. The records look like new and four of them have sleeves. They are in the original box, titled "The Adventures of Pinocchio" read by Marvin Miller. I would like to pass these on to someone who is interested and knows their value.

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    1. do you still have The Adventures of Pinocchio 16 rpm I have,nt any idea of their value . I have The adventures of tom sawyer and the wizard of oz. I picked up an old record player that plays 16rpms. my e mail address is marlenej2001@hotmail.com

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  6. We have a complete set of "Voice of Scripture" Talking Bible album
    but ann't find a 16 2/3 rpm player

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    1. I have the turntable itself with the records in it.

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  7. I have a copy of the New Testament on these records. there is supposed to be an adapter that came with it, to allow them to be played by a record player at 33 1/3 speed.

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  8. An uncle who was blind had a collection of 16 rpm Recordings for the Blind as well as classical music; and he converted his wire recordings of family gatherings into 16 rpms. We have a few recordings of a family member's violin recordings done for a radio program but no one's heard them. I have no idea of how to have them digitized.

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  9. My name is Ron and I have the turntable it was made in 1962 hawthore,calif. It has the records at the speed 16 2/3. e-mail me if interested in this turntable. rita2045@att.net

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  10. Argo Records, particularly, if I'm remembering correctly, offered a series of full-cast Shakespeare plays on single lps at 16 rpm sometime in the 1960s and early '70s, and those were the only discs I ever used my early '70s Panasonic's setting to play back when not simply screwing around. Sapphire styli, btw, were pretty common in the 1950s...if you wanted to go even cheaper, there were cadmium styli (though of course any self-respect Hi-Fi obsessive would plump for a diamond stylus).

    I don't remember what the industry standard was for "transcribed" and syndicated radio programming was in 1930s and '40s radio, but I do remember it involved large discs...that should be easy enough to look up.

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  11. I just purchased two 16 RPM records by accident while digging at a used shop. I'm dying to hear them (both are Jimmy Swaggert lecturing... one on what the Bible says about drugs and one about how the atomic bomb relates to the second coming of Jesus).

    Does anyone know any modern equipment to play a 16 RPM record?

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  12. The 16 RPM has always remained in the memory and I have often wondered at it. It resurfaced just the other day when I was talking music and records with a chance acquaintance. Back in the late 40s when I was growing up in India, I remember Dad placing a small disc with a brown label on the hand-cranked HMV turntable and disgruntled sounds emanating from it, which Dad identified to me as being Bolero on the one side and La Paloma on the other. Both were truncated versions of the two classics. And, from what I have been reading above, the 16 RPM was never used to record music, which tells me I may be under an illusion. However, I am quite sure that the 45 RPM did not make make its appearance in India until the early 50s. The disc is no longer in my possession, dad's been gone these 15 years and I am in my late 60s, still fascinated by the image of that 16 RPM disc but unable to corroborate what I have just written. Perhaps someone with a more vivid memory can help?

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  13. I am from South Africa and was fortunate enough to play a 16 rpm music record belonging to an aunt. This was quite a rare LP of the late Jim Reeves, one he recorded while filming "Kimberly Jim" here in our country, IIRC. There is also a video of it on Youtube. The music quality is quite decent but then again, modern pop music would not sound too good on such a slow record. Interesting to note that there are also 8 rpm records still around, these were produced for the blind or visually impaired.

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  14. I have a stereo LP at 16 2/3 rpm titled "Enjoy An Hour In Stereoland with Will Kennedy & His Orchestra." It's on a label called Dancetime Music, in "Ultra-Astro-Sonic Sound." The disc contains 32 instrumentals with titles like "Swinging Out Tonight" and "Happiness Highway." It has a $6.98 price on the jacket, but is also marked "Produced exclusively for Magnavox dealers," so it may have been a promotional give-away with Magnavox players. I can only play it at 33 1/3, and the effect is exactly like what Benny Hill did back in the 70's, playing nondescript dance band records at double speed behind his comedy sketches!

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  15. I actually have the 1956 Audio Book company Music series on 16 2/3. Most still in plastic. They have collections like "all time favorites", "Famous show tunes", and "world's greatest music (classical)". I have no player for them, so I couldn't even tell you if the songs are done by the original artists.

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  16. As soon as I can, I'll post pictures of an old machine thay played 16, 33, 45 and 78 RPM.

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  17. Growing up, my Dad had a record player that had 16, 33, 45 and 78 RPM. I never knew why there was a 16 speed until recently. That player is long gone. We would listen to 33 or 45 rpm records at the 16 speed because we could. Probably got innundated with satanic messages the entire time.

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  18. I too am from South. AFRICA, and recently inherited a stack of old classics from my dad. In this collection is 3 lp's with the speed of 83rpm on them. Never heard of this. Any info would be appreciated.

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  19. I would think that if you were able to digitize a 16 RPM recording at 33 RPM then used software (such as Sound Forge, Adobe Audition, or Audacity) to halve the speed that you would likely get fairly decent results.

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    1. you do, it works very well. i did my christmas 78s last year with audacity, the results were brilliant

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  20. Anyone who laughs off a record player in a car is not familiar with the concept of "parking" or with the fact that the car was bigger than the "room" we're supposed to get.

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  21. I think a lot of record players has the 16 RPM feature. In the 1970s, we had one that had that setting along with 33, 45 and 78. We often would slow down or speed up albums for kicks as kids. On the "Magic Garden" LP, if you played the Chuckle Patch on slow it sounded very spooky. I saw many 78s at garage sales and such, but I don't think ever a 16.

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  22. I had a Morse Code training record that was recorded at 16 2/3 RPM for learning Morse Code for what was then the Novice Amateur Radio License.

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  23. I kind of remember one that was actually a long play record. My Dad was the manager at the Masindi Hotel (Uganda) in 1962 and the record was in the hotel collection. I was quite little then but I think it had 16+ tracks on each side. One of the tracks was Roamin in the Gloamin and I think it also had Greensleeves. It was played on something that looked like an ornate chest....

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  24. I used to listen to the Beatles' Within You Without You at 16 speed on my old stereo - it was pretty cool.

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  25. I was glad to find this page. I remember getting records in the 50's and 60's as a teenager in NYC. I had a 4 speed Record Player and enjoyed the medium and the Concert Music I liked to listen to. I haven't touched this subject for a number of years and was beginning to think my memory was faulty. Thanks for the verification.

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  26. if you wish to digitize them you can download software like "audacity" (thats what i use for my 78's) and it will do it for you. you play the record at 33 or 45 and then tell it what speed you want it to take it to.
    hope this helps

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  27. yes these discs are still popular!They are the fore father of mp3s!Some people want to bring them back

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  28. I have a working rca highway hi-fi in a 56 Plymouth with 7 16 2/3 records

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  29. Linked to you from my Listening to Prestige Records blog -- http://opusforty.blogspot.com/2014/07/listening-to-prestige-records-project_23.html

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  30. LOL!! I'm 67 years old and finally thought about this and researched it. What a revelation. We bought a new stereo in about 1960 which had 4 speeds: 78,45,33 1/3, and 16 2/3. I never saw a 16 rpm record,but I do remember seeing a 1964 Dodge which had been customized and it did have a record player between the front bucket seats. I remember that it had a wide spindle like a 45 player. I bet they skipped like crazy when the car was in motion even with a sapphire stylus.

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  31. My Dad sold a thing in late 50s early 60s called the Christian Faith Audio Library it included the King James version of the whole Bible along with several Audiobooks on 16 2/3 records. There were also a bunch of 331/3 music albums to on "Christian Faith" Label (wish I could find any or all of those) .We had an adapter that had 4 layers the layer in the middle had ball bearings and moved at half the speed of the moving part when the other layer was held still by a long steel rod. Movement of the bearing layer was transmitted in the center to the top where the record was placed. As a kid I memorized a bunch of poetry and Poe stories spending lots of time with 16 2/3 records.
    Just ran across the Poe Audiobook in a used book store which precipitated my finding this blog.

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