A Victor Playing-Speed Cover-Up

A Victor Playing-Speed Cover-Up

 

It’s long been known, particularly among classical collectors, that most acoustic Victor “78s” were not recorded at 78 rpm. Hundreds of Red Seals of 1905–early 1920s vintage have been expertly pitched-to-score over the years, and the overwhelming majority of those tested play in correct pitch at speeds ranging from 75.0 to 76.6 rpm. Only a small handful of those tested from this period play at or very near 78 rpm.

Victor officials insisted to the public that 78 rpm was the correct playing speed, which could well have been true during the company’s early days (see the first entry in “Caruso at the Correct Speed,” below). But that had not been the case for many years when, in 1917, a catalog writer accidentally let the cat out of the bag:

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An in-house admission that Victor was recording at 76 rpm, from a meeting of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Executive Committee on April 25, 1917 (Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE)

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And so, a cover-up was ordered, and “78” would remain the official Victor playing speed, as far as the public was to know — even as the company continued to record consistently in the 75–76 rpm range. (78 rpm would finally be made standard with Victor’s adoption of electrical recording in 1925, although minor deviations occasionally occurred even after that.)

Of course, this just confirms what most collectors’ ears have been telling them for years. Nudge the speed down to where it belongs on your Victor acoustics, and you’ll find that voices sound less cartoonish, tempos less hurried, and the records perhaps just a little less “tinny.”

 

Caruso at the Correct Speed:
A Random Sampling by Session Date

The following correct playing speeds have been established by multiple reliable sources. Note the use of ~78 rpm in 1904, followed by a steady downward trend in speed (aside from the occasional anomaly) as the years progressed.

Our thanks to John Bolig, in whose Caruso Records: A History and Discography these appear:

Feb 1, 1904 — 78.26
Feb 27, 1905 — 76.6
Feb 11, 1906 — 76.6
Feb 20, 1907 — 76.0
Feb 7, 1908 — 78.26
Nov 6, 1909 — 75.0
Jan 6, 1910 — 76.6
Dec 27, 1911 — 76.6
Jan 19, 1912 — 76.6
Feb 24, 1913 — 76.6
Mar 9, 1914 — 76.6
Jan 7, 1915 — 75.0
Feb 5, 1916 — 75.0
Apr 15, 1917 — 75.0
Jul 10, 1918 — 75.0
Feb 10, 1919 — 76.6
Sep 14, 1920 — 75.0
Sep 16, 1920 — 75.0

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