Introduction to 78's 78 RPM gramophone disks are a sound carrier format that traces its roots back to the original disk introduced by Emile Berliner in 1887. The disk themselves are colloquially known as 78's, "shellacs", "glass disks", transcription disks and in the USA they are also known as phonograph disks, but note that in Europe the phonograph name is only valid for Edison cylenders, that is because gramophone disks reached the European market before Edisonís cylinders did so the gramophone became a generic term over here while in North America the phonograph became the generic since Edison reached the market before Berliner.
It is important to notice that what people are describing with those words and phrases are not one format but many, what they all have in common is that they all have a groove with of roughly 63µm or a little more and the grooves are cut vertically i.e. only the vertical movement of the stylus that plays the record will generate any sound. Rotational speeds could be anywhere from 10 RPM to close to 150, sizes vary from less than 10 cm to over 50, groove cut types vary widely with some records intended to be used with a specially cut stylus and to top it all up equalisation is all over the place. It is also important to note that if something is described as Shellac does not absolutely mean that it is, it may be made out of rubber, glass or vinyl, Bakelite even if they were made during WWI, and the same applies to the term "transcription disk" but anything bigger than 25cm (10") disk with a groove size of 63µm is almost universally labelled with that term regardless if they are or not.
There are a large number of sites out there that cover the playback of 78 rpm records on modern equipment, what is possibly the best starting point is this one by Tim Gracyk, the A Guide To Playing 78 rpm Records by Roger Beardsley and Reproduction of 78 rpm records pages are also well worth a visit. A Danish expert on the transfer of 78's onto a more modern format has a company called Vad Lyd that makes specialised correcting preamplifiers, he also has quite a bit of interesting technical info on his site, even the PDF manuals for his preamps make for an interesting read, another source of correcting preamps is Graham Slee Projects. One other site that I have found interesting is called Vintage jazz and dance band music on 78rpms and talkies, it covers just that and in addition has technical info and more. Another interesting resource is the hompage of the Wolverine Antique Music Society. The phonograph page on the Radiophile.com site is also worth a visit if only to oogle..
Pickups and stylii for the playback of 78'rpm records As all modern records are microgroove you cannot satisfatorily use the stylus intended for the playback of them for playback of 78's or other shellacs since they have much wider grooves, a high quality line contact stylus such will give a resonable result if nothing else is availabe but is is strongly recommended that you get hold of , not the least since a quality line contact is a very expencive and something that you would want use on an old shellac pressing . Many older crystal and ceramic pickups such as those shipped with music centres well into the 90's featured a flipower stylus that had a microgroove stylus on one side and a 63µm stylus on the other to enable the playback of both LP/45's and 78's on the system, and while you can still get those pickups and stylii for them quite easily the problem is one of quality (and the lack of proper crystal inputs on any modern hi-fi). The Expert Stylus company makes replacement stylii especially cut for the playback of all kinds obscure record formats and/or for playback of badly worn records and can glue those stylii onto any type of pickup, in addition to making needles for Gramophones and electronic reproducers etc.. They also sell Shure Pickups that come as standard with their stylii.
There are a few companies that make alvailable a wide stylus for their MM pickups, Audio Technica offers a 78 stylus that can be used with a few of the cheaper MM cartridges, the company does also offer a variant of the budget AT91 cart called AT-78 that comes with this stylus already installed, they also offer a kit named AT-91/78 that contains the pickup and both types of stylii, this is an ideal solution for those that do not have a tonearm with a replaceable headshell but still want to have an option to occasionally switch between formats. AT also offers a Mono MC pickup especially designed for the playback of shellacs named AT-Mono 3/SP, it's a variant of their classic AT-33 design and has a reduced frequency range to minimise auxiliary noise output, the advantage of having the cart a mono unit is that it's much less susceptible to rumble, Garrard and Thorens 124 owners take note. Denon offers their 102 Moving coil pickup in a version called 102SD, this unit is mono as well but with a full frequency range. Ortofon offers their excellent budget OM-10 Super cart in a kit similar to the AT one described above, with a 78 and LP stylus included, the kit is called Ortofon OM 10/78 Super and the same cart with only a 78 stylus is called OM 78 Super, it should be noted that this stylus will fit all OM, OMB, OM Super, OMP, TM and Concorde type pickups from the company and that Ortofon also offers a variant of the Concorde DJ pickup with a similar stylus called Concorde Pro78, it features an integral Ortofon(aka SME/Standard) type headshell so it's an ideal solution for those with such tonearms that want to have the option of switching between formats with ease. The high end SPU line of MC pickups from the company also has an integral headshell with an ortofon style connector and you can get variants of the A and the GM with wide sylii namely the SPU Mono A/65 and the SPU Mono GM/65, and the slightly cheaper Classic SPU Mono CG65Di and the Classic SPU Mono CA65Di, these SPU variants are all true mono units BTW.
Shure Inc. has one model out there that come with the correct stylus, Shure M78S, the stylus for that model can be used with a few other models from the company as well. Nagaoka has a stylii available for their C51M MkII pickup, you can also get that model with this stylus as the C51M MkII-78, the stylus should also fit pickups like the NT-500M and the P-Mount C501M (possibly the only P-mount 78 capable pickup on the market outside of Ortofon?). While there are a lot of replacement crystal type pickups on the market that feature a flipower LP/78 pickup the only generic MM replacement unit I have been able to find on the current market is the P-132-D from Pfanstiehl, while any of the pickups listed above will offer a much superior sound reproduction this type is still favoured by some because of its convenience. Stanton Magnetics offers 63µm replacement stylii for their 500, 680 and 880 series off pickups but apparently does not offer kits.
Pickups and stylii for the playback of Mono LP records Modern stereo records have use a groove that is about 18µm, earlier mono microgroove records however had a groove width of around 25µm (usually slightly more than this or up-to 28µm), the difference is small enough to mean that you can usually play a mono LP with a modern stylus but for optimal results it's best to have a stylus especially cut for mono LP's and a true mono pickup (not rewired or a plain stereo pickup) and indeed a few companies make such pickups and stylii. Ortofon has the OM 10 Super repackaged with a 25µm stylus for the playback of mono LP's as the OM D25M, note that this is still a stereo cart and that this stylus is available separatly and will fit all OM, OM Super, OMP, TM and Concorde type pickups from the company. There are also SPU variants for this purpose and those are true mono pickups, namely the SPU Mono A, the SPU Mono GM, the slightly cheaper Classic SPU Mono CG25Di and the Classic SPU Mono CA25Di. Audio Technica has the AT-Mono 3/LP, it's a variant of the AT-33 like the 3/SP but has a full frequency range. Lyra offers the Lyra Kleos Mono and Lyra Titan Mono and has recently discontinued the Lyra Helicon Mono but there are still stock of it in the channel, these are all MC pickups with a stylus for Mono LP's and are true mono unit and My Sonic Lab has the My Sonic Lab Eminent Solo which is a true mono MC unit as well. Expert Stylus has 25µ stylii that can be glued onto any cart (I belive they have variants for used with worn mono LP's as well). Note that while Grado offers at the least 2 mono pickups these use 10µm stylii and are thus usable with mono records but not optimal like the pickups here above, these are also not true mono pickups but rather stereo models wired in series.
45's If you have ever wondered why some hard-core 45 collectors seem to favour broadcast turntables/arms with MC broadcast pickups to the more normal hi-fi or audiophile equipment there are a few reasons for this that I'll try to explain here. The reason for the broadcast decks has to do with the automatic cueing and return functions offered by those tables (and hi-fi turntables/servo arms derived from such as the Denon DP-47F), while playing LP's is tolerable on a manual turntable having to get up every 3 minutes to lift off the arm can be irritating, the automation also assures less wear on the record and there is less chance of accidentally scratching the record (by dropping the arm onto the record etc..), this is more important on a 45 because quality of the vinyl and the pressing is usually lower than on a LP, also 45's are more collectable than LP's, so it's acute that you try to keep your collection as near to mint condition as possible.
The reason you frequently see broadcast MC's such as from Ortofon, Denon, AT and EMT used has to do with the modulation and power levels used in the cutting process, modulation levels used when cutting a 45 are usually 10 to 20 cm/sec, much higher than used when cutting an LP (with the exception of direct cut LP's that sometimes have such high modulation levels) although in the 80's some mastering rooms began to use LP levels on all cuttings, furthermore in markets like in Jamaica the 45's are often also cut "hot", i.e. the power to the cutterhead is increased to and above the point of distortion resulting in a smooth sounding compression of the audio signal, this technique started to gain popularity amongst those cutting 12" dance singles in the late 90ís and is by now fairly common in that genre. Most if not all MM pickups have problems with those levels in particular the modulation levels and induce a slight amount of harmonic distortion and intermodulation (and on a few MM and MI designs, distortion is quite a lot higher than with normal LPs), even though this is usually a fairly small amount of distortion, it's audible and in particular the intermodulation irritates some people (the SB Live family of sound cards does for instance induce IM, some people claim not to be able to hear it, others can't stand it), the early broadcast MC pickups were designed with this in mind and have inaudible or at the least much lower amounts of distortion (this is probably the reason all the early high quality stereo broadcast pickups were MC anyway). Note that when playing disks cut with high modulation levels it helps to increase the tracking weight of the cart (usually to or around the max. allowed tracking force of the cart), note that when you change a tracking force on a tonearm you will have to readjust the anti-skating.
Transcription Discs These were initially used by radio syndication companies and other organisations that needed to distribute recorded material in small volumes, these are actually mostly just plain 78 rpm Shellac gramophone disks but they often used a variety of techniques in order to get longer program material and/or better sound quality. The most popular variations are 63µm grooved 16" and 12" Shellac discs running at 78 rpm or 33,3 but transcription disks can be of any size between 5 and 17 inches and any speed between 16 and 80 rpm and while most disks use the same groove with as other 78' rpm disks there exist for instance disks with approx. 30 to 38µm grooves that predate the introduction of microgroove records proper, these are playable with a stylus intended for the playback of mono LP's (e.g. 25µm) but using a modern stereo stylus is also possible but less optimal. Apart from often having interesting and unique program material there are also disks out there that are interesting from a technical standpoint, the first hi-fi pressings in the world were in fact transcription disks put out by the Australian Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd. (AWA) company in the 40's but are rare.
16rpm Spoken Word Disks Used in the French speaking world from the 1920's and onwards but fairly rare after the introduction of the microgroove record, these are 16rpm records with 63µm wide groves that feature spoken word material such as language courses etc. Sizes were usually equivalent to a 10" or a 12". In the USA there were library and spoken word recordings issued using this speed but they are less common since they were expressly intended for use by the blind and people with visual impairments, those could be any size up to a 16" and were a later development than the French ones and are usually equalised according to USA transcription standards which are close enough to modern RIAA EQ characteristics to be usable with modern playback equipment since tonal balance on spoken word material is less critical than with music, you will need an 16rpm capable turntable to play them obviously.
Childrenís 78's When people started to press 78 records out of PVC rather than materials that used Shellac or Bakelite as binder the cost of manufacture dropped down considerably, this lead an unknown company in the 1940's to start issue 6" 78 rpm disk with material suitable for children and selling acoustic gramophones made out of tin and other cheap materials and marketed them to parents, both the disks and especially the gramophones were sold extremely cheaply. In the USA these were still being manufactured as late as 1965 even though no record label was still pressing normal 78's at that time and actually there may have been issues as late as the 70's. Since the disks are equalised for use with acoustic amplification they do sound a bit odd with modern equipment (and often sounded odd on the original playback equipment as well) so for optimal results they are best played through an equaliser that can correct acoustic recordings like the Vadlyd one mentioned at the top of the page.
Edison records The Edison Company company was a latecomer to the manufacture of disk playback equipment, they issued their first disk and gramophone in 1913 and in typical Edison style made it in a propriety format commonly known as "hill and dale" recordings since the cutting stylus used to make the masters for those records moved laterally rather than vertically, you can play these on any modern player that supports 78 RPM's and has a stereo pickup fitted. There is a short intro to the label and format here.
Crysler An interesting article on the Chrysler extended play format and the associated car record players is here.