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The twelve-inch single (often simply called a 12-inch or 12″) is a type of gramophone record that has wider groove spacing and shorter playing time compared to LPs. This allows for louder levels to be cut on the disc by the mastering engineer, which in turn gives a wider dynamic range, and thus better sound quality. This record type is commonly used in disco and dance music genres, where DJs use them to play in clubs. They are played at either 33 1⁄3 or 45 rpm.
Twelve-inch singles typically have much shorter playing time than full-length LPs, and thus require fewer grooves per inch. This extra space permits a broader dynamic range or louder recording level as the grooves' excursions (i.e., the width of the groove waves and distance traveled from side to side by the turntable stylus) can be much greater in amplitude, especially in the bass frequencies important for dance music. Many record companies began producing 12-inch (30 cm) singles at 33 1⁄3 rpm, although 45 rpm gives better treble response and was used on many twelve-inch singles, especially in the UK.
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The gramophone records cut especially for dance-floor DJs came into existence with the advent of recorded Jamaican mento music in the 1950s. By at least 1956 it was already standard practice by Jamaican sound systems owners to give their "selecter" DJs acetate or flexi disc dubs of exclusive mento and Jamaican rhythm and blues recordings before they were issued commercially. Songs such as Theophilus Beckford's "Easy Snappin'" (recorded in 1956) were played as exclusives by Sir Coxson's Downbeat sound system for years before they were actually released in 1959 – only to become major local hits, also pressed in the UK by Island Records and Blue Beat Records as early as 1960. As the 1960s creativity bloomed along, and with the development of multitrack recording facilities, special mixes of rocksteady and early reggae tunes were given as exclusives to dancehall DJs and selecters. With the 1967 Jamaican invention of remix, called dub on the island, those "specials" became valuable items sold to allied sound system DJs, who could draw crowds with their exclusive hits. The popularity of remix sound engineer King Tubby, who singlehandedly invented and perfected dub remixes from as early as 1967, led to more exclusive dub plates being cut. By then 10-inch records were used to cut those dubs. By 1971, most reggae singles issued in Jamaica included on their B-side a dub remix of the A-side, many of them first tested as exclusive "dub plates" on dances. Those dubs basically included drum and bass-oriented remixes used by sound system selecters. The 10-inch acetate "specials" would remain popular until at least the 2000s (decade) in Jamaica. Several Jamaican DJs such as DJ Kool Herc exported much of the hip hop dance culture from Jamaica to the Bronx in the early 1970s, including the common Jamaican practice of DJs rapping over instrumental dub remixes of hit songs (See King Stitt, U Roy, Dennis Alcapone, Dillinger), ultimately leading to the advent of rap culture in the United States. Most likely, the widespread use of exclusive dub acetates in Jamaica also led American DJs to do the same.
In the United States
In the United States, the twelve-inch single gramophone record came into popularity with the advent of disco music in the 1970s after earlier market experiments.
In early 1970, Cycle/Ampex Records test-marketed a twelve-inch single by Buddy Fite, featuring "Glad Rag Doll" backed with "For Once in My Life". The experiment aimed to energize the struggling singles market, offering a new option for consumers who had stopped buying traditional singles. The record was pressed at 33 rpm, with identical run times to the seven-inch 45 rpm pressing of the single. Several hundred copies were made available for sale for 98 cents each at two Tower Records stores.
Another early twelve-inch single was released in 1973 by soul/R&B musician/songwriter/producer Jerry Williams, Jr. a.k.a. Swamp Dogg. Twelve-inch promotional copies of "Straight From My Heart" were released on his own Swamp Dogg Presents label (Swamp Dogg Presents #501/SDP-SD01, 33 1⁄3 r.p.m.), with distribution by Jamie/Guyden Distribution Corporation. It was manufactured by Jamie Record Co. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The B-side of the record is blank.
The first large-format single made specifically for DJs was actually a ten-inch acetate used by a mix engineer (José Rodríguez) in need of a Friday-night test copy for famed disco mixer Tom Moulton. The song was "I'll be holding on" by Al Downing. As no 7-inch (18 cm) acetates could be found, a 10–inch (25 cm) blank was used. Upon completion, Moulton, found that such a large disc with only a couple of inches worth of grooves on it made him feel silly wasting all that space. He asked Rodríguez to re-cut it so that the grooves looked more spread out and ran to the normal center of the disc. Rodriguez told him that for it to be viable, the level would have to be increased considerably. Because of the wider spacing of the grooves, not only was a louder sound possible but also a wider overall dynamic range (distinction between loud and soft) as well. This was immediately noticed to give a more favorable sound for discothèque play.
Moulton's position as the premiere mixer and "fix it man" for pop singles ensured that this fortunate accident would instantly become industry practice. This would perhaps have been a natural evolution: as dance tracks became much longer than had been the average for a pop song, and the DJ in the club wanted sufficient dynamic range, the format would likely have enlarged from the seven-inch single eventually.
The broad visual spacing of the grooves on the twelve-inch made it easy for the DJ in locating the approximate area of the "breaks" on the disc's surface in dim club light (without having to listen while dropping and re-dropping the stylus to find the right point). A quick study of any DJs favorite discs will reveal mild wear in the "break points" on the discs' surfaces that can clearly be seen by the naked eye, which further eases the "cueing" task (a club DJs tone-arm cartridge will be heavily weighted and mild wear will seldom spoil the sound quality). Many DJ-only remix services, such as Ultimix and Hot Tracks, issued sets with deliberately visualised groove separations (i.e., the record was cut with narrow and wider spacings that could be seen on the surface, marking the mix points on the often multi-song discs).
The first official promotional twelve-inch single was South Shore Commissions' "Free Man". At first, these special versions were only available as promotional copies to DJs. Examples of these promos, released at almost the same time in 1975, are Gary Toms Empire – "Drive My Car", Don Downing – "Dream World", Barrabas – "Mellow Blow", The Trammps – "Hooked for Life", Ace Spectrum – "Keep Holdin' On", South Shore Commission – "Train Called Freedom", The Chequers – "Undecided Love", Ernie Rush – "Breakaway", Ralph Carter – "When You're Young and in Love", Michael Zager & The Moon Band feat. Peabo Bryson – "Do It With Feeling", Monday After – "Merry-Go-Round", The Ritchie Family – "I Want To Dance" and Frankie Valli – "Swearin' to God".
The first song found on a twelve-inch single for public purchase was "Love to Love You Baby" by Donna Summer, released worldwide by Atlantic Records in 1975. This song was originally a full side of her North American debut release, but released again in early 1977 backed with "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It", on the Oasis/Casablanca label. By 1976, with the release of "Ten Percent" by Double Exposure on Salsoul Records, the new format was being sold to the general public. As from 1976, the issued twelve-inch-single trend spread to Jamaica, where hundreds of reggae singles were pressed in this format, and commercially issued as "discomixes" to catch on the disco hype. These singles included The Maytones' "Creation Time" (GG Records, 1976); and Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Keep on Moving" (Upsetter Records, 1977) produced and remixed by Lee "Scratch" Perry, featuring a dub mix and a rap mix by Wung Chu all gathered on the same side and edited together. The Jamaican reggae and disco trend also hit London, where reggae was popular and many new punk groups such as The Clash ("London Calling" /" Armagideon Times", 1979) issued twelve-inch singles – but these were mostly regular A-sides, not remixes.
Increasingly in the 1980s, many pop and even rock artists released twelve-inch singles that included longer, extended, or remixed versions of the actual track being promoted by the single. These versions were frequently labeled with the parenthetical designation "12-inch version", "12-inch mix", "extended remix", "dance mix", or "club mix".
Later musical styles took advantage of this new format and recording levels on vinyl twelve-inch "maxi-singles" have steadily increased, culminating in the extremely loud (or "hot") cuts of drum and bass records of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Many record labels produced mainly twelve-inch singles (in addition to albums) during the 1980s, such as Factory Records, who only ever released a handful of seven-inch singles. One of Factory's resident artists, alternative rock/dance quartet New Order, produced the biggest-selling twelve-inch record ever in the United Kingdom, "Blue Monday", selling about 800,000 copies on the format and over a million copies in total (not counting later remixes). It was somewhat helped by the fact that Factory did not release a seven-inch version of the single until 1988, five years after the single was originally released as a twelve-inch-only release. Besides, the seven-inch version that was released was not the original 1983 version released on twelve-inch, but a re-recording called "Blue Monday 1988". "Blue Monday" came in 76th on the 2002 UK list of all-time best-selling singles.
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The term "twelve-inch" usually refers to a vinyl single with one or more extended mixes or remixes of a song. In the mid-to-late 1980s, popular artists often used the twelve-inch format to include extra songs that were not included on albums, just as a seven-inch single often included a B-side song that was not found on full-length albums. CD singles grew in popularity in the 1990s, so the term "maxi-single" became increasingly used for these. Many CD singles contain a number of such songs, in a manner similar to the older EP vinyl format. As advances in compact disc player technology in the 1990s made the CD acceptable for mixing by DJs, CD maxi-singles became increasingly popular for the mixes typically found on vinyl twelve-inch singles. Any given release might include both a CD and a twelve-inch maxi-single, which might or might not have the same tracks.
In the days of the seven-inch single, and especially in R&B releases, the single would occasionally be "flipped" by radio DJs who found the B-side song to be better for airplay than the intended A-side. One noteworthy example is the now-classic "I'll Be Around", the first of the Spinners' Thom Bell-produced hits for Atlantic Records in the mid-1970s. Around the time twelve-inch releases became a standard for pop records, this practice faded, because of the increase in marketing costs, the reliance on video to sell single releases, and the public's expectation of quality packaging with photo or picture sleeves.