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The 12-inch single (often simply called 12″) is a type of gramophone record that has wider groove spacing and shorter playing time compared to typical LPs. This allows for louder levels to be cut on the disc by the cutting 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 discos or clubs. They are played at either 33 1⁄3 or 45 rpm.
12-inch singles typically have much shorter playing time than full-length LPs, 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 so 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 12-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 12-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 12-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 7-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 12-inch single was released in 1973 by soul/R&B musician/songwriter/producer Jerry Williams, Jr. a.k.a. Swamp Dogg. 12-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, PA. The B-side of the record is blank.
The first 12-inch (30 cm) single made specifically for DJs was actually a 10-inch (25 cm) 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 songs 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 have surely had to be changed from the 7-inch (18 cm) single eventually.
Also worth noting is that the broad visual spacing of the grooves on the 12-inch made it easy for the DJ in locating the approximate area of the "breaks" on the disc's surface (without having to listen as he dropped and re-dropped 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 12-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 12-inch single is "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 12-inch single trend spread to Jamaica, where hundreds of reggae 12-inch singles were pressed and commercially issued as "discomix" 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 12-inch singles – but these were mostly regular A-sides, not remixes.
Increasingly in the 1980s, many pop and even rock artists released 12-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 30-centimeter (12 in) maxis have steadily increased, culminating in the extremely loud (or "hot") cuts of drum and bass records of the 1990s and early 2000s (decade).
Many record labels produced mainly 12-inch singles (in addition to albums) during the 1980s, such as Factory Records, who only ever released a handful of 7-inch (18 cm) records. One of Factory's resident artists, alternative rock/dance quartet New Order, produced the biggest-selling 12-inch record ever in the United Kingdom, "Blue Monday", selling about 800,000 copies on the format and over a million copies in total. It was somewhat helped by the fact that Factory did not release a 7-inch version of the single until 1988, five years after the single was originally released as a 12-inch-only release. "Blue Monday" came in 76th on the 2002 UK list of all-time best-selling singles.
The term "12-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 12-inch format to include "bonus" songs that were not included on albums, just as a 7-inch single often included a B-side cut that was not found on full-length albums. CD singles grew in popularity in the 1990s, so the term maxi single became increasingly used. Many CD singles contain a number of such cuts, 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 12-inch singles.
In the days of the 7-inch single, and especially in R&B releases, the single would occasionally be "flipped" by radio DJs who found the B-side cut 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 12-inch releases became 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.