Moving away from the bits and bytes of digital formats, such as MP3’s and CD’s. The vinyl record is making a comeback, Bringing with it the deep tones of pure analog. Before the next time you put the needle to the groove, here is a better understanding on how a vinyl record is produced…
This article may be a little different than the traditional travel features from this site, but a change of pace seems only fitting for a story about music. On a recent trip back to my hometown of Toronto, my good friend Paul Miller was kind enough to offer me a tour of the record pressing plant, which he is partners with. I couldn’t resist an opportunity to bring to light my avid hobby of collecting and listening to vinyl records.
For me, the love of travelling can only be rivaled by my love of music. I have been collecting records since its hay day in the 80s. So, it was an absolute privilege to witness how my favourite form of musical media is produced.
Paul, who is the VP of sales for Precision Pressing and a former bandmate from when we played in a punk rock band together called Hostage Life many years ago, now works closely with the local and international artists who are seeking to press their music on vinyl.
Located in Burlington, Ontario, Precision Pressing is approximately an hour drive from Toronto, and is one of the largest in North America. Employing sixty people and open since February 2017, the record pressing plant has already produced 1.5 million records for such artists as The Tragically Hip, U2 and most recently Taylor Swift.
STANDING THE TEST OF TIME
There is something unmatched about sifting through a record collection in search of your songs. For me, the act of physically dropping the stylus on the exact point of your favourite tune, gives one much more of an attachment to the music.
Perhaps it is this attachment that has helped to give vinyl records a dramatic resurgence in popularity in recent years. LP sales has risen to a 16-million-dollar industry in 2016, a high that has not been seen in over 25 years.
As for the vinyl record itself, it has been championed by music enthusiasts and audiophiles alike as the best form to listen to music. By using a true analogue signal, the fidelity achieved on an LP can simply not be achieved by digital formats, such as the CD or MP3, which require a cut-off in response and frequency above 20 kHz.
So, how does a record go from tiny beads of vinyl granulate to becoming a vessel for producing superior levels of sound? Let’s find out…
The process begins by etching the pre-recorded music onto a copper-plated disk. Sound, at its essence is represented as a series of waves. These soundwaves are accurately converted into an analog signal by a lathe machine, such as a Neumann VMS-82 pictured here.
The lathe produces a Direct Metal Master (DMM)…a perfect replica of the master recording.
These etched copper plates (also called CU plates) will be used for all future pressings of the intended record.
The album’s tracks are directly engraved into the copper-plated using an incredibly sharp diamond stylus. The grooves, which contains the music are microscopic in size.
Done in real time to minimize errors, the finished product resembles a record made of copper.
The “CU plate” of the copper plate is then submerged into a nickel plating bath, which positively charges the copper. A negatively charged mirror made of nickel is introduced, which binds to the copper plate like a magnet.
The nickel plating is then peeled away from the copper to create a mold. This template, with ridges that protrude is an exact opposite of the recessed grooves found on the copper plate.
This negative mold made out of nickel is known as the stamper, and will be used to press the actual music to the record. Each stamper only contains one side of music, so every two-sided record requires two stampers, one for the A-side and one for the B-side.
Approximately 1000 records can be pressed using the stamper before breaking. Another plate will need to be produced for bigger runs.
THE TEST PRESS
Once the stampers are completed, a small batch of the record is produced to check for fidelity and impurities issues, which may have occured during the plating process.
The test press, which is a barebones version of what will be the final product is often sought after by record collectors, since only a limited few are produced and then distributed only to the band and associates for quality assurance.
If all sounds correct, then it’s time to move onto the next phase, the mass production of the record.
For Precision Pressing, the cutting, electroplating and test presses are all done at their sister plant GZ Vinyl in the Czech Republic.
The record begins its journey as a vinyl compound granulate. These tiny beads are melted down to create a vinyl puck.
Granulate can be infinite in colour, or they can even be mixed to produce splatter records.
The above example is of a custom made blue, which was used to press a limited edition run.
Black records have the highest fidelity range, with sound quality dropping with coloured vinyl, splatter, picture disc, clear and glow-in-the-dark records respectively.
The vinyl puck itself commonly weighs anywhere from 120 to 180g, but can rise above, depending on the desired weight of the record being pressed, such as the “DMM” version of the Bjork “Post” record shown above, which weighs 200g.
At the centre of the record lays the centre label, which are printed and dried separately before being applied.
A common misconception is that the centre labels are glued onto the record after the record is already pressed.
In actually the entire process of printing both sides of the record and applying the labels are all completed in one step.
With all the materials ready, the stampers are loaded by hand into a hydraulic press. Placed between the stampers are the vinyl puck and the centre labels for both sides. The machine then closes and presses both sides A and B and the labels together simultaneously.
This process takes approximately a minute for each unit to be produced.
Once the record is finished being pressed, it is immediately moved to the trimming machine, where the excess vinyl runoff is subsequently cut away.
FINAL INSPECTION & PACKAGING
Once hardened, the record is placed into a sleeve, protecting it from dust and scratches. The record and sleeve are then placed into its outer sleeve, which contains the album’s artwork. Any liner notes and download cards are also inserted at this time.
The entire package is assembled manually, so that the record can be checked one last time for defects and surface errors. The final process is to send the record to the packaging machine, where it is shrink wrapped and made ready for shipping.
Not only did I come out of the tour of Precision Pressing with a greater appreciation for vinyl as an excellent way to listen to music, but I was very surprised by how truly intimate the process of producing a record actually was.
From start to finish, the entire process was completely hands-on, with every single record in production being physically pressed, inspected and placed in its packaging by hand. From how the record is produced to how it is played, the vinyl record is truly the most personal representation that the music medium has to offer.