THE POWER OF STEAM
The Vinyl Manufacturing Process
In September 2020 it was announced that sales of vinyl had outstripped CDs for the first time since 1987.
In an age where digital devices have taken over, it’s comforting for so many of us to recognise that a one hundred and fifty-year-old mechanical sound reproduction process is still making an impression on increasing numbers of today’s music fans.
In many record plants, even today, pressing vinyl is quite literally a steam driven operation. Traditionally, the moulds used to stamp out vinyl discs are heated by steam which is delivered to the press from a boiler which heats water to the desired 285 degrees Fahrenheit so the moulds can melt pucks of PVC into a vinyl record
It is truly astonishing, in the 21st Century, to consider how many of us relish the concept of a micro-stylus tracking tiny grooves to replay music which, to our ears, we are absolutely certain, sounds far warmer and more impressive than any digital playback mechanism.
The real cognoscenti will go even further as they will argue that each vinyl playback constitutes a unique performance in its own right. A digital file is perfectly repeatable each time it plays, whereas the sound produced by a vinyl phonogram can change — often dramatically — depending on the maintenance and quality of your record and your playback equipment. Add to this the unique role played by the operator/artiste/audiophile in organising the play back- by firing up the amplifier, readying the turntable uncovering this wondrous disc and lingering over the cover artwork.
The album cover artwork is of course an art form in its own right. On a daily basis it’s probably the closest that many of us come to experiencing visual art. Its all to often dismissed by the art establishment as mere graphic art or even worse, commercial packaging. However, every vinyl lover knows that it houses a magical alure which heralds, accompanies and reflects the audio treat which is now instore.
Of course, none of us can resist the temptation, however briefly, to contemplate and admire the disc itself. In all its myriad forms vinyl records are things of great beauty, not just aurally but also visually. The vinyl record as a performance concept is all the more compelling when we consider why listeners are turning to vinyl in the digital age.
The spiral grooves hold the promise of musical delights to come. Vinyl is a seductive and alluring mistress, in addition to regular black 140 g vinyl we also embrace 180 G heavyweight vinyl and sometimes super heavyweight 200 G vinyl. Then there are the more arty and flirtatious cousins including a host of contestants for most beautiful artifact. These temptresses include our beloved vinyl wrapped in a dazzling array of forms including coloured, bi-coloured, tri-coloured, splatter, glow in the dark, day-glo, clear, shaped, laser etched, or picture discs - you name it..the vinyl industry has made it happen. If you are so entranced by the famous grooves , there’s the almost hypnotic process of watching your record spin as the stylus makes its slow journey from start to finish.
So how is this wondrous object which we call a vinyl record actually made ?
Step 1 : Creating the Master Disc
These flat discs are made from an aluminium core, which is sanded down to a smooth finish. The discs are then coated in a nitrocellulose (nitro) lacquer. Once dry, the nitro finish becomes a thick coating similar to nail polish.
The master discs then undergo inspection for flaws. Any flaw in the finish however tiny is disastrous for the final result; for this reason the failure rate at the inspection stage is extremely high. It is only on passing quality control, that a hole is punched into the centre to complete the new master disc.
Step 2 : Cutting the Master Disc
At the studio, our new shiny master discs are cut using a recording machine called a lathe.
First, the master disc is placed onto the lathe. To secure the disc, the engineer places a vacuum line at the centre. Next, a microscope and cutter are moved to the disc’s outer edge ready to perform a test cut. The microscope is used to assess the test groove for any issues.
Once happy, the engineer will begin recording, allowing the lathe to cut a continuous groove representing our source material using a sapphire tipped cutter. The recording is monitored via a computer, which can adjust the spacing between grooves if required. A vacuum removes the scrap lacquer created by cutting.
After the recording finishes, the mastering engineer will assess the cut for any issues before scratching a serial number (and often their signature) into the inner edge of the disc.
Step 3 : Creating the Stamper
To create vinyl records from the master record, we must now create the stamper.
The process begins by washing the master disc before spraying it with tin chloride and liquid silver. Any silver that does not stick is washed away. A duller metal is added to the silver side, which stiffens the disc ready for the electroplating process.
Electroplating simply involves immersing the silver-plated disc into a liquid tank of dissolved nickel. When immersed, the nickel is fused to the silver surface by an electrical charge.
With the nickel set into the grooves, the disc is removed from the electroplating tank and the metal layer is removed from the original lacquer disc. The removed metal layer forms stamper that will be used to press shiny new vinyl records.
To finish the stamper, the manufacturer uses an optical centering punch to make a hole in the exact center before progressing to trimming off any excess metal.
Step 4: Printing the Album Covers
While the mastering process is in operation a specialist printer will be printing and cutting the sleeves then gluing them together to form the album covers, we all love so much.
Step 5: Preparing The Labels
The labels are also being printed, labels are produced in square stacks, which are first punched in the centre and trimmed into perfect circles. As the labels will have to endure the heat of the pressing process they are baked to remove any moisture from the paper. The labels are then fused to the record as part of the pressing process.
Step 6: Pressing the Records
To press vinyl records, the manufacturer first pours Polyvinyl Chloride pellets into a hopper, which feeds the material into an extruder that condenses them into a small puck shape referred to as a biscuit. The machines hold these vinyl biscuits in place as the labels are placed above and below. The biscuit and labels are then moved to the press where 100 tons of pressure is applied at very high temperatures created by heating water to produce steam which is harnessed to melt and mould the biscuit into a new vinyl record. Once cool, the excess vinyl is ready for a final trim.
We now have a beautiful new vinyl record ready for hours of listening enjoyment and a lifetime of beautiful memories.