Vinyl was first developed in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that the technology really took off. It was the most popular way to listen to music for over a decade. In recent years, vinyls have surged back into popularity. In fact, vinyl sales surpassed CD sales in 2020 for the first time since the 1980s. The undeniable nostalgia and cozy aesthetic that vinyls bring are theorized to be contributing to their revival. Collectors are known to design interior spaces around their collections, where they organize and beautifully display their musical treasures allowing them to listen to their favorite albums in a curated atmosphere. Some say that putting on a record gives people a chance to slow down and step away from their fast-paced lives.
Whatever is leading to this resurgence, vinyl records are proving to be a method of music playback that withstands the test of time. NotesOnVinyl gives you exciting facts about vinyl records. People across generations are familiar with vinyl, yet not many know how records are actually made. While improvements in the production process have been made over the years, a lot of the same machinery from the late 20th century is still used in the manufacturing process today.
Before considering the physical creation of a record, the production process actually begins with music engineering. After an album, EP, or track is produced, it is mastered by a mastering engineer. This process involves adjusting levels and adding final touches to the sonic tonality to make sure the album is cohesive. Usually the mastering engineer will create a separate master for the vinyl release. This is because vinyl has a few limitations that digital music doesn’t have:
- Records can’t produce as wide a frequency range as digital modes; frequencies outside of the range or excessive volume can cause the needle to skip.
- As record grooves actually form a spiral, the turntable needle actually slows down as it travels inward on the record. Since the inner rings are smaller but the record turns at the same pace, the needle covers less distance over time. It changes from 20 inches per second on the outer rings to 8.5 inches per second. This change in speed actually reduces sonic quality and resolution significantly.
Creating the Master Disc
Once engineering is done, the physical process of creating the vinyl begins. First, the master disc is developed, often known as the lacquer master because it is an aluminum plate coated in a thick lacquer.
To make the master, the audio is routed to a cutting lathe, a device that does the opposite of what the needle on a turntable does. It converts the sound waves into vibrations that, using a sapphire stylus, make cuts on the master disc, creating the grooves of the record. This process happens in real-time as the audio is playing, and the cutting engineer must manually create the spaces between songs.
Creating the Stamper
With the lacquer master complete, it has to be carefully cleaned. Any dust on the surface can interfere with creating the next disc. Next, the master is sprayed with silver and submerged in a nickel bath. Finally, it is electroplated, which forces the nickel to fill all of the grooves of the disc precisely. Then, as soon as it is created, it is pulled apart. The coating is separated from the lacquer disc, leaving a mirror image of the master, known as the “father” or stamping disc.
Before using the stamper to make the actual vinyls, it must be checked for errors. Since the master lacquer can’t be checked, and the father disc has ridges instead of grooves, another disc is created, known as the “mother”. The father disc is electroplated and pulled apart once again to create another mirror image that has grooves. This disc is used to check the recording for any errors before moving on in the process.
It’s Vinyl Time
Once the father disc is ready to go, it can be sent to a pressing plant to produce the actual vinyl records. Every stamper disc can make approximately one thousand records, at which point it has worn out enough to start degrading the audio quality. More stamper discs are made by electroplating the mother disc.
The actual record material starts out as little pellets of polyvinyl chloride. The pellets are melted and squeezed into the size and shape of a hockey puck, which is why they are referred to as “biscuits”. The biscuit is loaded onto a record press along with the two sides of the stamper disc and the record label that goes on top of the inner circle on either side of the record. The labels must be baked beforehand to ensure that they don’t bubble when pressed.
The press applies over 100 tons of pressure and heat when pushing the stampers together. The biscuit flattens out into all the ridges on the stampers. The edges are trimmed and the record is cooled with water and removed from the press. It takes around 30 seconds to make each vinyl.
The first few records are typically test records and are sent to the artist and record label. By this point, the album artwork is usually printed and approved. The vinyls are placed into sleeves and album covers by hand and are sent through a shrink wrap machine. Shiny, new, and wrapped in plastic, they’re finally ready for distribution.
Author Bio: Shaun O’Brien is an audiophile and high end audio dealer in Australia. His store Selby stocks vinyl as well as speakers, turntables, and audio and video components. He loves sharing the process behind vinyl creation with his clients and staff in his Melbourne shops.