As the 2018 Discogs mid-year report confirmed, Vinyl is king on Discogs. Despite collectors’ collective fixation on this format, seldom is appreciation given to how vinyl records are made. As it turns out, it’s a relatively arduous process that you shouldn’t try at home. Avid vinyl record collectors know the production process is also an extremely important one, with the quality of the record on the line. For aficionados that are curious about the process of how vinyl records are made, follow along as we go through the steps with help from Telegraph Mastering, Bonati Masterting and Cascade Record Pressing.
How Vinyl Records Are Made
- Mastering the Tracks for Vinyl Pressing
- Creating a Master Copy
- Electroforming to Create Stampers
- Pressing Records
- Evaluating Test Pressings
- Inspecting For Defects
- Packing in Sleeves and Shipping
Mastering the Tracks for Vinyl Pressing
Mastering engineers and musicians work together to prepare the music for vinyl pressing. Musicians will bring a digital file to the mastering engineers. These specialized sound engineers will optimize the files through a series of steps that includes adding level and required limiting, sequencing so that the loudest and most dynamic tracks are near the beginning of each side, equalizing to limit skipping, splitting the tracks, selecting the rotation speed and taking into consideration many other factors. It’s a fascinating process and one that deserves a blog post of its own. We have a lot to cover before a vinyl record is made though, so let’s move on to the next step.
For a great high-level overview, watch the beginning of this video by Adam Gonsalves at Telegraph Mastering and Josh Bonati of Bonati Mastering.
Creating a Master Copy
Once the digital file has been optimized for conversion into vinyl, lathe-cutting is used to imprint the digital files to a lacquer plate. Using what looks like a large turntable, an arm equipped with a heavy stylus uses pressure to create grooves. Each side of the consumer record will require its own separate lacquer plate. This is often the final step in the engineering studio. Once the Master is created, it is brought to a processing plant and run through a process called Electroforming, also known as Electroplating. There is also a relatively new and rather uncommon mastering technique, developed in the mid-1980’s, called Direct Metal Mastering (DMM).
A short overview of Direct Metal Mastering (DMM)
As the name implies, a lathe outfitted with a diamond-stylus carves grooves directly into a copper Master disc. Unfortunately, this technique’s expensive capital requirements and chronological overlap with the rise in the cassette and other, cheaper, formats was inopportune. There are currently no master facilities utilizing DMM in the United States after the closing of New York City’s Europadisk in 2005. Who bought their diamond-outfitted lathe when they closed? The Church of Scientology. Chew on that conspiracy theorists. Luckily there are still a handful of outfitters using DMM operating in Europe.
Connecting the data: You’ll notice that some Vinyl releases in the Discogs database have a Lacquer Cut At or Lacquer Cut By line in the credits. This is where the Master was made. You’ll commonly see Mastered At and Mastered By credits as well.
Electroforming, sometimes referenced as Electroplating, is the process of making a copy of the lacquer Master in a fortified material that will be able to withstand the pressures of mass replication. First, it is sprayed with a silver solution to create a copy called a Mother. Next, the Mother is placed in a nickel bath to create a Stamper. Stampers have raised grooves used to press indentations into vinyl. For larger runs, a three-step process is used to create a Father, from which many Mothers and subsequently Stampers can be created. Depending on the number of records that need to be pressed, there will typically be a few Stampers made.
Releases with more than 10,000 records in the batch will usually undergo three-step electroforming.
Each Stamper is taken to a hydraulic press, which stamps it down onto pre-heated vinyl material. This material starts out as pellets, which are formed into a solid hockey-puck shaped disc known as the Biscuit. The Biscuit is sandwiched between labels on the top and bottom. The Biscuit is then heated with steam that is approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit (148 °C) and compressed with more than 2,000 square pounds per square inch of pressure. The Stampers act in a similar fashion to a waffle-iron, with raised grooves that permanently imprint vinyl-material when applied with enough pressure.
Did you know? Vinyl records are made with polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC.
Behind the scenes: Biscuits come in different weights, ranging from 140 grams at the low end to more than 200 grams at the high end. You’ll often see vinyl records weighing 180g or more marketed on sleeves and promotional descriptions due to the perceived improved quality of heavier records.
Next, the edges of the new vinyl record are softened, rounded and trimmed. The vinyl record is then cooled with a dip in water and set out to cure.
How labels are attached to vinyl records: Most modern labels do not require adhesive. Pressure alone fuses the label to the polyvinyl chloride during the pressing process. Before labels are pressed onto vinyl records, they are baked in a special oven to eliminate moisture, otherwise bubbling may occur.
After pressing, the record must be properly trimmed, cooled and then safely set aside for final curing. Have you ever opened a brand new release to find the vinyl warped? This may be due to a vinyl plant trying to rush out an order before it has had proper time to cool and cure. It could also be from storing vinyl records improperly.
Creating test pressings are a crucial step in making vinyl records. A small batch of records is prepared for artists and labels to review. It is an artist’s or label’s final opportunity to evaluate how the record will sound prior to the larger production run. The vinyl format has some natural nuances and idiosyncrasies, but the new pressings are ultimately being vetted for significant and consistent defects during this evaluation.
Once a test pressing batch has passed inspection from all involved parties, full consumer production of the vinyl record can begin. The processing plant will follow the same steps to press the record, but instead of a small batch will run through the full production run.
Inspecting for Defects
Even after being vetted as a test pressing, vinyl record production is part-art, part-science. Pressings are randomly pulled for careful visual and audio inspection by a skilled and experienced vinyl technician. Despite the time-intensive nature and detailed work that goes into vinyl pressing, the entire process is very delicate with no room for error. Cascade Record Pressing strives to produce the highest quality records and their careful dedication means that 10-20% of all records at this stage will not pass their inspection.
Connecting the data: You’ll often see pressing plants listed in the Discogs database on the Pressed By line in the credits of the vinyl release.
The records that don’t pass their quality control are reground and can be used in combination with fresh vinyl pellets and biscuits, in turn creating new records. Some audiophiles claim that having a certain amount of recycled vinyl mixed with new vinyl actually improves the audio quality of the record. It’s actually rare to find Virgin vinyl presses, most have about a 70% new / 30% used composition.
Packing and Shipping
Many processing facilities handle these last steps differently. Cascade in Portland, OR, doesn’t do printing in-house, so their customers work on printing sleeves and jackets separately unless they want stock white. While records are waiting for sleeves, they are stored on spindles, which keep them flat and assists with the curing process.
Though Cascade doesn’t print jackets, they will take care of the final packing of the vinyl, including any inserts and download cards. After assembling the associated parts, they can shrink wrap or poly-bag the finished product.
From here, vinyl records are distributed through retail stores and direct sale from musicians. They eventually make their way onto your turntable and could one day end up on the massive Discogs vinyl marketplace.