The Dark Arts: How a Vinyl Record is Made
by FRANK FREAK
Just in case you haven’t heard, vinyl records have had a massive revival or perhaps more accurately, a massive resurgence recently. Despite the introduction of digital perfection with the Compact Disc in the 1980′s and it’s 1990′s bastard offspring the MP3, vinyl simply refuses to die. Vinyl record sales have increased steadily year on year from 2008, with a prediction that 700,000 vinyl albums will be sold in the UK in 2013. This will mark the biggest year for vinyl sales since 2003, according to music industry body the BPI.
The question is: why do some music listeners prefer vinyl? Sure vinyl is not perfect, e.g. you can’t avoid the occasional clicks and pops and it needs care in handling and storage, unlike the ‘indestructible’ CD (which can also back up as an impromptu coffee coaster). But despite its drawbacks, vinyl’s USP is its inimitable, warm analogue sound and this is why it continues to endure. This is also why, for many, vinyl is simply superior in comparison to the dry, digital perfection of the CD.
Then of course we have those wonderful covers, a 12″ x 12″ window into the heart and soul of the artist. One thing Compact Disc could never do, was complete with these large format graphics and consequently always seemed like a pale imitation in comparison. In the hands of a talented designer a vinyl lp cover has the potential to become a true work of art in itself, and an extended discussion on vinyl album art will soon be here.So, you want to know how a Vinyl LP is manufactured? Well, it’s a complex, highly skilled process involving expensive precision machinery, electrolysis and 100 tons of pressure. Or to put it another way, alchemy with base metals and biscuits. But not the Hobnob kind, watch the videos below and prepare to be slightly impressed.
Step 1. Creating the Master Disc
First of all a master disc has to be made from a flat circular disc made of aluminium which is sanded and polished smooth, this provides the core of the master disc. Next the disc is run through a machine which coats it in a lacquer veneer which dries to a perfectly smooth surface. It is essential at this stage that the lacquered disc is free from imperfections such as pits, bumps or dirt, and any discs which are not perfect are rejected and recycled. These master discs now have a whole punched in the centre by a hydraulic puncher, are packed, and are then ready for the next stage at the mastering studio.
Step 2. Cutting the Master Disc
The engineer places the master disc on the recording machine, which is called a lathe. A vacuum line is placed at the centre of the disc which suctions it to the under side of the disc and holds it perfectly in place. The engineer now moves the cutter and a microscope above the disc, the cutter is lowered, and a test cut is made. The microscope is then used to inspect the test groove and any adjustments deemed necessary are made to the cutter, then he is ready to record. After cutting the leading groove, the audio signal begins and the sapphire tipped cutter etches the sound into the surface of the disc. From start to finish the recording will be one continuous groove whilst a computer monitors the cutting and adjusts the spacing between the grooves as needed. Making music fit on an analogue disc is sometimes challenging, to reproduce bass the cutter has to make wide grooves which take up space, the grooves may touch but they cannot cut across one another. At the end of the recording process the cutter lifts and the disc is inspected, if it is acceptable it is inscribed on the run out groove, and is then ready for the next stage of production.
Step 3. Creating the Vinyl Stamper
The master disc is washed with soap and water and is then sprayed with liquid tin chloride and liquid silver, the tin chloride is a sensitizer that helps the silver stick to the lacquer. One side of the disc is now perfectly silver coated. Now a duller metal is added to the silver side to really stiffen the disc by dipping it in a bath of electrically charged nickel. Next the metal layer is removed from the original lacquered disc; this is now called a stamper and it will be used to press vinyl records. The stamper is placed on a machine which punches a whole in the exact centre and the edge off the disc is trimmed perfectly to a diameter of 12”.
Step 4. Creating the finished Vinyl Record
Black polyvinylchloride pellets are placed in an extruder which turns them into small ‘biscuits’ to which the record labels are placed on either side. The biscuit is then placed in a press which has two stampers mounted within it (one for each side of the record). The press then applies 100 tons of pressure at 190° Celsius to both sides of the biscuit which melt and mould it into a vinyl record which is cooled and trimmed. And voila! We have the finished New Vinyl LP Record.