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From Scratch

100 tons of pressure and what do you get? A vinyl record.



Keen-eared audiophiles will agree that the warmth of analog sound surpasses digital tenfold. Everything from the history of Thomas Edison's cylinder phonographs to the use of bug-based shellac composite to create old 78s is common knowledge.

The vinyl lover's profound love of the platter goes well beyond the savored Pop Rocks sizzle-and-hiss of each groove progression. The process of making records fascinates the vinyl enthusiast. Online forum threads trail 50 posts deep when these folks furiously debate which pressing plants turned out the best Beatles reissues; a few even share memories of touring the factories during their heyday (Capitol Records actually operated a press from 1969-1988 in Winchester — the home of Patsy Cline).

Manufacturing records continues to be a hands-on experience, with more human contact than any other music-recording medium. Only a handful of plants in the United States remain, but they report steady business.

The tale of how a record comes to be varies because the process allows a degree of creativity. While the more constant steps are a little less romantic than mixing multiple chunks of vinyl to get a tricolored wonder, they're meticulous and keep one of the sturdiest forms of recorded sound alive. We'll stick to the basics and spare you the geek talk of equalizations and sound fidelity. But here's how you make a record:

Humble Pie

Every record starts with a gritty, aluminum disc that's polished down and then sent through a machine called a curtain coater to be covered with lacquer. Think about a substance like nail polish and you'll be on the right track. This simple plate is the beginning of the master disc, or acetate, from which the final product will be pressed. Once the shiny pie dries, it's inspected for any kind of bump or pit that might render it worthless. There's about a 50 percent toss rate even this early in the game. A plastic edging is then applied to prevent the discs from sticking while they're stacked for hydraulic press hole-punching down the center. The lacquered disc is ready to become a master.

So, You Want to Cut a Record?

Back in the day, to make a record you might find yourself face down in a recording horn contraption that was piped into a diaphragm. This eventually produced acoustic sound with captured vibrations.

These days, most musicians come to the manufacturing process with a studio master in hand. That recording is loaded into the equivalent of a large stereo, and the engineer puts the master onto a lathe. Ben Blackwell, head of vinyl production for Jack White's Third Man Records, has referred to this setup as "a fancy turntable weirdly mutated with a sewing machine."

A suction tube pulls the disc down onto the machine and holds it in place for the test cut. The engineer then uses a microscope to inspect the cut, and if it's a good one, the recording can begin. The lead-in groove is made and music starts to play. A sapphire-tipped cutter etches sound into the surface in one continuous groove. Each sound creates a vibration and these cuts form a pattern that a stylus can capture. Once the recording has ended, the master is scrutinized. If the engineer gives it the thumbs up, a serial number is etched into the lacquer near the middle of the record.

Heavy Metal

The master is first slathered down with soap and water and then sprayed down with tin chloride and liquid silver. The result is a shimmering disc that looks like it should be commemorating outstanding album sales. After another rinse, the spinning disc is dunked into a tank filled with nickel nuggets and electric charges that will fuse the nickel to the silver. The nickel settles into the grooves and it's time to pull the metal layer away from the lacquered disc. Worth noting is that the stamper created is a negative image of the record. After an engineer looks for the exact middle of the new disc using microscopes and viewfinders, a hole is punched in it. Thereafter, it's off to the trimmer to be cut down to the preferred size. After much fuss, the stamper is loaded onto the press.

Get 'Em While They're Hot!

Black, polyvinyl pellets are poured into a hopper and then fed into an extruder that turns them into hot patties or biscuits. Such black blobs also are called pucks. Once labels are affixed to the aforementioned biscuits, a carriage drops the heated glop onto the press where a whopping 100 tons of pressure are applied. The stamper set, heated to 193 degrees, sandwiches the material to melt and mold the record. A brief cooling cycle bonds the label to the vinyl and the ragged edges are cut off.

And then, after 28 seconds, the record is pressed, removed trimmed and ready for a spin.


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