How a Vinyl Record is Made
The creation of vinyl records in the mid-19th century revolutionized the way we experience music and will forever be a part of record players history. Since then, the popularity of vinyl waxed and waned as new technologies emerged. However, in recent years, vinyl has seen a massive resurgence. In 2018 alone, 16.8 million vinyl records were sold, marking the 13th consecutive year of vinyl sales growth. If you’re a newcomer to the world of vinyl and starting to collect some of your very own records, check out our related posts, Tips for Starting a Vinyl Collection and Vinyl Record Price Guide, to provide you some introductory information.
As old becomes cool once more, a substantial portion of new vinyl users remains unaware of the fascinating process behind the creation of vinyl records. While the process has been perfected and fine-tuned for over a century, it hasn’t changed all that much; the method of creating a recording on vinyl retains much of the quality and craftsmanship of its early days. Below, we will discuss how a vinyl record is made from start to finish.
Start to Finish
The process of creating a vinyl record is an intense art. There are a number of critical steps that must be taken after the musicians have written a song:
- Recording, mixing, and mastering
- Cutting the lacquer disc
- Creating the mother stamp
- Readying the vinyl
- Pressing the records
- Quality Assurance
Each of these steps is critically important to the process of creating a hit record. From beginning to end, every vinyl track has to go on an incredible journey before it can ever be played in your room.
Of course, the first thing that has to happen is that musicians have to write and record a song. In today's world and music industry, this generally occurs at record companies and/or in a recording studio, either on tape (analog) or electronically (digital). After artists record albums or possibly a single song, a recording is made, it is sent to the mastering and mixing professionals, who do their job by mixing and mastering the record specifically for vinyl.
- Mixing – Occurs prior to mastering. The mixer combines tracks together to create a sort of stereo audio file.
- Master – The rough stereo audio file is edited and smoothed to ensure that the album is polished and complete.
Although many considerations have to take place in the process, the primary purpose is making sure that the recorded sound is optimized for playback on different formats, and that it is uniform and consistent. In addition, the mixing engineer will ensure that the sonic elements of a track are appropriately balanced.
Once the track is finally complete on tape or in a digital file, it's time to begin the process of transferring all that sonic information into a physical format. Before a vinyl record can be pressed, two prerequisite discs must be created.
The process of cutting a master record is relatively straightforward. The sonic information from the tape or digital file needs to be "cut" into a lacquer disc that will then be used to make the mother stamp, which can be used to press over 100,000 records.
There are three primary elements to this task that affect the success of the cut. They are:
- Lathe – A lathe is a machine that carves the spiral groove into the lacquer. It consists of a variety of parts, including:
- A sharp ruby, which does the actual carving
- A vacuum, which both ensures the disc lays flat, eliminating warped records
- A turntable, which turns the disc so that the ruby can cut in the circular pattern
- Lacquer Disc – The lacquer disc itself is a round piece of lacquer which serves as the first physical copy of the sound. The lacquer disc must be perfectly cut, with no imperfections, because it will be used as the basis for the mother stamp, which will, in turn, be used to stamp the vinyl records.
- Cutting Pitch and Depth – As the sharp ruby carves sonic information into the lacquer, the depth (how deep the ruby cuts) and pitch (how closely together the grooves are placed) will be critical in ensuring the record’s functionality. If the depth is too large, the sound might be inconsistent in tone or volume. If the pitch is too close, the grooves might intersect, which would result in a record that “skips” in the place where they intersect.
Once the lacquer disc is created, it will be used to cast the mother stamp.
Creating the Mother Stamp
The lacquer disc will not be used to press the records. Instead, it will be used to create a “negative image” of the cut record, called the “mother stamp.” This “negative image” will be used to press hundreds of thousands of records out of hot vinyl.
There are a few steps before we’re ready to press the records themselves:
- Washing – First, the disc is washed to remove any bits of dirt that may have been introduced into the process.
- Silver Application – Then, the disc is sprayed with liquid silver. The silver fills in the grooves of the cut lacquer disc, creating a negative image.
- Nickel Solution Bath – The disc is dipped into a nickel solution, which will harden the silver.
- Hardening – The silver is allowed to harden over several hours.
- Peeling – After it is hardened on the disc, it can be peeled away, creating an exact negative of the original lacquer disc, much like a cast as would be used in ceramics or pottery-making.
The silver negative image needs to be trimmed and cleaned before it can be used. Trimming excess material off of the sides allows the stampers to fit into the appropriate places on the record pressing machine. These stamps will also be stored after the records are pressed, in case the vinyl albums need to be pressed again.
Both sides of the disc are turned into silver mother stamps for production. These stamps will be used in the record presser to create vinyl records out of raw vinyl. The record is now one step closer to being placed on your turntable at home and listened to, bringing joy and music into your household!
Forming Vinyl Pucks
Vinyl records begin as polyvinyl chloride pellets, which aren’t in the shape of a record at all. To turn them into a record, there are a number of steps that must also be taken. First, the vinyl must be melted down and formed into a “puck” shape (just like a hockey puck). The puck will form the basis of the physical material onto which the record is pressed.
A tremendous amount of heat is used in the vinyl melting process. At over 300º Fahrenheit, the pellets will melt down and become pliable, at which point they can be formed into the puck shape.
A sticker or label will be applied to the center of the puck before anything else happens. This label will not only list the title, artist, and tracks on the record—it will also help prevent warping and form a physical basis to which the record will form during pressing. The label will center the record as well, to make sure that the needle of a record player can go around the entire circumference of the record, continuing all the way to the end of the recording.
Pressing the Records
Once the puck has been formed, it will be fed into the pressing iron. The pressing iron also operates at over 300º Fahrenheit, and it uses hot steam to make the pucks pliable once more.
After the pucks are hot and ready to be pressed, the mother stamps on either side will be placed on the pressing iron. Then, in the pivotal moment, over 60 tons of pressure is applied to the puck, truly and physically pressing it into a vinyl record.
This high amount of pressure will not only press the negative image from the mother stamp onto the vinyl, and back into its inverse, "positive" image. It will also condense the vinyl puck into a thin blade, which is around 2 millimeters thick. Excess vinyl will form around the edge of the record. This excess, commonly referred to as "flash," will be trimmed off and recycled, joining forces with new pellets to back to the melting step. It will become a new vinyl format record at a later time!
Pressing a record is a finicky process, made even more difficult by consumer demand for high sound quality. Because the process is so intricate, and the scale of the grooves so small, quality control is an absolute must to ensure that customers are receiving a finished product.
Each set of records that is pressed by the machine will be tested by quality control professionals at the pressing plant. They’ll listen for skips, pops, and hissing. They’ll also account for the vinyl record speed. If the record passes the test, it will be hand-packaged and sent on its way to record stores.
The record store is where you come in and play your part. This is the final phase of a record’s journey that starts in a sound studio and ends in your living room. Now that you know just how much thought and time goes into creating each vinyl record, your listening experience should be even more enjoyable. Happy listening!
Interested in buying a new record player? Check out our tips for choosing a Victrola record player!
Billboard - Music Charts, News, Photos & Video | Billboard. Vinyl Album Sales Grew 15% in 2018, Led by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, David Bowie & Panic! at the Disco | Billboard. Retrieved from http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8493256/vinyl-album-sales-growth-2018-beatles-david-bowie-pink-floyd
Science, Space and New Technology | Popular Science. Vinyl is back. But until now, record-making has been stuck in the '80s. | Popular Science. Retrieved from http://www.popsci.com/viryl-robotic-vinyl-record-press#page-3
White, Glenn; Louie, Gary J. (2005). The Audio Dictionary. University of Washington Press.