Sleeping Black Beauty: How Vinyl Records Are Made

This is a transcription of a audio slide show that appeared on The Guardian’s website.  You can watch/listen to the original here.

40 year record presses installed by EMI in the 70s vinyl heyday grind noisily away oozing hydraulic oil onto the floor.

Long pipes run the length of the factory carrying steam to power the presses, its as if the digital age had never occurred.

Hi-tech this is not but uber cool niche it certainly is.  I’m on an industrial estate in Hayes, Middlesex (UK).  This was once EMI’s vinyl manufacturing plant until the record label sold it off in 2001 and it became The Vinyl Factory.  In the 70s this plant pressed 1 million records a week, it’s the last major vinyl plant in the UK and now presses around 25000 records a week. General manager Roy Matthews began work here straight after school as an apprentice, that was 50 odd years ago.

In those days the Beatles and Pink Floyd used to trail through the factory keen to see their records, SGT Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Dark Side of the Moon, no less, being pressed.  Matthews met them all but no such thing happens today, the stars don’t do factory visits anymore its a reality too far.

But while CDs and downloads have taken over the market, vinyl itself has never lost its credibility.  Devotees sight its superior sound quality and the personal tactile relationship one develops with the big black disk and accompanying artwork.  The Vinyl Factory’s mission statement is ‘music is a physical experience’. What’s more, vinyl is experiencing a resurgence – Massive Attack, Grace Jones, The Pet Shop Boys and Mumford & Sons have all pressed limited runs here.

Matthews pulls out a black LP called a lacquer, this is a master cut that The Vinyl Factory receives from Abbey Road studios.  Its an aluminium disk coated in acetate lacquer into which an analog signal has been cut using a heated diamond stylus.  At this point the disk is a soft facsimile of the final record.  We move to the hub of the factory floor where an assistant cleans the surface of the lacquer using distilled water and then softly brushes it using soap solution to remove any grease before placing it into the silver plating tank where mechanical jets shower the disk with a thin later of silver to make it electrically conductive.

Before our eyes the disk gathers a beautiful silver sheen it is then placed in an electroplating bath where over 3 hours individual nickel molecules attach themselves to the silver.  The resulting master is washed and separated from the original lacquer.  As this master is now a negative imprint another positive nickel copy is made called The Mother.  The Mother copy is played and checked for faults.  All being well negative nickel stampers are then produced from The Mother.  These are cleaned and used to press the final run of records.

Mother. Master. Stamper. Positive. Negative.

I am initially bemused by Matthews’ flood of terminology, to him its clearly second nature.  After half a century vinyl manufacturing is stamped on his brain indelibly.

A pile of paper record labels are placed in a record press.

The Vinyl arrives in the form of black PVC pellets contained in a large vat with spidery tubes running out of it and into several large presses.  The pellets are sucked up the tubes and into the sealed press and melted at a high temperature.

A sausage of black vinyl is squirted out into a circular block which is sandwiched between two record labels before being flattened between the A and B side stampers.

The excess PVC that seeps out of the sides is trimmed off and dumped in a bin, it is fearsomely hot to touch.  The press then produces a perfectly round covetable disk that it slots into a sleeve before depositing it in an adjacent box.  Once a run is complete the used stamper is removed and the next one is cleaned with pressured air to get rid of any grit, it’s then slotted into place and screwed in, ready for the next run.

Warm, noisy and greasy these old machines keep on keeping on.

The pristine records they produce bely the frankly rather clapped out looking machines that continue to manufacture them.

Old school engineering triumphs here, nothing has changed.

But why tinker with perfection.

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