What is Vinyl Made Of?
Vinyl records have been around since before the turn of the 20th century, and the methods used to make them haven’t changed much since then. Even before the invention of the records you know and love today, none other than Thomas Edison had created a device called the phonograph, which used a primitive version of the same technology as the turntable. The intricate process of creating vinyl records is fascinating, and it’s a testament to human inventiveness and ingenuity.
In this post, we’ll be covering the process and materials used to create vinyl records. If you’re curious about how your favorite albums were made into vinyl, keep reading to find out!
The Process of Manufacturing Vinyl Records, Step by Step
Below are quick and simple explanations of the three main steps in the process of creating vinyl records – cutting, plating, and pressing.
Once a band or musician has finished recording an album, an audio engineer can use the final master recording as the basis for what is known in the vinyl industry as a master disc. This hard lacquer disc is used as the basis for all vinyl copies of the album.
The grooves on the lacquer master disc are cut by an automated lathe, which is equipped with a sapphire cutting tool. This cutting tool is designed to move according to the vibrations it picks up as the master recording of an album is played back. The lathe etches these vibrations into the lacquer disc, which is made from nitrocellulose.
It’s important to note that the disc created by the lathe is not a vinyl record itself. Instead, this disc is more of a template – the grooves etched into it by the lathe are later copied onto vinyl for distribution. The lacquer master disc could not be played on a turntable, and it wouldn’t be available for sale.
After the cutting process is complete, the master disc is shipped to a plating facility, where a team of skilled workers will use it as a reference point for the next step in the process – plating.
The plating process has to begin almost immediately after the master disc arrives – if plating is put off for too long, the master disc can become warped, leaving it below the standards of the record industry.
While an untrained ear might not be able to hear the changes that this warping can cause, record-making professionals are skilled and experienced enough to know when a master disc has become warped. If that happens, the mastering process will have to start over, which can be expensive and time-consuming.
An integral part of the record-making process is known as electroplating. This step involves coating the master disc in stannous chloride, which allows the disc to later be coated in silver. After the lacquer master disc is coated and sprayed, it is covered with nickel plates. These plates have the same grooves as the master disc itself, but they face outward, not inward. This allows the plates on both sides of the master disc to be used to make copies.
After electroplating is complete, the plating team can test an initial copy of the master for quality control. This process may need to be repeated several times to account for any errors. Once the plating team is satisfied with their work, they use the nickel plates to create stampers, which will be used during the manufacturing process.
The stampers created during the electroplating process play an integral role in the next part of a vinyl record’s conception – pressing.
These stampers are loaded into a hydraulic press. This press is linked to a steam-heated hopper, which is filled with polyvinyl chloride. Polyvinyl chloride is the primary material used in the production of vinyl records, and it’s also where vinyl gets its name.
The heated pellets of polyvinyl chloride are melted down by the press, which is squished between the stampers to etch the stamper’s grooves into a newly-created vinyl disc. After the two stampers have pressed grooves into each side of the vinyl, it is allowed to cool to prevent warping and melting.
More Quality Control
After pressing is complete, the batch of records needs to be carefully inspected for flaws and defects. Quality control plays an integral role in the record-making process – without it, records might be unplayable or have inferior sound quality.
To accurately assess a batch of records, a skilled audio technician will look for cosmetic flaws and deformities to determine whether any records are warped, misshapen, scratched, or cracked. In addition, the engineer will test the sound of the records as well. If a record has cosmetic or sonic issues, it has to be discarded and left out of the batch.
Due to the heavy emphasis on quality in the vinyl industry, as much as 20% of a set of vinyl records may be rejected after quality control is complete. While this might sound like a waste of resources, it’s not the end of the story for these misfit records. Remember polyvinyl chloride? This material, which makes up the structure of every vinyl record, can be reused by grounding rejected records into tiny pellets, which are later used in the pressing process for new records.
Design, Packaging, and Distribution
After the vinyl record itself is complete and has passed its inspection, there are still plenty more steps in the process before it can hit the shelves. Many companies that manufacture vinyl records outsource all of the design and packaging to other companies, which means records will need to change hands again before they are sealed and ready to distribute.
Skilled designers work long and hard to create compelling packaging for an artist’s music. Because vinyl is such a visuals-heavy format, it’s essential that no aspect of the design process is neglected. Bands and musicians – or the labels representing them – typically contract artists and designers specifically for the sake of creating unique content that will only be included in a vinyl pressing of an album. This content can include lyric sheets, posters, photos, and more that fans can only get if they pick up a copy of a new album on vinyl.
After all of the aspects of design are complete, a company will need to be contracted to print the vinyl’s packaging elements – the jacket, sleeve, and inserts. Once these elements are completed, the final product will be sealed in shrink wrap to protect it and signify that it is brand new.
At this point in the process, a record is ready to be put out on the shelves in record stores or made available online. It’s a long road for each record from start to finish, but the final product makes the process worth it. Starting out with a vat of polyvinyl chloride and a master disc, skilled technicians and engineers can create works of art and marvels of manufacturing that allow fans to hear their favorite albums in the best possible format. And that’s just part of what makes vinyl records special.
To learn more about the fascinating process behind vinyl record manufacturing, make sure to visit the Sound of Vinyl blog. There, you’ll also find plenty of helpful tips for newcomers to vinyl collecting, as well as advice for vinyl veterans. From choosing a preamp and cartridge to figuring out what turntable to buy, we’ve got you covered.
Groovy chemistry: The materials science behind records | c&en
How Vinyl Records Are Made | Discogs