One of the many aspects of what makes listening to records such a unique experience is all the effort and care that is put into pressing these albums into wax. Every step of the process is essential in ensuring that each record will sound as best as possible––which is why it's important that we get to appreciate how our records are made by the geniuses over at pressing plants around the world.
Let's dive into the process and see how our records get made from the beginning!
#1: Track Mastering
The laborious process of pressing vinyl begins with the important step of track mastering. in mastering the tracks for vinyl, special mastering engineers are brought in to work with the digital files brought in by musicians. These engineers bring new life into these files by creating a new master that can produce the best sounding analog master that can even mirror the original sound's waveform.
Mastering must be done properly for vinyl, as the resulting sound for an entire batch of records will be dependent on how it was done. Unlike CD or DVD counterparts, this type of mastering is much more precise which is why it can often be redone in the form of "remastering"–which resolves any defects of mistakes from earlier masters.
#2: Making the Master Copy
Once the masters have been optimized for the vinyl format, the lathe-cutting process utilized to imprint these files onto a lacquer plate. With a machine that looks similar to a large turntable, an arm equipped with a heavy stylus puts pressure onto the plates that creates the grooves of the record. For each designated side of the record, there will be one lacquer plate used to capture the grooves of music.
Once the master copy is created, it will then be brought to the pressing plant wherein it will be copied further through the process of electroplating.
In electroplating, the lacquer master is replicated in a fortified material that is strong enough to withstand the pressures that the process of mass replication entails. First, a "mother" copy is developed through the spraying of a silver soliton on the lacquer master. Once sprayed, the "mother" will then be placed in a nickel bath to create a stamper.
The stampers are then used to press indentations into vinyl with their raised grooves. In some cases, a "father" copy is also created to develop many "mother" copies depending on how large the run for the pressing process is. Additionally, the intended quantity of the pressing will also have an effect on how many Stampers will be made for the pressing process.
#4: Pressing the Records
4A. "Pellets" & "Biscuits"
With the stampers now ready, the process of pressing the records begins with the pre-heated vinyl material that comes in the form of "biscuits". These biscuits first come in the form of pellets, with these pellets being flatted and later formed into the hockey-puck disc that becomes the biscuit. These biscuits can come in a variety of colors and weight classes that range from 140-200 grams.
Eventually, the biscuit is then sandwiched with labels on the top and bottom of it's surface. Upon heating at 148°C and compressed with 2,000+ square pounds per square inch of pressure, the stampers will then imprint the permanent grooves on the biscuit. The vinyl record is then softened, rounded, and trimmed to ensure neatness, then dipped in cool water and set out to be cured.
4B. Test Pressings
One of the most important aspects of the pressing process is ensuring that you have a test pressing. Often made in small quantities, test pressings are utilized and dsitributed to the artists or their labels to evaluate the sound performance of the record prior to the continuation of the larger production run.
Once the test pressing has gotten the approval from all respective parties, the full production of the record then begins. The processing plant will follow the same steps as mentioned for the "biscuits", but follows through this time with a full production run.
#5: Quality Control
Even with the approval of the test pressings, production plants perform the necessary testing to observe for audio and visual inspection to note if the quality of the final product is worthy of release. The records are played and visually graded, and if they fail to pass QC, they are reground and utilized in combination with fresh vinyl pellets and biscuits.
Some audiophiles may note that the mix of recycled vinyl and new vinyl may improve the audio quality of the record, depending on the percent composition of the recycled ones. However, others may prefer "virgin vinyl" pressings, which some may say brings out a cleaner sound overall.
#6: Sleeve & Shipping Preparation
Once the records have been checked and tested, processing facilities then move to the final step of sleeve and shipping preparation. As the house of the record's packaging, the sleeve is important in being printed by the time record's are ready to be packed. Some may do their printing in-house, while others may do it out-house for special packaging releases. In the period of waiting for their sleeves, records are stored in spindles to keep them flat, while assisting with the curing process.
Once the printed jackets/sleeves are ready, the latter steps of including any inserts or download material is done, and then they will shrink wrap the finished product. Once sealed, the records are ready for distribution––eventually making their way to our turntables for our enjoyment here at home!
Overall, the process of creating vinyl records is one which is very tedious yet oddly satisfying in the end. As we understand such aspects of the process, we must give credit & recognition to the many people who have worked hard on giving us the best possible quality for our records. Whether it be the mastering engineers, printing presses, quality control staff, and the people at the factories, all these people have important roles which ultimately pay off. Our records are products coming from the labor of precision and passion, which is why we must do our part in taking care of them as best as possible.