How Vinyl Records are Made
Vinyl record collectors know all there is to know about the artists, backstories, and rarity of their finds. But here’s one thing they often don’t know: how a physical vinyl record is actually made.
This one’s for all you vinyl virtuosos and rabbit-holer’s who want to dive a little deeper, taking your appreciation beyond the music into the realm of craft. I’ll walk you through the entire process, from start to finish, of how all your favorite records are made.
Recording, Mixing, and Mastering The Tracks
It all starts in the studio, where musicians record their music. Today, almost all recordings are tracked digitally into a computer, while in the past, they would be collected on analog tape.
A producer will mix the tracks, balancing all the instruments and adding effects like compression and reverb to get them sounding perfect. Mixing transforms raw, dry recordings into full-sounding, balanced songs.
The songs are then mastered, converting them into their final form that will be distributed. Usually, mastering will involve balancing the volume and equalization on the tracks so that they sound consistent over the entire recording. Even on entire albums, most artists choose to have a stable sonic footprint from song-to-song.>
Mastering also takes into account the final medium for the music. Songs and albums that will be played on vinyl have to be mastered differently than those played digitally on streaming services or CDs.
Vinyl is analog, meaning the audio file is played by continuously reading it and translating it into an electrical signal (which then gets amplified by a stereo system). Particularly at low frequencies, this process can distort and “smudge” sounds together, giving vinyl its characteristic warm sound. Vinyl is less “exact” than digital recordings, which encode sound very precisely at all frequencies but often sound cold and harsh as a result.
Once the tracks have been recorded, mixed, and mastered for vinyl, they’re ready for their first press.
Creating A Master Copy
Once they’ve been optimized for vinyl, the master files now need to be converted into a physical master copy. A lathe is used to imprint the digital song files onto a plastic lacquer plate. This is done using a heavy stylus, encoded through a digital-to-analog converter.
As the song files are read digitally, the signal is converted to analog to control the pressure on the stylus as it carves grooves into the lacquer. Each side of the record gets its own plate, since the grooves on each side are different.
Once the plates have been created, we now have a physical copy of the record. We could even play it on a record player and it would sound good. However, the plastic will wear down quickly, and is still too fragile to make many copies for distribution. Instead, the lacquer plates are sent to a processing plant for electroforming.
Electroforming (also known as electroplating) creates robust metal copies of the lacquer master that will be used for pressing the records.
The lacquer plate is sprayed with a thin coat of silver, and then immersed in an electrically-charged chemical bath. Over time, metal builds up on the surface of the record. It is then immersed in another bath with a greater electrical current, causing a lot of metal to build up.
The metal from the baths now has ridges in the exact fitting shape to the lacquer master’s grooves. In the One Step Process, this metal plate can now be used as a stamper to imprint these grooves into a few hundred copies of vinyl. However, it won’t last much longer than that.
In the Three Step Process, the metal disc is not used as a stamper, but rather, is electroplated again to form another inverse part, this time with grooves instead of ridges. This new part is called the “mother.” The mother can be used to electroform additional plates with ridges, creating as many stampers as desired. Usually, processing plants will make one stamper per 500-750 records.
Now that we have a durable metal stamper, we can use it to press the grooves into the vinyl and create records.
The stampers have ridges corresponding exactly to the grooves of the record final-products, so all that needs to be done is to press those ridges into vinyl to create records.
First, polyvinyl chloride is heated up to a few hundred degrees and pressed in an extruder to create a hockey puck-shaped disc, called a “biscuit.” The record labels are firmly stamped onto the biscuit.
The labeled biscuit is now sent to a huge hydraulic press. The vinyl is sandwiched between the metal stampers and pressed at over 2,000 pounds per square inch of pressure to firmly imprint the grooves.
The excess is cut off the sides, and the record is now finished!
Still, some records will be sent through a few quality control steps to ensure they still sound like the original master. Even microscopic amounts of dirt, dust, or scratches on the lacquer master or stampers can lead to large sound problems in the finished product.
Once they’ve been pressed, a small batch of test records are given to the artists and labels for review. This will be the final opportunity to evaluate how the audio sounds before a larger production run. If approval is given, the plant will then go into production.
Even after a successful test-pressing, many records will still have defects that make them unusable when pressed. During production, records will be randomly pulled for thorough audio and visual inspection by an experienced vinyl technician. With rigorous quality standards, as many as 10-20% of these records will not pass the inspection.
Not all is lost, though. The vinyl from discarded records can be reused, reheated, and recycled to make new ones at low cost.
Packing In Sleeves
Now that hundreds of records have been pressed and have passed their quality check, they’re ready for packaging. The records will be stored on spindles which keep them flat and help with curing before they are put in sleeves.
In the final stage, vinyl records are placed into sleeves and album covers before they’re shipped off. At this point, they can be distributed to the general public through retail stores, online stores like Binaural Records, and direct artist sales for listeners like you to enjoy!
So now you know - that’s how all your favorite records are made. Share it with all your friends at the next big get-together! Find anything surprising? Leave a comment below!