How are vinyl records made?
It’s only been a few days since the beloved Record Store Day has come and gone (April 16, FYI).
Record Store Day, as you might already know, is an annual event held on the third Saturday of April in celebration of record store culture: the independent record stores, the people, the musicians, the works.
It’s a pretty big to-do for music lovers of any genre from all over the world. According to the official website for Record Store Day, there are participating stores on every continent except Antarctica (maybe by next year the penguins can get together and set something up). From Justin Bieber to Rob Zombie, David Bowie to Hüsker Dü, artists of every sort (past, present, and future) release limited quantities of RSD-exclusives to add some extra special little nuggets of joy to the audiophiles of the world (I’m sure it has nothing to do with $$$).
There’s been a resurgence of interest in vinyl records in recent years despite the introduction and push for digital music.
Records are very sensual in nature (and I mean that literally). Besides their auditory qualities, records are optical and tactile; the consumer can appreciate their musical purchase in the physical world which, in my humble opinions, allows for a greater sense of (or formation for) nostalgia than could be possible using iTunes or Spotify, for example.
So records are back. They are trendy. I, for one, have no problem with this. I have my fair share of LPs (both new pressings I spent too much money on and oldies I picked up used for a couple bucks), although I personally don’t limit myself to only listening to records (I also still buy CDs because I am that person. And yes I use Spotify). And yes, even though I like my little vinyl collection, I never felt compelled to get super into them, or dig deeper into the actual production of records. That is, until I started to wonder how often other people consider the production of records. Then I got curious and did a little digging.
I’ll give you a hint: it has a lot to do with petroleum.
What’s a record got to do with the cost of oil?
It can’t really be said enough how much the modern world runs on petroleum and petroleum products. Even the things that you wouldn’t think are made from oil actually are. Like vinyl records, for example.
What we know as “vinyl records” (which are, more broadly, gramophone records) really are made from vinyl: polyvinyl chloride, to be precise, which is a plastic commonly known as PVC. PVC is a popular polymer used in everything from construction pipes to flooring to clothing and furniture. The basic raw materials for polyvinyl chloride are salt and oil: the general breakdown is 57% chlorine (made from industrial salt) and 43% carbon (oil/gas via ethylene).
While black records are standard, the PVC used to make records is actually clear! It’s actually a polycarbonate additive (carbon black) which makes many of the records we encounter black. One effect of this additive is a smoother flow and, therefore, lower noise floor. This is likely why black records are still the new black, despite the (typical) excitement generated by fancy schmancy colored pressings. Apparently colored pressings tend to be noisier, although you’d be hard-pressed to find total agreement on that particular claim.
Before vinyl records were vinyl, early records were made from various different materials, including hard rubber. In 1895 a shellac-based compound was introduced and became the standard material for 78 rpm discs. The typical composition of a 78 was one-third shellac and two-thirds mineral filler (finely pulverized rock) with some cotton fibers for tensile strength and carbon black for color. Shellac records were produced until the end of the 78 format, in favor of the vinyl long-playing (LP) record. While the microgroove 33 1/3 rpm LP was initially introduced in 1931 by RCA Victor, it was a commercial flop. It wasn’t until the late 1940s post-WWII when LPs were reintroduced and met with some success. While the 78 rpm discs were brittle and relatively easy to break, the microgroove 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records we know and love today are much more flexible and unbreakable in normal use.
What’s the whole process?
Here’s an incredibly simplified version:
- Before a vinyl record can be made, a lacquer is cut via the master recording and a groove cutting needle.
- Once the lacquer is grooved, it gets a dose of metal to produce a metal master. This disc, when separated, has ridges instead of grooves.
- The metal master is used to make the mother (metal record), which is used to make a stamper.
- The Stamper is placed in a hydraulic press and the vinyl is sandwiched between the two, making a vinyl record!
So. Maybe you just found out that the intense love you feel for your vinyl collection doesn’t quite match up with your pledge to reduce your dependency on oil. Now what? Do you swear off physical music and become a devotee to the cloud?
Don’t go swearing off your favorite music and prized possessions just because you think you are increasing the wealth of big oil or creating huge amounts of waste; of all the products made of petrochemicals, PVC is highly recyclable. In fact, PVC can be recycled up to 7 times and has a lifespan of around 140 years. And a little fun fact? Most vinyl records are made from up to 30% recycled vinyl. So reduce, reuse, recycle, and record on, my friends.