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Pressing Issues: Vinyl Record Quality in Today’s Market

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The following comes from Matt Gluskin, who writes about analog recording technology. Reprinted with permission from Matt’s site Wax Times, where the original post first appeared.

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The nation’s largest record manufacturer, United Record Pressing, announced an increase in capacity thanks to the resurgence in demand for vinyl. Bearing this in mind, it’s a great time to discuss what makes a quality record. Even if you don’t obsess over the nuances of sound reproduction and records are more of a passing hobby, knowing the importance of vinyl composition and manufacturing processes illuminates the details of analog technology.

The Process

A good record begins with 100% pure, virgin vinyl. That means the raw product is new, not previously part of another disc or combined with recycled vinyl in any ratio (70% new/30% recycled is common). Secondly, since records are a form of analog technology, their source material should be of an analog format as well – usually tape – and then mastered by someone like Kevin Gray. From there, the lacquer(s) (which are cut on a lathe during mastering) go through a three step electroplating process which first generates a Matrix (negative) then a Mother (positive) and lastly Stampers (the negatives used to press the grooves into a record). Combine it all with labels, a sleeve, jacket, some hype stickers, and ship it off to distributors. Customers around the world buy it, hoping the hard work paid off.

Departures from the above prescription are common. Musicians like to alter the physical appearance of their albums to match a theme carried throughout the music, or sometimes just like to be different. United offers plenty of choice here with a few dozen color recipes for recommended combinations. Custom color options are the center of a debate among listeners, musicians, and engineers that claim colored wax sounds different than a standard black pressing. It may be that the process of adding a colorant to the raw material negatively affects sound reproduction, but definitive evidence is hard to come by. Personal preference is the best opinion to take. I prefer high-quality standard pressings with no frills, but then again, if a limited edition is available I often buy both.

 

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This record stamper is fitted to a press along with it’s mate to form the A and B side of a record.

 

Masters Matter

Analog masters are critical, but according to United’s FAQs most of their customers deliver audio on CDs. This means the source material for the pressing is actually a digital master (not necessarily compressed, but still digital). It may not matter though, since the industry quickly adopted digital technology as it became available, and advances are regularly improving sound performance. Debates continue and sources have different opinions. Readers can make up their own minds after hearing the facts. I prefer to know as much as possible about a release before I purchase a copy. Few artists disclose that information, so it becomes an educated guess based on past experience with specific labels and musicians in respect to the quality of the end product.

Unfortunately, supplying analog masters does not guarantee a truly analog production workflow, making this all a bit murky. The process requires more of an investment in time, people, and equipment, making it difficult to justify in the face of modern technology. High-resolution digital sources continue to trend upward, and the results among listeners are generally positive. Basically, a high-resolution digital source consists of a lossless audio codec capturing sonic information at an increased bit depth. The product reproduces sound among a larger number of frequencies than that of an MP3, the long-time standard of the iPod generation. Experiencing the difference requires spending a little bit more money than the average new record purchase. Quality Record Productions (QRP) in Salina, Kansas, specializes in manufacturing premium audiophile pressings, in addition to standard releases from thousands of labels worldwide. The price point of records on the Analogue Productions label begin at $30 and move up from there. Your ears will have to decide if the quality justifies the extra cost.

Packaging

Packaging has a two-fold purpose: to look good and protect what’s inside. With each record, consideration has to be taken regarding how they are housed and what they are housed in. Bulk shipping to disturbers and customers via Media Mail offers affordability but not necessarily the security of a package’s contents. All kinds of damage can happen from scuffing, scratches, and fractures contributing to a poor – or perhaps impossible – listening experience once the item reaches a consumer. The hated bleached white paper sleeves might be the worst thing for a freshly pressed record short of dropping it on the floor. Upgraded sleeves are appreciated but again, it’s an up-sell that pressing plants charge for. That extra cost is passed onto the consumer but I’m fine with that so long as that means the record will look good and sound excellent.

Choose Wisely

This entire process comes together like a puzzle. When pieces are missing, the puzzle is incomplete or at best results in a subpar listening experience. On top of that, not all records are created equal. Why spend money on something that may actually be of inferior sonic quality to a CD or a high-resolution digital file? Admittedly, collecting records is rarely just about the sound; it’s about the experience of looking for years to find a rare album and the simple pleasures of ownership. Remember what a record is and how vinyl is susceptible to problems from both production and listening standpoints. Imperfections bring music to life. To escape imperfections completely would eliminate the humanistic element often cited as the most enjoyed attribute missing from digital HiFi.

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Featured image used under CC License from Wikipedia

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Comments (8)
  1. mp3

    vinyl sucks.


    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      ignorant sod


      Reply
    2. David

      Mp3 you obiously have never heard a good turntable.
      PS Mp3’s suck


      Reply
  2. hippydog

    I love audiophiles..
    you can sell them stuff that isnt even there..

    Hey, you want to buy this special vinyl edition that was mastered using BBE analog technology, and shipped using upgraded audio retention paper?


    Reply
  3. Pepperman

    The digital sound isn’t better it’s just different.
    If a recording and a reproduction is fully analog you allow to the machines to record and reproduce frequencies
    that are far above the audible area of humans let say approximately 57Khz where the transistor of an ampifier stops to work.
    The theory says that even if we don’t hear this area ‘we feel’ it because it reproduces sub harmonical
    frequencies which we can hear and the sound is better.To any digital format this doesn’t exist.
    In addition, an analog format has infinite number of audio frequencies.
    This has been proved from the French mathematician J. Fourier and it is called ‘Fourier analysis’
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourier_analysis
    How do I know all these things and many more?
    The answer is simple, I manufacture records in Europe and I can make full analog transfers
    like the old school from any tape to lacquers in a normal price for the client.
    The vinyl has resisted all audio formats until now and it still lives on.
    The cd dies, it is just a matter of time.


    Reply
    1. jw

      An analog audio recording may contain the data for reproducing sounds as high as 57khz, but most speakers are only designed to reproduce audio from 20hz to 20hkz, if even that, which makes it all for naught. Speakers are the great equalizer, as far as dynamic range is concerned.


      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Ima buy me some of them $300 Beats headphones ‘n listen to my em pee threes on ma phone! Dats where da shitzat! Lizzen to dat bass. Thumpin!


    Reply
  5. Esolsek

    Let’s face it, most bands are going to run into more problems with writing decent songs, finding decent vocalists and drummers, and properly recording their instruments and mixing, than whether they recorded in digital or analog. At least with digital, they can make a ton of mistakes at home, and if anything is worth a damn, they can move into a professional setting with a lot of prep work and education already done instead of the days of ‘trusting’ someone.

    The quality of guitar amp and pedal I’m using are a lot more important than what I’m recoding into. The AD converters have come a long ways, as has the software. The power and confidence-building of doing it yourself can’t be overstated, however great it is to do it the old way once you’re ready.


    Reply

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