Manufacturing Vinyl

The processes involved in making records are complex, scientific and the finer details are beyond the scope of a basic introduction like this. Nevertheless it is important to know the basics of the manufacturing processes so that you understand what you are paying for when you order a job and so that you understand the jargon used by the manufacturing companies in their catalogues and literature. What follows is a basic outline of the manufacturing process. Cutting a groove in a soft disc. Making this disc go hard. Making a mirror image or positive of the cut disc. Stamping several copies with this positive.

Disc Cutting

This part of the process tends to have a few different names, according to which company catalogue is being used. For example, this process has been known as; lacquer cutting, vinyl mastering, initiation fron DAT, lacquer processing, etc.

After recording the tracks you want to use for the manufacturing of records there are a few things to consider. The main one is the format these recordings are preserved in. The main two these days are DAT and CD-R. Another, albeit slightly dated format, is sometimes used - the quarter inch two track tape. Whichever of these formats you are using the next stages are pretty much the same. The music is played on whichever is the relevant machine and the signal is cut into a rotating disc on a turntable.

A blank disc is placed on the cutting turntable which for our purposes rotates at a constant speed. An arm with a cutting stylus is placed at the appropriate radius for the desired record size, ie 7 inch or twelve inch. The cutting stylus is made of either diamond or artificial sapphire and the disc is metal-based with a coating of either cellulose nitrate lacquer or copper into which the groove is cut.

The music information is stored on the disc by the stylus moving from side to side very slightly while the groove is being cut, the left side of the stylus puts a signal on the left side of the groove and the right side similarly puts a signal on the right side of the groove.

This cutting process can be thought of as the reverse of playing a record - and the equipment actually looks very similar to a record player, except that it is much bigger and industrial/technical looking. In the cutting process an electrical signal comes down the arm to the stylus from the original master, via the various electrical equipment used to adjust the sound, and wobbles the stylus making it cut a wobbly groove in the blank disc. When a record is played the grooves wobble the stylus, sending an electrical signal to the amplifier and speakers - in other words, the reverse.

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Vinyl Disc Processing

What happens after the cut has been done can be roughly divided into three stages:

- The preparation of a tool for moulding or 'pressing' records -
- The actual moulding or 'pressing' process itself -
- Packaging the finished record -

This process also has a number of different names depending on the company describing it. Some of them are as follows; processing/plating, processing metal stampers, metalwork from lacquers, etc.

Records intended for mass consumption cannot all be cut as it would be a far too costly and time consuming a process to manufacture them all. What happens is that a moulding tool is made from the cut which is then used to press grooves into other blank discs. This is much faster than the cut primarily because the music doesn't need to played in real time every time a record is made - it just takes the length of time needed for the mould to stamp an impression in the plastic.

The disc which has had the groove cut into it by the cutting stylus is called the lacquer and it is from this that the moulding tool is made with the object of producing replicas in the form of vinyl discs which are as faithful to the original as possible.

Pressing

In effect the final copies of the disc are stamped and labelled on both sides. The label is placed at the same time as the groove is pressed (you may have seen reject records on which the label may be misplaced and protruding onto the playing surface).

Packaging

The first point to note is that the sleeves on records are generally more expensive to produce than the booklets in CDs. This factor alone makes CD the favourite option for the relatively poor record label (like mine!). Not only does the design need to be printed (as it does with CD), it needs to be folded and glued - a much more mechanically intensive process than with CD. In general record cover designs are much larger than CD and use more expensive media, particularly the paper/card on which the design is printed. I know from experience that a full-colour record cover is as expensive as the record itself - more or less doubling the cost of your release.

Conclusion

The process you are paying for when having records made is usually beyond the scope of the artiste or smallfry label to do itself. Whereas with CD it is possible to cut a couple of corners, vinyl production is almost completely in the hands of a specialist company, and you have to pay for it. You can design the covers yourself up to a point. Using either traditional cut and paste methods or a computer the actual artwork can be designed. However, not many people will have access to printers big enough to produce proofs (practice versions of the cover), and on top of that the printing of the finished product is very expensive compared to CD booklets, albeit far more impressive!

In addition there are fewer and fewer people using record players at home these days, so you may have problems selling them all. Producing a recording on vinyl needs serious consideration, especially with the very limited budgets of small labels (like mine).