Anyone who’s had the pleasure of listening to music on vinyl knows how wonderful this iconic medium sounds, but few actually know how the records are made. Surprisingly, it’s quite a complex and interesting process as well! Let’s take a look behind the curtain.
Those unfamiliar with the process might be surprised to learn just how much goes into making a single vinyl record. On the other hand, serious vinyl enthusiasts know how critical each step is; each step in the process can significantly affect the quality of a recording. Here is a step-by-step overview of the manufacture of the most common 12-inch LP records.
Believe it or not, the roots of the record-making process take root long before you head to a vinyl pressing facility. This process actually begins in the hands of the mastering engineer that the band or artist is working with.
This sound engineer (or sometimes a team of engineers) will take the digital studio recording files created by the musician and prepare them for transfer to vinyl. They’ll make sure tracks are properly optimized for vinyl by running them through several stages, including making sure the tone and levels (and other high level details) are consistent from song to song.
Engineers also work with the musician and producer to determine an album’s song cover, as each side of a disc can only hold about 20 to 30 minutes of audio. Together, the group will determine the final order of the songs, distributing them evenly on both sides of the disc. All this is further complicated by the fact that sound resolution is gradually diminished the closer you get to the center of the vinyl, which affects the sample rate and overall fidelity.
The mastering process is incredibly complex – so much so that we don’t have enough time or space to dive into it here and do it justice – but it can make or break a record long before it does. debut on your favorite streaming music. service or becomes a vinyl record. So many things have to line up right before an artist’s music hits the vinyl press. Speaking of what…
Once the digital files are prepared, the next step is to place them on the Master Disc, also called Lacquer Master. As you probably assumed from the name, this is the main disk from which all individual copies will be made.
The master discs have aluminum cores that are sanded down to be as smooth as possible; this process also removes dust, scratches, and anything else that might impact the sound of the record. This process is absolutely essential when it comes to creating a high quality recording.
From there, the aluminum is covered with a thick layer of nitrocellulose lacquer, left to dry and then subjected to rigorous control. Any excess nitro lacquer will be removed and reused later. If a Lacquer Master fails (which is not uncommon), it rolls back to square one until a viable Master is produced. However, once a master is approved, the engineer drills a hole in the center and places it on a pin with all the duplicates requested for backup, each separated by protective strips.
Printing music on the master disc
Now it’s time for the cool part: burning the music to the master disc! First, the disk is placed on the carving lathe; you’ll usually also see a sapphire-tipped carving stylus (or one made from a comparable material, such as diamond) in this configuration, along with a microscope and vacuum broom. Then the engineer makes a test cut on the edge and inspects it for flaws under a microscope.
If all looks good, then the actual continuous-groove record is printed, starting at the outer edge and working towards the center of the record. Do you remember those digital files the mastering engineer worked so hard on? Yes, these digital files are sent to the cutting lathe, which, in turn, converts the sound waves in real time into vibrations that the lathe carves into the grooves of the master disc.
The whole process is (obviously) closely monitored by a cutting engineer who will also manually create the spaces between each of the songs on the album. The master drive then goes through another round of inspections and must pass before moving on to the next step.
We are not ready to create the individual pressings yet – there is still one disc to be created. This disk, called the stamp, is made from the master disk and the one that will be used to burn the grooves on the vinyl copies that we buy in stores. Depending on the number of copies ordered, it may be necessary to create multiple stamp records as they wear out over time. typically one buffer disk is used for every thousand records produced.
Unsurprisingly, the process of creating the stamp discs is just as complex as that of creating the lacquer master, if not more. After the music files are printed onto the master disc, it is washed to remove any new debris, sprayed with liquid silver, washed again to remove excess silver, then sprayed with tin chloride .
From there, the master enters the process of electroforming (also called electroplating), in which it is immersed in a bath of nickel. This part is essential, because the nickel slips into each groove on each side of the disc and binds to it by an electrical charge. The nickel coating is then removed and you are left with two discs: the master disc and the newly formed electrolytic disc, called the “Father” disc. What’s remarkable is that the Father disc sports upward ridges instead of the master’s carved grooves – this is the disc ‘pattern’ that will be used to stamp copies of this particular album.
The electroplating process is then repeated, this time with the Father disk, to create a “Mother” disk, which has grooves like the lacquer master does. The master discs are used to create the buffer discs, which are used to create individual vinyl records, i.e. the final product. Of course, the final stampers get the center punch for processing and have the excess material cut off before they officially hit the press.
Naturally, the Father and Mother disks are subject to quality checks, and additional arrays can be created from the Mother disk as needed. This three-step process is typical for large prints. If it is a small version, however, this process is often reduced to a single step, in which a stamp is made directly from the master. This buffer is usually only good for a few hundred disks.
With the pad ready to go, it’s time to break out the vinyl…literally. Individual recordings begin with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pellets. These are transparent by default, but you can add dye to create the traditional black vinyl records or a more unique and colorful pressing.
A portion of these vinyl pellets, which weighs approximately 160 grams (although it can vary from 120 to 200 grams), is melted at approximately 320 degrees Fahrenheit and pressed into a drop, usually referred to as a puck, cake, or biscuit. As a note, there is a debate within the vinyl community more 180 gram pressings (often dubbed “audiophile grade”) and whether or not they are better than “standard” 120-140 gram pressings, thanks to their heavier weight.
Once a puck of vinyl is formed and placed on the hydraulic press, pads are then placed on either side of it, like two pieces of bread on a sandwich. Before the pressing occurs, the album label is centered on the puck. Interestingly, the labels aren’t actually stuck to the disc once it’s pressed – they’re squashed right-side up by the pressure. Plus, they’re pre-baked at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit to remove any moisture and prevent bubbles.
Then the pressing begins! The two pads come together at around 2,000 PSI (that’s about the level of pressure pressure washers use for cleaning). Initially, the press reaches 300 degrees Fahrenheit, but then the vinyl is cooled to just 100 degrees. During this process, die ridges push into the heat moldable vinyl to create the grooves; the label is also overwritten in place here. Afterwards, a separate machine makes a quick pass to remove excess vinyl, often reused for future records.
Once cooled, the disc is ejected and lands on a pin. The pressing takes 30 seconds per pop and is by far the fastest part of the whole process.
During each batch of pressings, a quality control is carried out. A few random albums are created and played by an employee – called press tests – to make sure there are no major issues and everything sounds good. Press tests are also sent to the artist, producer and music label for approval.
The approval process is different for each album and each artist. Depending on the vinyl press company (and probably many other circumstances), a digital copy of randomly selected albums may also be created and emailed to save time, but that’s not ideal. Once everything is approved, newly created records are greenlit for mass production.
Packaging & Distribution
Here we are at the final stage of this incredible process! Pressed discs are manually placed into their inner sleeves and the outer album cover. This process doubles as another quality checkpoint and ensures that the final product is not scratched, dropped, bent, or otherwise damaged before it reaches you.
Once in their sleeves, the records are sent in a shrink-wrap machine, wrapped and shipped to music stores. There it is !
Now that we’ve explored the creative process, from when the band or artist finishes recording and hands over the digital files to the mastering engineer until the final product is packaged and ready for distribution. , it’s time for you to grab some vinyl for your collection. We found plenty of online record stores with tons of selection, plus a handful of cool vinyl subscription boxes that will deliver new music to your doorstep every month.
If you’re new to the wonderful world of vinyl like me, you’ll probably also want to buy a beginner-friendly turntable and some on-ear headphones to get started. If you’ve already started building a healthy vinyl collection, here’s how to keep your records clean. The more you know, right?