INTO THE GROOVE:
From Genesis to Revolutions-Per-Minute
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
What is it about the magic of vinyl that thrills us? Is it the smell of a new disc? The weight of it in your hands? Or is it the audio miracle that occurs when the needle settles into the groove? Writing a song that connects with people takes talent and skill, but that is only the first step
toward making a truly great record.
“It’s easy to forget in this era of multiple format options and endless debates around them that it all begins with an artist and a ‘record’ button,” Cherry Red Records’ product manager Richard Anderson explains. “First up is to record, mix and master the album. But once they’ve handed over a finished master, the first step is to have the record cut onto a lacquer, which might involve a few final tweaks to make sure the music accommodates the physical processes involved in vinyl. It’s then whisked off to a pressing plant and processed three times to provide a stamper (a metal negative impression of the lacquer). This stamper is then used to press the vinyl itself.”
Before an album can be mass produced, the artist and label are given multiple copies of a test pressing, so they can listen to the vinyl LP before allowing the pressing plant to move forward with production. So, when an artist or label listens to a test pressing, just what are they listening for?
“To make sure there are no defects in the master, such as scratches producing pops and clicks that will be present on every copy.” Explains Zeek Weekling (aka Bob Burger, The Weeklings). “Also, to make sure the mastering process has not distorted the sound in an
“I’m listening for overall EQ and how it compares to the master that it was cut from.” Says Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds). “I’m also listening for overall volume levels to make sure it’s a decent cut and not too low.”
Once the test pressing has been approved, the album is given the green light at the pressing plant. The stamper is readied and all systems are go. Richard Anderson explains the next few steps in the album’s journey: “The stamper is used to press the vinyl itself, which is then packed up, put into sleeves, shrink-wrapped and, usually, shipped off to a distributor. From there it’ll be shipped out across the world – if you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky, it’ll sit there unsold for a year until the storage charges demand that you have it all shipped to your mum’s house and stored in her garage.”
Along with a standard black vinyl pressing, a label may press limited quantities on colored vinyl and picture discs, which always attracts interest from fans and collectors. Gatefold sleeves and heavyweight 180gm vinyl are desirable to collectors as well. Labels have even gone back to their old practice of adding posters, inserts, and stickers – along with CD pressings and/or digital downloads – making vinyl purchases even more attractive to fans than ever before.
But compared to 30 years ago, is the quality of the vinyl itself any better today?
Kurt Reill: “Heavyweight vinyl is great because it’s very quiet. So pops, clicks, and crackles are at a minimum with a nice pressing.”
Veteran singer/songwriter Henry Priestman (Yachts, The Christians, solo) agrees that vinyl LP pressings in this day and age are better than they were decades ago: “Definitely more care is taken with them. There was a period in the ‘70s when some shocking pressings came out. I remember buying a UK RCA pressing of Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal in 1974, and you could almost bend it in half without it snapping!”
Michael Simmons, who teaches a high school music class when not writing, performing and producing, seems to agree: “Regular old records feel ridiculously flimsy to me now! Thicker vinyl means more mass, which means less chance of warping, a lower noise floor, more durability, and darnit if they just don’t feel REALLY GOOD in your hand.”
“The quality of vinyl in the 1980s was, to be honest, dire.” Adds Peter Jachimiak, Senior Lecturer in Media & Cultural Studies at the School of Media, University of South Wales. “And,
considering that this was the dominant format of that decade, that was a poor show on behalf of the record industry. At least vinyl releases in this day and age have a certain ‘durable’ quality about them – both the vinyl itself and the sleeve, inserts, etc.”
Speaking of album sleeves, long before MTV made visuals more popular than the actual music, the album art attempted to tell the story of the sounds contained within. Whether staring at a stream of light shining through a prism, or four Liverpudlian musicians crossing a street, the record buyers’ imaginations were inspired by visuals even before they heard a single lick of music.
“Most of our artists are quite hands-on with their artwork,” declares Anderson. “So between them and their designer, we tend to leave them to it, unless asked to become involved. We oversee the artwork as it progresses, of course, and from time to time make contributions, but we’re fortunate in that most of our artists have been around a while and know how they want to
present their music.” Anderson continues, “A good sleeve can sell a bad record and a bad sleeve can hide a good record. I know that I’m often swayed by packaging when weighing
up whether to buy one of two albums in a record shop, and believe we need to keep that in mind when we (Cherry Red Records) can.”
“Coming from an art school background I think the artwork/presentation is crucial.” Henry Priestman says. “Is it a coincidence that most of my favorite albums – musically – are also my favorite covers?”
Combining the album’s packaging with the music doesn’t create a piece of product – it becomes a work of art. Music is not meant merely for listening – it is an audio painting that forms an image in your mind. The listener becomes an active participant; they are the ones holding the LP sleeve, placing the needle on the record and interpreting what the artist is saying. And while no two interpretations are the same, hearing the warm tones of a vinyl LP pressing is still the best way to absorb and understand the artist’s true intention.
From a Chipmunks LP to Metallica’s Master of Puppets (and everything in between), each vinyl release has a back story that is oft-overlooked once the shrink wrap has been removed and the record is spinning on the turntable. For some listeners, an album’s long history makes no difference – the real journey begins the moment the music starts. At that exact moment, that LP’s origin ends and a new journey begins with the listener. When the record spins, nothing else seems to matter. And that is exactly how it should be.
Special thanks to:
Nick Kominitsky, Richard Anderson, Zeek Weekling, Kurt Reil, Henry Priestman, Michael Simmons, Peter Jachimiak, and Nathaniel Cerf