Close up of a record playing

Vinyl audio - the format that would not die

You would be forgiven for thinking that vinyl records were a thing of the past, but the industry is still thriving.

The way people buy music has changed. A lot of music is now listened to on the move via MP3 players, and very few albums are released exclusively on vinyl. Around 30 per cent of recordings are sold in digital format and the overwhelming majority of the remainder on hard-copy CD.

However, despite being seen by many as an outdated format, vinyl sales have increased by 37 per cent in the last year alone. These statistics don't include sales from specialist independent record stores such as Rough Trade in East London, meaning vinyl sales may be even higher. Spencer Hickman, manager of Rough Trade, says the experience of sitting down and listening to vinyl challenges the modern conception that all music must be portable.

'There's a real ritual with vinyl; you can't just listen to it through sub-standard headphones or PC speakers,' he says. 'You've got to take the time to immerse yourself and appreciate it.'

Bucking the digital trend

From a commercial perspective there are two reasons for the rise in vinyl sales, says Adam Liversage, director of communications at the British Phonographic Industry. When potentially successful albums are released, particularly indie or rock, some record companies press a limited quantity on vinyl as a deluxe product. 'A good example of this is Radiohead, who have 2011's current best-selling album. They have devoted fans with the disposable income to buy these deluxe products, causing a rise in vinyl sales,' Liversage explains.

He also identifies a further boost in sales as being down to events such as Record Store Day or Black Friday, although this only affects American statistics. 'Record Day is a US-based event around Thanksgiving, where independent and commercial record stores sell a limited quantity of special edition boxsets, such as the Beatles or Nirvana, with 10 to 20 per cent off the original price.'

Others in the industry believe it is the physical experience of owning vinyl that will ensure it remains a popular format. 'The reason vinyl is still so attractive is because it's a piece of art, it's the full physical package.' Hickman says. 'Radiohead always have really lovely artwork; you are buying a piece of artwork that will stay with you forever and often increase in value.'

It is not just vinyl that is bucking the digital trend; the strong demand is echoed in CDs and even cassettes. 'Our CD sales are resilient and there are some bands that only release albums on CD,' Hickman adds.

The listening experience

One company that has benefited from this rebirth of vinyl is London-based Vinyl Factory Group. The company, established in 2001, took over the presses and operation of record company EMI's last UK pressing operation. When it was scheduled for mothballing, two entrepreneurs – Mark Wadhwa and Olympic sailor, Tim Robinson – purchased the plant and developed a thriving business, and in doing so preserved some national heritage.

Sitting in an office at the west London factory is an aged Garrard direct-drive turntable that has been used to test the initial pressing of some famous albums. The first listen of groundbreaking records such as the Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' and Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells' have reverberated around that office.

'All our nickel master discs are tested on a Garrard turntable connected to a leak valve amplifier and Tannoy speakers, this equipment has given consistently high audio quality and maintained an excellent product quality,' manufacturing director Adam Teskey says.

'There is no doubt that vinyl lost out in volume demand to CD, which in turn is losing out to download, but there are still discerning music lovers who wish to shy away from digital/compressed music. They prefer the warmth of vinyl, the 'being there' sound quality, as well as the purchasing experience that the perceived value of vinyl bestows on the buyer.

'A vinyl collection is a talking point, a reference of interest. I don't imagine too many people crowding around your PC or iPhone perusing your downloads at a dinner party, but you will always find somebody who wants to flick through your record collection.

'Vinyl provides a unique listening and physical experience, it's a wondrous object that also provides a distinct way to listen to music. In an age of mass consumption, it allows you to get closer to the music and the artist who made it. The actual act of putting a record on is fun and a whole new audience is discovering this. For collectors, vinyl has always been prized but never more so than now, in an age of limited edition runs and bespoke artwork.'

Vinyl benefits

The Vinyl Factory Group is projecting around 1.2 million pressings for this year, with that total expected to be slightly higher next year. Since the heyday of vinyl, average runs have come down somewhat with today's figure being around 600 units.

However, this is compounded for a number of reasons. 'In the majority of cases we produce test pressings for our clients so they can check for audio and visual quality as well as the integrity of their initial cut, and in most instances we produce five to ten copies which count as one order,' Teskey explains.

'Another factor is that vinyl pressing has been exposed to modern 'JIT' purchasing practices as much as any other physical music carrier and clients are much shrewder with regards to manufacturing quantity. Initial orders of 5,000 plus, albeit no longer a daily occurrence, do still happen on a regular basis.'

Most people think of vinyl records as black, but that hasn't always been the case. Picture discs date all the way back to the 1920s and were commercially available up to the early 1960s. They became more of a promotional tool as the 1970s arrived and were pressed in small quantities, with some being released to the markets in as little as 100 pressings. Given the limited quantities and unique shapes, picture discs are highly sought after by collectors. As the 1980s rolled in, the production of the picture disc was an important part of any artist's release campaign. With the arrival of the 1990s and the demise of vinyl records, the production of picture discs was relegated to promotional or limited issues.

Although the picture disc has made something of a comeback in the last few years, black vinyl still remains the material of choice. 'Black vinyl is still the king of the crop across all formats,' Teskey says. 'Currently the most popular product, culminating in over 60 per cent of all of our vinyl sales, is black heavyweight 12in. We produce three weights of 12in, standard (140g), heavyweight (180g) and super heavyweight (200g).

'Alongside these we also produce standard and heavyweight 7in as well as 10in records. We offer a full-colour gamut of coloured vinyl across all formats, though lack of demand ceased production of picture discs a few years ago.'

The 1400 press

As inheritors of EMI equipment, Vinyl Factory Group have the added complexity of dealing with legacy machinery. The Model 1400 12in automatic press was conceived in the mid 1960s, designed and built initially at the old record factory in Hayes and was fully operational when the pressing plant was moved to a larger site near Southall.

The 1400 press superseded the old manual leaf press and the Hayes Auto press, which was an automated manual press. 'Apart from the main press castings and the mould blocks, the 1400 press has many off-the-shelf components, which are readily available,' Teskey says. 'We have a reserve of spare presses available which can be cannibalised in the event of a major casting requirement. The moulds can be manufactured by local tool-making companies. It is likely, and we are hopeful, that the 1400 press could continue in operation for a further 50 years.'

The manufacturing processes have changed little since vinyl's golden age. Slight modifications have been carried out to make the equipment more efficient and reliable, such as the old 'Bristol' cam controller being replaced with a programmable controller, and design changes to the moulds to give a higher-quality product. 'I suppose that proves testament to how excellent the engineering was in the first place,' Teskey says.

The manufacturing process

Initially, the Vinyl Factory Group receives a lacquer or direct metal master (DMM), onto which the grooves have been cut. The disc is made electro-conductive with electroless silver, and a nickel replica, known as the master, is grown. The master is plated with nickel to form a positive, which is then separated and itself used to grow stampers. If a DMM is used, the master and positive stages are eliminated.

Stampers are fitted to the 1400 press, which is an inline machine consisting of four stations: compounding and labelling, pressing, edge-trimming, and bagging and stacking. Three transport devices are fitted to a common sled that transfers the 'in process' products simultaneously to the next operation.

A material compounder extrudes hot PVC into a cup fitted to the transfer sled. Labels are applied directly from twin label magazines to the PVC patty as it is being formed. The sled traverses forward carrying the patty into the press where the top centre pin down-strokes into the patty through the centre hole of the top label.

When the top centre pin is fully down, the cup opens, enabling the sled to return to its original position. The bottom mould block is raised by hydraulic pressure and comes into contact with the flash grippers, which are carried upwards into the pressing position. A force of 100 tonnes forms the PVC patty between two nickel negative of the record which are clamped to the top and bottom mould blocks.

Excess PVC is formed in the grippers to provide a firm hold on the record, and pressure on the top centre pin forms the record centre hole. As the ram drops, the flash grippers pull the pressing from the top mould until stopped by contact with the sled; the bottom mould continues to fall, allowing the record to be pulled from its surface and remain suspended in the grippers.

The sled then traverses forward, taking the pressing to the trimming station. When the pressing is in position it is clamped to the trimming turntable and a hot-knife trimmer removes the excess material.

The finished pressing is picked up by vacuum suckers and partially placed in an inner sleeve, before dropping into the sleeve when raised into a vertical position, after which it is stacked into a transit box.

As Mark Twain once quipped on reading his own obituary in the New York Journal, 'the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated' and the same can be said for vinyl. Although they will never hit their 1975 peak again, it is clear that vinyl, as a niche manufacturing operation, will be around for some time and the site that pressed some of Britain's musical greats will continue to sample the new breed of musical endeavours. *

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