The process of making vinyl is not easy. There are many factors involved. As avid record collectors know, faults can happen. Variables can screw up the process. Unlike identical digital reproduction, each vinyl LP is unique. It is the culmination of a journey, often spanning the globe, with multiple steps and sometimes mis-steps along the way. But, it is a fascinating journey, and for music fans, that is a big part of the appeal.
As artist and bands will tell you, writing and recording of the music isn’t easy either. However, in this story, we’re talking about the tricky part that happens next. The bit after the album is recorded and mastered (which, for vinyl, is a different master to a digital master).
The three basic steps to making a vinyl record are - cutting, electroplating and pressing/manufacturing. Here, we walk you through the process.
The video 'How Vinyl is Made' was directed and filmed by Gwen Isaac, edited by Lochie Noble and Chris Hill, music by Lochie Noble and produced by Ben Howe. Thanks to Josh Bonati, Dan Custer, Rough Trade, Academy and Captured Tracks record stores. Thanks also to Massey University College of Creative Arts for assistance with this video. Look out for more videos from this series.
Read on below for a description of the vinyl production process:
Step 1: Vinyl Cutting on a Record Cutting Lathe
In our short film above, we asked mastering expert Josh Bonati to demonstrate and explain the vinyl cutting step. Bonati lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is well known for his company Bonati Mastering and for working with artists including Mac Demarco, Sufjan Stevens, among many others. Over the years, we’ve also had Bonati master many Flying Nun releases and reissues. One time, we even asked him to cut Chris Knox and Tall Dwarfs albums directly from the master tape to the lathe, skipping any digital involvement in the process. We were trying to be puritanical (unfortunately the audio results of this experiment didn’t sound great - but still, it was worth a try). So, in short, Bonati is a good guy and willing to give anything a go. He knows what he is doing.
The lathes that Bonati and others use to cut the masters are usually vintage. His one is from the 1970s. While they are big “honking” machines, they are also sensitive and require a lot of maintenance. The lathe’s job is to use a cutting stylus to cut, in real time, the album into a lacquer disc. The disc is made from an aluminium core, and coated in a nitrocellulose (nitro) lacquer.
The cutting process is a delicate, requiring a balance of the right audio factors (bass, treble etc) and also managing the excess lacquer being removed, using a vacuum as it cuts.
Step 2: Vinyl Electroplating
Electroplating is essentially creating the “stamper” for the record, and is often done elsewhere from both the original master cut and the final manufacturing. Creating the stamper requires immersing the silver-plated disc, cut on the lathe, into a tank of dissolved nickel. When immersed, the nickel is fused to the silver surface by an electrical charge.
Once removed and separated, this creates a reverse version of the master disc. The master then gets shipped to the manufacturing plant, where the vinyl can now be pressed.
Step 3: Pressing and Vinyl Manufacturing
At the vinyl manufacturing plant, Polyvinyl Chloride pellets are poured into a hopper, which feeds the material into an extruder condensing them into a kind of licorice or rope like coil, usually called a ‘vinyl biscuit’. The ‘biscuit’ is then heated and crushed inside a big stamper, squashing it into the vinyl record. This is manually repeated for the pressing run, 300, 500, 1000, or these days for Taylor Swift or The Beatles, 10,000+ times. Once cooled, finally, each brand new record get a trim, removing the excess gunk around the edges.
Once packaged up, in big heavy boxes, the LPs are then shipped to the distributor, record stores, the marketers, and ... finally...to the vinyl record player in your very home.
Dan Custer from Brooklyn Vinyl Works points out in our video, the technology for manufacturing records remains much as it always has - using steam, water, compressed air to press up the records. But it’s not straightforward. This process can be affected by weather - heat, humidity and all kinds of other factors, adding to the challenges at every step of the way.
Why Are Vinyl Records Important? Why Are They Popular?
As is well documented, vinyl is becoming an increasingly popular format to buy and listen to music. Some records are rare and collectable. The turntable is becoming an essential item in every home. These days, everyone has a record player.
Custer sees this as response to modern technologies and consumption: “The attraction to records is a return to a physical item. The more all of our lives live in the digital, virtual world, maybe, the more people also look for tangible products - like records.”
Bonati also points to social factors: “Vinyl is a format with an entire culture around it. People say, ‘will vinyl records eventually go away?’ and I’m like ‘I don’t think so!’. They are expensive to make. It’s a lot of effort. It’s a collaboration with a whole production and manufacturing team. So you can think of that as being tedious. But the final product it produces is pretty amazing!"
Where Do Flying Nun Get Our Vinyl Records Manufactured?At Flying Nun, we’ve been making vinyl records for a long time. More than 40 years. Back in the 1980s we used the pressing plants in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. After they shut down in the late 1980s, and there was no local plant, manufacturing was moved to Australia. Then vinyl was phased out with the arrival of the CD.
From about 2010 onwards, we started back into making vinyl, using various overseas pressing plants, including United Pressing (in Nashville), Brooklyn Vinyl Works and others, including those in the Czech Republic.
In 2019 Holiday Records opened up in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, and more recently we’ve been using them for local pressings, combined with overseas operations for sales offshore (Flying Nun is distributed by Secretly Canadian internationally). So often we do two pressing simultaneously, to minimise shipping costs. We also sometimes use Zenith Records in Australia.
Like many other independent labels, vinyl is now central to what we do. We foresee it will be this way for a while.