Vinyl records may feel like ancient technology to some.
But, the reality is that this amazing musical medium is more popular now than it has ever been before.
And vinyl’s rise from the ashes is completely cross-generational, as old and young alike recognise that the natural sound quality it delivers, really does mean that vinyl sounds better!
So with that said, have you ever asked yourself: “how are vinyl records made”?
Exactly how does your favourite music end up engraved on a piece of vinyl.
Well, what I can tell you straight off the bat…
…is that it’s one hell of a weird process!
How Are Vinyl Records Made?
Every physical vinyl record is made in a very similar way.
And as you would expect, the process has become more automated over the years, enabling the industry to keep up with the current high demand for vinyl records.
Let’s learn the basics of how vinyl records are made and how they are imprinted with music.
Vinyl records are made by engraving the sound waves of recorded music onto a lacquer disc, which is used to form a negative mold called a master stamp. The master stamp is made from hardened silver, and is used to press the record into softened polyvinyl chloride discs, called vinyl records.
Understanding how vinyl records are made is all part of enjoying them.
These physical discs with grooves that hold music for us to endlessly enjoy are a wonderful thing.
Everyone who enjoys vinyl should know how they are made.
Let’s explore the process step by step in a way that is easy to understand.
Step 1. The Music is Recorded
The very first step in the process is recording and mixing the music that will be made into the vinyl record.
A musician or band will record their music in a high-quality format to ensure that all of the subtleties of their music are captured properly.
The music is then mixed by professional audio engineers, especially with the final production to vinyl records in mind.
Step 2. The Recorded Music is Mastered
Once the recording and mixing are done, the track must be mastered specifically for vinyl.
This is different from mastering for digital formats like CDs or streaming.
The unique characteristics of vinyl, such as the linear nature of the groove, decreasing groove velocity toward the centre, etc. require specialist mastering to optimize the sound for the vinyl format.
Next, the mastered track is sent to a record engraver, and the process of making the actual physical record can begin.
Step 2. The Music is Engraved into a Lacquer “Mother Disc”
Once the music has been recorded, mixed, and mastered, it can be engraved into a lacquer disc that is used to create the stamp that presses the records.
A specially prepared acetate disc is placed on the cutting lathe, where a cutting stylus, being controlled by the audio signals, sets about carving the grooves into the disc.
The lacquer disc is fairly easy to engrave, but it is very fragile.
The machine used to engrave the disc is highly sensitive.
It receives vibrations from cutting amps that play all the frequencies of the recorded music into the engraver…
…causing it to vibrate with the music and thereby engrave those vibrations into the disc as it rotates.
Step 3. The Mother Disk is Used to Make the “Master”
When the mother disc is complete, it is sent to a record-pressing plant, where it is used to create the master stamp.
The mother disc is then used to create a metal “stamper”, which is done using a process called electroforming or electroplating.
The acetate is first sprayed with a thin layer of silver to make it conductive. It is then dipped into a bath containing nickel or other metals.
Over time, metal builds up on the lacquer, forming what’s known as a “negative metal master”.
By the end of the process, the silver will have filled the grooves of the disk, hardened, and formed a ‘negative’ of the record that can now be used to imprint the music onto vinyl records.
Step 4. The Master Stamp is Used to Create Vinyl Records
At the final stage of manufacture, the polyvinyl chloride (that’s PVC to you and me) used to make the records, is melted down into thick discs called pucks.
These pucks are then loaded into a record press along with record labels for each puck.
The vinyl is heated to soften it, the label is placed over it, and the negative metal master is mechanically pressed down into the vinyl.
This pressing flattens the vinyl out to around 2mm thick, and imprints the recorded music into it.
Any excess vinyl is trimmed off, the record is allowed to cool, and it is then packaged into its sleeves for distribution and sale.
Notes on Vinyl Record Production
The grooves of a vinyl record are a physical representation of the sound waves of the recorded music.
As the needle of a record player moves through these grooves, it vibrates, and these vibrations are amplified to produce the sound.
Vinyl comes in various weights, with 180g being a common weight for higher quality pressings, but lighter weights like 150g or 120g are also fairly standard.
The massive resurgence of vinyl as a music format over the last few years has led to a lot of improvements in the vinyl pressing process…
…but the basic principles remain the same.
Like it’s always been, it’s a combination of art and science…but I still can’t get my head around how someone first came up with the whole idea in the first place!
Wrapping it Up!
After the record is pressed and packaged, it can be sold.
Vinyl is perfect for pressing records into because it is durable enough to retain the grooves required for the music…
…but it can also be heated and pressed easily.
The next time you listen to a physical record, take a moment to appreciate how the record was made…
…where it came from, and the journey it has taken to reach your record player.