Pressing Concerns: The new breed of vinyl pressing plant
With demand for vinyl at a 25-year high, a new breed of pressing plant is springing up – but there are challenges, too, in providing not only quantity, but quality. Ben Wardle visits three of these manufacturers to find out what the future holds for our beloved format.
“About five years ago, I was looking to take on apprentices. I’d interviewed a young lad and offered him an engineering apprenticeship and he was full of beans and really excited. He went home and told his mum and dad that he was coming to work at a record-pressing plant and they stopped him doing it. They thought there was no future in it.”
Five years later, Adam Teskey, manufacturing director at The Vinyl Factory, is in the middle of giving me a guided tour of his domain. Those parents would be kicking themselves now if they learned that Adam’s business has seen a 20% year-on-year increase in production for the last four years. The British Phonographic Industry reported that, by the end of 2017, UK music fans had purchased four million albums on vinyl – the highest figure since the early 90s.
But this success comes at a price. As demand for vinyl goes up; as the grocery vinyl market soaks up the seemingly insatiable demand for Rumours and The Dark Side Of The Moon and every mainstream act from Adele to Young Thug expects a vinyl artefact for fans to look at while streaming, just where are all these records getting manufactured? And where are all the skilled technicians who know how to operate the machinery?
Alex Wordsworth works at Key Production, who specialise in placing vinyl orders from record labels with pressing plants across the UK and Europe. He’s able to put some perspective on the situation: “Installation, maintenance and operation of printing and pressing equipment are jobs that require skill and knowledge that can’t be acquired in an instant. There are so many factors involved in pressing vinyl – steam, heat, mechanics, chemical compounds, manual labour, a delicate touch – all these things require training and most, if not all, plants and printers will be constantly training up new people to take over from some of the ‘old hands’.”
Across the road from The Vinyl Factory’s Hayes location, you can still see the old ‘His Master’s Voice’ building, from which records by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Queen once emerged in freshly pressed form. The building and its surrounding outhouses are currently, according to the publicity blurb, being ‘re-imagined and remastered’ into offices, flats and a shopping centre, collectively called The Old Vinyl Factory. The whole place looks like a pop-music theme park, with Nipper The Dog sculptures, huge murals of screaming Beatles fans and famous song titles painted over all available walls. Homage or exploitation: take your pick.
Over the road, in a squat, scaffold-covered building, is where actual records are made. Back in 2001, The Vinyl Factory bought EMI’s manufacturing equipment. The machinery in question is the world-renowned EMI 1400 automated press, built by EMI in its own Machinery Supply Room in Hayes in the late 1960s. “They made hundreds and hundreds, and it went all around the world to different EMI plants,” says Teskey.
The company had a two-year deal to continue manufacturing EMI’s dwindling orders, after which they were on their own in a business considered in its last days. Teskey joined a few years after that. “We had a very loyal client base – they stuck with us and we stuck with them,” he says. According to Adam, around 2011 was “when it all started to pick back up”. He shows us his detailed daily production figures: “Right now, I’m not even halfway through November and I’m already above , with three months of the financial year to go!”
But with all this antiquated machinery supplying the new demand, there must be pressures. Who, for example, knows how to work the 50-year-old EMI 1400s? “Ian has been making records man-and-boy – he’s in his 60s now,” says Teskey, describing one of the three engineers he has in his 25 staff. “I’ve worked really hard over the past five years in getting our average age down. Ian taught Dino, who’s now the engineer if a press goes wrong. He was an engineer on ocean-going ships; you’ve got to know your stuff to keep a ship on the water. There’s no backup when you’re in the middle of the ocean; you’ve got to fix things. So he applies that mentality to his work here – there’s no phone call down the road. I employ his cousin now, who worked on another ship!”
Around the plant, everyone seems happy and driven; I’m introduced to smiling men and women who are press operators or supervisors, as well as packers and office staff. It’s a tightly run business, which looks well set for the future of vinyl’s increasing popularity – so does Adam have any plans to expand? “We’ve got more gear, but it’s quite contentious to visualise the market in five years’ time – we don’t want to play with people’s lives, open up a massive behemoth of a factory, take on lots of people and then if the market doesn’t grow, have to get rid of those people. There’s a duty of care when you’re employing people.”
With four times as many staff as The Vinyl Factory, Dutch-based company Record Industry bills itself as ‘Europe’s Vinyl Pressing Plant’, with good reason: “80% of what we press goes outside the Netherlands,” says owner Ton Vermeulen. The plant has been going since the late 1950s, with Vermeulen taking over in 1998. Does he have problems with finding and keeping staff? “We just train new people on the job,” he says. “Most of the time, it’s clear within a week or two if people are able to do the job. If they don’t mind it being a bit warm in the press shop and they’re not afraid of machines, we teach them how to press a record…” Vermeulen’s relaxed manner suggests that finding and training up new staff in the Netherlands might be an easier prospect than elsewhere, perhaps.
Back in the UK, there’s a new kid on the block: Portsmouth-based Vinyl Presents. How did owner Darren Fudge find his staff? “I know that in order for me to succeed in this, I have to understand every single aspect of what is going on, so I decided I was going to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the first three months. I’m the one doing Quality Control, shrinkwrapping, mixing the PVC. I also do all the quotes, all the PR stuff, I log all the deliveries…” But surely he must have some staff? “I was very lucky to find my press engineer, Phil East. He’s been in the industry all his life. He’d been working in Canada and the business he was at folded, so he was coming back to the UK. He started here a couple of months later. I’m looking for people to shadow Phil at the moment.”
What We Do When We Shadow
The process of ‘shadowing’, a vinyl-pressing apprenticeship, is echoed by all my interviewees. It’s new blood that’s required, not necessarily expertise. As Teskey says: “You’re not going to advertise for an engineer with experience of record pressing in this day and age. It would be a waste of an advert!” He has a routine for all new staff, which involves them understanding every part of the vinyl-production process: “There’s no point just understanding a little bit. Our current production supervisor would have started on the presses as a look/see, shadowing the actual operator. She’d then go on to putting the metal stampers in, which is quite a delicate process in itself. Over a period of time, the supervisor will decide if they’re ready to run their own presses. Then they’ll have a look/see basically shadowing what they’re doing.”
Finding expertise in the electroplating or galvanics field can be difficult, though. Fudge describes searching for a UK company to help him: “I went to 12 different galvanics companies, and what I found was vinyl pressing in the UK is a very closed door, almost mafia-esque. Nobody would speak to me! I couldn’t get to see anybody; it was very weird. They don’t seem to talk to each other, or help each other.” To provide the lacquer-to-master process, he now uses a US company “who were head and shoulders above anybody else in terms of quality”.
Indeed, everyone we speak to in researching this piece emphasises the point of quality over quantity. Teskey: “There’s no excuse for making records which aren’t world class.” Fudge agrees: “We hand-check every single record for flaws or mistakes, then we hand-sleeve and hand-shrinkwrap. The way that I’m approaching it is that there will be other players who will come on board, who might undercut me financially, but if I can get my books full of key clients who love us, then why would they go anywhere else?”
What’s Wrong With Being Flexi?
Gone are the days in the 80s when manufacturers regularly pressed using such small amounts of vinyl that the resulting records were, in the words of Teskey, “doing a good impression of a flexi disc”. Back then, they would often also save money by recycling vinyl, causing nasty background noise. On Vermeulen’s Record Industry website, it states that the PVC compound they use “has the lowest surface noise known in the vinyl industry”.
For all three of these very different companies, business is booming. “I want to take baby steps with this business,” says Fudge, “but we’re working at full capacity already! We haven’t had to advertise – my phone just keeps on ringing and ringing.” Vermeulen echoes him: “The last four years, we have grown 30-40% per year. From 5.4 million to 10.3 million records this year.” Key Production’s Wordsworth presents an overall industry picture: “At the moment, [vinyl] doesn’t show any signs of slowing down – whether it’s major-label catalogue reissues, new releases by established artists, or a tiny indie label pressing a limited run – the demand is clearly there.”
“As a business, it’s only going to go up,” says Fudge. “I currently have two automated presses here and part of my business plan is to have six by the middle of next year. The resurgence at the moment is huge. I think this has got many years ahead of it.”
Back in Hayes, I ask Teskey about vinyl’s recent boom. As someone who’s seen the lows and highs of the vinyl business, he’s understandably sanguine. “It has to plateau – we can’t keep going on the trajectory we’re on, we’ll be on 1960s volume in about four or five years! If it kept on growing, it would end up higher than it’s ever been, which we all know can’t happen.” He also recognises the fragility of the whole industry. “There are only two people in the world who make the base lacquers,” he reminds us, “and there’s only one mill that makes record-label paper.”
We walk out of The Vinyl Factory’s modest building and find ourselves once again staring at the frenetic building site of The Old Vinyl Factory over the road. With all this new-found interest in a once-forgotten format, as new presses are manufactured and old practices are reintroduced, it’s comforting to know that someone such as Teskey has stuck to his guns. He concludes: “You can have the music for not a lot of money, so you’re buying vinyl for a totally different reason. Which is exciting.”
10 Steps to Vinyl Heaven
How to cut a record
1. A cutting or mastering engineer, like Miles Showell (he’s cut everyone from The Beatles to Amy Winehouse) cuts electric analogue signals into an aluminium disc coated in acetate lacquer* – using a record-cutting machine called a lathe with a sapphire stylus. The process looks like someone playing a record, except the disc starts off smooth and ends up with a concentric groove containing all the music. Both sides of the record will have a lacquer of its own.
2. The lacquers are now sent to the pressing plant. Each lacquer is first cleaned of any grease, then a thin layer of silver is sprayed on to make it electrically conductive for the next stage – known to some in the business as galvanics.
3. The silver lacquer is placed in an electroplating bath for three-to-four hours so it gets nickel-plated. When the plating is thick enough, it is separated from the original lacquer. This new nickel disc is called the Negative because, of course, it is a reverse imprint – the grooves are now ridges.
4. Each Negative now has the same electroplating process done to it to make a positive nickel copy. This is known as the Mother. The negative (also called the Metal Master) is now archived as a backup.
5. The Mother is played and checked for faults, after which it is placed back into the electroplating bath to make the nickel stampers. For larger pressing runs, more than one set of stampers are made from the mother. Depending on the quality of the stampers, between 1,000 and 1,500 copies of a record can be made before it is discarded.
6. The stampers are now placed in position on the press – one on each side, so that the machine can be closed like a hi-hat around the inserted piece of soft vinyl.
7. To get this soft vinyl, small PVC beads or pellets are poured, via a hopper, into a heating machine called an extruder. The pellets are melted into small burger-pattie shapes, each of which is called a puck. The record labels (printed on special heat-resistant paper) are placed on either side of the puck.
8. The hydraulic press (which is steam driven) now pushes the stampers together over the puck at high pressure (150 bar). It takes 20 seconds, during which the squashed vinyl edges poking outside of the press are trimmed off.
9. Depending on the factory setup, the finished record either gets automatically bagged into its inner sleeve, or is hand-bagged. It is then left to cool: 140g vinyl needs three hours to cool down, 180g needs eight.
10. Once the vinyl is cooled, it’s ready for putting into its sleeve, shrinkwrapping, stickering and whizzing off to your favourite record store.
(*Direct Metal Mastering is where the disc is copper rather than lacquer plated. Some people argue that it is better for albums and specifically classical music; others say that acetate lacquers result in a warmer, less-sharp sound.)