How Are Records Made? Find Out In Cleveland

Apr 24, 2017

Over the weekend, hundreds of musicians offered special vinyl releases for the 10th Annual Record Store Day. And some of those shiny black disks were pressed right here in Northeast Ohio. WKSU's Kabir Bhatia has more on how those records are made.

“We’ll turn our helium on here,” says Dave Polster. He isn’t a dentist, and he’s not filling balloons. He’s a mastering engineer, and he’s getting ready to cut a lacquer at Well Made Music in Cleveland.

The first step in the record-making process is to cut a lacquer, which is the basis for all the disks which will be pressed. What was once a dying art is now hot again as vinyl sales have been climbing since 2014, when the format posted its best numbers since 1990. Well Made Music has been busy ever since. Owner Clint Holley explains how engineers in the 1960s learned to maximize the music etched onto disk.

“They could make these small little tweaks, and it would make the record sound bigger; it would make it sound a little bit louder. And people discovered that would translate to how the record performed on the radio.”

That can involve anything from taming of the high-end to rounding off the low-end before the lacquer is cut with a helium cooled, white-hot sapphire stylus.

“It has a wire that’s wrapped around that kind of becomes – it’s like an electric stove – it has that resistance, so when you put some electricity through it, it heats up. And so it heats up that stylus, and then we use a disk that is an aluminum disk that’s coated with a nitrocellulose compound. And it looks like nail polish. When audio is applied to the cutter head, it gives us an analogous – or analog – re-creation of the waveform. So when you put a playback stylus in it on your record player, you hear music.”

Bumper-to-bumper
Before that happens, though, Holley and his team have to ship the lacquers to an electroplating facility, which will spray the shiny disks with silver.

“They put that sprayed lacquer in a tank with nickel nuggets in a bath. And the nickel is attracted to that plate. And it builds up; it’s like how they used to make car bumpers. So that first one that they pull off, they can make what’s called a stamper out of because it’s a negative image. Since all of that nickel went into the grooves, when you pull it off, you have raised surfaces.”

It looks like a disk that -- instead of having a grooved surface -- has a spiral of thousands of stalactites, ready to be pressed into soft vinyl; that’s the stamper that gets shipped to a pressing plant. Depending on the project, the plating facility will make any number of stampers and ship them to pressing plants around the country.

Back to the North Coast
One of those plants is in Cleveland. Vince Slusarz opened Gotta Groove Records in 2008. Every day, they load labels into their presses along with PVC vinyl pellets that are a special formulation that spreads evenly so adjacent groves won’t “kiss,” which causes skips. One pound of the pellets makes about three records.

“You’re loading the PVC into what’s called a hopper. That hopper feeds into an extruder. And the extruder basically heats up the vinyl and melts it. But essentially what it looks like is a hockey puck or a biscuit. The labels get put on that. It comes forward in the press; it gets pressed and gets dropped on this stack and you have a record.”

Most of the presses at Gotta Groove were bought from a plant that closed in the 2000s. Getting spare parts can be a challenge, and making spare parts with 3-D printing isn’t feasible yet. But what about bypassing the presses and using 3-D printing to make the records themselves?

“We’re making a record every 40 seconds, roughly. So could you realistically print a 3-D record – at that kind of resolution – at the same cost or less cost in that period of time? Certainly not in today’s technology.”

Fleetwood Mac v. Royal Headache
Gotta Groove turned out about 1,700 projects last year, mostly for smaller labels or independent artists.

“Royal Headache we’ve pressed several times. We’re fortunate to do Blue Arrow Records in Cleveland: Jonathan Richman and Bad Luck Jonathan. We don’t do very much big-label work: you can take that on and it can quickly take over your business. About 10 percent of what we do is work for Warner Brothers. So if you’ve seen a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Greatest Hits’ in the last couple years, we probably pressed that.”

After the records are pressed and packaged in sleeves, they’re sent out to stores like The Exchange in Kent. Over the weekend, for Record Store Day, Logan Boggs was there as both a collector and a cashier.

“In my experience, people are looking for different colored pressings; even reissues of things they already have. I think for younger people, I don’t think they worry about sound quality quite as much, because if they have a Crosley or a lower-tiered record player, it’s not going to sound fantastic anyway.”

Vinyl as a format has many limitations on sound quality, but Clint Holley from Well Made Music says that’s precisely what can make it special.

“Vinyl doesn’t like a lot of high-end information, like tambourines and cymbals and that kind of stuff. It kind of rolls a little bit of that off, and I think a lot of that is when people say vinyl sounds warm, that’s a lot of what they’re speaking to.”

For Vince Slusarz, it’s not just about the sound, but also the experience.

"When you invite someone over to look at your record collection, you’re telling them something about yourself personally. When you invite them over to look at your hard drive filled with 100,000 songs, it’s not as meaningful.”

Here's a look at how Dave Polster, Clint Holley and Vince Slusarz make records at Well Made Music and Gotta Groove Records.