How to press vinyl

 12 September 2011

Many DJs use CDs or MP3s for promotion, but there's a cachet about vinyl in the clubbing world. If you want to put out your own tunes for release then you're going to need the black stuff.

You will need vinyl for dance, hip hop or drum & bass.
You will need vinyl for dance, hip hop or drum & bass.

If you're making dance, hip hop or drum & bass, vinyl is the only way to go. This section takes you through the process of pressing vinyl.

Minimum orders for vinyl

There's a high start-up cost with vinyl, because you need to make a metal mould from which to produce the disks.

Then there's the fact that the pressing plant has to shut down the press in order to change the mould for a new disk. During that time, they aren't making money out of their equipment, so they don't like doing it too often.

For this reason they'll usually specify a minimum of around 350 disks per order.

Costs of pressing vinyl

Get on some message boards and see if anyone can recommend a good mastering house

You will need to consider the costs of produce a large order of disks from a DAT or CD master. Add more if you want artwork on the label or sleeve.

Many duplication companies will arrange the whole process for you, including artwork. You may be able to save yourself some money by dividing the process into the cutting and manufacturing stages (described below) and shopping around for the best deal for each.

You can find your local vinyl duplication company in a music directory or by having a look through the Yellow Pages or the classified ads of music magazines. At this point, it's usually a good idea to get on some message boards and see if anyone can recommend a good mastering house and/or pressing plant for your disks. You may even find that it's cheaper to go abroad.

If you're getting disks mass-produced, you may need a license from the MCPS (Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society).

Getting acetates (dub plates)

An acetate – or dub plate – is a one-off disk which is playable on an ordinary turntable. Any company which can master vinyl disks can also cut acetates. They're a bit redundant these days, unless you're interested in getting your tunes into the really underground parties that can't afford DJ CD players.

Acetates are softer than vinyl so they're only good for about 10 or 15 plays before the sound on them decays badly. The cost per dub will vary depending on the cutting house you use.

You may have to pay additional costs if you have any mastering done to improve the sound of your music before the engineer commits your tune to the dub plate (more information on mastering below).

Established artists sometimes get an acetate made of just one instrument from a tune they're making, so that a DJ can scratch it and cut it up for effect. You can do this with CD these days, although the hire cost of a DJ CD player may be similar to getting a dub plate cut, so check around.

Making a record

The first stage is to transfer your tune onto a lacquer master disk. This is a metal disk covered with a soft(ish) plastic coating.

Using a lathe – which works like a backwards record player – the grooves of the record are cut into the plastic surface of the lacquer. The lathe is hooked up to a tape machine (or CD player) and your tune is played on it. The cutting tip of the lathe responds to the music, making the groove that your punters' record players will eventually play.

Each side of the disk needs a separate lacquer – so you'll need a pair if you're planning to use both sides of a 12". As the lacquers need to be kept very clean, they have a handling area around the edge to keep thumbprints off the grooves, so they're bigger than a usual record.

Cutting lacquers is a nerve-racking and rather mysterious process which requires experience and a little guesswork.

Limits of what you can cut

Vinyl works by wobbling the needle of your turntable from side to side as it tracks around the groove. In order to move the needle, the groove of the record needs to move from side to side.

For loud passages, the groove needs to move from side to side a lot. But don't forget that it's a spiral – if you sawed a record in half and looked across the cut, you'd see what looked like a load of grooves side by side. This is what limits the loudness of a record.

If you try and wobble the groove too much, it runs into its neighbours. This is known as an 'intercut' and means that the record will be unplayable.

Inner groove distortion

For best quality, try and keep your tunes shorter than seven minutes.

Just a big name for a fact of physics. Records rotate at a constant speed. So if you think about a stylus playing the start of a 12", it's quite a long way round the edge and back to where you started.

Nearer the centre, it's a much smaller circle. So the amount of vinyl that runs past the stylus with each turn of the record is much less.

The practical effect of this is that there's a big drop-off in the quality of the sound of vinyl as you play through the disk. This is called inner groove distortion and it affects high frequency sounds most (things like hi-hats).

So although you can cram around 12 minutes of music onto a 45 RPM 12", by about five minutes in, the sound quality is audibly worse. For best quality, you should try and keep your tunes shorter than about six or seven minutes.

Engraving messages onto vinyl

The final stage of the cutting session is where you engrave your message onto the disk. Artists have always had their cryptic thoughts etched into their lacquers to share with the world. If you needed another reason to go for vinyl rather than CD, this has to be it.

Have a look through your record collection and you'll find that only a few have anything other than serial numbers engraved on them. It's dying out now, but it's high time the tradition was revived!

Metalwork

Lacquer is soft enough to engrave by hand with a metal stylus. The lacquer now goes to the factory, where it is used to produce the mould to make the records.

First, it's electrically plated with metal which is then peeled off. The metal is a 'negative' version of the disk. It has ridges where a record has grooves.

Think of it like pushing your thumb into a ball of Blu-Tac. You'll get an inside-out thumbprint. The ridges in the skin of your thumb will make grooves in the Blu-Tac. This is what we want because the stamper of the record press is like your thumb and the vinyl is the Blu-Tac.

You could use the metalwork to press disks but if it got damaged – or when it wore out – you'd have to go right back to the start and cut a new lacquer.

So instead, the back-to-front disk goes through another plating and peeling process to produce a right-way-round-again disk known as a mother. This can then be coated again to make the negative stampers which will produce the disks.

Test pressings

Be careful you're not sending out copies of a tune that sound bad.

The edges of the stampers are trimmed down so that they can be mounted in the pressing machine. A hole is punched in the middle and we're ready to start making records.

First, a short run of test pressings (TP) is done and sent to the person who ordered the records to check for sound quality. You can ask for more if you like to use promotional copies ahead of the complete run.

This is quite a common thing to do, but you need to be a bit careful. It takes a bit of time for a pressing machine to get up to speed and temperature. Consequently a short run of TPs can vary quite a bit in sound quality. Be careful that you're not sending club or radio DJs copies of a tune that sound bad.

Once the TPs have been approved, the full production run starts. Small pellets of vinyl are heated up to soften them and then formed into a round 'biscuit' which is fatter and narrower than the finished disk will be.

The biscuit goes into the press, where the stamper presses the grooves into the biscuit, which is squashed out into a wider, thinner disk at the same time.

Direct metal mastering (DMM)

DMM is another way of mastering for vinyl. Instead of a lacquer, the master is cut into a copper disk.

DMM gives a much clearer sound but the grooves aren't as deep. That means that your tune will sound less fat when played over a club sound system. It's fine for ambient music and albums but you should avoid it for dance or hip hop 12s.

 

© BBC Radio 1


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