Jamo audio bWhen The Economist magazine presents a story about vinyl records it’s worth reading. If you’re wondering why records are so damn expensive it’s probably because there are so few places in the world that can make them. Another reason is that the places that do make them don’t exactly work fast.

Back when CDs caught on and the market for records died most vinyl manufacturers didn’t just shut the doors, they junked the machinery or sold it for scrap. This meant that when records became popular again the entrepreneurs who wanted to manufacture them had to fight each other over the record-making machinery that was left. But they had to find it first and that wasn’t easy. Reports of people racing across the world to get their hands on such equipment are common, and most of the gear they fought over dated from the 1960s.

By far the biggest producer of vinyl in the world is GZ Media in the Czech Republic and it’s working 24/7. This year it will produce 24 million discs, around 60 per cent of the world’s capacity, and the reason it can keep on top of orders is because the Czechs, being natural engineers, managed to build new pressing equipment based on the old stuff that was under tarps at the back of the plant. So GZ’s new machines are modelled on its old machines.

Okay, you’re one of the lucky vinyl entrepreneurs who found and secured such a machine and then managed to find enough parts to keep it working. You now discover a nasty truth about record-making machinery dating from the 1950s and 1960s, and even the 1970s. It ain’t exactly high tech and it tends to need a lot of people helping it along to complete its task. Having a factory that is slow and labour intensive is not a great way to make money in the 21st century.

Nordsco Records opened a plant in Denmark last year with new pressing equipment supplied by Newbilt, a German start-up that has sold 25 of its machines around Europe for around half a million euros each. These machines are unequivocally manual – a person must oversee every stage of production. Operating flat out they can make 400 records a day. That may be enough to supply the market in Copenhagen but there won’t be a lot left over for export. Vinyl Technologies, a Canadian start-up, has sold record production machinery into north America, Asia and Europe. An eight-hour shift on one of its machines produces 1200 records.

But before they’re pressed records have to be mastered. Mastering – the transfer of the recording to a master disc that provides the imprint for the pressing – presents further problems. There are two companies in the world that can do this the traditional way, cutting grooves into a lacquer disc, and delightfully one of them is run by an old man and his wife in Tokyo who decided to get back into the business. A second mastering technique uses a copper-plated disc and there are 25 machines in the world that do it this way. Four of them are at GZ Media. Probably under armed guard.

Rebeat Digital in Austria (that’s Austria, not Australia) has patented a new idea it calls High Definition Vinyl. It creates a computer-generated image of the music and transfers that onto a lacquer master disc with a laser rather than a spinning stylus. Rebeat claims it cuts mastering time by 60 per cent. Inevitably audiophiles are worried about the sound quality of vinyl records mastered by digital computers. Spare me.

Provided you manage to get through all this you have another discovery to make. It’s why, back in the mid-1980s manufacturers and retailers were so enthusiastic to embrace CDs and clear their stocks of vinyl. CDs are not just easier and cheaper to manufacture and package, they are also easier and cheaper to ship and store. Records, on the other hand, are heavy and prone to damage, especially from heat. Assuming they arrive at retail in good order they then require significantly more display and storage space than CDs, and storing them requires cool, dark places where they can be shelved vertically. When CDs arrived in the mid-80s the hallelujah from music shop proprietors was so loud it registered on the Richter scale. Part of the reason CDs caught on so fast back then was because so many retailers stopped stocking troublesome vinyl and buyers weren’t given a choice.

Australia used to be a big manufacturer of records. There’s a precious seven-minute video, made in 1963, on the ABC’s splash website showing the inside of a Sydney factory that turned out a record every 25 seconds. These days Zenith Records in Melbourne’s East Brunswick is one of our few record makers. If you’re wondering about vinyl tech its website is fascinating.

 

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