Have you ever wondered: how are vinyl records made, why they’re typically black, what they’re made of, and even where they’re made?
In this article, we’re going to go through the entire manufacturing process and satisfy your curiosity!
Making the Vinyl Record
Once an album has been recorded, mixed and mastered, the process for making the physical vinyl album can begin!
Creating a Master Disc
First a template is needed, a pure and near indestructible copy that can be used to create a template for hundreds of thousands of individual records. This is called the master disc or master lacquer, and each press will have one to work with per release.
They’re made out of aluminum which is sanded down and then coated in nitrocellulose lacquer, which sets into a glossy, thick coating.
The master discs need to be checked for imperfections. Any minor flaw here will be replicated on every single record that is produced from the master, so they have to be perfect.
It is not unusual for several attempts to be made at creating a master disc, but it is unusual for one to make it through the inspection process.
When a suitable master disc has been produced, an engineer will punch a hole in the middle, and place it onto a spindle along with any requested duplicates, each separated by a protective layer of material.
Ironically, at this point the master discs look like giant CDs.
When a master disc is available, it contains no music. It’s a blank canvas.
The next step is to add tracks onto the master.
Cutting Grooves Into the Master
The master disc is placed onto a cutting lathe, which has a diamond or sapphire cutting stylus (it sounds fancy, but you definitely do not want one on your turntable!), a microscope, and a vacuum stick.
A test cut is made on the outside of the master and then checked for imperfections before the rest of the music is carved into the master.
That next step is the big one. It is a continuous process, paused only so the engineer can manually add the gaps between tracks.
The discs are carved in real time – from the mastered digital files provided by an audio engineer – as the lathe converts sound waves into vibrations to cut the grooves.
The master is then inspected again before being sent off for the next step.
Sadly, this is one of two places where sound issues in vinyls will likely occur, especially in the modern revival of the format.
Not every sound engineer is comfortable with vinyl, especially if they’ve spent all their professional life working with digital formats.
If the mastering of the master audio tracks is not vinyl friendly, you can end up with a template that creates distortion or other unwanted sound defects on every single record made from it.
Electroplating the Master Disc
First, the master disc gets some more attention. It’s given a wash, a shiny coat of liquid silver, another wash, and then a spray of tin chloride.
It’s then submerged in a nickel bath in a process called electroplating. The nickel is electrically adhered to every surface of the master disk thanks to differences in electrical charge, which is then carefully removed from the master disc.
This nickel copy is known as a father disc. Like yin and yang, a father disc looks like an inverted record.
Rather than having grooves, it has upward-protruding ridges.
The electroplating process is repeated on the father disc, from which a mother disc is created.
Mother discs have grooves rather than ridges again, and these are used to create the stamper discs in this three-step process.
It may seem a complicated process (it is!), but it isn’t always done this way. For smaller releases, where only a few hundred pressings are expected, the stampers are made straight from the master disc.
Like any rhythm section, the master disc needs a partner, its very own bass guitar, in order to make the record that will end up on your turntable.
These discs are called stampers and they’re created directly from the master disc.
One stamper disc is required for each side of the record.
Stampers are used heavily in the creation of the vinyl records, and multiple stampers will need to be made at each pressing plant, as they wear out relatively quickly.
Ideally, one stamper will be needed for every thousand records that are pressed.
Planning the Record’s Final Look
Now that the stampers are made, the final product can be produced en masse.
But first, the customer needs to choose how the final product will look!
Black vinyl is a popular choice and offers the best audio quality, but colored and patterned vinyls will add a new dimension to your turntable!
Colored Vinyl Records
The base material for vinyl records is pellets made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a petroleum-based product.
These PVC pellets are transparent to start with, and can be colored with relative freedom.
Almost all colors are available on vinyl, and can even be set to highly-specific Pantone® color to match the album’s artwork.
Colored vinyl is an easy conversation starter, but there will be some effect on audio quality with colored vinyl records, most noticeable in gaps between tracks and quieter sections.
Not are colors are equal. The use of some colors requires extra testing, the use of different grades of PVC pellets, or different cleaning processes.
Do Black Vinyl Records Sound Better Than Clear or Colored Records?
Colors and clear vinyls will include more ambient noise and noise pollution, so if audiophile-level audio quality is your top priority, black vinyl is recommended.
Black vinyl records have historically been used for the best sound quality, but the pressing techniques have gotten better through the years.
The audio difference is far less noticeable these days, but will still be noticed by a trained ear.
Many new collectors have a strong desire for an eye-catching record spinning on their turntable, and have no problem trading a small (maybe imperceptible) decrease in audio quality for the impressive look of a splatter-pattern vinyl record that matches the colors of the album art.
Pressing White Records
For light colored vinyl such as white vinyl records, the manufacturing equipment must be cleaned thoroughly before pressing.
The PVC extruder should receive a special cleaning as well.
Without the extra cleaning, the records could end up with an unwanted tint.
White and light colored vinyl may cost more, since more time is required by the Quality Control team. Scratches and other imperfections are more difficult to see on lighter-colored and white vinyl than darker-colored vinyl.
Eye-Catching Vinyl Patterns
When learning about how a vinyl record is made, it’s impossible to ignore the visual impact of a vinyl record with a colorful pattern.
Examples of special vinyl colors and patterns are:
- Color Blends
- Split Colors
- Art Etchings (decorative design that takes up a full side of the record; No music grooves, unable to be played on a turntable.)
Note: Some of these patterns require higher temperatures in the pressing process, and are understandably a bit more risky to the final product.
Metallic Vinyl Records
In addition to colors or special patterns, records can also have a metallic effect added.
The metal flake will positively affect the look of the record, but can negatively impact the audio quality.
Pressing the Vinyl Record
Pressing is one of the most satisfying steps when learning how vinyl records are made!
Turning PVC Pellets Into Pucks
A record starts life in the form of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pellets.
Once color and pattern has been decided, a batch of these PVC pellets between 120 to 200 grams (usually 160, sometimes heavier depending on color and supposed quality) are melted at 320°F.
Pucks can be made of one color, or a variety of colors to achieve one of the unique patterns listed above.
These pellets are then melted down and extruded into what is known as a puck. (It can also be known as a cake or biscuit, depending on the factory.)
Once those PVC pucks are created, it is placed into a stamper sandwich with the album label in its center, which has also been baked at 250°F to remove moisture and prevent bubbling.
The stampers are pressed into the puck at 2,000 PSI, which causes the vinyl to heat up to 300°F.
This pressure and temperature causes the vinyl to flow all the way out to the edges of the stamper sandwich, and capture every detail in the metal to become a record.
The vinyl needs to be cooled down to 100°F before it is passed onto a machine that removes excess vinyl. This excess material is cut off and collected, which can be used as new pucks and prevent waste.
The pressing of a single record takes under 30 seconds.
Check out this amazing clip of a split-color vinyl being pressed! And keep an eye out for the trimming process taking place in the background!
This is another point at which new pressings often have quality control issues.
Sometimes, this process can be rushed, and it creates two of the most common complaints with modern records: bubbling, and off-center pressings.
As with most things, the desire to get things done as quickly as possible can result in the consumer dealing with inferior products.
I’m sure every vinyl collector has had to return records with one of these two issues (sometimes multiple times) before finding a top quality vinyl.
Although random samples of records will be selected for testing, ultimately the record label or artist has the final say in whether or not the final product is suitable.
If there is a problem, unfortunately, some will inevitably choose not to wait for another run, and will ship the imperfect records rather than pay for a new batch to be made.
Packaging and Distributing the Finished Vinyl Records
The last step before the records end up in the hands of retailers is packaging and distribution.
The completed vinyl records are typically placed by a person, not a machine, into their sleeves and album covers (jackets).
The record sleeves take much less time to print and assemble, so the packaging will be ready and waiting once the vinyls are pressed.
The vinyl and sleeves are checked for obvious blemishes and scratches before being passed onto a shrink wrap machine, and boxed up for transport.
Vinyl Record Resurgence
We are over two decades into the resurgence of records.
The first sign of a comeback started in 2007, but really took off in 2010. By 2012, record sales had surpassed the value of sales in the previous peak of 1997, despite falling to a fraction in 2005.
In the US in 2020, vinyl sales surpassed CDs for the first time since 1986, and continued a year-on-year trend of exponential growth, increasing by over 25% since 2019.
Including all other music sales, including digital purchases and streaming, vinyls accounted for 5% of all revenue.
In 2020, 22.9 million records were shipped. It’s no wonder that supply can’t keep pace with demand.
Frequently Asked Questions About How Vinyl Records Are Made
Are Records Made of Plastic?
Yes! Vinyl records are made of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) thermoformed pellets. PVC is a specific type of plastic known for its density, flexibility, low cost, and high strength, which makes it a great material for records.
Where are Vinyl Records Manufactured?
The largest vinyl pressing plant in the United States today is run by United Record Pressing (URP). They are appropriately located in Nashville, Tennessee, a city with a strong musical heritage.
The largest pressing plant in the world is in a former communist factory in the Czech Republic. That one factory employs over 2,000 people, and pressed over 25 million records in 2016.
This plant is owned and operated by GZ Media, which owns production presses all around the world, and recently acquired pressing plants in Memphis and Toronto.
Even with all these vinyl record manufacturers (alongside hundreds of smaller ones not listed here), production has not been able to keep up with demand for our cherished LPs.
Do Bands Buy Their Own Record Presses?
Yes! Some large bands, such as Metallica, have bought their own record presses – their frontman James Hetfield says that their press is located in Germany.
Where Can I Get Vinyl Records Made?
Most states in the US have manufacturers that can provide a range of services including mastering, cutting the discs, pressing, and packaging.
Although I have never had an album pressed myself, one of the most-recommended manufacturers I have seen is Gotta Groove Records in Ohio, due to their attention to detail and consistently high quality.
Tennessee is also home to a number of vinyl manufacturers, and is on track to become the hub for vinyl pressing in the United States.
Do your due diligence and find a company you love to work with!
Note: Manufacturing the vinyl blank, recording and mixing, mastering the audio, cutting the stamper, pressing the record, and final packaging, can all happen at different locations.
The process of creating a vinyl record is time consuming, but well worth the wait for our analog audio listening pleasure!
Now that you know how much time is spent creating a vinyl record, learn how to properly store records so that they last for decades.
Your records also need a high quality turntable and stylus, and a great set of speakers! Check out our buyer’s guide for the best turntable speakers.