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Have you ever won­dered why new vinyl LPs are so ex­pen­sive? Rod Eas­down did… and he did some­thing about it!

When 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.

OK, 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 from 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 1,200 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 tech- nique 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 with a cut­ting sty­lus. Re­beat claims this re­duces 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. Rod Eas­down

Im­age cour­tesy The Se­cret So­ci­ety of Lathe Trolls (www.la­th­etrolls.com)

Neumann VM 70 Cut­ting Lathe

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