The Joy of 45 Collecting:
How Are Records Made and Played?
Process for Making Vinyl Records
The first thing you need to make a record is a recording. Once the artist has a song to record, a recording studio is used to create a master recording, hopefully enlisting the help of studio engineers who can make sure the recorded sound is "suitable for framing" into a vinyl record. To make a 45, you typically need two master recordings — one for each side.
The master recording is then handed off to a mastering company whose job is to make what's called a "metal master." This process begins with an object called a lacquer, which is placed on a record-cutting machine. As the lacquer rotates, the cutting head receives electric signals from the master recording. The cutting head holds the stylus, or needle, which etches a groove in the lacquer, shaped by the master recording's signals. The stylus slowly spirals to the center of the circular lacquer, imprinting the sound in the groove as it goes. This process is repeated for both songs on the 45 record.
One of the things the artist needs to provide the mastering company is a set of "matrix numbers," which are typically used to identify the A and B sides of the record. These numbers need to be "written" (etched or stamped) in the wax so the pressing plant can match the stamper plates to the labels.
Once the imprinted lacquer is made, it is coated in a metal, usually silver and/or nickel, to produce a "metal master." This metal master is then separated from the lacquer disc. Instead of grooves, the metal master has ridges corresponding to the grooves. This plate is sometimes called the "Father" plate.
Next, the Father plate is coated in metal again. The resulting plate, when separated from the father, becomes a metal duplicate of the master disk with grooves again. This plate is called the "Mother" plate. The Mother can be played on a turntable to check for errors in mastering or plating.
In a two-step process, the Father plate is converted into a stamper, and the Mother is shelved for future use. In a three step process, the Mother is plated to make the stamper plates.
One Father plate can produce 10 Mother plates, and one Mother can produce 10 stampers. Each stamper can produce about 1000 vinyl records. Therefore, a two-step process can produce a maximum of about 11,000 records before a remastering has to be done, and a three step process can produce up to about 100,000 vinyl records before remastering.
Plates are good for years. Since this is the case, you should retain the stampers returned from the pressing plant with your record order; otherwise, the pressing plant will typically cash in the scrap nickel after about 6 months.
Other components of your 45 that need to be prepared for the pressing plant include the label (usually printed on paper) and any sleeve you may wish to accompany your record.
The metal masters (remember, you need at least 2) are used to form the "stamper" from which actual 45 records will be made. Think of stampers as the "negative" in this process, with ridges instead of grooves, which will be used to literally stamp out copies of the actual vinyl 45.
Once you have the stamper created, it is placed in a hydraulic press. The vinyl is loaded as a glob between the labels, then squashed in the press between the two stampers at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically, the stamping requires 100 tons of pressure for about 20 to 30 seconds. After stamping, the excess vinyl is trimmed from the edge of the record, and the record is stiffened using cool water.
The final pressing is then loaded into a paper sleeve or your supplied jacket, if applicable.
An optional step in the process is to create a "reference lacquer" that can be used to create 3-5 copies of the final product. This gives the artist or company an opportunity to check the sound before going through the full mastering, plating and test pressing stage. Reference lacquers are different from test pressings, which should still be made as there can be physical problems after the master is cut. Reasons to go through the reference lacquer stage are to discern any chemical imbalance during the plating process or even a damaged cutting stylus.
Typically, before processing your order, the pressing plant will prepare test pressings from the created master stampers. These pressings are samples of the final pressings, usually made with plain labels. Depending on the pressing plant, 45 test pressings may have a small spindle hole. Use these test pressings to check for any extraneous noise, to make sure the pressing has the correct matrix numbers corresponding to each track, and to make sure no skipping occurs during playback. The test pressings must be approved before proceeding to the next step.
Process for Record Playback
So, now you have a 45 record in hand. How do those carefully manufactured grooves get converted into music? Here's a brief rundown on how a record player and its many components works to achieve this tiny miracle.
Although record players have been used for more than a century to play back recorded music, the basic design — though refined over the yars — and components have remained constant. The basic components include the "turntable" plate, a spindle of some kind to center the record over the plate, a mechanism for rotating the plate at a constant speed, a tonearm to hold the stylus and track the grooves, and the stylus itself, which includes some electrical magic to convert the grooves into sound.
The turntable, or "platter," is the circular plate on which the record sits. A small rod, together with a 45 adapter, sits in the middle of the platter to hold the record firmly in place. Typically, the metal platter is covered in rubber or plastic to protect the record from harm. The platter rotates at different speeds (45 rpm for 45s, obviously), and manufacturers use one of two kinds of drive systems to achieve this — either a "belt drive" or "direct drive" system. Turntable manufacturers and audiophiles will argue over which system is superior, but the important thing is that the system maintain a constant rotating speed.
The stylus, or needle, is the smallest and perhaps most important component of a record player. It is typically made from a diamond or other very hard material, shaped like a cone and suspended by a flexible strip of metal. The pointy end of the stylus is the only component of a record player that makes actual contact with the record, as it rides the spiraling grooves of the disk, picking up the vibrations which are ultimately turned back into sound.
The tonearm is the component that holds the stylus (typically part of a "cartridge") in place and carries its electrical signals back to the device. Tonearms are either straight or "S" shaped, and again there are arguments for and against the two types. The tonearm is mounted to the side of the platter, parallel to the record. With the stylus placed in the outermost groove of the record, the tonearm follows the groove as it spirals inward, traveling across the record in an arc as the record spins beneath it. As this happens, the vibrations travel along a flexible metal strip and wires housed in the tonearm to the cartridge in the end of the tone arm. The cartridge receives the vibrations, which are converted to electrical signals through a coil in a magnetic field. The electric signals are carried along wires to an amplifier, which enhances the power of the signal.
Finally, the amplified signal reaches the last major component of playback — your speakers — which let you enjoy the music being picked up by the tracking stylus.
Note: This page relies on information from a variety of sources. In particular, I want to acknowledge help from Aardvark Record Mastering's website as well as the "How Stuff Works" website.