The Cost of Greatness

Read this article on our sister site, Vinyl Record News

If you think you’re a stickler of an audiophile, you haven’t met Pete Hutchison. The Guardian did an interview with this collector-turned-producer to discuss his music – and spending – habits, including a single purchase of Mozart recordings in a rare boxed set that ran for £7,000 – about $10,635!

Rare vinyl records can already be expensive. Rare high-quality vinyl records can be even more expensive. Rare, high-quality, classical vinyl records just about break the bank.

Seeking to remedy this, Hutchison did the only sensible thing and created his own independent record label, Peacefrog. (The label has since enjoyed more success by adding Jose Gonzalez and Little Dragon to its roster.) Through contacts at EMI Music, Peacefrog’s distributor and holder of quite the collection of classical music copyrights, Hutchison was able to re-press recordings from the 1950s and 60s via his new label, the Electric Recording Company. Now, most vinyl re-issues are produced using modern technology and machinery which are faster and more cost-effective. Hutchison, however, is a purist. He wanted to do it the way it was done 50 years ago. That meant that step one was finding the equipment, and endeavor both difficult and expensive.

The EMI reel-to-reel tape recorder on one side of the room, which had to be fully restored, would have been used at Abbey Road to record the Beatles and the Stones. The mastering console in the centre, also built by EMI, came from Nigeria – but the real find, Hutchison tells me, was the pair of contraptions to our right: a valve-powered tape machine the size of an Aga and a vinyl-cutting lathe, both manufactured by the Danish company Lyrec in 1965. Hutchison found the two machines “shipwrecked” in a council garage in Cheshunt, bought them for £10,000 and spent three years and “10 times” the purchase price rebuilding them with the help of veteran sound engineers Sean Davies and Duncan Crimmins, guided by instruction manuals Davies had kept since the 1970s.

Of course, once he had gone through all that trouble to get an authentic record, it seemed wrong to be any less authentic with the packaging.

“The sleeve and artwork design and manufacture had to be done as it was in the 50s,” he decided. In east London, he tracked down an artisan printer with a 1959 Heidelberg letterpress and set him to work. Everything had to be authentic, right down to the vintage gold paint and the silk cords, and nothing could be scanned: even the images had to come from the original photographs, which meant tracking down the photographers, or their children, to request permission. The 50-page booklet accompanying the Mozart box set took an entire year to make.”

It also costs £2,495 – about $3,790. Which brings us back to the issue of cost vs. quality. Hutchison might be selling the reissues for an arm and a leg –  ”We’ve had some comments where people have said, ‘I wish I could afford these records, why does it have to be so elitist?’” he says – but that money isn’t profit. “The reason is simply how much these things cost to make – it’s a bit like Aston Martin making cars at a loss in the 60s.” Hutchison estimates that, as of May 2013, he has recouped about 50% of the manufacturing costs for the label’s first two releases. He jokingly says it will probably be his kids who finally recoup the cost of the whole project.

But money isn’t the point for him.

It’s also about drawing attention to superior technologies that have been neglected in the scramble to do things in cheaper and more convenient ways. It would be easy to read the project as a critique of the digital era, and in fact Hutchison represents it quite openly as such. “It’s not really just about vinyl,” he says at one point. “It’s about a whole philosophy: it’s the aesthetic, it’s the sound, it’s everything.”

Yes, he’s certainly no fan of digital culture, expressing the oft-heard opinion that we have become slaves to technology with our cell phones and social networks, but, as author Killian Fox aptly notes, “How effectively can a philosophy be expounded if it costs hundreds, even thousands of pounds to buy into it?” Hutchison understands, and says now that he has all the necessary machinery, he can look towards expanding genres, thereby increasing sales, thereby decreasing price to “around the £100 mark.” That’s still not cheap, but it’s certainly more accessible than £2500. And arguably, for the true audiophile, authenticity is priceless.

So You Wanna Know How Records Are Made

Here’s the short version:

If you know nothing about how vinyl records are produced, you might think that they are made the same way they are played: spinning under a needle. Fair enough guess, and I’ve heard it before. But actually, records are pressed (“pressed” being proper verb for making a record, much like a CD is “burned.”) A master is created which is then used as a mold to create copies, like a wax seal. And that sounds simple enough, but the whole process is really quite complicated. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Back in the day (and by “back in the day,” we’re talking like 1800s) sound was recorded directly onto the master. Post 1950 however, it became standard to first record the music onto a tape which would then be edited before being copied to a master disc. The first masters were made of wax (see previous mention to wax seal: told ya) but now a lacquer is used. The music from the tapes is gouged into the lacquer master and that’s how we get master #1.

Ooooh, shiny new lacquer master, ooooh

The lacquer master is then coated with some liquidized metal. It used to be graphite, and later stannous chloride. Silver, nickel, and copper is various alloys have also been used. These days, the exact ratio of metal differs by manufacturer, but the general idea is the same. The metal coated it then peeled off, so we now have a metal master in place of the lacquer one.

No, not that kind of metal master.

Not that kind of metal master either, though it’s a bit closer.

So, to recap, music played by a band is recorded onto tapes, and the music from the tapes is gouged into the lacquer master to make master #1, which is then used to create negative metal masters. In ye olden days of record production, these metal masters were used as the mold to press records, but as the demand for records has grown, so has the demand for another step in the process. So moving on:

The negative metal masters are then electroplated to create positive metal “mothers” from which negative stampers are made. These stampers are what are used to actually press records. They get fitted in supper hot, super heavy machines, into which solid vinyl chloride patties are placed, and then the whole system melts and squeezes the vinyl until it’s really thin and bear the positive imprint of the stamper. Then there’s of course the labeling and packaging end of things, but in general, that’s how vinyl records are pressed.

TL;DR: organic music –> tapes –> lacquer master (+) –> metal master (-) –> metal mothers (+) –> stampers (-) –> vinyl

Also, you could just watch this snippet from the record pressing episode of the Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made. That works too.