Vinyl Record Quality in Today’s Market
by Sheme Jobs
The nation’s largest record manufacturer, United Record Pressing, announced an increase in capacity thanks to the resurgence in demand for vinyl. Bearing this in mind, it’s a great time to discuss what makes a quality record. Even if you don’t obsess over the nuances of sound reproduction and records are more of a passing hobby, knowing the importance of vinyl composition and manufacturing processes illuminates the details of analog technology.
A good record begins with 100% pure, virgin vinyl. That means the raw product is new, not previously part of another disc or combined with recycled vinyl in any ratio (70% new/30% recycled is common). Secondly, since records are a form of analog technology, their source material should be of an analog format as well – usually tape – and then mastered by someone like Kevin Gray. From there, the lacquer(s) (which are cut on a lathe during mastering) go through a three step electroplating process which first generates a Matrix (negative) then a Mother (positive) and lastly Stampers (the negatives used to press the grooves into a record). Combine it all with labels, a sleeve, jacket, some hype stickers, and ship it off to distributors. Customers around the world buy it, hoping the hard work paid off.
Departures from the above prescription are common. Musicians like to alter the physical appearance of their albums to match a theme carried throughout the music, or sometimes just like to be different. United offers plenty of choice here with a few dozen color recipes for recommended combinations. Custom color options are the center of a debate among listeners, musicians, and engineers that claim colored wax sounds different than a standard black pressing. It may be that the process of adding a colorant to the raw material negatively affects sound reproduction, but definitive evidence is hard to come by. Personal preference is the best opinion to take. I prefer high-quality standard pressings with no frills, but then again, if a limited edition is available I often buy both.
Analog masters are critical, but according to United’s FAQs most of their customers deliver audio on CDs. This means the source material for the pressing is actually a digital master (not necessarily compressed, but still digital). It may not matter though, since the industry quickly adopted digital technology as it became available, and advances are regularly improving sound performance. Debates continue and sources have different opinions. Readers can make up their own minds after hearing the facts. I prefer to know as much as possible about a release before I purchase a copy. Few artists disclose that information, so it becomes an educated guess based on past experience with specific labels and musicians in respect to the quality of the end product.
Unfortunately, supplying analog masters does not guarantee a truly analog production workflow, making this all a bit murky. The process requires more of an investment in time, people, and equipment, making it difficult to justify in the face of modern technology. High-resolution digital sources continue to trend upward, and the results among listeners are generally positive. Basically, a high-resolution digital source consists of a lossless audio codec capturing sonic information at an increased bit depth. The product reproduces sound among a larger number of frequencies than that of an MP3, the long-time standard of the iPod generation. Experiencing the difference requires spending a little bit more money than the average new record purchase. Quality Record Productions (QRP) in Salina, Kansas, specializes in manufacturing premium audiophile pressings, in addition to standard releases from thousands of labels worldwide. The price point of records on the Analogue Productions label begin at $30 and move up from there. Your ears will have to decide if the quality justifies the extra cost.
Packaging has a two-fold purpose: to look good and protect what’s inside. With each record, consideration has to be taken regarding how they are housed and what they are housed in. Bulk shipping to disturbers and customers via Media Mail offers affordability but not necessarily the security of a package’s contents. All kinds of damage can happen from scuffing, scratches, and fractures contributing to a poor – or perhaps impossible – listening experience once the item reaches a consumer. The hated bleached white paper sleeves might be the worst thing for a freshly pressed record short of dropping it on the floor. Upgraded sleeves are appreciated but again, it’s an up-sell that pressing plants charge for. That extra cost is passed onto the consumer but I’m fine with that so long as that means the record will look good and sound excellent.
This entire process comes together like a puzzle. When pieces are missing, the puzzle is incomplete or at best results in a subpar listening experience. On top of that, not all records are created equal. Why spend money on something that may actually be of inferior sonic quality to a CD or a high-resolution digital file? Admittedly, collecting records is rarely just about the sound; it’s about the experience of looking for years to find a rare album and the simple pleasures of ownership. Remember what a record is and how vinyl is susceptible to problems from both production and listening standpoints. Imperfections bring music to life. To escape imperfections completely would eliminate the humanistic element often cited as the most enjoyed attribute missing from digital HiFi.