There are few things as magical as the vinyl record. I mean, it’s a slab of material with grooves cut into it that somehow manages to make a nearly infinite range of sounds. Vinyl, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, has been making a bit of a public comeback, though it never actually went away. Still, records have become a medium with which the buying public feels a lot more comfortable lately. As such, many musicians want to utilize the format, more so than in the past couple decades. Perhaps you are one of these bands or someone who is ambitious or foolhardy enough to want to facilitate one of these bands. In either case, I’m here to give you a quick overview of the process to help you descend the ladder into the money pit you’re about to dig. Read on.
The Recording: The first thing you need to make a record is, you know, music. So, get some of that. Record it. Then, once it’s recorded and mixed generally how you want it, you’ll need to have it digitally mastered, or pre-mastered, for vinyl. The process of making records is one that is analog as opposed to digital. It is literally a physical process with similarly physical limitations and subtleties. When you create a CD or MP3, the sound is converted to digital files which are duplicated. For a record, the process is more complicated. If your digital mastering engineer is worth his or her salt, he or she will master the digital files in a specific way knowing that its end point is vinyl. Be sure to let your engineer know this so the recordings can be adjusted accordingly.
Mastering: Your recording is now pre-mastered and is ready to get pressed. It’s sounding how you want it to sound, so you need to start the physical process. The first step in this is mastering. Vinyl records are made by essentially molding vinyl using metal plates that contain the music. In order to make this happen, the plates need to be made first. But, even before that, a mastering engineer needs to physically cut a lacquer disc, which is an aluminum plate covered in lacquer. Each side has its own disc and each disc is used as a basis for making the metal plates. There are a handful of mastering places out there, but some common ones are Lucky Lacquers, Aardvark, and Prairie Cat.
The Plant: The lacquers are all cut and sent over to the pressing plant. Some plants will make their own metal plates from the lacquer, while some smaller plants outsource this job. It’s best if the plates travel as little as possible, so in-house plating is usually preferable. Once the plates are made, your records are pressed. The plant will make a few test presses for you before they do the whole job. These test presses will be sent to you so you can listen to them and note any irregularities that may exist. If the record skips or pops in the same place on every one of the test presses, there was a problem in the process somewhere. This step allows you to avoid running a full pressing of records that will be flawed. Once you’ve approved the tests, the plant will press your whole order.
One thing that is important to note about pressing vinyl is that a huge amount of the cost ends up coming from one time setup fees. As such, you can quickly and drastically lower the cost per unit by pressing more records. The difference between 300 and 500 records may only be a couple hundred dollars. When you take into account that you’re already likely spending over a thousand bucks, this is a drop in the bucket for a lot more copies. It’s wise to not press too few copies of a record so you can afford to sell them at a reasonable price.
The Artwork: You’ll probably want covers and inserts and all the bells and whistles right? I’d recommend trying to get your order in for this stuff while your vinyl is still at the plant. This way the two can be finished around the same time. The quicker you can start selling the records, the better.
Pressing a record can be a frustrating process, a rewarding process, or sometimes both. It’s a great feeling to get a perfect sounding test press and await the rest of the records in the mail and a dreadful one to have to restart the whole complicated process because something went wrong. But, if the record you’re putting out is one that you love and are proud of, it’s never a total loss.