“We thought it would slow down, but it keeps growing”: Inside one of Europe’s biggest record pressing plants
Erased Tapes’ Sofia Ilyas went to Optimal vinyl factory in Germany to find out about pressing records in today’s climate.
Words: Sofia Ilyas
Erased Tapes and Optimal have a few parallels. Both were founded by Germans; both started at times when vinyl sales were at a low, with CDs leading the market and downloads on the up; and yet both companies went against the grain, turning their focus and care towards this hard-wearing format.
Earlier this year we made the trip out to an industrial estate in Röbel to witness the setup that presses our records. The plant employs 650 staff spread across a 375,000 square foot building that is surprisingly futurist. From the robotic lawn mower gliding across the green to the space-suited humans toying with machinery and chemicals, our experience at Optimal felt a bit sci-fi.
After the tour, I sat down with Optimal’s sales manager Jule, who joined Optimal when she was just 18 years old, for a chat.
Where does the Optimal story begin? When did you start pressing vinyl?
The company was founded in 1991 by Jörg Hahn and Michael Haentjes. They set up the headquarters between Hamburg and Berlin, an advantageous location for trade but also for access to government funds as it was formerly a GDR area.
When the founders decided to make vinyl, other people were saying ‘that’s not a good idea’. But their idea has always been to make a company that would serve all parts of the media business and that includes vinyl. We started vinyl manufacturing in 1995 but it wasn’t until 2006 that vinyl started picking up again. At that point we took over a plant in London and we had an office there for two to three years.
Unfortunately the plant in London eventually had to close. It was at a time when a lot of other plants also closed down, which is strange as the UK is such a big market for vinyl. Being in London had a very positive impact on Optimal and we learned a lot from UK engineers who’ve been in the business for more than thirty years. We also learned a lot about the UK market and picked up some of the larger independent labels as clients.
It’s easy to have a romantic idea about the process behind making records. But the reality is a working factory, full of chemicals and littered with large chunks of unrecyclable plastic. How do you stay as green as possible?
I always say that vinyl is a non-eco media as the nature of the product is not green. It’s big, there’s a lot of PVC and there is wastage. And because people want ‘clean records’, there are rejects. It’s really not green, but for us at the company we have a lot of rules on how we recycle chemicals. And as for the site itself, we are keen to make it as green as possible. For example, take energy – the heat that we have from our pressing halls is re-used for the underfloor heating in our warehouse and inside the site. We try to be as green and as efficient as possible. That was in the thinking when the building was created.
We met some of your longest serving team members earlier. Can you tell me a bit more about Thorsten from the quality control team?
Usually Thorsten introduces himself as ‘Number 5′ as he was the fifth employee at Optimal. Over the years he’s become an absolute expert. Whenever there’s an issue with vinyl that no one else can resolve, Thorsten will solve it. With vinyl it’s not always easy to know what the issue is but Thorsten will happily spend days working out which aspect of the pressing process is causing the problem. Like Thorsten says, “with vinyl manufacturing you learn something new every day.”
Have you ever experienced someone sending you an audio file which you’ve thought really shouldn’t be pressed to vinyl?
Sometimes people send us audio files that are a copy of the CD masters, made in a completely different range of highs and dynamics and not optimised for a vinyl cut. Of course we will go back to them and advise accordingly. Our cutting house tries to replicate what the audio sounds like when we get it, but if we get audio material we know won’t work on a record or will be distorted, we go straight back to the client.
Many artists prefer a lacquer cut to Direct Metal Mastering (DMM). Is one process better than the other?
If you ask our engineers, they’ll tell you that it depends. It depends on the content of the music, on highs, dynamics, if you have very quiet sections, the length of the record – lots of factors would lead them to conclude that this piece of audio would sound better as a DMM or a lacquer. There are a lot of people that order the cut and let our engineers decide, or they might enquire beforehand. Some customers have a preference and if that’s the case we do as we’re told!
You mentioned that you can have up to sixty boxes of lacquers delivered to you in one day. Is it hard to maintain quality with demand surging?
In the last three years the biggest challenge we’ve faced is demand outstripping capacity. In 2012 things were on the up and so in 2013 we launched a new pressing hall. But even then, orders still increased over capacity. We thought it would slow down, but it keeps growing.
People are complaining about vinyl delays, but they must understand that a huge and sudden wave of orders have come in, in a way no pressing plant could have foreseen. So after increasing our capacity and deciding to operate 360 days a year, we have also decided to not take on any more new clients as we have to manage the orders from our existing client base.
There are now two peak seasons in the year – August to November (followed by planning for the next year in December). Then from January onwards, it’s all about Record Store Day, which doesn’t leave a lot of time during the year when it isn’t peak season. Planning is a huge thing for us.
The truth is that factories around the world are not able to fulfil the world’s demand, so for example in the US you see lead times of two months and those orders are now coming here.
Are you confident that the growth in demand will continue?
I’m confident demand will stay at this level for some time and will remain strong following the big hype.
Has Optimal considered building its own machinery?
In the short time that figures have gone up, there have been people looking into new machines. But the bottom line is that building new machinery is very, very expensive and it takes a long time. And you can’t predict if that investment will be worth it, as you just can’t predict the future in this market.
If someone were to invest, is there room to improve the existing machinery? Are any of the guys sitting at Optimal thinking, ‘damn, if only this machine was capable of this’?
That’s probably the main reason people step away from building more machinery. If you build something new now, then I’m sure you can get the number of rejects down, and you can probably reduce the time of how long it takes to make a vinyl by a few seconds but the overall process won’t change. Existing machinery is old and needs some more down time, so new machinery is more of an advantage in that sense but the process will remain the same.
What does the future hold for Optimal?
I’m confident we’ll be doing well as there’s a core audience that will always want to press on vinyl and there’s also a new and growing audience. We’ll always be into physical products whether that’s vinyl, CDs or books.