The Long and Winding Road to a Classic Vinyl Record
The long and winding road at Classic Records is the way I describe our daily pursuit of making the best records we possibly can which is often not easy. I have come to learn that everything matters when making records and that it is a challenge just to make a consistently good product. This is due, in large part to the number of variables that are involved. Take as an example that the quality of lacquers used when cutting makes a difference to the sound of the records pressed from stampers that result from the plating the lacquers. In fact, throughout the last three years there has been large variation in the quality of lacquers and hence the quality of the LP’s that result vary as well. I’m not talking about subtle variability here but in fact material issues that result in more or less background noise and sporadic ticks and pops that come from the lacquer material that propagates its way all the way to the finished product. Thirteen years ago we used lacquers from a company named Apollo with great success – they were quiet, cut and plated well and made great sounding records. At some point along the road, Apollos began to get noisy which we could hear by cutting a blank groove on a lacquer and playing the lacquer back on the lathe. We switched to Transco lacquers, which were not as quiet as Apollos originally had been but were quieter than Apollos had become. We used Transcos for many years with highly consistent and good sound results while continually experimenting with Apollo and other lacquers in the quest to always use the best possible lacquers at any particular point in time. All was well until, one fateful day when Transcos became noisy as a result of their supplier of nitrocellulose acetate, the material lacquers are coated with, delivering material that was not filtered as rigorously as it had been in the past and chemistry problems with the materials used to make nitrocellulose acetate. Further complicating the matter these problematic lacquers, even when we used hand-selected examples, often had problems in plating during the silvering process, requiring sides to be recut. On a tip from the plating plant, we sourced and began importing MDC brand lacquers from Japan, which for a while, were both quieter and plated more consistently than Transcos.
Instinctively knowing that MDC might fall back into the inconsistencies they previously had experienced, I began working with Transco’s ownership to help encourage them not to give up the battle to solve the materials problems and return to making consistently quiet master lacquers for the record industry. My instinct was right, in that, possibly the result of increased demand for MDC lacquers while Transco was struggling, MDC lacquers became more noisy and harder to plate requiring many more recuts. Volume is always an issue in providing a consistently good product, which is true at the pressing level as well which I will address later. I am happy to report that Transco has taken the control of the manufacture of its microcellulose acetate in-house by hiring the original chemist and buying the formula from their previous supplier. A local supplier who uses the highest quality materials and filtering is now strictly making Transcos microcellulose under the supervision of their chemist. Transco’s efforts and perseverance have paid off and I am thrilled that we are again using Transco lacquers with great success – they cut, plate and sound great! The point of this part of the story is that materials matter crucially in the final sound quality of an LP. Also, I want all to know that Classic Records has and will always pursue quality down to the materials level, which no other vinyl company is currently doing.
Another variable is vinyl formulas, which according to some Self Proclaimed Experts (SPE’s ) on well known vinyl enthusiast websites, only number two or three. In fact, there are four suppliers worldwide, each of which have somewhere between three and twelve different formulas each! We have, for years pointed out that vinyl formulas sound dramatically different. Some have more clarity in different frequency spectrums while others have better bass definition and still others sound warm and tube like but lack a little of the sense of “reality” that audiophiles so long for. We have again embarked on listening to a dozen different vinyl formulas and the variation is as great as I have ever heard. Other companies that produce LP’s use the vinyl that the pressing plant they contract with has available. Vinyl pressing plants strive to have consistency in manufacturing and hence their choice of vinyl is driven not by sound quality but by consistency in their pressing process and a minimum of rejects. I don’t mean to suggest that pressing plants have no interest in sound quality, just that it is not at the top of their list of objectives. They would like to make quiet records but quiet is only necessary and far from sufficient as a motivation in making the BEST sounding records possible.
Now for the bad news, over the past five years there have been dramatic changes in the market for vinyl pellets used to mold vinyl records. One of the major suppliers for decades, Kaiser, simply shut their doors and stopped producing vinyl pellets. A few of the top people that lost their jobs set up a new company, to produce vinyl pellets in Columbia (South America) and after years of struggling to make a consistent formula, now market and sell a variety of formulas under the brand name Kenan. We are experimenting with great success with a number of Kenan formulations. Add to the mix that Rimtec Corp. , a major producer of high quality vinyl pellets that Classic Records had used up until the third quarter of last year, announced that they would no longer be making vinyl pellets with lead and cadmium, important mold release additives. Vinyl formulas that are lead free are both harder to press consistently and sound different. Rimtec Corporation continues to make colored vinyl pellets which use no lead or cadmium but no more of the original leaded formula that we had used for many years. By the way, even if you ate a ground up record you should have no fear of lead poisoning from the amount added to vinyl pellets, although you may have digestive issues thereafter. We have listened to the unleaded material and it sounds great and we’ll have more to say about this and other issues that come up along the long and winding road in the future.
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Los Angeles CA 90026