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Mud on the Tracks: Defective Records

What went wrong with American vinyl?

Mud on the Tracks: Defective Records

Broken Record

Michele Cornelius/Getty

My wife and I run a small shop, and we’ve been experiencing a problem . . . I’ve gone through whole stacks of new albums looking for an undamaged copy to satisfy our customers. Maybe if we bitch and moan a bit, the industry will take notice and turn things around.
–Letter to the Editor, ROLLING STONE, July 13th, 1978

The public is screaming about record pressing. Warner Bros.’ pressings are not very good, and their records don’t sound very good, as they should for an industry leader. I’d like Warner Bros. to prepare a statement about its pressings.
–Jerry Moss Chairman, A&M Records July 14th, 1978

If we get a pressing that sounds real good, we say, ‘Well, they made a mistake. It sounds like it should.’ It can break your heart sometimes, what happens to what started out to be a very high-quality master.
–Doug Sax President, The Mastering Lab July 28th, 1978

The phonograph record, virtually unchanged in the past decade, has survived as the primary source of recorded sound. Despite increasing dissatisfaction with its quality – both on the part of consumers and members of the industry – the record has never done better. Record sales have escalated in the past few years to the point where a gold record (sales of $1 million) is no longer something to boast about. In 1977, more than 70 albums sold platinum (more than a million).

Yet according to Russ Solomon, president of Tower Records, a West Coast retail chain, more than 3 percent of the records he sells are returned because they are warped or sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies. A&M President Gil Friesen claims the actual percentage of defective records (including those returned by the record stores before they even reach the consumer) may actually be as high as 40 percent for some labels.

Surface noise and warpage are not the only reasons for returns. One New York retailer told of a shipment of classical LPs that contained Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” on one side. And a former A&R man for Mercury Records reported finding several New York Dolls record sleeves that actually contained albums by Rush.

It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint which labels produce the poorest records. As could be expected, all of the major record companies claim their records are as good as, if not better than any on the market. Producers and sound-quality experts like Mastering Lab President Doug Sax tend to speak highly of A&M and Elektra pressings, while other experts praise CBS records. But even those labels have problems. A Cleveland retailer reported receiving a shipment of Pablo Cruise LPs on A&M that were all pressed off-center. That same retailer praised Warner Bros. pressings, which had been criticized by Jerry Moss at A&M’s annual meeting.

There is a consensus among sound experts and most record company officials that in general, European and Japanese pressings are the best. Warpage and surface noise are less common than on American pressings, and the overall sound quality tends to be superior, especially at the upper and lower ends of the frequency spectrum.

ROLLING STONE turned up several theories about why American pressings are inferior, but essentially it all comes down to money. Most American record manufacturers, it seems, are primarily concerned with producing as many records as possible at the lowest price.

Dr. Bruce R. Maier, president of Discwasher (a company that manufactures record-care products), has done extensive research in record pressing, and explained what he believes is the record industry’s philosophy: “As a rule, the record companies accept the fact that their product is inferior and allow for a calculated percentage of returns. They play riverboat gambler and hope that the more they crank out, the more they’ll sell.”

The record-making process begins with a two-track master tape recorded from the original 24-track (or 18-track, etc.) tape made in the studio. Using a recording lathe, a lacquer master record is cut from the two-track tape. This lacquer master is then shipped to a pressing plant, where it is cleaned, sprayed with silver (which makes it electrically conductive) and then plated with a solid-nickel shell. The nickel plating, which is then removed from the master, results in a negative copy of the record, known as the “metal master.” This master is then plated with another coat of nickel, which is again stripped off, yielding a positive copy of the record known as the “metal mother.” The mother is supposed to be checked for sound quality before going into the plating tank for one last coat of nickel. The final nickel copy of the record, known as the stamper, is used to mold the vinyl records that eventually reach the consumer. The actual pressing process is a lot like making waffles in a waffle iron. Two stampers (one for each side of the record) are fitted into a press, and a “biscuit” of vinyl (about three inches square and two-and-a-half inches thick) is placed in between. The press is then heated up to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and a pressure of about 150 tons per square inch is exerted on the vinyl. Water is then shot into the press to cool the vinyl; when the temperature drops to about 120 degrees, the nearly finished record is removed. The entire molding process in U.S. plants takes about 23 seconds, and, using the highest standard of care, about 1,000 vinyl records can be produced from one set of stampers. According to Maier, the tendency of plants to extend a run to as high as 3,000 records accounts for the poor quality of American pressings.

After the record is removed from the press, the excess vinyl, or “flashing” (usually about an inch around the edge), is removed. The record is then visually inspected (a varying percentage of pressings also undergo listening tests), placed in its inner sleeve, packaged, sealed and sent to distributors.

“What’s required to have a record come out with the utmost in quality is strict quality control,” said Mastering Lab’s Doug Sax. “Many, many aspects have to be right. For the most part in this country, it’s hit or miss.”

The first place in the process where quality control is “hit or miss” is in the selection of vinyl. Vinyl is a petroleum-derived, man-made plastic. Its main ingredient is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the use of which has come under sharp attack by environmentalists because of its proven carcinogenic effects on workers exposed to it. Most Japanese and some European pressing plants use pure, or “virgin,” vinyl that contains few additives. The major U.S. manufacturers of vinyl – Keysor-Century and Tenneco – are tight-lipped about the precise contents of their vinyl. Discwasher’s Bruce Maier found that the vinyl produced by these firms “defies detailed quantitative analysis; its polymer blends are very hard to analyze.”

Whatever its contents, the hybrid recycled vinyl used in the U.S. cannot, under the stress of pressing, react as uniformly as the more chemically consistent pure vinyl, Maier said. The end result is records that fluctuate in sound quality.

Dave Lawhon, vice-president of manufacturing and operations for Capitol, disagrees: “As far as I know, there aren’t any major companies using material that degrades sound.”

The time it takes to mold and cool records can also affect their quality. While the average cycle time for a U.S. LP is about 23 seconds, in Europe and Japan it is closer to 30 seconds. (U.S. singles are completed in an amazing nine seconds.) Maier claims that just this seven-second difference can cause distortion if the press is not properly filled with vinyl, or warpage if the vinyl is cooled too quickly.

“The nitty-gritty,” said Maier, “is the behavior of the vinyl as it cools, how much it shrinks, and during cooling, if it warps that tenth of a percent that can be perceived. Today’s cartridges can pick up a transduced undulation smaller than a wavelength of light – enough to audibly affect the disc’s high frequencies.”

Dick Wingate, as Columbia Records’ associate director of product management, works closely with artists like Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd to ensure that quality products hit the street. He agreed that speeded-up production can cause warpage: “There’s been some problem with warpage with records coming out this spring and summer,” he said. “One box of records I got were all warped. They were rushed because of the pressing setback we had with our Pitman plant strike [RS 266]. The records were very strange because they weren’t allowed to cool properly.”

Almost everyone agrees, however, that the primary cause of warpage is packing and shipping. “Warpage is extremely difficult to control,” said Capitol’s Lawhon. “After it’s pressed, vinyl has a characteristic called elastic memory. If held in any shape for a long time, it wants to take that shape. It usually takes about three days after a record is pressed for it to take final shape. Usually warpage occurs after the record leaves the factory.”

How tightly the records are sealed in cellophane, how they’re packed (for example, records with folding sleeves warp more easily if packed with the bindings on top of one another), and how and where they’re shipped (climate, etc.) all affect warpage. “It may get to the point where we will have to ship records in refrigerated trucks,” said Russ Solomon at Tower Records.

The final factor is, of course, the degree of quality control at the pressing plant. There are more than a hundred record-pressing plants throughout the U.S., many of which are independent companies. But most of the country’s pressing is done at facilities operated by three record companies: CBS, Capitol and RCA. In fact, CBS claims to press more than half of the records manufactured in this country at its plants in Terre Haute, Indiana (the largest in the country); Santa Maria, California; and Pitman, New Jersey. Capitol and RCA each operate five pressing plants.

In addition to pressing their own discs, these companies do contract work for other labels. Capitol, for example, presses 90 percent of Warners’ records, while A&M’s records are pressed by CBS and Monarch Record Manufacturing Company, the largest independent presser. Most pressing plants claim to run audio checks on the mother master as well as on a certain percentage of the records pressed (they claim to listen to anywhere from every fiftieth to every hundredth record). In addition, producers and engineers can demand to hear a test pressing of the record and reject it if it’s not up to their standards. Jimmy Iovine, who produced Patti Smith’s Easter and engineered Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, said that he always requests test pressings and at times has found them to be less than adequate. But the record companies, he said, “respond to me. They want to keep up quality control.”

But that’s not necessarily the case. “You can’t afford to play through all the records,” said Capitol’s Lawhon. “We try to test one of every hundred pressings.”

But based on the number of defective albums that reach record stores, it’s not effective all of the time. That must in part be due to the fact that quality control is not as thorough as the record companies claim. In fact, Bruce Maier claims he found that only the Japanese, who have established the most stringent quality-control standards, actually make a concerted effort to maintain them. He attributes this to the “fastidiousness that permeates Japanese culture,” and believes it has enabled the Japanese to produce the highest-quality recordings in the world.

Marv Bornstein, head of quality control for A&M, agrees that the quality of a record has a lot to do with the amount of attention that goes into the pressing process. “The answer is in pressing people who know what a record should sound like and record companies that care,” he said. This country can do anything it wants to in the processing,” said Doug Sax. But right now, “not enough money is being charged by the pressing plant to the record company to scrap the bad ones, to find out what’s wrong, to get really fussy. Too many record companies in this country are concerned with a fraction-of-a-cent difference in spending.”

Record pressing in this country costs from 38 to 48 cents per album. By comparison, European pressing plants charge from 55 to 65 cents. Sax believes that if American plants increased the cost of pressing by 15 cents – five cents for higher-quality vinyl, five cents for improved metal for the plating process and five cents for better quality control – the result would be a “state-of-the-art” pressing at an additional cost to the consumer of only 50 cents to a dollar.

At a production cost of about 15 cents more per record and at a retail price of a dollar more than usual, RCA, with its quadrophonic recordings, has produced “some phenomenal records,” Sax said. However, RCA chief engineer Jim Frische believes stereo recordings do not require such additional costs.

Joe Wells, manager of quality control for RCA, added: “Certainly increases in quality can be made with some increases in cost. But one has to determine if the public that is buying the records in large quantities would be willing to pay this price. Our returns indicate that the large majority of the public is not dissatisfied.”

“The record companies are pandering to the least common denominator,” said Bernie Mitchell, president of U.S. Pioneer. “The public seems to be buying more low-fi and compact systems and record manufacturers aim their product at that market.”

According to producer/engineer Iovine, “For a lot of kids, as long as it sounds like Led Zeppelin, it’s OK. They just throw one record on top of the other.”

When asked what they are doing to improve the quality of records, most companies point to automation. Automation crept into the industry in the Sixties, and by now most pressing plants are at least partially automated.

According to Joe Wells, this should upgrade record quality. “Some of the defects [in today’s records] are attributable to the operators – not handling records properly, etcetera.” By removing the operator, that quality-control problem is eliminated, he said. Automation also enables record companies to cut pressing costs further because of the decrease in labor costs.

But Capitol’s Dave Lawhon sees at least one bad side effect: “You lose that hundred-percent surveillance because a press-operator isn’t there to look at the records that come out of the press.”

There are dark clouds on the horizon,” said A&M Chairman Jerry Moss in his speech attacking the record industry. “And they’re called Warner Bros, and . . . CBS. And their record divisions are, I think, interested only in making a lot of money. There’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money, but it affects the industry and the consumer.” And in the end, the decision on record quality basically rests with the consumer. As A&M President Gil Friesen put it: “Only the consumer can change things. It’s up to the consumers to respond, to write manufacturers and say they won’t buy any more records.”

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