This has been a subject of debate for decades now, but I have been looking into it analytically and have discovered something.
First, let me tell you the debate, the whole brouhaha is about the quality of vinyl being used to press records. As we know, the “vinyl” used for records is PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride). It’s the same stuff that the pipes for the plumbing in your dwelling are made of. The difference is that it is formulated a little differently in that for records they include a certain ratio of substances including plasticisers, which is the component that gives the records their flexibility to a point and allows the melting point of the PVC to be lower so that the grooves containing the audio information can be easily pressed into the vinyl without turning it to liquid.
The ratio of components used to make your everyday PVC piping are too brittle for use as records and have a higher melting point, totally unsuitable for records. While the exact composition of the PVC is a well-guarded secret, we do know that PVC is mostly amorphous and 10 to 20% crystalline. As a result, PVC has enough structural fortitude to support a groove and stand up to a record needle without compromising smoothness, unlike the old wax records. Without any additives PVC is clear and has a higher melt point and turns very brittle and rough on cooling, making it hard to maintain the smoothness needed for grooves. So, one thing they add are plasticisers which help lower the melt-point and make it easier to press without being too soft and unwieldy. These plasticisers also prevent the record from getting too brittle, crystalline and unplayable as they would without. Another thing they add to make records is carbon, that’s what makes records black, but this addition is mostly aesthetic. Without the carbon though it would be hard to inspect records, see scratches, etc. To this day chemists are still tweaking and improving the formulation.
The notion is that there are different suppliers of PVC at different qualities for records and that it is very expensive for good quality PVC. It has been said over and over about records from the early days, that supplies were scarce and they used to just melt down Bic pens and make records from that. This is pure myth. The PVC pellets used to make records mostly come from one place in Taiwan, so the quality is consistent if it is anything.
Let me address something right here, just to make a related point. Considering the prices we see for new and reissued records today, which range from $20 to as much as $300 plus. I am not talking about collectible records of limited pressing, I’m talking about every day average records. I am hearing the same claim from the seventies being made today to try to justify the prices. I hear claims that PVC pellets cost a lot and that the pressing plants want to use the “high quality” pellets and they are very expensive and that is why that new record cost $30. I think it would be far better if the truth were told in an attempt to justify the prices.
What is that “truth”? For the moment let’s leave the notions of greed out of it, because I don’t think that is the issue in a nutshell. The fact is that the most expensive part of the equation in manufacturing records is in two parts. One part is the cost of the pressing machines themselves. Let’s face it, the ones that have been discovered abandoned in states of disrepair cost just as much to restore as a new one and both are very expensive. (By the way, new record presses are imported). We are talking five to six figures here for each. (Factor into that the reality that the business of pressing records is self-destructive by its nature and it gets frightening). Every record pressed is a bit to offset the cost of the machine, although this will take some time. The second most expensive part is cutting the record. This is the step before pressing the vinyl, but nothing happens without it. This is where the most time and supplies are used up. It is true that the turnaround time for vinyl verses CD is 6 weeks longer than CD on average, but that has no factor in cost or price.
Naturally, the manufacturing cost of 180 gram and colored vinyl is higher due to the labor and materials involved, but it is not that much higher. So now we know the real reason behind the cost and price of records and it is a more reasonable explanation than made up stories about the cost of PVC pellets. I think most folks can see that. (This is not an excuse for gouging though. I’m not fully excusing the price of a new record, only giving a more plausible reason to be fair). My concern in that regard is that my hope for prices to start coming down, at least back to 1990s levels as more records are sold and robotic pressing machines are made and developments in materials, seems to be fleeting. Personally, I’d love to pay $10 to $12 for a good new LP, but that leads us to another question and back to the topic at hand.
People claim that there is a difference in the quality of pressings and blame it on the vinyl record itself, while claiming that the more one pays for a record the better the quality of sound it will be and is therefore worth it. That is placing the cart before the horse when you stop and look at it.
The claim of the quality of the PVC pellets and their availability is the same from the late sixties and early seventies. The sonic quality of a record has little if nothing to do with the PVC used to press the record (unless you really are using melted down pens). It is the provenance of the recording and how it is mastered and pressed that has everything to do with it.
For example, we hear about it all the time, someone will state that they paid $100 for this new remastered/reissued vinyl record and it sounds noisy or distorted or off in some way, while the original sounds spectacular or this new record I paid $50 for was supposed to sound great, but it doesn’t. So what is the culprit for this tragedy? The same one as always, the recording and or mastering! Sometimes it is the fact that they are trying press digital files onto analog medium, that never turns out well. Sometimes errant “enhancements” are done such as “electronically enhanced stereo” that messes the sound up. Sometimes the mastering is just bad. Think this didn’t happen back in the late sixties and seventies? Think again, with the exception of attempting to digitize vinyl, sometimes one would find the “electronically enhanced stereo” record or a poor initial recording, poor mix and on occasion a poorly pressed record from a late or too worn stamping die. The common thread to this is that in no case are the PVC pellets the culprit for such issues.
That said though, it seems the overall production/mastering etc. on older original records is consistently more stable than new records these days. That’s not to say there are not good pressing plants making records these days, QRP and Acoustic Sounds as well as Interplay come to mind as some of the best and you can’t go wrong with records from the UK or Germany. However, I would not place any bets on the major US labels these days. Back in the day (50s thru mid 70s), it was more predictable. You knew who was more consistent at pressing great or good records and who wasn’t among the larger labels. For example, Warner Bros had at least two pressing plants and the “green” WB label records are superior to their full color labels. On the opposite end, I have never heard a good pressing from United Artists and so on.
Here’s the thing though, time after time I hear something similar to the following: Oh, don’t buy used records, they are all no good, terrible pressings” or my favorite, “the records made from the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies are the worst. There were no good pressings because they were all made from melted down Bic pens and scrap from pressings”. This is far from the truth and is spun to fit an agenda. First of all, they did not melt down Bic pens to make records and as for scrap from previous pressings, well not only is that called recycling, but your record pressing plants today, including new ones do that! Why? Because there is nothing wrong with it. The scrap PVC already having the same components as the new stuff being fed into the machine saves money on the extra components needing to be added, such as carbon and bolsters stability.
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