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Vinyl in the Digital Age: Pressing It Up

The record industry hasn’t been doing well. You know that, we know that, and the bands and labels know that. Once the digital age of the mp3 began to kick in the physical CD slouched from a wonder to becoming a shiny coaster-and many labels have the warehouses full of them to prove this decline-but in this age of the compact and compressed something that most believed was dead, killed by the CD in the mainstream sense, may be saving the industry. Vinyl is a live breathing beast and even the major labels can’t deny this beast and people’s demand for it with a major chain store announcing carrying vinyl and vinyl only stores popping up.

In fact vinyl is in such demand right now that most vinyl manufactures are saying they are backed up on orders at least three months in work time and don’t see this demand dropping anytime soon. By all accounts vinyl should have been dead years ago but the desire for big packaging and special colors of the vinyl have kept the art not just alive but evolving.

Eric Mueller, the founder of Pirate’s Press spoke with us about how those hand crafted beauties are saving the music industry and broke down the process and art of pressing vinyl.

If you own any vinyl from Hydrahead, Relapse, Deathwish or Warner Brothers you’ve held Pirate’s Press’ hand crafted work.

Eric, why are so many LPs coming out weeks and weeks after the release date of CD right now?

The answer to that lies in CDs because a lot of the bigger labels pressed up way too many CDs then they needed to because distros were telling them too. So they shipped all those out and some distros folded other sent big returns back and basically handicapped the cash flow of a lot of the bigger independent labels in the last six months. People were hurting from that, and still are.

It effects us to an extent but a majority of the more popular bands need their records out there regardless so people find a way to pay for it because the records are what’s selling. It’s not like your just making stuff and shipping it to a distro. A lot of the people we work with are selling big portions of this via mail order or selling them at shows and things like that. That’s really what is keeping things strong. There’s a direct link between the people making records, for the smaller labels, the bands and the fans themselves. The profit margin is so much higher when they are doing that so it accelerates the amount of revenue the band has to continue to tour, to put out new stuff and labels the same way to put out new records in a consistent way.

Has the demand for more vinyl been a growing thing over the past few years or was it a sudden explosion?

We’ve pretty much been growing steadily. The first year we were in business we did $600,000 and last year we did just under 6 million. It’s defiantly been growing. I think it’s from people got frustrated with CDs, labels too. The labels aren’t going to spend a lot of time putting together a CD package but the vinyl is the thing they are putting together for collectors, and at the same time the collectors see that and feed off of it and go out and look for the rare version or the deluxe version. And by buying those they are keeping everything moving; they’re keeping the cash flow of the music industry essentially going. Well at least in a strong enough that the bands are putting out new records.

A lot of what we are seeing is reissues sparking new records. Re-issues are something people are proud of, they want to talk about it and play it for other people and shit and all that good stuff. You can hold a CD in your hand and it doesn’t say anything to you the way holding a big 12-inch record does. You can hang up a record on your wall and not too many people have a jewel cased CD on their wall.

We’ve spoken to quite a few bands about selling vinyl on the road and a lot of them are telling us how people buy the vinyl and tell them they download the record until they can get the vinyl.

People are willing to pay for the download and luckily how it’s all working the bands are seeing that money which is different than the return time on CD sales. For example the way it all used to work.

If they’re getting their shit together the bands are putting the downloads in the records giving kids a reason to buy the record instead of the download and if they don’t have their shit together to get the record out when the music is ready to be released they offer a download or a CD version. The vinyl is what people are really focusing on. And it’s not just for sales because you can only make so much money on selling a thousand units of vinyl but it’s something to be proud of.

Why does the LP sound closer to the actual recording?

It’s actually the opposite of what you just said. An actual recording done with digital recording processes can provide a master of digital music that can include parts of music that the average ear can’t even hear. The spectrum of sound that a digital master can carry or a digital format can carry is essentially infinite.

However an analog format like vinyl or tape is more of a physical format that you can’t put theoretical sounds on; it has to be actual sounds. There are all kind of theories on why people like vinyl more than CDs. One of the things that the engineers at our plant have talked to me about is when your listening to vinyl your hearing a spectrum that is more in line with what the actual human ear can actually hear and comprehend, so there is less white noise going on and confusing going on in your head because your head is able to process the sounds.

It’s a nostalgic sound that doesn’t make you focus on the individual imperfections of the music; I mean your gonna hear it pop, hisses and cracks and things like that, on vinyl. But it’s about the music carrying through that and that kind of puts a tone on the music essentially.

At the same time there’s the playing of the record, the aesthetic part of it. Not just touching a remote but physically putting a record on and seeing it spin and seeing the progression of the needle toward the center of the record during the course of the record. There are all kind of different elements going on but there are two main things that I’d say is a simpler sound spectrum and nostalgia.

I love switching sides of a record. You end up being attached to a side and keep replaying that side gaining an attachment to those songs.

Totally. There are situations now though were that wouldn’t be appropriate. If your in a twelve hour car ride your not gonna be flipping a record. To have the record for when they are at home and then the drop card to carry the digital version for all the other situations and then they are able to make use of both of them. That’s the ideal goal, for people to immerse themselves in the music as much as they possibly can.

How do the LPs getting different colors work?

There are lots of different styles, some of them are just using different color material to press the records and others involve hand labor before the records are pressed taking the hot piece of wax and dipping it in chips of color to make a splatter, or pellets of color wispy haze colors or physically taking the hot puck of vinyl before its pressed and cutting it in half and sandwiching two different colors together to make the half and half. There are all kinds of things that can be done and most plants don’t want to mess with it too much.

We (Pirate Press) use the oldest vinyl manufacturing plant in the world, and the machines we have are all manual machines. I mean a person does have to press a button to have the press clamp down but it’s all manual like a person puts the hot puck of vinyl in the machine vs. suction cups, like most US plants do. It’s not just an assembly line kind of situation but it is hands off. But when a person is doing it you get a lot more options. A move of the hand to dip it in the splatter is an option but if you wanted to do that on a suction cup machine you’d have to redesign the whole thing.

You guys press the Robotic Empire LPs right?

Oh yeah. We’ve done the Torche stuff and all kind of crazy stuff for them. We’ve actually had previously cut records die cut into shapes, laser cut into shapes, we’ve pressed those into their new records. The new Torche pressings for ‘In Return‘ have die cut bubble bees into the records, like the bumble bees used in the art work from the record. It’s phenomenal and nobody else is doing that kind of stuff.

It’s really a matter of diggin’ it. And there are plenty of other plants probably out there that have the capability to do those kinds of things but nobody gives a shit. Most of the people running those plants are in their fifties on the second leg of their careers. In general it’s an old industry; and the people that stayed in it stayed through the bad times and there now starting to see the benefit of doing the crazier stuff and getting involved in the packaging but it does take a new perspective to be able to do that. It’s not what many of the plants have been too keen on.

How do you do the color swirls like on The Storm of Light/Nadja split?

What we do to make those is we take the puck of vinyl, if your going to make a red record the puck is black, if your going to make a black vinyl the puck is black, and what we do is make the pucks half as thin as normal of two different colors and sandwich them together and put them on the press. And based on science and the different densities of the two different color vinyl compounds and the hat of the press it blends together.

Now every two different pairs when used like that look differently and if we’re pressing a thousand each one is going to look different. That’s one of the things we like, we can really create unique configurations of color were your record doesn’t look like the one your friend bought.

Everyone touts 180 gram weighted vinyl as the most superior sound. Is there a difference in the weights?

None. Nothing at all. If you think of it on a science level you’ve got X amount of room in between two hard surfaces and you have two hard surfaces and your trying to squeeze as much vinyl compound that is hot and heated into that space as possible. When you press a record it squeezes out beyond 12 inches and then it’s cut afterwards. So the amount of material you put in, like your hot puck before it’s pressed, is going to fill the amount of space and squeeze out X amount depending on the pressure and the space in-between those two plates.

Other than that there is going to be very little difference. The plates themselves and the grooves will virtually identical. People freak out on 180 gram for a lot of reason, in reality none of which are audio reasons.

For a long time what it was the plants that pressed 180 gram were just a better plant; they were pressing higher quality records. So 180 gram got kind of aligned with that as well as it looks and feels a lot more like a phonograph record, like the really really thick ones from way back in the day.

But in reality there is no benefit sound wise. There is a much bigger difference however in black vinyl vs. color vinyl. There can be a loss in audio quality in doing color vinyl but between the two grams there is no difference, not in anything that the average ear could hear. We use the same plates on 140 gram as the 180 gram.

It’s just a marketing thing, just like color vinyl. You want to put a gold sticker on the outside of your record that says this is color vinyl or do you want one that says this is heavyweight vinyl? Heavyweight vinyl was the premier way to advertise your vinyl before the crazy color thing took off.

Do you think the rise and demand for vinyl is going to continue?

I certainly think so. I think it’s always going to be changing. There have been genres where vinyl has always been the standard and the cool thing because it wasn’t cool, ya know like punk rock and stuff. Things are gonna change, some of the products are gonna change. I think punk kids are going to go back to more raw looking records and less four color print stuff. I think they’re going to do cheaper stuff but it’s to differentiate themselves from them and everybody else.

We pressed a hundred thousand Madonna records last year. That says something about what the punk kids thought was theirs because it wasn’t cool, them and the metal heads, but now it’s back and it’s no longer the hip thing. It’s the mainstream thing.

It ‘s a weird thing for those genres and will be interesting to see how they deal with it, but in general the mainstream part of it I think we’re in good shape. The stores will continue to be selling record players and more stores are going to start carrying vinyl, and if the labels pick up on this then all the records will come out when the album comes out on CD. That’s when the real thing is gonna change. Right now the major labels have one big problem, they can’t get their artwork together for the vinyl early enough so they can’t press their records before the street dates, like the Mastodon thing where you could buy the CD or the download way before you could get the vinyl.

When you put those out at the same time then your giving the consumer the option of do you wanna buy the CD? Do you wanna buy the download? Or do you wanna buy the vinyl? At that point it’s a fair scenario and we’ll see if putting the vinyl product out there is what they wanna buy. If it is then we’re in good shape.

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