Vinyl manufacturing

Knowing how vinyl records are manufactured is essential in understanding and interpreting matrix codes, which again can result in more information about the records. This is not a detailed description of the process of vinyl production, vinyl quality, and so on, but a short overview to understand how and when matrix codes are etched into the run-out grooves.

Mastering: Lacquer (three-step process)

The recorded music is transferred from the master tape to a lacquer-coated aluminum disc by a lathe. The audio is cut with a corundum (sapphire) or diamond cutting stylus. This is the opposite of playing the vinyl record; you feed audio in and get mechanical motion out. In this process, the settings also have a great influence on the sound. The result is two master discs, one for each side A and B, which looks very similar to a vinyl record. There are several names for it; masters, soft masters, lacquers, and acetate. On this site they will be referred to as lacquers. [1] The lacquers can be played back, but doing so would degrade the quality [2]. A set of reference lacquers for listening can be cut on a slave lathe in tandem with the master lathe, but the audio may be slightly different due to the different lathes [3]. The lacquers are refridgerated for preservation if they are not going to be processed right away [2]. Image 1 shows a Nevermind lacquer cut by the Spanish pressing plant Iberofon.

Nevermind lacquer
1. Nevermind lacquer

Processing: Fathers, mothers, stampers

The lacquers are put in baths and electroplated with nickel. Once completed, the metal is separated from the lacquers with a blow of a special hammer. The lacquers are most often destroyed in this process. The resulting metal plates are called fathers, masters, or matrices. They are negative images of the lacquers, and cannot be played. They can be used to press vinyl records, but only if a small quantity is required. [1] Metal plates degrade with use, and will start to wear out after about 1000-1200 records pressed [4][5]. You could cut several sets of lacquers, either individual cuts or cuts by slave lathes in tandem with the master lathe, and electroplate them to create several sets of fathers to use for pressing, but you can also process the fathers further [1].

The fathers can be electroplated to form a set of mothers. These are positive images of the lacquers, so they can be played for testing, but obviously they cannot be used for pressing records. The mothers are electroplated again, and the resulting negative images, stampers, can be used for pressing. [1] The fathers and mothers can be electroplated several times, though there is a limit, about six times, before they degrade. In this case, 36 sets of stampers can be made from one set of fathers, and about 36,000 good quality records can be pressed. Several sets of lacquers must be created if larger quantities are required, although many plants press well above the recommended numbers. [6]

Image 2 shows a side B stamper for the MFSL release of Nevermind on top of its sleeve, and a part of the matrix code. Pressing plates used to press the Kill Rock Stars compilation can be seen on nirvana-discography.com.

Nevermind MFSL side B stamper and matrix code
2. Nevermind MFSL side B stamper and matrix code

Alternative: Direct metal mastering (one-step process)

It is possible to eliminate the two first processing steps by cutting a set of mothers directly into copper plates. This is called direct metal mastering (DMM). A large amount of stampers can be processed from the copper mothers directly, but if very large quantities are required, a stamper can be plated to create a new mother, wich can then be plated to create more stampers. [7] Image 3 shows a copper plate being cut using DMM.

A copper plate being cut using DMM
3. A copper plate being cut using DMM

Pressing

Vinylite pellets are heated and turn into molten slabs called biscuits. A label is placed on each side of a biscuit, which is then placed between the stampers mounted in the press. The pressing plates are heated with steam as they are pressed together, allowing the vinylite to flow into every groove, and then quickly cooled with water, and a vinyl record is made. [1] Pressing takes about eight to nine hours for 1000 records [5].

Picture discs are made of three layers of vinyl, with the two images put inbetween the vinyl layers. The outer layers are clear vinyl, while the middle layer can be any color. In image 4, it is blue. Due to the cost of setting up the press for picture discs, test pressings are usually done on black vinyl just as regular pressings. [2]

Picture disc with blue vinyl in the middle layer
4. Picture disc with blue vinyl in the middle layer

These two videos on Youtube.com show the process from mastering to finished records. Note that they omitt some of the processing, and use the first metal plates, the fathers, as stampers: How vinyl records are made part 1, part 2.

Mixed colors

Ocassionally records have traces of other colors than the color or colors of the biscuits, as the three different Molly's Lips singles shown in image 5. This could happen in several ways. If a set of stampers is used to press two different colors, for example first 500 black copies, then 500 green copies, but not cleaned before the green biscuits are inserted, the first green records will contain traces of black, fading for each record pressed. Mixed colors could also occur inside the hopper and extruder where the vinylite pellets are melted and formed into biscuits, if the machinery isn't cleaned after previously pressing a different color [2]. Finally, the biscuits are often composed of a mix of virgin and recycled vinyl, which can lead to smaller impurities (which can also end up being a quality issue) [1]. In the case of the singles shown in image 5, it is most likely the first or second scenario, or a combination of the two.

Impure Molly's Lips pressings
5. Impure Molly's Lips pressings

Matrix codes

Text and numbers may only be added to the run-out groove on positive images, in other words on the lacquers and on the mothers [6]. The stage which the text was etched can be observed, as text etched into the lacquers will be deep and smooth, while text etched into the mothers will be shallow and uneven. Text can only be etched into the mother plates when using DMM, meaning it may be hard to determine whether text was etched by the mastering facility or processing plant. DMM matrix codes usually looks similar to matrix codes etched into lacquer, though perhaps not so deep.

Some times one company handles the entire process of cutting the master (lacquers or copper plates), processing, and pressing, but in most cases there are different companies which handle each job. The mastering studio will often write or stamp the catalog number, side A and B information, the name of the mastering facility, internal job number, the signature of the mastering engineer, which plant which will receive the lacquers, and perhaps a funny comment. If a cut ends up being unsuccessful, which will in most cases be discovered after test pressings are made, a new cut will be made with "RE1" written in the matrix code, meaning recut 1, and similar for recut 2 and so on [6]. These parts are written into the lacquers or copper mothers, and are deep and smooth.

Occasionally the processing/ pressing plant will also add parts to the matrix code, such as their internal job number or the plant name. If they have to remake a mother, they may also etch "RE1" for remake 1 into the matrix code. If these parts are written on the nickel mothers, they can be told apart from the mastering engineer's parts as they are shallow and uneven. However, in many cases the processing/ pressing plant will write their parts into the lacquers, too, prior to plating, such as the L-codes done by Lee Processing [5]. In these cases only knowledge of the companies' different matrix parts can tell whether they were written by the mastering studio or the processing plant.

In some cases the mastering studio will only write the catalog number and side information around the outer edge of the lacquers, to keep track of which lacquer is which prior to plating. This area is trimmed off before plating, and the pressing plant writes or stamps the entire matrix codes in the run-out grooves. [8]

Matrix code example: American and French pressings of Oh, The Guilt 7" singles

The American and French pressings have some identical parts in the matrix codes. They are partially shown in images 6 and 7 and transcribed below. The American matrix codes:

Side A
TG 83 A L-40697 R-15194
Side B
TG 83 B RE1-A R-15195-RE-1 L-40697-X

The French matrix codes:

Side A
DFI 93-1 TG 83 A L-40697
Side B
DFI 93-1 TG 83 B RE1-A L-40697-X

Oh, The Guilt US matrix codes
6. Oh, The Guilt US matrix codes

Oh, The Guilt French matrix codes
7. Oh, The Guilt French matrix codes

Approaching the problem methodically, the various companies involved and metal plates can be traced. The mastering facility cannot be identified from the matrix codes, but this is the least interesting aspect of this release. What we can see is that the two different pressings are sourced from the same set of lacquers. This is determined from the similar "TG 83" parts, as well as side B being recut as seen from "RE1-A". When the lacquers left the mastering studio, the matrix codes were simply:

Side A
TG 83 A
Side B
TG 83 B RE1-A

The next steps involve having some knowledge about what types of codes various plants etch into the run-out grooves. The L-codes were etched by Lee Processing [5], which is the next step in this example. It seems to be equally deep as the etchings from the mastering studio, so it appears that they etched the L-codes into the lacquers just before they processed a set of fathers. The L-codes are also completely identical on the American and French pressings, which means they could not have been etched into two different sets of mothers. Lee Processing also processed a set of mothers which they sent to the French plant, but whether the American plant received the set of fathers, or a second set of mothers processed by Lee, is uncertain. Regardless, the matrix codes are the same on the fathers and on the mothers, and also smooth and deep as so far all the parts have been written into the lacquers. The metal plates which left Lee Processing had the following matrix codes:

Side A
TG 83 A L-40697
Side B
TG 83 B RE1-A L-40697-X

The remaining etchings are clearly different to the text etched into the lacquers. They are much shallower and very uneven. The pressing plant in the USA, Rainbo Records, added the R-codes to the mothers [5]. The addition of the R-code and a second "RE-1" directly following the R-code, indicates that Rainbo received the only set of fathers from Lee Processing, and processed their own set of mothers. The original electroplating of the side B father must have been unsuccessful, and they had to electroplate the father again. The resulting side B mother was labeled "R-15195-RE-1" to indicate it was a remake.

The French plant, DFI, received one pair of mothers, into which they etched their initials and "93-1", either dating the manufacture to January 1993 (the single was released on 1993.02.22) or numbering it as their first project of 1993.

Other interesting applications of record production and matrix code understanding can be found in the test pressings section, most notably the pink test pressing of Bleach and the following recut of side B.

References