Vinyl Factory Tour: Part 1

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by B. Rica on June 29 '06



(Brinkmann turntable photograph by Danny Kaey)

As part of the featured events at the recent Home Entertainment 2006 show in Los Angeles,the Kansas-based online store Acoustic Sounds together with pressing plant Record Technology, Inc, organized an unique tour for all those vinyl nerds curious enough to see and learn how vinyl records were (and still are!) actually made. For someone like yours truly, whose obsession with vinyl is, well, a notch or two above that of the average sane person, this was nothing less than the chance of a lifetime to experience how the magic of music comes to be etched into a slab of black (or other color) paste. ln other words, I just couldn’t miss this if I was to retain and honor my status as a true, helpless vinyl geek. For all those who missed all the fun (if your idea of fun involves a bunch of middle-aged males running circles around machinery and stuff), the following pictures and videos may help some. Vinyl junkies, read on...

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The Record Technology (RTI) pressing plant, located in Camarillo, CA (about 1 hour from LA) is perhaps the only active pressing facility in the West these days. Those of us who took the bus to go there got complimentary pizza and beverages. Despite what their glossy catalogs and finely crafted newsletters might suggest, Acoustic Sounds is still pretty much a small, familiar operation. For instance, the person at right on the striped shirt is Chockey Kassem, father of Acoustic Sounds owner Chad Kassem - getting us beer and stuff. He confessed me he didn’t understand a thing about his son’s business, yet he was there giving all the support he could give. That speaks volumes about human values in a company.

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An hour and several pizzas and Bud cans later, we finally made it to the rather nondescript location of Camarillo, CA. RTI operates on a warehouse complex across two buildings, neighboring with businesses like car repair shops and mechanical machinery factories. There isn’t even a sign in the facilities. In short, there is absolutely no evidence from the outside this is a place where the LP magic is still kept alive. And the warehouse facilities themselves are actually no bigger than the average suburban house each.

The conclusion you draw from all this is that, even as the audiophile vinyl market seems quite profitable these days and there are enough requests from clients to keep RTI busy year round, pressing vinyl records in the 21st century is, first and foremost, a labor of love and faith. As Acoustech Mastering co-founder Don MacInnis told us, they have to face much higher overhead costs in printing, components and workmanship to produce a vinyl copy compared to the dirt cheap CD route major labels do. Indeed, once you see and learn the whole process involved in creating an 180 or 200 gram audiophile pressing, the $20 to $30 asking price per piece suddenly doesn’t seem as high as one may think.

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A smiling Steve Hoffman greets us at the RTI door. For those not in the know, Steve Hoffman is among the most respected mastering engineers in the audiophile and music industry segments at large. His site’s forum attracts millions of devoted audio enthusiasts every month. Together, he and mastering/lacquer cutting guru Kevin Gray tackle the finest mastering projects for analog at AcousTech Mastering, which happens to be right inside that very building, tucked in a small part of the warehouse. RTI plant manager Rick Hashimoto (bottom) looks on.

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Prior to starting the tour, a visibly nervous Don MacInnis (perhaps because they didn’t imagine how many people would come to the tour - enough to fill 2 buses!) walked us through a primer on the materials and process used on the making of vinyl records, showing us samples of lacquers, master and mother stampers, and all sorts of vinyl-related paraphernalia on a display they had prepared for the ocassion (below: samples of “biscuits” -- unpressed vinyl as it looks before it hits the stamper -- and samples of vinyl compound)

Read part 2

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