Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a city of 52,000 in the Shenandoah Valley, about two hours from Washington, DC. Roughly an hour from Charlottesville, Virginia, where you can visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and another Jeffersonian attraction, the University of Virginia, Harrisonburg itself is home to two well-established colleges: James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University. James Madison is a public university of over 21,000 students, while EMU is private and has about 1200 students.
Logan Stoltzfus (left) and Chris Jackson
Harrisonburg is also where you’ll find Blue Sprocket Pressing, which has been making LPs since 2018. Blue Sprocket’s name is derived from the Blue Ridge Mountains, which border the Shenandoah Valley and the region’s enthusiastic and sizable bicycling community. The company’s website says its owners and staff are “musicians, technicians, record producers (literally), and vinyl collectors.” Chris Jackson and Logan Stoltzfus had a recording studio, also named Blue Sprocket, in Harrisonburg, and their clients “experienced long lead-times, and often missed deadlines when trying to get their music on vinyl.” And they often “weren’t thrilled” with the end product.
Stoltzfus and Jackson started researching how to build and run a pressing plant in 2017. “We were working on the process before we started building it out,” Stoltzfus told me. “As we were talking to people and getting started in the process, everybody you know tells you it’s going to take longer than you think.” Jackson added: “It took the better part of a year from concept to first record off the press.”
In only four years, Blue Sprocket Pressing has developed a strong enough reputation for quality work that it has pressed LPs by John Prine, Alanis Morissette, The Lemonheads, and Edie Brickell. It has done work for the indie jazz label Mack Avenue Records, including some Record Store Day titles. One notable recent pressing was a blue-and-black swirl release of Sturgill Simpson’s Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions for the Vinyl Me, Please record club.
Some Blue Sprocket pressings
I visited Blue Sprocket on a beautiful late-October day, when the sky was cloudless and the fall colors in the mountains surrounding the Shenandoah Valley were indescribably beautiful. The ideal fall day made the three-hour drive from my house to Harrisonburg feel relaxed and easy as I passed through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia into Virginia. At the unassuming one-story, red-brick building that houses Blue Sprocket, I finally got to see, after more than 50 years of collecting, how records are made.
I had assumed that the new vinyl pressing plants popping up in recent years were using older, refurbished presses that had been reclaimed from old plants. In fact, it turns out that presses are still being made. Jackson had read an article in Wired magazine about the Viryl WarmTone, a record press system manufactured in Toronto, Canada, by Viryl Technologies. “I thought it was fascinating,” he recalled. “I had lived in Nashville and was familiar with URP [Tennessee’s United Record Pressing], and to my knowledge there were no modern record presses. Everybody that was making records was making it out of, you know, something they saved from a junkyard.”
Jackson researched some other companies that were building presses, including Newbilt Machinery in Germany and Pheenix Alpha in Sweden. “After reaching out, I got the warmest welcome and what appeared to be the most interest in helping stand up a new plant from the Viryl guys. We flew up to Toronto, saw their operation, and saw the machine. We had them do some test record runs and tried to do our best to gauge the quality of the record the machine was capable of making.”
Stoltzfus and Jackson came up with some financial projections and business plans, which they showed to a few people. Jackson was pleased to discover that “they didn’t think we were as crazy as maybe even we thought we were.” In addition, he and Stoltzfus had practical skills that augmented their background in music production. “Logan’s family has ties to manufacturing. I grew up in and around commercial construction and worked in warehouses. We’re just some indie rock guys who have been in different parts of the music industry, and also around industries where you don’t mind picking up something heavy and moving it around, and getting stuff made.”
Even though Blue Sprocket launched at a time when plants were working hard to meet demand, the company was able to ask others in the industry for help. “Everybody was busy,” Jackson told me. “But nobody was so swamped that you couldn’t reach out and ask operators at another plant, ‘Hey, we’re having this issue. How do you get around this?’ The industry is fairly collaborative, so you could get guidance.”
Blue Sprocket belongs to the Vinyl Record Manufacturers Association (VRMA), whose members, according to the organization’s website, are “committed to the craft of vinyl record manufacturing through collaboration, advocacy, standardization, and education.” Companies that master, cut, plate, and press vinyl, and printers that provide labels and covers are primary members. Associate members include raw-material suppliers, equipment manufacturers, and record companies. The VMRA gives companies directly or indirectly involved in the vinyl industry the ability to share information.
Blue Sprocket set up its pressing plant in a building that had been a grocery store in the 1950s. Record pressing plants require a supporting infrastructure in order to operate, including boilers that create steam to heat the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) used to press LPs. As I had for the presses themselves, I wondered if the boilers were old technology. “Our boiler is a Miura water-tube boiler,” Jackson responded. “It’s a current-manufacture model and is a lot of power in a small package. It’s a very energy-efficient design, so we’re able to reduce our use of natural gas for our operations, while still providing accurate steam pressures and temperatures to the process.”
“Our infrastructure is built out for approximately six presses,” he continued. At this point, Blue Sprocket has two Viryl presses: a WarmTone and a LiteTone. The WarmTone is fully automatic, while the LiteTone requires some manual steps. “The limit on [the number of presses] is actually floor space. If we can figure out how to toenail more presses in there and the need is there, we will.” The presses are in a large open space at the back of the building. Raw materials are stored nearby.
Pressing at Blue Sprocket, and at many other plants, begins with a stamper. This is a metal plate that contains a negative impression of the grooves originally cut by the mastering engineer into a lacquer, which is the first step in creating a vinyl record. A few steps lead to the creation of the stamper, so a brief description of that process is in order here.
The mastering engineer uses a lathe to cut the music on the master tape onto the lacquer: an aluminum plate coated with nitrocellulose, a material that has the same texture and softness as nail polish. The lacquer is affixed to a turntable on the lathe, and a heated cutting head carves the continuous groove into the nitrocellulose. Information on the master tape generates movement in the coils on either side of the cutting stylus, which is made of sapphire or ruby. Analogous to the way that a stylus electronically extracts the information from a record groove to create sound, the cutting head generates energy to cut the groove into the soft lacquer.
After the lacquer has been cut, it becomes the first step in a process called electroforming. It is cleaned and then sprayed with silver nitrate to make it conductive. The silvered lacquer is placed in a bath consisting of nickel salt and some other chemicals. A low electric current fed through the bath causes the nickel to adhere to the silvered lacquer. Over time, the current is increased until the required thickness of nickel forms. When that process is complete, the nickel plating is separated from the lacquer. That layer is the “father,” a negative impression of the groove cut into the lacquer. The lacquer is rendered useless at that point, and any further stampers that need to be created will come from the father.
The father is prepped and put into another nickel bath. (Each bath used in the plating process has a slightly different chemical composition.) A second nickel layer forms over the father. That layer, called the “mother,” is separated from the father, and it can actually be played on a specially designed turntable. If the playback is fine and the mother has no visual flaws, the matrix number, mastering engineer’s initials, and other information are etched into the run-out groove.
The mother is plated in yet another nickel bath, and the resulting layer, separated from the mother, is the stamper. It is a negative impression, like the father. One stamper is needed for each side of an LP.
Back to the pressing process. “There are a number of companies in the US that plate lacquers for vinyl pressing,” Stoltzfus told me. “We work with most of them periodically, but our main two suppliers are Welcome to 1979 in Tennessee and Mastercraft [Record Plating] in New Jersey.” Jackson pointed out that some labels and artists prefer to use certain lacquer-mastering engineers, “who tend to have their preferred plating chain.”
On receipt of a set of stampers for an LP, the first step is to examine each stamper to make sure it has been correctly prepared. The front of the stamper contains the groove that will create the LP and the back is smooth, but both sides are examined for imperfections. When I asked why the back of the stamper had to be looked at so carefully, Jackson said: “Every now and again you get a pockmark on a record; one of those sort-of little divots that come from the back of the stamper being insufficiently smooth or prepped.”
The intense pressure required to press an LP can cause a flaw—even one on the back of a stamper—to make its way onto the LP. It’s vital that both sides of the stampers are clean and the backs are smooth. Any anomalies on the backs are sanded off, and then both sides of the stampers are sprayed with solvent—acetone, typically—and wiped clean. Each stamper is placed on a die in the press, with the side 1 stamper above and the side 2 stamper below where the heated vinyl will be pressed.
The vinyl itself starts out as PVC pellets. Blue Sprocket sources its PVC from Neotech Vinyl, in San Pedro, California. “It runs well,” Jackson told me. “We make a good product with it and they’ve been good to work with. I would say the lion’s share of North American plants run Neotech.” The pellets are sometimes clear, but I also saw open bags of yellow, black, and other colors. Dyes can be added to create different visual effects, or pellets of various colors can be mixed. In the past, colored vinyl was often thought to be inferior to traditional black LPs, but most vinyl collectors have dismissed that assumption nowadays.
The PVC pellets are placed in a hopper at the front of the press. The hopper feeds the pellets into an extruder: a cylinder-shaped unit that heats the pellets and forms the melted PVC into a biscuit, which looks like an oversized hockey puck with a hole in the center. The extruder feeds the biscuit between the stampers. A fully automated press, such as the WarmTone, places LP labels above and below the biscuit. With the LifeTone, the press operator positions the labels by hand. Labels must be completely free of moisture. An interesting fact, at least to me: Labels don’t require any adhesive. They essentially fuse to the hot vinyl when the LP is being pressed.
Steam heats the dies and stampers to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and the press closes them around the heated, soft PVC biscuit. The pressure generated by this action heats things up to nearly 900 degrees. Cold water is pumped into the dies to displace the steam, and the vinyl hardens. The press opens, releasing the LP, which moves on to a spot where any excess vinyl can be trimmed from the edges. On presses like the WarmTone, the trimming is automated. On the LifeTone and other semi-automated presses, the operator performs that function. The vinyl trimmings, as well as complete records that have been rejected for whatever reason, can be ground up and used for later pressings.
LP in press
A first run of an LP will be a test pressing, which the artist, record company, and pressing plant will use to evaluate the vinyl before a full run. The test pressing allows them to hear if there are any problems, such as sibilance or distortion, or if there’s something wrong with the stamper. “The test pressing process is where we’re dialing something in, where we’re paying attention to the fidelity piece of it,” Jackson explained.
Any errors that might have occurred during the cutting of the lacquers or later in the process of creating the stampers should present themselves in the test pressing, and could require the production of a new set of stampers. The test pressing also lets the pressing plant ensure that the spindle hole of the LP is properly centered, and that the press itself is correctly set up.
Test pressing runs are usually for five LPs, but some clients request more. Once the plant gets the go-ahead for a production run, standard pressing is a more continuous process, producing thousands of LPs.
Each pressed and trimmed LP makes its way to an area where it is stacked on a pin with other completed records. The operator adds a spacer every five records or so, to make sure the LPs remain flat as they cool. A turntable is set up near the presses, and the operator can pull random LPs in a pressing run to listen for anything that needs to be corrected, such as noise in the lead-in or run-out grooves. “That way, they’re able to be part of the quality control process,” Jackson said. “For the press room and packaging areas, we’ve landed on the Audio-Technica turntables. Functionally they’re probably pretty similar to what a large percentage of people buying vinyl are listening to records on, so it makes for a decent test bed.”
Stampers can press a limited number of LPs before they have to be changed. “The ballpark that people use as a reference is a thousand records per stamper,” Stoltzfus noted. “We check against the test pressing, doing QC consistently as we go. Press operators are pulling records, listening to them, looking at them. If they start to notice things visually, they compare with the test pressing and if things don’t match up, we pull [the stamper].”
Plants routinely press about ten percent extra per run from each set of stampers, to account for anomalies during pressing that occur as, for example, the press warms up. According to Stoltzfus, it’s routine for the first LPs pressed to lead to some adjustments. “We always anticipate a couple at the beginning being a little weird as we get things dialed in. There’s a little bit of trial and error there and as we continue to press.”
Quality control continues in the packaging area of the plant. Stoltzfus described it as “hands on. It’s a visual inspection. You’re looking for any kind of issue with the construction of the records; a burn or scratch or something that would otherwise impact the sound. We’re also looking at the edge for any chips.” Other items the packers would look for would be warpage, label centering, or any blemish on the surface of the record. “We’re catching all of those and pulling them before they leave the facility.” A turntable in the packaging area lets the packers listen to an LP if they see any problems.
Records in sleeves
Quality control and packaging
I wondered if something like warping is encountered throughout a pressing. “It’s usually not a consistent issue,” Stoltzfus responded. “We’re finding one and we’re pulling it out.” A recurring problem would result in a full repressing. “Sometimes a stamper gets scratched, or something like that, and that will be on every record. They’ll be pulled and remade. Most things that happen are not on every single record.”
Packagers put each LP into a paper inner sleeve. Sleeved records are then placed, along with any additional material, such as lyric sheets, into printed album covers. Some large plants print their own covers, but it’s more common for them to be printed off-site by a third party. The assembled package is sent through a machine that seals it in shrink-wrap. LPs are then boxed in groups, ready to be shipped.
Boxed for shipping
Touring Blue Sprocket and researching how LPs are manufactured made it clear to me that LPs are the most mechanical physical medium for listening to music. CDs are means for storing data; so is a server. So, in a different fashion, is tape. With vinyl, the music contained on a tape or digital file is captured in a continuous groove that creates vibration when a stylus travels through it. It preserves music in much the same way that insects have been fossilized in amber.
I hope to read soon that Blue Sprocket has at least six presses running and is looking for another building to increase its capacity for making LPs. With vinyl sales rising and existing plants having trouble meeting demand, new plants allow vinyl to remain a convenient choice for hearing music. Production capacity has led to release schedules being altered, even for major labels. Wilco’s Cruel Country will appear on vinyl in January 2023, eight months after its digital release.
There’s enough work in the vinyl world for Blue Sprocket to grow significantly, and it wouldn’t be encroaching on work by other plants. For vinyl lovers, more plants mean fewer release delays and more LPs. Vinyl’s rebirth, against all expectations, continues.
. . . Joseph Taylor