Making Records (Part 3)
Part 3 completes our short series with a detailed look at record pressing, labels, sleeves and promotion.
Over the past two issues we've looked at disc-cutting and the making of the metalwork. Now in the final part of this series, Carl Anthony takes a look at record pressing, sorting out the copyrights and why promotion is important if you want to improve sales.
To see the way most people treat their records you would hardly believe that they were the result of some very demanding precision engineering. Despite the abuse almost everyone demands a pristine record when they hand over their money. Even so, everyone has probably bought a faulty record at some time or another. Some people can't be bothered to return them, others grow quite paranoid at the thought of spending £4-£5 for an album only to find a slight click on one track. On the one hand there is no reason why anyone should have to tolerate a genuine faulty record but it is totally naive to expect the ultimate quality when in real cash terms you are only paying something like 40 pence for the actual pressing.
Like most things in life, you pay your money and you take your choice. Most pressing plants can turn out a good pressing. Some take a little extra care and charge accordingly. Even the worst can have a good day but that is of little consolation if all your records are useless and you have to remake all the metalwork or even re-cut the master.
Before you decide on a pressing plant, check your own record collection. Find out which are the good pressings and which are the poor ones. Also go along to two or three record shops in your area. Ask which companies have the highest faulty return rates. There aren't that many pressing plants in the UK, so a little research should quickly put you in the picture as to who is currently producing good pressings and who is cutting corners a little too closely. Oh, and one last tip: avoid the pre-Christmas period. At this time of the year the whole industry goes berserk and you could find one album or single being pressed in several different plants, so tracking down the good guys may get a bit confusing.
At this point you may well be wondering what actually constitutes a good pressing. The question is not as daft as it seems. Obviously a good pressing is a record that sounds exactly like the master tape in every respect. Wrong - that's a perfect pressing and you are very unlikely to find one of those, especially for 40p! A good pressing sounds roughly like the master tape with as few clicks, ticks, bangs, fizzes and 'things that go bump in the night' as possible. In order to appreciate why this is so, let's take a look at how this minor miracle of mass production is carried out.
If you are a late night addict of those old black and white American gangster films you'll no doubt be familiar with the old Chinese laundry and the chap who uses the steam press. You know the things. It's like a giant ironing board. The guy lays out the trousers, pulls down the top half - there's a great blast of steam and out come your trousers with razor-sharp creases. Now I don't want to shatter your illusions about the record business, but that's more or less how records are made. They have, of course, modified the process somewhat (though you would hardly think so when you hear some of the pressings offered for sale!).
In the old days record presses were manually operated. Nowadays almost all presses are more or less totally automatic. In both cases the principles are the same and the process is relatively straightforward - till you actually start pressing records.
Records are made from vinyl. The fancy name for it is a vinyl copolymer. This is because it is made from the copolymerisation (we won't go into that - you should have paid attention during Chemistry!) of vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate. Added to this is a stabiliser and some carbon black to give the record its familiar colour. Depending on the proportion of each ingredient you can vary the quality of the final pressing. Some mixes are more hard-wearing, others have a better high frequency response so there are several trade-offs right at the very beginning. The whole subject is extremely technical and complex so I wouldn't advise taking a pressing plant to task on their choice of raw vinyl unless you want to record 35kHz test tones and only play them once. Vinyl is a product of the oil industry and its price therefore fluctuates with oil prices. When the vinyl copolymer isn't being used for making records, it finds its way into the flooring industry (vinyl tiles).
Depending on the size of the pressing plant there may be as few as three or as many as thirty presses on hand which may be adapted for either 7, 10 or 12 inch pressings, but it is usual to keep each press for a specific size.
At the centre of the press is an opening into which are fitted the Side A and the Side B stampers. A metal pin protrudes from one of the stampers and is aligned with a second pin on the other stamper. During the pressing cycle this second pin retracts leaving the first pin to create the centre hole of the record. If the first pin is slightly worn, then you will get a thinner hole on your pressings. Hence, when you come to put it on your turntable, you'll find it doesn't fit unless, of course, you hack away at the hole with a biro or a screwdriver.
When both stampers have been securely clamped down and are properly aligned with each other the process can begin. Steam is introduced through special channels that run through the mounting blocks which hold each stamper. When the stampers have reached the correct temperature, a blob of pre-heated vinyl (roughly the size and shape of a NAB adaptor) is placed between the stampers and the hydraulic system closes the top stamper against the bottom one. In all it takes up to a hundred tons of pressure to squeeze the vinyl into a flat record - it will also do wonders for your trousers!
The amount of vinyl used in the press is critical. If you use too little you could end up with an 11¼ inch record instead of a 12 inch one. If you use too much, all the excess will just get squirted out of the side of the moulds and onto the floor. The aim, therefore, is to use just enough to completely fill the gap between the stampers with a small amount of excess squeezed out of the sides. This way you know the gap has been completely filled.
At this point the vinyl is still extremely hot and runny and it must therefore be cooled before it can be removed from the press. This is done by switching off the steam and running cold water down through the channels. When the vinyl is cool enough the press opens, the excess vinyl is trimmed off, and the record is removed to a point where the cooling process can continue at a slower, more natural rate. If this isn't allowed to happen then the record will cool under stress with the result that all the records will buckle and warp. Patience is definitely a virtue at this point.
With the record removed the steam starts up again and so the process continues until either the boiler breaks down, the hydraulics pack up, the vinyl runs out, the stampers get scratched, the Water Board switches off the water supply or you find you have been using two Side A stampers! It can all happen and, all in all, it's a great juggling act with about ten balls in the air at any one time. A slight shift in temperature, too little pressure, a second or two out here and there and the whole process can grind to a halt. It will also grind to a halt if you haven't used the right labels. It will certainly grind to a halt in the above example because we didn't use any labels at all!
Most people don't give much thought to record labels unless they are commenting on the design but if you are making records, then you should. Though the record label may appear to be fairly humble, it has a major role to play in terms of pressing quality. You can't just use any old paper and any old ink. Labels are placed in the press right at the start of the process - hence the need for two pins. This means they are in direct contact with the virtually molten vinyl and subjected to all the heating and cooling processes. For this reason hand-drawn, water-coloured labels on Basildon Bond writing paper are definitely not to be encouraged. Not only will all the pigments in the inks change colour in the intense heat (up to 300°F) but the paper will come out looking like a piece of French toast. And if that's not enough, all the moisture in the paper will turn into steam. Very handy if you want your records to look like a crater-strewn moonscape, but not so useful if they have to be played.
Don't cut costs when it comes to labels. You'll have to use the specialist printers in the end, so you might as well go to them in the beginning. If you are really short on cash talk to your printer. There is no law that says you have to use expensive four-colour labels. One-colour printing can be quite cheap and that doesn't have to be black on white. There are several basic colours you can choose from and these can be used in conjunction with different coloured papers to create a bit of individuality. You may not be able to make your own labels - but you can certainly design them. The same goes for record sleeves.
The cost of sleeves varies with quantity, thickness and quality of the board used, number of colours used in the printing and whether or not you use varnishing or lamination (this is an extra glossy finish added to the sleeve to enhance the reproduction of the printing). Cost of sleeves usually includes delivery to the pressing plant - providing it isn't at the other end of the country.
With the stampers, labels and sleeves delivered safely to the pressing plant (inner bags are normally supplied by the pressing plant), the paper work can begin.
You may recall earlier in this series that I wrote briefly about copyright. Well, when you get to the pressing stage the day of reckoning will be upon you. You are about to go public and the fact won't go unnoticed.
First make sure you are entitled to use the band's name. You can't call yourself The Beatles or the Beach Boys. You may not even be able to call yourself The Snot-Ridden Nurds if someone else has got there before you. Neither can you call your record label EMI, CBS or Island. Even if your name was Johnny Island, I doubt if you would get away with it for long. If you are uncertain about whether or not anyone has used a particular name for a record label then contact the ILA (Independent Label Association) who keep a register of independent labels. They also keep a file on catalogue numbers which helps dealers when ordering records.
Next, if you use any artwork or photographs on the sleeve make sure you created them or have the owner's permission to use them. And if, for example, you photographed your girlfriend, make sure you have her permission to appear on the sleeve. The same applies to any lyrics you may reproduce.
When records are pressed the MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) will want details of the music copyrights. This whole business can be fairly complex and this isn't the time to go over it in detail. However, a few points may be useful.
The MCPS collects money on behalf of the copyright owner whenever records are sold (the PRS on the other hand collects money when records are played). Pressing plants keep the MCPS up-to-date on what records are being pressed. Thus the MCPS can keep tabs on what is being made and in what quantities. If you use someone else's song you'll have to pay for it: just as if someone else used one of your songs, they would have to pay. How much they pay basically depends on whether or not the song has been recorded before. If it is your own composition there is nothing to pay, but if you record a friend's song and it hasn't been recorded before, then you and he (or she) will have to come to some arrangement. You can either pay them a lump sum or arrange a royalty. Basically, it's a free market and it is up to you to negotiate a fair arrangement.
If a song has already been recorded and you are making a second or subsequent recording of it, then the royalty is fixed by law. It is currently 6¼% of the normal selling price (less VAT). This has to be paid before a record is released (usually within 14 days of you being notified of the amount). No permission is needed if you record your own songs or non-copyrighted material, but if you record anyone else's songs you will need permission from the copyright owner. This you can usually get by writing directly to the song publisher. Even if you don't have to pay any royalties or obtain any permission it is still worthwhile informing the MCPS. This can be done by using the Statutory Notice.
The MCPS Statutory Notice is a form you complete which gives details of all the songs you are releasing. It also informs the MCPS as to the price of the record and the number of pressings you are having made. In this way they calculate how much you owe them. The calculations are quite complex but to give you some idea, if, for example, you wish to record ten well known songs on an album and the price of the album is £3.00 (excluding VAT) then the calculation would be as follows:
6¼% x £3.00 = 19p per record
500 x 19p = £95.
If you use a mixture of tracks (yours and other people's) then the calculations are worked out on the number of copyright songs on each side. In the above example, the maximum payable per side would be £47.50. If you decide to record one side of the album with all your own compositions you'll only need to pay £47.50 in royalties. If you write both sides: you pay nothing. Do I detect a stampede for pens and manuscript paper?
Meanwhile, back at the pressing plant your records are awaiting collection. Apart from the anguish that the master tape is probably at least three months old by now and not only can you play better, but you have three great new songs and the drummer's left the band. Even so, all this pales into insignificance as you rush home clutching your records in anticipation. There's a mixture of terror and excitement as everyone sits round the hi-fi. The stylus seems to take ages before it finally hits the run-in groove. Then all is revealed...
Either you'll be over the moon that this is you, here in the living room on shiny black vinyl, for all the world to hear, making glorious music in living hi-fi stereo. Or you may start to twitch nervously. Did you really play that bum note? What's that odd noise during the solo? Why's the bass guitar mixed so low and what's that hiss doing on the slow fade? Before you rush all your records back to the factory play a couple of other samples. Is it a 'one-off' fault or do all the records sound the same. If they all have the same problem then it is time for some serious investigations.
Start with the master tape. It may sound silly but the so-called fault may have been there all the time - it just wasn't noticed before. If this proves to be the case then there is very little you can do except scrap the master and start again. Sometimes records can sound a little dull and engineers and producers can sometimes allow for this by creating a slightly brighter mix. It's a subtle thing and there are no hard and fast rules. Don't go mad with the EQ, but if the master sounds lifeless to start with, you'll probably end up accentuating the fact on the pressing, so take care. Aim for a clear, evenly balanced sound. The cutting engineer can always add that last bit of sparkle providing your master isn't hissy.
And if the tape sounds fine, what then? Well, now the detective work really begins. Look at the record where the fault appears (click, scratch, jumping or odd noises). If you can see the fault, life will be a bit easier, assuming of course that all the records are affected. If they are, then the problem must lie with the stamper (or the previous metalwork). If the fault is random and varies from track to track on different pressings, that is almost certainly a pressing fault. Stampers do wear out so bear this in mind when you do your checking. It is possible for stampers to be damaged 'in transit' as it were. This is that nebulous area where neither the pressing plant nor the plating shop will bend over backwards to accept responsibility. The best thing to do is make sure the pressing plant check all metalwork before accepting it.
Some faults you won't detect with the unaided eye. These include distortion, hiss and rumble. Rumble is a low frequency knocking noise usually associated with cheap turntables. It can also (although it is much rarer) be introduced in the manufacturing process. Two areas are suspect - the cutting lathe and what is known as 'pressing rumble'. If it is the latter, you won't hear it on the mother. If it is the former, you will. General background noise and hiss can occur almost anywhere in the chain. Poor lacquers, cutting stylus too cold, poor plating, noisy vinyl, can all contribute to, or be the main reason for, an increase in noise. All you can do is compare the master tape with the mother and the mother with the pressings. The problem will be aggravated if the master tape isn't absolutely quiet. At the end of the day a little noise will have been picked up at every stage so finding who is to blame is almost impossible.
Much the same applies to distortion, though a microscopic view of the mother, stamper and/or the pressing may isolate the source of the problem. Very bad distortion is usually due to worn or chipped cutting styli faults in the pressing process.
It may seem that I am taking a rather bleak view of things: this is deliberate. It is no good finding out what can go wrong after you have spent your money: forewarned is fore-armed. Ask awkward questions, get assurances, know exactly what you are letting yourself in for. Others have trod the same path. Some have succeeded, others have no doubt burnt their fingers. It can be done and you can make it profitable, but it is, after all, a high risk business, and that brings me on to the whole business of selling records.
If you haven't already done it, do it now. Before you spend a single penny, take a good, hard look at yourself. Are you really that good? Would total strangers really enjoy listening to your music? Would they pay for the privilege? When you stare at that pile of record company reject slips is the world trying to tell you something? It's tough I know, but at the end of the day it is not just going to be you and a few friends who will be buying your record, if you believe passionately that your music is worthwhile, your next job is to convince other people.
Playing live regularly is half the battle. At least you have an audience that has already paid to see you, and it should be fairly easy to find a roadie or girlfriend to sell the records at the venue. If you don't play live you have a problem. Mail order is one solution, but an ad that just says, 'Don't Know Them From Adam EP - £2.00' is hardly likely to bring in a flood of orders, especially if people don't know you from Adam! Getting someone famous to play on your record would help but not everyone has a willing superstar living next door.
What is really needed is some promotion. People have to hear you. If they like what they hear they will go out and buy your record. The same applies to record shops. Unless you have a surefire hit on your hands your local record shop won't be too keen to buy the records from you. You may get a 'sale or return' deal. Even so, if you don't promote the record there will come a point where all your records are doing is taking up valuable shelf space, and the next time you pop in they will all be handed back to you.
You could decide to get a distributor to do all the donkey work of supplying all the record shops. Fine in principle, but when a shop in Cardiff has never even heard of your home town, never mind the band, your distributor is going to ask some very pointed questions about how you are promoting yourself. He may well be taking a percentage on your sales, but even 100% of nothing is still nothing! Soon you'll find everyone - record shops, distributors, record companies are all tarred with the same brush.
Some are more helpful than others, but at the end of the day if none of them believe they have a saleable item, they are not going to bother with it. Cruel though it may seem, that's the name of the game out there in the jungle. Releasing your own record is no guarantee of instant stardom.
So what if all the record companies got it wrong? What if the music is good? Are you going to be any better off? Well yes, but only slightly. You still have to put yourself about and the best way to do that is by having your record played on the radio. Try for reviews in the Press, give your records to the local disco if appropriate, or the hospital radio. Don't just sit looking at your pile of records and expect them to turn into cash, look for any means to promote your talents. Like pushing a car, it's getting over the initial inertia that's the most difficult part. Once the thing is off and rolling things should move along a little easier provided you keep the momentum up. Don't go too mad though. Producing 500 records in three months is one thing: selling a million in three weeks is a whole different ball game!
MCPS, (Contact Details).
Independent Labels Association, (Contact Details).
The Music Publishers Association, (Contact Details).
Feature by Carl Anthony