When Vee-Jay Records released The Beatles’ first American single, “Please Please Me” on a 45-RPM record in 1963, vinyl wasn’t the format of choice for audiophiles. It was the only format.
A lot has changed about how we buy and listen to music since then. If you do buy a vinyl record today, you’ll likely also get a voucher to download a digital copy. But one thing that hasn’t changed is how a vinyl record gets made.
Vinyl Through the Decades
United Record Pressing still operates in the same Nashville facility where that Beatles record was pressed, as well as countless others since — from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to Taylor Swift’s 1989, from The Velvet Underground and Nico to the best-selling vinyl album of 2014, Jack White’s Lazaretto.
“We’re the largest vinyl record-pressing plant in the country,” says Jay Millar, United’s head of marketing, “and account for about 30 to 40 percent of all vinyl records out there in stores.”
United manufactures up to 40,000 records a day. Demand is so high that if you’re not already a customer, they won’t even take your order — at least until a second plant opens later this year.
So how does a record get made? It starts with the groove.
Soundwaves Into Stampers
If you zoomed in really close on the surface of a record, you’d find the grooves are spiky — almost like the readout of an EKG, or a long uneven row of teeth. This is actually the shape of the soundwave itself, and if you’ve ever used a digital player like SoundCloud, you’ve probably seen a visual representation of this waveform.
Pressing a record requires making three separate discs.
First, a groove containing the shape of that soundwave gets scratched into a lacquer disc. Then the lacquer disc is used to make a metal stamper, with the inverse shape of the soundwave. And it's the metal stamper that presses the groove into hot vinyl to form the finished product.
Before that can happen, you need some vinyl.
Fantastic Plastic Machines
Standing in a room full of large totes, each about the size of a hay bale, Millar says each one contains a ton of vinyl pellets. And when a clattering begins overhead, he explains: “That kind of racket you hear now, that sounds like rain on a tin roof, is the vinyl pellets going through the pipes in the ceiling above us, to go up to the presses.”
Once upstairs, the pellets are heated and formed into what’s called a biscuit — a blob of vinyl about the size of a hockey puck.
Up on the main floor, there are 22 record-pressing machines, each one clanging and humming as various mechanical arms swivel, rise and fall. Each one turning biscuits into playable records.
The space is like a working museum of vinyl history. As vinyl plants around the world shut down in the heyday of CDs, United would often buy up dormant machines and bring them to Nashville. There are presses here from the '60s, '70s and '80s, machines from Florida and New York — even a few from Italy.
Each press has a hopper, where the vacuumed-up pellets from the basement make their way. As the vinyl is heated and stirred in the hopper, it gets squeezed — “like a tube of toothpaste,” as Millar describes it — into a metal cup, which forms the biscuit. At this point, the labels are applied above and below the biscuit, which gets brought between the set of stampers.
The stampers come together slowly, pressing the grooves into the record as the molten vinyl biscuit gets flattened and pushed out to the edges.
Here's what that looks like:
“The record is in there for about 30 seconds, while there is 350-degree steam behind it,” Millar explains, “and before it comes out there’s a rush of about 150-degree water which cools the record.” The change in temperature is so dramatic that the machine emits a loud hiss, and as Millar explains this step, the machine freezes up suddenly.
“They’re very temperamental machines,” he says.
Before the alarm can go off, someone rushes over to get the machine running again.
Once the record is pressed, the untrimmed vinyl is brought forward, grabbed by a set of trim pads, and cut by a blade that drops down as the pads spin the record. The trimmings fall into a bin and eventually get re-used. The machine then brings the finished records forward, and stacks them onto a spindle.
That’s when humans take over, inspecting each record before slipping it into a sleeve.
Where Was This Record Made?
If you look closely at the empty space on a record, between where the music ends and the label begins — known as “the matrix,” or the “dead wax” — you can tell if a record was pressed at United: It’ll have a letter “U” with a circle around it.
If it’s an original pressing of “Please Please Me,” it’ll say “SO,” for Southern Plastics, as United was known back then, when records were made this exact same way.