In an editorial meeting at La Scena, our jazz editor Marc Chénard posed the following questions: “With the resurgence of vinyl as a delivery medium, how does this apply across genres of music? Is the trend similar for classical and jazz? Are vinyl pressing companies restoring older production equipment, or are new manufacturers of such equipment appearing?” The answers form the basis of this overview.
The recording and distribution of music has gone through many changes since Thomas Edison created the first recording device. I’ve experienced 78 rpm picture records from the post-war period, the 45 rpm singles distributed through the 1960s and 70s, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, LPs running at 33 rpm, compact discs. Then came the digital formats of WAV, MP3, OGG and FLAC, a lossless audio format. Now streaming services are all the rage. However, there are two sides of the coin when it comes to this type of music delivery platform. Streaming is extremely convenient for end users and those that deliver music in this way. Artists, however, have voiced the view that royalty rates are extremely poor from streaming services.
Many have turned to distributing their music on vinyl, as this differentiates them from the thousands of others who just want to be heard. The string quartet Brooklyn Rider have had some success in distributing music on vinyl. In an interview with WQXR, a classical radio station based in New York, violist Nicholas Cords stated that vinyl recalls “a heritage of string-quartet playing that we very much admire. It was a symbolic connection to something we really love.” This was in reference to “the Capet, Rosé and Busch String Quartets, who first became known to the world through their pioneering 78-rpm releases in the 1930s and ’40s.” While the growth of vinyl sales is much greater in the genres of rock and alternative music, classical on vinyl has also increased. According to Classic FM, in the United Kingdom classical vinyl sales have surpassed DVD, Blu-Ray and cassettes combined. The same source stated that 1.3 million records of the classical genre were sold in the U.K. last year.
On this side of the Atlantic, San Francisco-based Reference Recordings, distributed by Naxos, has been releasing classical music on vinyl since 1976. “We stopped issuing new titles in our original LP series by about 2004,” says the company’s executive director, Marcia Martin. “We started releasing LPs again on our Reference Mastercuts series with two titles in August 2011. At the present time we have released 19 titles in the new series. There is definitely a growth in LP demand for classical, jazz and blues.”
This company has long been at the forefront in the recording industry and uses special audio circuitry developed by audio amplifier designer Nelson Pass. Like many top producers, Reference Recordings cuts masters at half speed to improve accuracy. However, the company has returned to a 180-gram weight because of the difficulty of obtaining space on the few presses that make 200-gram platters.
Companies are clearly trying to meet the demand for vinyl pressings. Some, like Quality Pressing Services of Salinas, Kansas, which presses final products for Reference Recordings, have melded old technologies with new. On their website they write: “We’ve done the next-best thing by taking three of the best brands ever made – SMT, Alpha Toolex and Finebilt – and rebuilding them equipped with modifications… include adding microprocessors, [giving]…operator and the engineer a level of control capability… unavailable with manual valves and control systems.”
Other recently established companies have decided to build their own equipment. Newbilt in Germany made their first inquiries regarding old pressing equipment in 2009, and by 2016 they opened the first complete facility for pressing vinyl records, using their own equipment designs. In 2017 Newbilt set up the production facility for independent rocker Jack White’s Third Man Records.
In Canada, there are many different companies that will press vinyl, though I found only one equipment manufacturer. Viryl Technologies have taken the whole process of pressing vinyl a step further. Not only have they designed their own machines, they are using the “Internet of things” as way to connect record producers with pressing facilities located in the markets where their presses are available and where the finished product is to be delivered. They call this product PhonoHive. It may be a game-changer not only for how records are produced, but how they are delivered to specific markets. Clearly, such a value-added service is far from the approach taken by Quality Pressing Service.
One problem for those who wish to distribute their music on vinyl, Martin points out, is that labels worldwide must deal with busy pressing plants and long lead times. This being the case, will companies like Newbilt and Viryl keep up with the demand for their new pressing machinery? Will there be new companies joining them? And most importantly, how long will the increased demand for vinyl in all genres of music continue?