How are Records made

a very simplified discussion

Dominic Vautier
updated  6/2014
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For well over 100 years the world has been making music by putting it on records.  In the beginning music cylinders were made but these were fragile, hard to copy and difficult to transport.  The Victor Company pioneered flat records that were quite easy to copy and we continue to use just about the same thing today.  Of course the media has gone into the future and now use digital that can be in many forms and can support a variety of players and can be stored on memory sticks and chips.  We still like to make records probably because they are of  really good quality and all analog, last a long time, and well, we have a lingering nostalgia for them.

All records start out as a disk of wax or soft material called a lacquer, that is, a flat round piece of material that rotates while a cutter blade impresses little wiggles that can produce sound on a player.  Lacquers were made in three quite different ways depending on the period of technology that they were in.  The front end of this process changed dramatically; the back end did not.


The first and earliest way of capturing sound was by using a big horn fitted with a diaphragm that moved a cutter blade based on air pressure.  This diaphragm generated wiggles while the lacquer was spinning at a certain rate.  The operation required a lot of sound waves along with strong lungs and loud instruments, often distorting things badly.  But it was an exciting beginning indeed.  Many of these recording horns could be placed in one room to get additional copies.

 

Next came some electronic assistance where sound went into microphones and was amplified causing the cutter to cut much more accurately.  People did not have to sing so loud and musical instruments sounded better.

 

The final big development consisted of high quality tape recordings (thanks to the Germans) that were able to generate an electronic signal that then could drive a cutter blade.  This was huge because you had musical backup and Bing Crosby finally got to take a break.

 

Of course lots of big improvements continued as time went on.  The tape recordings were replaced by computer hard disks that produced the signal for a cutter.

This above discussion was only the first step in record production, getting a lacquer and a master that is.


Stamping

Below I signify a plus (+) to mean the record surface consists of groves and can be played.  I use a minus(-) to mean that the record is negative and consists of hills and is not playable.

When the lacquer is done being cut by whatever means it is sprayed with a silver-nickel solution which cools to form a master (-).  The lacquer is then pealed off and discarded.  In the early years the master was very very important because it was the only real representation of the music and was also as close to the original as possible.  If this master got lost or damaged the music was literally gone forever. 

The master stamps several mothers (+).  How many mothers depend on how many records they expected to produce and how much they wanted to risk degrading the master through continued stamping.  Each mother can then stamp out many daughters(-), again depending on sales volume.  The daughters, or stampers can then stamp away until they ware out.  The quality of any record depends on the condition of the daughter and how many times it had to be used.  Companies had different levels of quality.