Monday, September 13, 2010

Vinyl countdown

On Friday we toured United Record Pressing, Inc. plant.

Friday's not actually a tour day, but people in Nashville are so danged nice that when we phoned, they said we could come around and if anyone was available we'd get a tour. We turned up and we did get one.

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A record pressing plant is like a printer's, not like a publisher's. A publisher (or record label) signs an artist, but the printer or presser prints for many labels. URP worked with such labels as Motown, among a zillion others. URP has been in that building a long time and one major feature of the tour is the un-redecorated rooms where the Black Motown artists, among other Black artists, were lodged when they came to Nashville, so they wouldn't have to put up with any Southern segregated shit.

Once you get over the reason for their existence, those rooms are beautiful. The colors are completely wild and if I'd had a large enough handbag there's at least one rug and three chairs I would have smuggled out with me.

Then Adam, the guide - it's cool he was this young guy, in a vinyl pressing plant - took us to the label-making area. He said Third Man Records fans like us spent a lot of time in the label room. He was, as I say, young and probably didn't realize they were most likely memorizing serial numbers and trying to guess at upcoming releases for personal kudos and possible financial gain. And after that, we went to see the whole pressing process.

Which I didn't, alas, write down as I went through it. Man, it's complicated. I assumed musicians taped things, and then cut a lacquer which would be electroplated to make a reverse image, and that became the "master" and everything was stamped from that. Not so. There's about four steps between the lathe-cut original and the stamper, involving heavy chemistry and and at least two electroplating steps. Once the stamper is made, a machine you can imagine takes a handful of melted vinyl (a puck), puts the labels on both sides and then moves it between the stamper plates, where it is squished into being a record. Water then rapidly cools the stamped product. The swarf on the outside, which is not cooled, is trimmed off by a blade that runs around the outside of the closed stampers, and the waste goes into a bin. After a moment, the stampers open and the vinyl record is nudged up and on to a slide, where it is dropped on to a spindle for later collection.

The records are then inserted by hand into inner sleeves and piled up with flattening dividers every ten or so, and the albums await the outer sleeves, which I assume are printed elsewhere as Adam didn't mention them.

One thing that URP specializes in is multi-colored vinyl and Adam showed us exactly how pearlescent, glow-in-the-dark, bi-color and tri-color vinyls are made. Vinyl comes in small beads, so it's relatively easy to mix colors - throw in a few handfuls of different colored beads and when melted together, the puck is multi-colored or pearlescent. There's an automated way to make one half of a record one color and one half another. (I mean six inches of blue and six inches of black on an album. They didn't seem to have an easy way to make side A blue and side B black.) A tri-color puck has to be made up by hand and placed in the machine, so that's why they're rare and only sold as limited edition records. Since the pressing machine just squidges whatever's in the puck, every multi-colored puck makes a unique record.

And I'm ecstatic to report that the black-and-blue two-color albums they were pressing at that very instant were the Sea Of Cowards Dead Weather Live at Third Man Records records. Of which I'm getting two - on for being a Vault (fan club) member and one for actually being there when it was recorded. And frankly, I've waited long enough for that - it was May 3rd, so I'm glad to hear it's finally being pressed.

To my complete delight, Adam handed me a "rose" - a flower shape made by taking the still-soft (they aren't cooled, remember?) trimmings from the edge of a newly-printed album, and forming it into a spiral with a stem. So I have a "rose" from the black-and-blue album I'll be getting in a few weeks.

I loved this trip and the places I've been. I've seen cotton fields, blues groups on the streets, a luthiers' factory, a studio, a record-pressing plant. What I needed to see next was a retail vinyl outlet.

Oh, I'm in luck! The next place we went to, of course, was Third Man Records. Where I bought a bunch of vinyl records. Wonderful to see the culmination of everything we did on this trip, from stay in the delta, to make guitars, to record in a studio, to see records pressed - and now to buy them.

Next we went to the Chihuly exhibition at the Frist. Glassblowing seemed to fit the theme of blue bottles on trees/blue guitars on trees/pressing multicolored vinyl that had followed us around for a few days. I loved his Venetian and some other work and ended up with a bit of an issue around what he calls 'plant' or 'organic' shaped - don't think he has a grasp of the utter beauty of plant growth, but then again, not everyone does. Another exhibition at the Frist was of a Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) Golden Age of Couture - "The New Look". The captions puzzled the hell out of me by stating that the "Board of Trade" had condemned the New Look, as if they were culture critics and without going into why they weighed in. Well, it's because of wartime rationing. The entire country was starving and had no cloth to spare for full figured, pleated designs! Why can't the exhibit state that? (You have to look for the PDF download to find out that simple fact.)

Arty video - Will There Be Enough Water, by the Dead Weather. Shot while the Dead Weather toured URP.

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