Vinyl Record Sound Quality Thrives At US Plant
Interview with Eric Astor
Our music is sounding better than ever because we can hear it on vinyl again. Millions of music lovers all over the world are discovering and rediscovering why vinyl is the best sound reproduction format. Along with the growth of this historic sound medium is a renewed interest in record companies and manufacturers who produce the vinyl records that the music community is buying. Let's explore a company dedicated to the quality of their vinyl products and most importantly, the sound of the music.
I spoke with Eric Astor, CEO and Manish Naik, COO of Furnace MFG (www.furnacecd.com) and although the company offers a multitude of sound and promotional services, we will focus on the vinyl record aspects of the company. The company has secured exclusive North American partnerships with two of the best audiophile quality pressing plants in Europe and as we will learn, it is all about producing the best sounding vinyl that can be manufactured. Let's learn more about them:
Who are you and what does your company do?
"Furnace MFG is located in the Washington, DC metro area and we are a one-stop source for CD, DVD and vinyl manufacturing. Furnace MFG has been hard at work pressing CDs and DVDs for the independent music community since 1996. We have made exclusive agreements with two of the best pressing plants in the world to provide the best sounding records on the planet," explained Eric.
"Many people ask why our prices are more expensive than pressing plants in the US. The answer is simple: we offer the best quality sound and physical product on the planet and it costs a bit more to produce this kind of quality. Vinyl pressing is a refined art - unlike a modern CD plant. It takes decades of experience to produce consistent quality records and by teaming up with our partners we have over 120 years of knowhow in the pressing business. We also work with our partners overseas to press and package sleeved vinyl that is then shipped to Furnace MFG in Fairfax, Virginia. The meticulous staff at Furnace MFG inspects each record for quality and consistency. It is then assembled, packaged, boxed and shipped right from our state of the art packaging facility on to your location. We are your one stop source for vinyl, jackets, inserts, posters, dropcards, mastering, cutting or anything else vinyl related."
Why is the vinyl record making a resurgence?
"We think there are two main reasons that vinyl is making a resurgence. The first is that consumers are re-discovering (or discovering for the first time) that listening to a vinyl record is completely different than listening to a CD or a downloaded song. The quality of sound is clearly better with richer tones since a vinyl record plays exactly how an artist recorded the song with no loss of translation to a digital format. There is also an entire experience of listening to a record which is missing from CDs and MP3's. Selecting the record, taking it out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, looking over the jacket and liner notes; these actions combine to create an actual 'experience' of listening. Listening to a record is in and of itself, the activity. Listening to an MP3 is generally done while doing something else and is more often than not, a background activity," said Manish.
"The second reason for the resurgence in vinyl records is that artists and labels are once again embracing the format. Artists love the sound of vinyl and feel it's a truer representation of their music. Labels are realizing that although the raw sales of vinyl are low compared to CDs, the margins are much higher and are paying attention to this new revenue source in the face of decreasing CD sales and increasing digital downloads."
"The combination of consumer interest and interest from the labels is what is fueling this growth. One couldn't exist without the other and we feel that this trend will continue for years. Vinyl will never overtake CD sales but there will continue to be a core group of consumers interested in this format," continued Manish.
"One thing that the music industry must take into consideration though is that vinyl will only grow and expand if the quality is there. If a buyer's first experience with vinyl is a negative one, they will not be coming back to the format. There are a lot of poorly pressed records out there that do not enrich the listening experience. If this is what buyers come to expect, they will stop buying vinyl and go back to buying CDs or sharing files. This is where we think Furnace provides the most help in the marketplace - ensuring that each and every record we produce is amongst the best pressed in the world and something that a band or label can stand behind and be proud of."
Is the PVC made in America and then shipped to the pressing plants?
"Each plant that Furnace has a formed an exclusive partnership with source their own PVC. They are the experts in understanding which products work best with their pressing machines and which products produce the best sounds," explained Manish. "Both Pallas (Germany) and Record Industry (The Netherlands) have their own PVC formula that is made specifically for their plant."
"All vinyl is pressed in Europe and then shipped on pallets via airplane to our facility in northern Virginia (just outside Washington DC) where we assemble the final product and finish for retail distribution. Vinyl is usually from the plant to our dock in less than 24 hours which preserves the quality of the product and allows us to offer industry leading lead times."
What are the costs associated with releasing a vinyl record?
"There are various costs associated with vinyl records. Some of these are mastering/cutting, test pressings, actual vinyl production, jacket & insert printing, assembly costs, and final finishing costs," said Eric. "The costs varies greatly depending on the weight of the record (120 g, 140g, or 180g), the turnaround time desired (either 4 weeks or 8 weeks), and the complexity of the assembly and finishing. For someone just getting into vinyl production, here's a helpful list of the production steps (post recording), all of which Furnace offers to our clients:
-EQ / Leveling / Audio Mastering
-Lacquer or DMM Cutting
-Galvanics / Metalwork (father, mother and stamper creation)
-Producing Test Pressings for customer approval
-Label design and printing
-Jacket, insert and marketing sticker design and printing
-Assembly, wrapping/bagging, boxing and shipping
You tell me the vinyl is pressed in different countries, can you elaborate, why ship the work overseas?
"As we entered the business of vinyl manufacturing, we knew that there was really only one plant in the US that has the quality that the audiophile market craves," explained Eric. "There are other domestic options but the quality produced in these plants was less than we were willing to put our name on. We signed exclusive relationships with two of Europe's best vinyl plants (Pallas Group, and Record Industry). These plants have a long tradition in the vinyl business and the craftsmanship of their employees is amazing. To give you an example, the mother plate inspector at Pallas worked as an apprentice for 10 years before taking over that job. At Record Industry, they have produced some of the world's best selling releases on vinyl including "Dark Side of the Moon" and various Michael Jackson, Pearl Jam and Beatles titles. Record Industry's main cutting engineer has cut all of the aforementioned records during his 33 year career with a variety of labels and plants. We are confident that any record produced by our partners will be of very high quality and consistency - because that's what our customers and record buyers demand."
What is the difference between 'regular' vinyl and the 'audiophile' releases that are becoming more popular these days?
"It's all about the sound quality. If you take two plants and give them lacquers cut from the finest cutting studio in the world and ask them to press up some records - you will often times get two completely different products. The PVC material used, the galvanics process and the pressing formulas at our two facilities are the secret weapon to creating some of the best records in the world. If a plant does not put the care and expense into creating superior metal parts, you will hear it in the vinyl. If a plant treats each record the same and doesn't factor in the cut and the other 9,000 things you need to consider when pressing vinyl records, you can have problems there as well. You will get non-fill, poor tracking, etc when inexperienced people are running the equipment. Both of our plants have been around for decades and the experience on the floor is not something you can buy or learn overnight," explained Manish.
"Most of the records that are marketed as Audiophile releases are pressed on heavyweight vinyl. 180g records, for example, are less prone to warp or dish. When pressed correctly, you will get a superior and long lasting product from a heavyweight record."
Tell me about the picture discs manufacturing process.
"These are really old-school in that they are all made on hand presses, unlike our regular vinyl products that are pressed on automatic presses. The actual playable surface is a laminate similar to the flexi records of yesteryear. These make for great collector items that sell well as novelties. Although they are great for business, they are extremely inefficient and difficult to make and the sound quality leaves much to be desired," said Eric.
What attracts you to records?
"We are consumers of records much like all other consumers. For us, records enable us to connect with the music in ways that CDs and digital music just won't allow. We all have MP3 players and love them for the storage capacity and flexibility but there are times when putting on a record is an unbeatable experience. Also, some records I have owned for 25 years plus and I remember the money I saved to buy them, the smell of the record when I opened it and the store I bought it from. Each time I put on one of those records it brings me back to a place and time of my life - most of the time it's a positive memory."
Discuss the clear vinyl vs. black vinyl debate, does it matter?
Eric explains: "There is a debate in the audiophile market on whether the carbon in black vinyl creates a magnetic resonance that can be heard in playback. Some labels have gone so far as to start pressing their releases on clear vinyl to sidestep this perceived issue. We have talked to many in the industry about this and feel that with anything audiophile, this is up to each person's personal experience. From a pressing plant's perspective, we know for a fact that the sound quality and consistency of pressing with black PVC is night and day difference over any colored vinyl including clear. Considering there is equipment that will help you rid yourself of such carbon created audio atrocities, we feel black vinyl will always be the best choice for the audiophile client."
What is the best way to clean records, what do you use?
"There are many different ways to clean records from simple soap and water to super expensive cleaning machines and formulas," said Naik. "At the end of the day, the important thing is to take care of your records, not store them in fluctuating temperatures and handle them with care. Simple things can make records last a lifetime! Internally, we use a VPI cleaning machine because we clean a lot of records, it does a great job and it's FAST. If you can afford one, they are a huge convenience and do a fantastic job. For normal cleaning we just use a static free brush to get all of the dust off the surface prior to play. That one two combo works really well."
Do you or can you do the cover art 'in house'?
"Most of our major label clients (i.e. Warner, Universal) have art directors in house who will prepare all the artwork files and send us the final, print ready files. But for the thousands of other clients we have serviced over the last 13 years, we have a full, in-house creative and production design staff who create unique designs for anyone who asks. Our rates are competitive and we have worked within the entertainment industry for a long time so we're known for our creative side as much as our mechanics."
Tell us about some of your clients:
"We have a wide variety of clients from major music labels like Warner Music and Universal to independent labels as well. We also work with licensed reissue labels that focus on high quality vinyl such as Mobile Fidelity, Acoustic Sounds and Original Recordings Group. These guys produce ultra high quality records and packaging that are amongst the leaders in the field - going as far as flying out the original tapes to the cutting studio or going through 3 and 4 sets of lacquers until they have the perfect cut."
"We also work with a wealth of independent labels and bands. This is where we are put to the test. Everyone is looking to do something different and unique and everyone is on a budget. We have enough experience to work with people to collect their wants and desires, talk budget and then match them up with a package that most closely meets their needs. Since most of our customers are either new to vinyl or new to getting back to vinyl, we act as a consultant sometimes as much as we do a pressing plant."
Tell us more about the Quentin Tarantino/Inglourious Basterds project and what has been released.
"Warner Bros. approached us with this project based on our long standing relationship with them and the fact that we could put a rush on this project," detailed Manish. "The film was widely released in the US in August and the desire was to have the soundtrack available when the film released. We were able to turn this project around in three weeks which is far shorter than the average turn around times in the industry which can range from 4-8 weeks. We also produced a promotional 7" and jacket that they used in stores and elsewhere to promote the LP release. I believe it is now available in stores and online. Warner has all of their vinyl on their own site at www.becausesoundmatters.com. Warner USA is VERY serious about their vinyl releases. They are very meticulous with their quality control and demand the VERY best in terms of vinyl, sound and packaging quality. I think that's why they have the respect in the industry and why their vinyl sells the best - people know they are going to get the very best when they buy a Warner release."
Where do you see the record industry in 5 years, is this just a fad or will vinyl continue to be in demand?
"We expect the record industry to continue its growth for the next few years eventually flattening out in about 5 years," explained Eric. "We do not think the resurgence in vinyl is a fad but rather a new/old format that more and more people will continue to discover. As long as labels are willing to put out a high quality record for their bands, fans will be there to buy them. Vinyl never died. The customer never rejected the format. The labels, seeing higher profit margins, inflated MSRPs for the Compact Disc and shoved vinyl aside and told record stores to make way for CDs and liquidate their vinyl. Indie stores and mail-order houses/websites always sold vinyl and they always will. Let's hope the labels and bands keep running with it and keep the customer base happy."
It's amazing to learn that a company actually cares about the most important element of the vinyl record, the quality of the sound. It's why many mainstream artists and indie bands are returning to this glorious recording format and why the music consumers are clamoring for more vinyl record releases. It's all about the sound, which is why we love our music in the first place and why so many musical acts are seeking the services of Furnace MFG.
Article by: Robert Benson
Pick up the ebook: "The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting." at www.collectingvinylrecords.com
You can also have your vinyl records appraised at www.vinylrecordappraisals.com.