Well, do you know? do you? Do you know what are vinyl records made of? Presumably you do not, hence why you are here in the first place, to find out. Either that, or you are simply here to corroborate anything you already know, in which case I extend a cordial hello to you, learned passing traveler on vinyl soaked highways.
If it was not already blindingly obvious, we will be exploring today the various ins and outs of the basics of record collecting, getting to know what vinyl records are, what they are made of, and what that actually means for the environment etc.
Vinyl: A Brief History
The first modern conception of sound recording at the beginning of the history of records dates back to the earliest incarnations of vinyl and shellac, where, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a device very similar to the record players we know today, with the main difference being the use of cylinders instead of discs.
Over successive years of development at the hands of different creators the form came to more closely resemble what we know today.
Emile Berliner, for example, was the one to invent a way to realise recordings onto a flat disc, creating the gramophone, a similar invention to the phonograph which played discs through a large horn hand cranked by the user.
These discs were originally made with shellac, a substance whose sound fiedlity paled in comparison with Edison’s. However, this soon improved with time and patient permutation of the format, with larger discs eventually coming about to house longer sequences of music.
Eventually in the 1940s, when companies began making the discs we know and love with polyvinyl chloride, the final form of these discs came about, and very little has changed since those fateful times. Besides some minor changes in production and manufacture, most music produced and printed onto vinyl is done so in highly similar if not identical ways, with perhaps some allowances for ethics and such like.
The main differences are in the speed at which the records are played and the more spread of larger record disc formats like the 12 inch, which redefined the question ‘what are vinyl records made of’ – big stuff apparently.
For example, it was most common in the early days of recording technology for a disc to be played on a gramophone at 78 rpm, mostly for the recommendation of its progenitor, Mr. Emile Berliner himself. However, the fact of a 78 rpm offering far less disc space has utterly superseded the fact of their playing at an inherently higher audio fidelity.
So, What are Vinyl Records and How Do They Work?
Vinyl records are exactly what they say on the tin, artefacts of music recorded and captured, and then pressed onto discs made from vinyl plastic for the absorption of whoever should choose to purchase it.
The vinyl plastic is actually polyvinyl chloride which is heated to the point that it is malleable enough to be printed into the desired shape. They will be printed with a master disc which has itself been printed from a mastered recording, whether tape or digital. Vinyl recording is such an imperfect and bizarre medium that many factors have to be taken into account when mastering and mixing a song to be printed onto vinyl.
Once the record has been printed it is placed on the turntable where it spins on the platter and meets the stylus, which transmits all of the small details and sensitive information from within the thin grooves into sound through the stereo system and speakers. The vinyl is so printed as to encourage the transmission of certain vibrations through the stylus and out into the world as sound.
What are Vinyl Records Made of, Then?
Polyvinyl chloride is easily understood if we think of it as the combination of crude oil and chlorine, at the root of what are vinyl records made of.
The name polyvinyl chloride might even be somewhat familiar, even if you have not necessarily heard it in this way before. For example, a lot of plumbing hardware, as well as other related things around the house, are made with the very same material, though it is more often referred to as PVC, which might sound more familiar to you.
Polyvinyl chloride in its natural state is more or less completely clear, which makes for some apposite opportunities for some experimental color combinations in how are vinyl records made. You might even have noticed that the most common color for vinyl records is still black, almost certainly for financial reasons, to save record producers and pressers money during the process by using a color that is likely cheaper than most other alternatives.
And yet, there are essentially infinite possibilities with regards to coloring, and you can find these experiments on releases past and present. I’ve noticed that it is common for reissues of older albums to feature colored discs remastered from the original tapes, where the music is pressed onto a color related to the cover of the album. I recently picked up a reissue copy of Commodo’s Procession whose orange disc perfectly mirrored the splatterings of rusty orange all over the cover!
This can make for a great experience for vinyl collectors, or can even, as the case may be, provide a way to abuse your fanbase even more than usual, as in the case of the industrial hip hop group Death Grips. As an example, they are known for having a more than masochistic relationship with their fanbase, a lighter example being that they print most of their records on clear vinyl, making it extremely difficult to play a specific song from around the middle of the disc.
But yes, the vinyl records that you know and love are rather bad for the environment, crude for it in a very big way.
What Can Vinyl Records Make You?
Besides asking what are vinyl records made of, we will now ask just what vinyl records can do for you, if you are indeed not already invested in the medium.
A Multi Sensory Experience
There is inherently something unique about vinyl collecting that not only can’t be attained with CDs and digital downloads or streaming but also can’t even be found in other analog mediums such as cassette tapes.
The feeling of vinyl collecting spreads its roots deep in several aspects of the experience, because vinyl records are such a physical medium. They can and ought to be picked up, assessed, their covers observed deeply; we judge other collections (whether by intention or not), we go to feel the cover in our hands to know what it feels like under our finger tips and between our palms, especially if the sleeve is a particularly textured one, such as Depression Cherry by Beach House, for example.
Pardoning the sound, which is arguably the most important aspect of the experience, almost every sense is involved in our assessing and absorbing of the entire package of a vinyl record, not least our senses of smell. Much as with an old book, a similarly aged vinyl record will emanate a very specific aged smell that will find a fervent home and wide open arms in the nostrils of a vinyl enthusiast such as yourself.
This smell is usually enough to rouse even the most methodical record enthusiast into a purchase that they might not otherwise have become involved with. My own sensory perceptions have sure been triggered in this way when purchasing a fair few books and records in my time, the smell taking me elsewhere, away from my usual mental fortitude.
The Sound Experience
Even ignoring all the multi sensory aspects of the vinyl package as a whole such as the touch and the smell, we might be forgiven for still asking what are vinyl records made of and what kind of a punch can they pack?
The central aspect in collecting and listening to vinyl records ought to be the sound itself and what exactly the vinyl format can do for the mixing and production of a record before and after the printing process.
This is made even more important when we stop and think that vinyl records and other formats exist to capture and preserve sound on record so that they might be listened to again by others elsewhere in the future.
There is quite a fetishization with vinyl records, to the point where even the faults of the medium are cherished by record enthusiasts. These can include but are not limited to: the various nuggets of crackle and hiss that can appear during the playback of vinyl recordings, as well as the inherent warmth of the format for any kind of playback.
The materials involved alongside a need to limit the frequencies in the mastering process mean the vinyl record typically encourages styles of music with warmer sounds, with big beats, and ghetto blasted reggae and the like working extremely well.
What Can You Do for Vinyl Records?
There are many inherent benefits to purchasing and collecting vinyl records in comparison with streaming music digitally and the like.
The shelf life and the duration of a vinyl record sure seems to outstrip the potential downsides. Unlike certain other physical formats, vinyl records, costing a little more money and being more of a physical product, are inherently cherished just that much more, meaning fewer of them end up on a massive pile of similar products and items in a landfill site.
They are durable and can themselves last for decades upon decades, meaning that even if you or someone else is tired of owning a particular record they can always just sell it on for a profit and breathe new life into it for another fan.
Not only that, but if no on ends up wanting the record, or indeed if it is a newly printed record which no one buys (seriously, who the heck is going to the supermarket and thinking ‘yeah, you know what, I’ll get the new Adele album on vinyl, just because’), then the inherent value of the product and the materials it is made from mean that they are usually melted back down and recycled anew into another release entirely.
Streaming services certainly might seem like the more ecological option on the surface, but the sheer quantity of files being streamed all the time requires a plethora of servers in which to store them all, all of which uses up a hell of a lot of energy in itself. Not to mention the fact that the device these files are being streamed on is likely not doing the earth too many favours, with most smart phones comprised of rare earth metals and an inbuilt obsolescence which means it likely will not make it past the two year mark before you get so frustrated with its shoddy display that you relent and buy the next one.
Far from Perfect
That being said, in asking what are vinyl records made of, we must come to terms with the fact that a big part of the process is inherently bad for the environment, no matter how many benefits there might be in comparison to other mediums, like digital streaming platforms for example.
The manufacture of vinyl records is still a process more or less indebted to the industrial revolution and has not really advanced much from there, being just as noisy and dirty, as well as being just as questionable in terms of environmental ethics, with several of the key materials imbibed within the grooves not doing the environment any favours at all.
CEO of one of the leading manufacturers for the vinyl of UK record labels, Michal Sterba, even said himself:
‘Vinyl record is not the most ecological product in the world. A lot of steam, a lot of chilling, questionable process during the galvanics, the compound itself contains PVC, [it’s] very difficult to recycle in the end.’
So, there you have it! Hopefully this pertinent exploration of what are vinyl records made of has been of some use to you, whether in corroborating what you already knew about the production and manufacture of vinyl records, or indeed in helping you refresh your memory, or perhaps even helping educate you on the topic for the very first time.
FAQs What are Vinyl Records Made of
Though they are no longer toxic to touch, they once contained lead and several other toxicants over the years which can do some damage to exposed human skin and prolonged exposure. And even though the vinyl record might not be toxic to humans, that does not mean it is not harmful to other things. Being formed of polyvinyl chloride, a mixture of crude oil and chlorine, it is not exactly doing any good, to the environment nor the animals caught in the crossfire, and yet vinyl records have been produced in this way for almost a century. Wake up sheeple!
Vinyl records are made with polyvinyl chloride, a polymer of crude oils and chlorine, the world’s third most widely produced synthetic polymer of plastic, with about 40 million tons produced each year. One of polyvinyl chloride’s earlier applications in the commercial realm was, in fact, with the vinyl record, which takes this name from the very material it is made from. Since polyvinyl chloride piping is cheaper than the equivalent in metal, it is not unheard of for musical instruments to be constructed using this polymer. Instruments like the contrabass flute, for example, whose construction would be immensely expensive were it to be done with a metal.
The reason that records today are often described as ‘wax’ actually has a real and interesting origin. Records were once really made from wax, though these were in the days of the phonograph, Thomas Edison’s foray into recording technology which paved the way for people such as Emile Berliner. At this point, the records it played were cylindrically shaped, which was deemed most effective. The idea with constructing it from wax would be so that the phonograph could print sounds onto a cylinder which could then be played on another machine elsewhere, after which the cylinder could be filed down and used for another recording or another purpose entirely. As soon as recording technology started to use discs it was all over for the wax format, though people still use the term voraciously.