Vinyl record presses hit the market after a 30-year break

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Catherine Kavanaugh Third Man Records, co-founded by musician Jack White, will open a vinyl record pressing plant at its new Detroit retail record store, using presses from a German machine maker.
Newbilt Machinery GmbH & Co. KG A new Newbilt machine for the vinyl record industry.

Detroit — The production capacity for vinyl records is increasing in large measure for the first time in about 30 years as a German start-up company and U.S. mold maker and parts supplier get back into the groove of building new presses.

Put the needle down on some Motown or better yet The White Stripes, because eight of the first vinyl presses from the companies are heading to Detroit, where they will contribute to the rebound of a beloved format of the music industry, in a beleaguered hub of the manufacturing industry.

The presses will be installed at Third Man Records — not far from where Grammy award-winning co-founder Jack White played his first gigs with The White Stripes. The retail part of the vinyl record business, which opened Nov. 27, shares space with a 10,000-square-foot production plant that should be pressing discs in spring 2016.

Through a shop window, visitors will be able to watch an extruder spit out a hockey puck-like glob of melted vinyl onto a mold. A machine operator then will place the metal plate in the press, which will squeeze the resin into the shape of a record. The plan is to have a press operation that is a showcase, Ben Blackwell, also a Third Man co-founder, said in a telephone interview.

“That’s one of the real unheralded, intrinsically beautiful parts of this — widening the exposure to the vinyl culture,” Blackwell said. “Because I run a record label and I go to these plants, I can see that, but the general public for the most part does not, outside of a couple places that give small tours. I think watching a record being pressed is very, very hypnotizing.”

The process won’t change with the presses rolling off the assembly line of Newbilt Machinery GmbH & Co. KG in Alsdorf, Germany. Newbilt cloned the design of existing rugged workhorses still out there in operation, but incorporated modern features like an electronic control system and a hydraulic power supply to squeeze the molds made by business partner, Record Products of America (RPA) in Hamden, Conn.

“We haven’t invented anything new. We’re just making old manual pressing machines with new parts,” RPA technical sales manger Dan Hemperly said in a telephone interview. “It’s a very simple, basic system and nothing needs to be qualified as to whether or not it will work. Of course it will work. It’s working everywhere right now.”

The presses just aren’t working in the numbers they did before compact discs came onto the music scene in the 1980s. That lack of press capacity is creating a bottleneck with troubling lead times of 4-6 months for domestic and overseas recording artists riding the vinyl resurgence. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced in September that vinyl record shipments increased 52 percent to $222 million for the first half of 2015.

“While that’s still only 7 percent of the overall market by value, it’s remarkable that a legacy format continues to contribute more to industry revenues than the ad-supported on-demand category, which includes some of the most widely used new services such as YouTube and Vevo,” Joshua Friedlander, senior vice president of RIAA’s strategic data analysis, said in a news release.

Hard pressed

Catherine Kavanaugh A customer browses 45s at Third Man Records in Detroit. The resurgence of vinyl is leading to sales for both independent labels and mainstream artists like Adele and Taylor Swift.

Also remarkable to some, Hemperly said currently there are 21 vinyl record manufacturers in the U.S. depending on a shrinking number of used presses that are as old as 50 years, and need a lot of maintenance. With demand up from top-selling vinyl artists like Beck and the Arctic Monkeys — and with top selling artists Adele and Taylor Swift even topping vinyl chart sales as well — the industry needs some more capacity to reduce the time to get products to market.

“It’s a world wide epidemic. You can’t get a record made quickly,” Hemperly said. “That’s why there’s so much interest in getting vinyl pressing machines.”

It’s a good time to be in the business of making those machines and making vinyl records, he added.

“Anyone who opens a record-pressing facility can look forward to instant gratification — lots of customers — because they can provide quicker delivery,” Hemperly said.

On its website, Newbilt recommends prospective vinyl record producers budget at least $212,500 to start production. The company was incorporated this year by “a group of enthusiastic engineers with a long track record in machine design, [manufacturing], sales and international support for the production of audio, data and video discs,” the website also says.

Hemperly said RPA, which has been in business since 1972, and Newbilt are both small, privately held companies with staff that have a history of business together.

“These are friends we’ve been working with forever in the CD and DVD industry,” Hemperly said. “We made all kinds of cooperative equipment so it was really smart to come out with a vinyl press machine at this point of the evolution. The number of surplus machines is getting fewer and fewer. Some people say they’re as rare as hens’ teeth or they’re very expensive.”

Independent Record Pressing in Bordentown, N.J., reportedly bought six used presses for $1.5 million and paid $5,000 to make and replace an obsolete screw for one broken-down machine.

Hemperly said in an email that Newbilt’s duplex system — two presses and an extruder, hydraulic power supply and trimming machine — plus the record molds, interconnecting cable hoses will come to about $161,250 while a single-press system is about $100,000. A facility will also need a boiler, cooling tower, air compressor and three-phase power, he added.

For the records

Catherine Kavanaugh In addition to watching production of vinyl records, shoppers at Third Man Records can use a Mold-A-Rama machine to make a model of the company's mobile recording studio.

At the Newbilt open house in September, guests were speaking Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French in addition to German and English. They went to Alsdorf to see some of the first new vinyl presses in almost three decades in operation.

Two other companies – Pirate Press in San Francisco and their partner GZ Media in the Czech Republic – say they technically deserve the credit for building the first new vinyl presses in 30 years for their operation in late 2014 to early 2015. Pirate Press CEO Eric Mueller said in an email that their presses “combine some old aspects with some very cutting-edge technology” and have reduced their turnaround time to less than two months. However, those presses won’t be sold to the general public unlike the Newbilt-RPA partnership, which is offering new presses to the entire industry.

“I can’t tell you exactly where those presses are going because the customers want to keep it confidential until they open their doors. Detroit was hush-hush until now,” Hemperly said.

Newbilt uses historically proven designs and swaps out antiquated parts, like retraction springs, with hydraulic cylinders, according to its website. The company is offering semi-automatic single press and double press systems as it develops a way to automate the machines with robots down the line.

The new presses have been improved to minimize material and energy loss during stand-by times, to optimize color change-over times, and to reduce wear and tear, the website also says.

Customers should find the new presses easier to maintain, too, and new parts as easy to find as checking a catalog, Hemperly said. And, they should be busy from what he has seen filling orders at RPA for molds and all the components needing to keep the left-over fleet of presses running.

“Every company we have helped go online in the last year has no complaints about their business,” Hemperly said. “I spoke with a guy in September and he was very happy to be in production. Two weeks later he told me he no longer was accepting new customers; he was too busy. Cha-ching. I think the five-year plan looks very good for vinyl records. The smart individuals, like Jack White’s group, that are getting involved quickly will be very successful.”

TLC for PVC

Catherine Kavanaugh Third Man's retail shop and a record plant is in a growing midtown Detroit neighborhood.

Third Man Records is second in line for Newbilt vinyl presses as far as Blackwell can tell. The Nashville, Tenn.-based company has been using United Record Pressing, also in Nashville, and Archer Record Pressing, which is in Detroit, to make its vinyl records to date.

Blackwell said he doesn’t think Third Man’s new Detroit plant will hurt the two businesses because of the high demand.

“We’re trying to do our best not to just take up press capacity but add to it and make it easier for folks to get something out,” he said. “If it gets harder and harder to press records, you run the risk it becomes a thing that people can’t do that themselves and it gets solely in the hands of people that produce record labels and then it ultimately becomes the establishment and that’s the last thing this ever should be.”

Third Man’s Nashville site houses a record store, novelties lounge and — it claims — the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities. Student groups go there to put their performances on disc. Blackwell polls them about how many have turntables at home. In many groups, its 50 percent, he said.

Blackwell recalled his own affinity for vinyl records going back to being a teen in the ‘90s and how it seemed so unique and so intriguing, like listening for a voicemail message from Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic on the original 7-inch version of Sliver, and just so necessary at times.

“There was so much music not available on CD,” Blackwell said. “If you wanted to hear early Bob Seger it was only on vinyl and it wasn’t even on new vinyl. You had to find it second-hand used. It was almost like a gauntlet you had to run, like how much of a fan are you really.”

Other vinyl record fans talk about the warm sound and the ability to hold an album and look at jacket art.

“It’s too easy to be an old man and say kids have it easy these days,” Blackwell said. “They can just go to Spotify and have the entire recorded history of music at their fingertips. I don’t want to be a grandpa about that. That’s great and I’m happy for them, but I think still to this day music fans will gravitate toward a physicality. The engineering aspect of files or streaming divorces some allure. I think there’s allure to possessing something.”

There’s an allure to manufacturing something, too, and creating jobs — Third Man wants to hire up to 30 people — in a city kicked by The Great Recession and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

“It’s not raise the flag Detroit is back and everything is back to how it used to be kind of level but doesn’t every little bit help?” Blackwell asked. “There’s no shortage of people with manufacturing experience in this town that no doubt are looking for jobs and we’re actively looking for qualified plastics professionals. Eight presses aren’t going to solve the world’s problems but it’s putting more effort toward a solution than a problem.”

Updated: Dec. 14 to highlight new presses being made by Pirate Press in San Francisco and their partner GZ Media in the Czech Republic.