Vinyl Docs, Part 2

February 13, 2015 | By

It’s Friday the 13th, Toronto feels like -30 degrees Celsius, and the last thing I want to do is head outside for vegetables. I think in some cultures citrus fruit is considered a vegetable, so I’ll go with that until Saturday, when things ‘warm up’ and a food run is less biting.

The recovery from Wednesday’s tooth-yanking is apparently going well, so I’ll tackle something more sinewy like chicken tonight, and maybe manage a salad this weekend. It’s the little steps towards normalcy that are worth cherishing, right?

In quick news, Sun News is dead, which means Mr. Levant no longer has a venue to address his audience of 8,000. Maybe he should join the Golf Channel. (For some reason it’s easy to imagine him at a major intersection screaming ‘Look at me! I’m HERE! Me! Me! ME! Stop being racist, fascist, leftist insurrectionists and LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE TO SAY!)

Also: journalist Dave Carr has passed away at the age of 58. I used to read his columns in the NY Times when I worked in a bookstore, and enjoyed his writing. R.I.P.

As I mentioned in Part 1, there are a number of vinyl-themed documentaries floating around YouTube + Vimeo, so I’ve taken the liberty to cite some of the notable works from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

But before I get to the contemporary works, let’s start with some archival shorts that were made by RCA and still manage to convey the intricacies of how records are manufactured. Designed as industrial promotional shorts, these films also preserve the stages that trace how a live performance was captured and ultimately pressed into a record that anyone could play around the world with a functional turntable. Like, er, today.

RCA_CommandPerformanceCommand Performance was produced by William J. Ganz for RCA in 1942, and is the most detailed account of record-making during the era of the 10” 78 RPM disc. Narrated by Milton Cross, the (18:58) short begins inside the label’s vault where thousands of original master discs are stored for safekeeping – not vinyl discs, but the original metal platters from which intermediate discs were pressed to produce the stampers that yielded playable records.

In an era where music is recorded onto a computer, mastered on the spot, rendered in whatever format and bit rate is preferred, and uploaded, dumped or burned to any location or digital media, it’s a marvel as to how music eggheads early in the 20th century figured out a complex methodology to transfer audio from a miked performance to a flat wax platter, from which a gold-plated master was created using electrolysis, with multiple metal coatings strengthening discs before actual records were pressed.

The wax platter stage takes place in what resembles a kitchen, whereas the metallic baths are rows of bins in which water, metallic particles, and electrical currents bond the materials together, after which a technician pulls out the smooth discs, cracks open the layers, and extracts the final form before it’s used to create another intermediary disc prior to stamping the A and B sides of a record.

The assembly of ground materials that create vinyl stock takes place in a giant kneading machine which pours out globs of black goo onto rollers, from which they’re pressed into cut sheets. The small mats of warm vinyl are folded into doughy squares and placed onto a label that rests on the B-side stamper, and before the A-side stamper is pulled down like a waffle iron, a worker plops a label onto the dough to ensure what emerges is a fully pressed record with embedded labels.

The nuances and quality controls illustrate why making records today, with the surviving machines abandoned long ago by the major labels, is an art form, because any flaws or mishaps can yield a problem in the end-product.

It’s also easy to see where corners can be cut, mixing ground up vinyl or other material into the doughy mix (like shitty Crown Records, that had not only bumps and bubbles, but pieces of paper embedded in their platters); or fucking up by placing two A-side stampers in a waffle press (as happened with my copy of Walt Dickerson’s jazz improv LP Impressions of Patch of Blue).

The final stage has the records sleeved and boxed before they’re shipped off, and the short film ends with a generic American family (let’s call them the Smedlies) seated in their living room, listening to the flowing sounds of “The Blue Danube.” Daughter Suzie is so calmed by the music, she’s compelled to sit besides dad and learn the true art of Music Appreciation 101. Way to go Suzie!

RCA_SoundAndStoryRCA later updated the formula in 1956 to showcase their Orthophonic long-playing record of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, with pretty Betty Pinkerton plopping her new LP into the turntable, and at the end of Sound and the Story, appreciating the quality of RCA engineering brilliance in what looks like a two-colour process.

Orthophonic was mono, but the short also notes stereo recording techniques, as we join a team of recording engineers and an orchestra capturing the binaural / dual sound of stereo to magnetic tape instead of a wax disc. The manufacturing stages from master to LP are pretty much the same – silver and nickel play greater roles in crafting master and intermediary discs – and the (23:41) short has more quality checking montages, from the physical check (form, roundness, centering, and clean grooves) to the technical (clean sound in each intermediate and final copy).

A montage of current releases on 12” LP and 7” EP in diverse genres appears near the end (nice to see Victor Young’s Samson and Delilah and Love Themes LPs, and Philip Sainton’s Moby Dick getting coverage) before the wrap-up that includes the punch-card / primordial computer system used to print addresses onto boxed sets before shipping.

RCA_LivingStereoThe last archival short is RCA’s 1958 promo (7:40) for its “Living Stereo” system, inarguably one of the classiest logos and branding around. P.R. bullshit and hype abound as a grievous host (“This is Bob Bagg, marketing Manager, Radio and Victrola of RCA Victor”) name-drops everything RCA, including the new “2-in-1 RCA Stereo Orthophonic High Fidelity Victrola.” There’s careful enunciation and pausing to ensure we all get the importance of what our host describes as “nothing short of a miracle” that’s “dramatically new” and an “RCA Victor exclusive” in terms of, uhm, the brand name, not stereo.

Bob explains the differences between stereo and mono, which sounds facile in 2015, but at least demonstrates through basic graphics the recording, groove characteristics, and playback methods of each format.

The ideal listening set-up for stereo is depicted with a whitebread couple (the Humphreys) seated on their sofa, listening to the stereo system in front – an image that’s interesting insofar as the arrangement supplants the importance of the family TV set (there’s none), or seems to encourage families to set-up an exclusive listening room because stereo deserves that much attention. I remember my dad’s former girlfriend had a massive Pioneer amp (yeah, that audiophile one) in a small room that probably used to belong to her daughter, but was transitioned into an environment to hear music, free from the telephone and kitchen clamor.

A few other products are showcased – portable turntables – and more interestingly, assorted components that allow monophonic users the opportunity to upgrade to stereo in affordable stages.

The top-of-the-line stereo set is nice – a single left speaker, and a right speaker-Hi-Fi combo unit – which contrasts from the single unit wood cabinet that appears in the 1948 short. That unit features something really unique: after Suzie’s mum Becky removes the 10” record from its library-bound folder and fits it onto a three-pronged holder, a lever causes the turntable centre to glide left and downward, dropping the prior record down a slot before sliding back and locking the new platter on top. Very cool – but I wonder how many records got dinged in the process.

One thing to note about these shorts is the gender roles within the manufacturing, quality control, and shipping stages. Everything technical – electrical, mastering, and initial quality control with a microscope – is done by men, as is any heavy lifting or pulling the vinyl goo into a giant rolling drum, whereas anything seated, like intermediary and final quality control, sorting, edge trimming, packaging on an assembly line – is done by women.

Similarly, it’s the women who handle the records in the family living room because, one presumes, that role falls under ‘family needs and entertainment duties,’ so dad can just relax on the couch like a soft potato and keeping puffing on his pipe. The only moment within the docs that a woman has any say-so occurs in the intermediary quality control stage where one lady has the power to reject a stamper at the manufacturing plant. Classic, archaic presentations of gender clichés. I bet Becky knows more about home electrical and plumbing repair than dad, as my mother did.

This trio of archival industrials covers the manufacturing and development of the record from 10” mono to 12” stereo, whereas the following docs are snapshots of changing times for the LP.

ForTheRecordsFor the Records (2015) is Hazel Sheffield and Emily Judem’s doc on Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies record store in NYC’s West Village, which for decades bought & sold used music before the gentrification of the area and plummeting interest and value of vinyl rendered the business into a holdout, in spite of high rent, diminishing profits, and its owner, Robert Plotnik, was incapacitated by an brain aneurism. The shop, which ultimately closed in 2013, is a classic mom & pop shop packed with sleeved records, hand-written dividers, and manned by an aging staff who’ve been with the store for 10+ years, and aware the store has become a labour of love, facing the challenges that have sent many older record stores packing.

Sheffield & Judem fill the screen with many images and staff interviews within the store, and as its history unfolds, she soon follows Plotnik’s girlfriend to the rest home where he’s still recovering. It’s a bittersweet story, and the directors no doubt wanted to preserve this slice of classic independent retail before it eclipsed.

ReVinylizedThe makers of 2013’s Re-Vinylized ( probably filmed their interviews with radio personalities and indie shop owners in 2011 before completing their (20:48) doc, but it’s a buoyant portrait of the business in which characters, philosophies, and diverse tastes dominate. Director John Boston arranges a tight narrative that covers each owner’s first attraction to vinyl, the trials of a bricks & mortar shop, switching to an online model, and the survivors who acknowledge is more of a labour of love than a money-making business, and while the glory days of hefty returns isn’t as strong as 30 years ago, there’s an acknowledgement that the LP isn’t dead, and while a niche market, it can and will continue to exist as long as there’s a balance between vintage pressings and new material in the market.

BuySellTradeKevin Shak’s Buy Sell Trade (2013) is more about the allure, love, and pleasure of vinyl from collectors and store owners in Toronto, and emphasizes the social aspect that’s also typical of video stores (or any indie merchandise shop). It’s where the like-minded gather and converse, or simply feed off the positive energy of fellow music and LP and 7” 45 RPM enthusiasts. No one’s militant or snooty; it’s simply a preference / sharing a comfort for a format that still maintains validity in the digital age.

Perhaps the strangest aspect for older and former LP collectors is seeing albums they owned – used, maybe a little shopworn – showcased as rare artifacts or displayed with reverence on walls in linear cabinets with soothing colour tones or clean white.

The music once considered passé and a format regarded as obsolete are cherished as the unicorns of the music formats; if not for the unknown surprises within an unavailable or rare LP, then as a rare physical representation of music than mandates careful handling, cleaning / preparation, and careful playback, with the draw of a round-and-round label motion giving pleasure when the listener’s eyes aren’t glued to the liner notes and sleeve art.

One can transpose that affection for physical and mechanical movement to reel-to-reel tape machines, or perhaps cassette players (which feature a variety of fluorescent strobing or pulsing, backlit volume meters). It’s not gear porn, really, but a peculiar comfort in seeing the lifeblood of the machine(s) that make the playback of music possible, versus a sterile click.

WhyVinyl_bIn any event, the tight and yes, fetishistic relationship between collector, music fan, and the record itself are vivid in Natalie Green’s Why Vinyl? which provides a variety of comments from British fans, shop owners, DJs, and authors on the format’s resilience. The products of Death Waltz Recording Company show up – hard not to miss those elaborately coloured platters – and the only qualms with the short doc (10:55) is the compressed sound quality, and a banal stock music that’s tracked across the entire film

Like many collectors, I replaced a few LPs with CDs, and found those early discs lacking, so I sold them and kept the vinyl, but the irony of a physical format is you need space. Digital music requires a hard drive smaller than a grilled cheese sandwich, whereas 500+ LPs need shelves, and as I’ve re-bonded with warm analogue electronic sounds, it is frustrating when the music I want to listen to has been packed up in deep storage since 2007. They’re all original pressings, but they’re absurdly heavy, and when I recently moved the lot to a new locker, it was not fun. Laserdiscs are beastly heavy, but vinyl isn’t much lighter.

The fragility of the LP has always been a personal concern, more from maladroit handling than bad storage. One whoopsie and you’ve dropped it, scuffed it, nicked it with the needle, which is why decades ago I’d record the first play to tape, and generally leave the LP alone, like a master recording, figuring if the tape wore out, I’d just re-transfer the music.

Coming next: soundtrack reviews, more Burt Lancaster on Blu, including Birdman of Alcatraz (Twilight Time) and The Swimmer (Grindhouse Releasing), and studio Blu-ray releases, including The Interview and Rosewater.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Comments are closed.