10-May-2012
Music on Vinyl - Article

Music On Vinyl



Celebrating the pressing of its 500th vinyl LP, Paul Rigby talks to Music On Vinyl, in their factory in Holland.


It was a momentous day for this relatively young company, now in its third year, with the pressing of its 500th album. I flew to the Music On Vinyl (wVw.musiconvinyl.com) factory with the identity of the disc a closely guarded secret but was soon to find out that it was an album by David Bowie, a great, iconic, artist and a fitting subject for such a significant number.And the album name? 'Ziggy Stardust'? 'Low'? 'Hunky Dory'? No it was 'Excerpts From Outside'.
On the face of it, this LP choice looks tepid, at best, until you dig a little deeper.The music was originally issued as an edited version of the concept piece,'Outside', released in 1995 on CD. Featuring the character, Nathan Adler, the album saw Bowie's reunion with Brian Eno. 'Excerpts From...' was a vinyl version spin-off but was produced in a limited run of a few hundred copies by RCA. Hence, Bowie collectors have found original copies hard to source with prices fetching up to £120 at a time.This reissue should be good news for fans, therefore. Especially so as the music has been carefully remastered by Music On Vinyl (MOV) while the release also includes an eight-page booklet filled with notes from Nathan Adler's diary. This gives you a rough idea of how MOV work: not necessarily by the book or meeting people's expectations. Which makes them interesting.


So where did this company come from? How did it build such an enormous catalogue of vinyl in such a short time? "I've been the owner of this vinyl plant, called The Record Factory, since 1998, when I took it over from Sony Music Entertainment," said Ton Vermeulen who is also the co-owner of MOV. "After running this pressing plant for over ten years, I realised that I needed more output for pressing vinyl. When my then client, Simply Vinyl, hit financial troubles and fell away there was a gap to fill so I tried to obtain license rights to press vinyl again just like Simply Vinyl did. As this was the former Sony pressing plant and we still had a lot of record metal parts in stock, I met a person at Sony who told me that he was working with the European music distributor, Bertus, in an effort to release the Sony music catalogue on vinyl. So I contacted Bertus, who I knew around 1995-96, when I ran a record label producing dance music, and we then decided to join forces. Hence, Music On Vinyl is a joint venture. Do not, therefore, infer that MOV is thus a Sony puppet. MOV may have the pick of the Sony archive but it is also working with other labels such as Silvertone and Cooking Vinyl. Significantly, it has also signed a major contract with Universal.The company is not stopping there, either. Touring the Music On Vinyl factory is a joy, a pure joy.


This plant used to be the original CBS factory before it was taken over by Sony and so many of its working parts stem from the fifties while several of its staff have 40-50 years of experience. I stood in awe, looking at the massive steam engine that powered the hydraulics (with another massive engine sitting next to it, acting as a 'spare'), as the antique record presses squeezed out pristine records, and via Heath Robinson contortions and audible jerks and sighs, dropped the records into their sleeves. I walked past a press devoted to 7" singles and other strange machines labelled with metal 'Capitol Records' plaques and a massive store-room that was filled with nothing but record labels.The awe was enhanced because, unlike just about every other record plant in the world. Music On Vinyl features almost every process of creating a record under one roof.
"Just before I bought the factory from Sony, as a record label they offered a one-stop shop and I knew of no other way than to send all of my material to them.They took care of the cut, the print and the pressing of the vinyl. I only found out later that there are a lot of small plants out there where you have to order your labels from this factory, your sleeves from another printer, then you have to find a cutting room to have your lacquers cut and then you have to send the whole thing to the pressing plant. Meanwhile some things get lost and other things don't appear in time... I think that our one stop shop approach is why we are where we are at the moment."


This evolution was on-going during my stay because printers were being moved into the building.Two large printers, one for the sleeves, the other for labels, were being installed, giving MOV complete control over the printing process, allowing it to make changes and corrections on the fly.


During the record creation process, MOV uses traditional lacquers (aluminium discs coated with a thin layer of acetate) for dance music.This provides a warm presentation where the volume is loud due to the large groove size but, because you're looking at a short piece of music, can be managed easily. For albums, MOV uses a DMM (Din Metal Master) cutter which alow you to cut smaller grooves direct to a blank copper plate but the process retains a full, deep, bass with extended upper frequencies providing a wider dynamic range than a standard cutting process can support and, because the MOV DMM machine is a rare, late generation, model you don't hear the early generation DMM drawbacks of bright upper mids and trashy trebles.
MOV even makes its own copper blanks for the DMM cutter, treated to remain soft (for a quieter cut) and produced to a high gloss standard (to prevent air bubbles). Marvellous.
During my tour, I was impressed by the company's practical, down to earth nature, its attention to detail and its love for music. I've hardly had time to mention its quality control. What other pressing plant employs three to four people, eight hours a day, doing nothing else but checking every stage of the vinyl creation process?


Music On Vinyl has fast become the cornerstone of the vinyl reissue business and is going from strength to strength. With production standards high, playback output absolutely top notch, coupled with a fresh and always interesting release selection, MOV's next three years promises to be an exciting time for them and all those who play their records.


Is The Vinyl Industry A Con?

Did you know that most vinyl reissues, these days, feature a digital source file?

It's absolutely true. Yet magazines, internet forums, audiophiles and journalists like myself drone on about master tapes this and analogue that. And then we all denigrate CDs with our next breath. Are we all hypocrites and is the vinyl industry a con in which everyone knows what's going on but no-one is telling? Well, it's not quite that simple or as black and white.


Vermeulen accepted the accusing finger, on behalf of the industry and began with, "OK, 95% of all human beings on this earth, who are listening to music, are happy with an MP3. Anything else sounds better to them." And for the audiophiles out there? "There won't be a lot of people who can tell the difference between a complete analogue master cut and a new record cut from one of our recent digital mediums because the difference is so small. You need to have golden ears and then you also need to know how to listen to it."


Shocked? Let me quickly add that there are many audiophile companies out there who use analogue master tapes and employ a completely analogue chain. Music On Vinyl is one of those, actually. There are others including Speakers Corner, Pure Pleasure, Mobile Fidelity, Sundazed and more. Yet, there are a hundred different reasons why original analogue master tapes cannot be used: the original master was thrown in the nearest skip, destroyed in a fire, are present but in too poor quality to be useable or were never available on analogue master tape in the first place (much of the late eighties and nineties output was recorded to DAT).


"If it can be supplied with tapes then we will always use them. As MOV, the labels know that we want the best audio they have. If they send a digital file, if we think that it sounds good then we go for it. If we have doubts then we will request a different master." But doesn't MOV request master tapes to begin with? Shouldn't MOV be demanding master tapes as a first option? Or do the major labels take the easy way out and supply digital files. Well, searching through tape archives takes time. And time is money, so the suits tell us.


"They know that we want analogue masters," confirmed Vermeulen "and I can't believe that they would hold an analogue master back from us because of laziness. They are in this deal, they want to succeed, everyone wants high sales and the better the quality of the product the better for all. When I took over this plant there was still a lot of old archive. Sony had a good organisation. I really don't know what Sony did with their old masters. I can imagine that they have converted them all to digital files - it's easy for them.


"On a more general point, there are a lot of people after old analogue music and want top quality recordings - the readers of your magazine, for example. Yet, I would say that 99% of people who buy records really don't care. They are just after this nice product, with this nice, big sleeve, a booklet and pictures to fill up their collection. They even look for the odd crackle during playback because, without the odd crackle, 'it can't be a record, it must be a CD', they say. There is a minority who spend a lot of money on expensive hi-fi but I still think that if we did an A-B comparison between one of our digital and analogue recorded vinyl records, not many would be able to hear the difference."


Why is that? It's partly because the company uses high quality digital transfers but Vermeulen is also adamant that, with the standard of the equipment that MOV owns, they can actually improve the sound over and above the original, "We can do things with digital recordings that you could not do with the original analogue. That's also partly to do with a amount of time and application that we can apply to each reissue."


Something that was sometimes lacking in the original recording because, at that time, vinyl was a mass market medium that was subjected to deadlines and time constraints that sometimes resulted in short cuts in terms of quality, "We spend more time to make the actual cut than they did in the past. To give you one simple example, we had metal parts relating to one particular album which I will not name, but was produced in the eighties. Sony had produced thousands and thousands of albums from these parts and we found out, recently, that there was a drop-out in the audio. I don't know what




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