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    Interview With Vinyl Manufacturer Furnace MFG

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    Hi everyone, I recently interviewed a representative from Furnace MFG, a company that manufactures vinyl records (among other things)...We talk a bit about the market for vinyl, the manufacturing process, vinyl technologies, and the future of vinyl records. Enjoy!

    Many of the vinyl enthusiasts of the world have speculated, and have been reading in the media that vinyl seems to be coming back. Is this true in your case?

    We are absolutely seeing this trend.  As a manufacturer of vinyl records, we often times are made aware of projects many months before they hit the retail stores.  Through the course of 2009, we’ve seen increasing orders from clients.  In the past, clients might order vinyl runs of 2,000 or 3,000 pieces and we’re now seeing that most of our orders for major titles are averaging 5,000-10,000 pieces.  Smaller labels and bands continue to press between 1,000 and 3,000 records per order but we’re seeing more and more of those types of clients as well.

    How much growth have you seen in the vinyl industry over the past year? Past two years?

    Furnace’s volume has doubled in 2009 over 2008 and we have no doubt, looking at release schedules by our most loyal customers, that this volume will remain on an upward trend.

    Looking forward, we’re forecasting a minimum 50% growth rate for 2010 as the sales of vinyl records continue to double year over year (like they are expected to do this year compared to last year).

    Of all the vinyl you press, what seems to be the most popular? What seems to be the least popular?

    Our most popular record that we press is a 180 gram audiophile quality record pressed through our partner, the Pallas Group out of Germany.  The Pallas Group is known as one of the best vinyl pressing facilities in the world and Furnace MFG has an exclusive distribution and manufacturing relationship with them for North America.

    Although we have the ability to do colored vinyl, picture discs 7”s and 10”s these are generally only for small or special projects and not the bulk of our business.

    What percentage of new vinyl pressings feature new music as opposed to reissues of music released in the past?

    Because of our market leadership in audiophile quality vinyl, much of what we have been doing in the past has focused on re-issues (or older titles that were never released on vinyl initially).  However, we’ve been seeing an expansion of our clients requests to include new releases as well.  Frontline titles typically tend to be pressed on lower weights (120 or 140g) and the bands and labels place less of a premium on the audiophile quality and more of a premium on lowest cost. We’re able to offer both.

    Is it just the major record companies that are pressing more vinyl, or are you seeing increased demand from smaller labels and independent artists as well?

    The last six months has seen an increase in the number of independent artists who are releasing their albums on vinyl. With margins disappearing on CDs and downloads, artists are doing a lot more touring to make a living.  Vinyl is a perfect merch item for them because most of their fans do not have access to physical product anymore with stores closing or narrowing focus.  Vinyl sales at live shows have been exploding because of that reason.  Also, vinyl is not easily replaced with a download or streaming radio. The collectible aspect of vinyl is attractive to labels that have seen their physical product diminished to the used racks and eBay like channels.

    As the convenience of digital audio formats (MP3, iTunes) continues to attract new listeners, what is the biggest challenge for retailers to convince consumers to buy vinyl?

    The biggest question that consumers have is whether vinyl records will continue to be a supported format by music labels.  They are quite right to worry that they will invest money to buy a nice record player, the fad will end, and music labels will stop issuing records like they did in the early 80s.  While this is a valid fear, we believe that record labels are just starting to realize the potential for vinyl records.  With the rapid deterioration in CD sales, and the large increase in digital downloads, the main revenue sources for record labels is under great threat.  Vinyl records will never sell at volumes that CDs sell at.  However, since the per piece profit is so much higher, labels are finally starting to realize that vinyl records represent a revenue growth opportunity in a declining market.  Artists have always been fans of vinyl records for the purity of their sound and the ability to connect with their fans.  Many of today’s record buyers are not reliving their past – they are young, influential music lovers that are discovering the joy of vinyl records for the first time.  As more and more music labels realize the untapped profit potential in vinyl records, the trend will only grow.

    The other big question that consumers have about vinyl records is whether the quality has improved at all from what they remember 20 years ago.  In the past, records were made of cheap recycled PVC and were pressed on thin vinyl.  Today’s records are made of a much higher quality PVC and rarely is a record pressed at less than 120g.  The heavier weights provide more durability and longevity to records and today’s mastering and cutting equipment, coupled with our outstanding galvanic process, makes a record sound better than it ever has been able to in the past.  This is one area where record labels need to make sure they put out a good quality product.  Nothing will kill the growth in vinyl quicker than record labels cutting corners and selecting plants based solely on price.  If a new consumer of vinyl records gets a terrible sounding record in their first exposure, it’s going to be impossible to convince them to continue to invest in vinyl records.  Our approach here has been, and will continue to be, to put the best sounding records possible.  That’s why all our records are pressed in Europe by craftsman who’ve been working in this business for 30+ years.  Record pressing is an art that takes a lifetime to master.

    As far as retailers go, stores who have been selling vinyl are in it for life and they are the best salespersons for the format.  The real question is whether online stores and big box stores will adapt to allow themselves to be successful. Insound, Mofi and other vinyl specialty online shops do a great job because they know how to properly handle, pick, pack and ship a vinyl record. But when you receive a vinyl record from Amazon and it’s laying flat on the bottom of a big box with no cardboard protecting it, its no wonder why they may get out of the vinyl game because their damage rate must be sky high.  I was in a Best Buy recently checking out their vinyl selection (they are now carrying up to 200 titles in each of their stores) and because the employees don’t know how to display or care for the format, all of the jackets are destroyed and looks like garbage.  These two scenarios can be avoided and both types of supply chains can be successful but it’s going to take someone that knows what they are doing to correct the obvious roadblocks in their way to long term success selling vinyl.

    Do vinyl records really sound better than CDs? Is there any kind of scientific proof?

    To this question, we would say that much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sound is in the ear of the listener.  There is no debate that converting music to digital format results in some compression loss.  Whether that degradation is noticeable or not is where the subjectivity comes into play.  Many people would agree that vinyl records sound “richer” than CDs due to the fact that no compression is necessary for an analog format – and we would agree too with that.

    There is no doubt that digital music provides advantages that vinyl records do not – namely storage and portability.  But there will always be room for both formats depending on need and desire.  It’s common for all new vinyl records to include a copy of the CD for this very reason.

    Personally, I know there is a difference in quality when proper steps are taken.  Being a musician that has released both CDs and Vinyl, the vinyl has always sounded better. Part of it is that we recorded in analog and kept the entire process analog to the cut.  In those cases, you will never get better mass reproduction than vinyl playback. But if the recording is digital and already compressed, vinyl is just another format. Vinylphiles will say even a digital recording still sounds better on vinyl. I would agree with them on this point.

    I have noticed that some full length albums are available in 45 RPM format. Do you think this trend will catch on, or will the 33 RPM format continue to be the norm?

    That is a niche for high end music lovers.  There is more room for the groove to breath when something is cut on 45 so the sound quality has the chance to be much better.  I think there will always be a niche for this because there will always be 1000 people in the world that are going to want to listen to John Coltrane’s “Ballads” on the best vinyl format available.  2x12” 45 gives them the best opportunity assuming the mastering, cut and pressing is up to snuff.

    Could you explain the process for manufacturing vinyl records?
    Here’s a simplified step by step process:

    -Cutting – the recording is transferred or cut to either a platter of lacquer or copper (the latter is called Direct Metal Mastering or DMM).
    -If a lacquer is cut, it is metalized and a father plate is created. This is a negative)
    -A reverse of the father is created called the mother.  When cutting to copper (DMM), this is already a positive plate or Mother plate. Mother plates can played on special turntables and are what we listen to remove any ticks, pops or noise prior to making pressing plates
    -Mother Plates are used to spawn pressing plates.  The pressing plates are used on the presses and are what the vinyl is pressed between to create a record.  Depending on the type of cut and the thickness of the pressing, we replace stampers every 500-1500 records to ensure the best possible quality of pressed record.
    -Using the pressing plates, we set up a machine to press Test Pressings.  This is normally a run of 5-25 records that we listen to for quality and then send to the client for their final approval.
    -While the Test Pressing is out for approval, we will print and pre-bake the paper labels that appear on both sides of the record. Baking is required so the paper is cured before it goes on the press.  If this process is not done correctly, labels will crack, bubble or blister due to heat and pressure from the pressing process.
    -As soon as the Test Pressings are approved, we put the plates back on the press and start pressing records. PVC pellets are put into an extruder which creates a biscuit of hot PVC sandwiched by the a and b side labels.  Two stampers (one for each side of the record) are placed onto a press and with tons of pressure at high temperature, the press closes on the biscuit and actually forms the records with the grooves.  The records are then finished by trimming excess PVC and then put into the inner sleeve as it comes off the press.  A heavy metal plate is put on top of every 4th or 5th record to ensure the stack is flat as it goes into the curing room where they will cool down for 48 hours prior to assembly.

    What determines the quality of a pressing? How can a consumer know which vinyl is good quality, and which is poor quality?

    It’s all about the sound quality. If you have two plants and give them lacquers cut from the finest cutting studio in the world and give them the finest PVC material in the world – you will often times get two completely different products. The galvanic 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 also 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.

    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 product from a heavyweight record.

    Inevitably, better digital audio formats will come along that sound better than CDs, and possibly even DVD Audio or SACDs. Will vinyl records still be able to compete with these modern technologies?

    Vinyl records will always have a core group of consumers that love them for the experience of listening to music that no other format can provide.  Listening to a record takes a proactive set of actions and is often times the end goal.  Listening to a CD or digital music can be more of an afterthought or a background activity to doing something else.  The large format of vinyl jackets also provides artists a unique way to express themselves in addition to the music itself.  For this reason, we believe that vinyl records will always be complementary to new technologies that might arise.

    Tell us a little about what your company does.

    Furnace MFG has been in business since 1996 and is a recognized leader in CD and DVD duplication, replication, and vinyl record manufacturing and packaging.  Leveraging our two exclusive relationships in Europe, we are able to bring to the domestic market high quality vinyl records with world class assembly and finishing options.  We have carved out a niche to work on complicated packaging and finishing for special projects and continue to increase our market share by providing a high quality product for a fair price.

    Our CD/DVD/Flash Drive reproduction continues to grow with many major music, corporate, and educational clients.  We can fulfill any customers order – whether they are looking for 10 or 10,000,000 copies made.

    You can visit Furnace MFG's website at: http://www.furnacecd.com/

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