How Records Are Made (in 1942)

records

RCA Victor promotional film, narrated by Milton Cross:

This is an article just for fun, for your amusement as well as your edification. Heaven knows I was certainly edified.

I saw this film on YouTube (here’s the link). You can watch it yourself if you like, but I think my blow-by-blow description is a lot funnier. And truer to real life.

I tell you…this process was so clumsy, complex and convoluted that it would have been better if some Joe Blow using a portable Presto recorder made his one-step, direct-to-acetate-disc recording out there in the field.

Here are the steps they used (and I’m not exaggerating any of them, although my comments follow Cross’s descriptions):

Milton Cross: “The first step, I learned, is to pour a thin layer of molten wax onto a hot plate…the beginning of the master record. A hot flame melts all bubbles and flaws out of the wax, which is of the purest possible grade. [It looks like molasses poured on a turntable.] This is done in a sealed, dustproof and air-conditioned room where the temperature is thermostatically controlled. A second going-over with the flame, and the wax is ready for slow and careful cooling…almost ready for the recording of the music.

“Meticulous examination ensures smooth perfection before the wax is passed through a Special Slot [yes, folks, they had Special Slots in Camden in those days] to the recording room. The perfect wax is put on the turntable, a cutting point called a stylus is adjusted, and everything is ready to record…”

Oh, boy, oh, joy! And who might be recording today? Larry Tibbett? Artie Toscanini? Vlad “the Impaler” Horowitz? Why, no…it’s Chuckie O’Connell and a pick-up band of musical losers playing the well-known Blue Danube Waltz! What a magnificent performance to preserve forever and ever, huh?

But there’s MORE! Yes, there is! Once the record is finished…

Cross: “The soft disc is washed with nitrogen and put into a chamber with a block of pure gold!”

OOOOOOHHHHHH!

“A 2500-volt electrical current bombards atoms of gold onto the wax, coating it completely. The gold-covered disc is put into a solution of copper sulfate, through which a powerful electrical current runs, transferring molecules of copper from the solution to the record. As a result of this process, called electrolysis, the disc comes out plated with copper…immortal music written in metal!”

And that’s how copies are pressed. Right?

Wrong!! Uncle Miltie and RCA have a lot more steps to go through! Shall we dance…?

Cross: “In a second bath, the copper coating is further built up. In these baths, electricity flows through the solution between two poles: one a block of copper, and the other the disc itself. As the current passes from the copper into the solution, it carries with it charged molecules of metal called ions which are drawn to the disc and penetrate its tiniest recesses, taking the exact shape of the grooves made by the original sound vibrations, ensuring perfect fidelity of tone in the final record.”

And yes, there’s more!

Cross: “From this furiously bubbling cauldron comes the master record. After the copper has taken the impression, the wax may be stripped away. This master matrix could then be used to press the final records, I was told, but it would not last long enough to turn out the millions of discs music lovers demand.”

(I wanna see the “millions of music lovers” just standing in line to buy Chuckie O’Connell’s routine rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz.)

“Hence another disc, called the ‘mother matrix,’ must be made first; and from that, stampers will be made to press the final records.

“When the master is finally stripped, the last traces of wax are washed away. The master matrix is carefully rinsed and scrubbed. Then it’s given another electrolytic bath, this time of nickel which, I learned, gives it a still harder outer coating.”

And now we’re ready to press records. Right? Ummm….wrong.

“After this bath, the master is washed and dipped into a special solution that coats it with a fine film. Now, into another copper bath!”

Jesus Christmas!! How many copper baths does it have to go through?

“And this time the mother matrix starts to build up on the face of the master, taking the shape of the same grooves, capturing again the sweet tones of this crappy waltz.” (No, he didn’t really say crappy waltz. I said it for him.)

“The double disc is now separated into mother and master, and the master matrix goes down to the treasure-house of music to be preserved for all time, to take its place besides the works of the world’s greatest artists. [Chuckie O’Connell?? Who knew?] The mother matrix is thoroughly washed and cleaned, and goes into a nickel bath to give it a more durable surface.”

Sounds to me like it takes more time to produce the damn master than to cut the freaking record.

“After another washing and film coating, it goes into another copper bath where the ‘stamping matrix’ starts to build up. The double disc bubbles in its bath until the tiny electrified particles of copper grow into a hard, strong coating and the plating is finished.”

Finished! Yaaayyy! At last! Or…is it??

“Now the mother matrix and stamper, locked face to face, are separated. From the mother additional stampers will be made so that many finished records may be pressed at one time.”

Okay, NOW we’re ready to roll. Right, Milton?

“Before the stamper is ready to use, it receives a nickel plating and then another coat, this time of hard, gleaming chromium, to give it resistance enough to last through many pressings!”

All this to press a goddamn shellac record that will break the first time you drop it, right?

“The matrix is washed once more, and now with other stampers, it will soon be ready to press the finished records. For still greater strength, the completed matrix is soldered to a rigid backing. For perfect contact with the hot backing, the stamper is heated with flame, protected with a chemically neutral blanket and pressed evenly into the hot solder.”

OK, good. NOW we’re ready to press some records, right?

“When the gleaming disc is removed from the press, it is ready for the next operation: the centering of the hole around which the finished record will revolve.”

Oh, yeah…forgot about the hole. Sorry ‘bout that,

“This delicate mechanism centers the hole with meticulous precision, and is checked by magnification. Looking through the magnifier, I saw the rotating grooves of the music itself, caught on the record.”

Well, good for you, Miltie.

“The technician checks again, then drills the hole with perfect accuracy on dead center.”

So why were so many RCA records pressed off-center? Was the meticulous precision-checker overtired or drunk?

“Now the stamper is given a last washing (ANOTHER one??) so that no speck of dust could make even the tiniest mark that would create the smallest false sound. On this revolving cleaning machine, I saw the disc receive its final polishing.”

OK, so NOW we’re READY TO MAKE RECORDS, right, right???? Right????

NO! “Before going to the actual pressing of records, I was shown the mixing of the materials that go into the disc you hear at home: ingredients gathered from the farthest corners of the earth! The materials are processed in one of the largest and most intricate machines I have ever seen: the Banbury Machine, three stories tall!”

HOLY CRAP! IT’S THE BANBURY MACHINE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!

banbury

The Amazing and Immortal Banbury Mixer

“One ingredient is the finest shellac obtainable, which is brought from India. [You shoulda started using vinyl earlier, you jerks.] Another resin ingredient is from the East Indies and, like the shellac, is ground into fine powder before mixing. Eighteen other ingredients gathered from distant places are carefully and accurately weighed in to ensure the most exact proportions to make a correct final mixture. All the ingredients are finely ground and poured into the mixer to be combined under heat with the powdered shellac, which is sucked through the machine by a vacuum pipe.”

Remember: all this to make fragile records that cracked and broke just by blowing air on them the wrong way.

“Now all is ready, and the Banbury Mixer rolls!”

Roll on, O Banbury, roll on!

“Inside this huge machine, three stories tall, the mixture is heated to the melting point, whipped and stirred and beaten until it is thoroughly mixed to a dough-like consistency. The hot mixture falls out on great rollers, where it is heated and rolled into a long, flat sheet. As it comes out of the machine, circular knives cut it into pieces called biscuits, each the right size to make one record.”

10-inch or 12-inch?

“The biscuit, cooled for easy handling, come off the belt in neat little piles, but before they are used for actual pressing they must be heated again on steam tables.

“Then I saw a record pressed.” At long last! Yes! THANK YOU, JESUS!

“First, steam is shot through the machine. Then cool water runs through to cool the record. Two stampers are used in the machine at the same time to press both sides of the record.”

Wonder what was on the other side? “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle” played by Larry Adler on the harmonica?

“The labels are placed into the stamper, I learned, and thus pressed into the record, not just pasted on.”

Oh, so THAT’S why they were so goddamn hard to remove!

“Eventually comes a listening test, where the record is played for expert ears.”

Well, not expert enough if they let all those dead-sounding Toscanini records get through.

Anyway, that was a LOT more steps than I thought they used and way too much information.

And at the end of the film, we see what RCA apparently felt was the Typical American Family on a Sunday afternoon. Dad sitting on the sofa, reading a book; Mom in an easy chair, reading a Popular Magazine. In between them, Daughter moves towards a low shelf under the phonograph and selects a record…yup, you guessed it…the very record we saw being recorded. Now, the daughter looks to be a good 11 or 12 years old, clearly old enough to put a record on by herself, but no! She gives the record to Mom and makes her get out of her easy chair to put it on. Daughter smiles; Mother gazes at the phonograph with a serious look of concentration on her face; Father puts down his book and, as Daughter smilingly goes to sit down next to him, he looks up at the ceiling, apparently imagining that both God and Johann Strauss have paid him a miraculous visitation on this fine Sunday afternoon.

All hail the Banbury Machine!!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “How Records Are Made (in 1942)

  1. Terence Smith says:

    Only two endings to the 1942 RCA record making
    story could make it even more convoluted and
    excruciating. Of the two, I think I know which
    has really happened- and which is worse.

    In the first, the doting Mother finally
    puts the record on the turntable,
    scratches it irreparably, and the daughter cries.

    In the second ending, the recording somehow plays
    a typical 2019 rap CD, and after a few moments
    of total incomprehension and disbelief, the whole
    family cries.

    We have a wealth of means, and a poverty
    of ends that we do with it, it sometimes seems.
    It is corny maybe, but true, that the
    antidote to today’s anti-music is real art,
    which we can find, practice, love, and promote.

    Is history a mechanical playing out of some vast forces
    of cultural Marxism ? I hope not ! Sometimes it seems
    that history is a machine, a
    Banbury Mixer from which I am trying
    to awaken.

    Like

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