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  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

Adopting semiconductor industry technology and procedures for vinyl record manufacturing.

Updated: May 27, 2021

The UHQR Kind of Blue All-Star Panel was a live YouTube event last Saturday. The event for the most part was pre-marketing for the pending re-release of the album 'Kind of Blue' with Miles Davis 33 RPM using the UHQR process by Quality Records. The event had some notable attendees (Michael Fremer, Bernie Grundman, Mike Hobson, Michael Ludwigs and Gary Salstrom) known for their expertise in different areas of audio space and each one provided interesting historical and technical facts about the album including the original recording with a 3-channel tape.


Quality Records used this event to talk about the quality of the UHQR process and I agree they have put some significant work into improved release agents for the vinyl, reducing vibration effects from hydraulic tools on the pressing quality, modification of vintage pressing equipment primarily with sensors like temperature, and adopting the former JVC UHQR process (or similar) for a uniform record thickness from center to edge. If you have one of these hand-pressed UHQR records they are good, darn good!


The point of me writing about this is not the event, it's what the event opens up regarding the adoption of semiconductor processes to the production of vinyl records. This is not a foreign topic, I think Fremer mentioned this a few times including the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival 2019. It’s a topic that has been stuck in my head for years now…."Why not adopt some processes and techniques from the semiconductor industry"?



Image source: wix.com

Of course, I understand the potential capital costs could be a deterrent, but the potential quality and yield improvements would bode well with $100 records; Yes I said $100 records. The UHQR is a $100+ product, not your $5 used vinyl record or $25 re-release from an unknown manufacturer. The value of high-quality vinyl releases is finding its way into our homes and onto our turntables; the quality of the vinyl sonic signature and the packaging well is an improved audio experience that is increasingly collectible. From a business perspective growing this high-end niche market will provide a better margin source for the manufacturer and build a defendable position in a market with plenty of value-tier vinyl products. It could also act as an insulator if the market softens over time.


So, what could be considered adoptable from the Semiconductor industry that by the way invests an estimated $89B in total R&D annually?


To start with, the 'Clean Room' concept. This has been around for decades and does not require a vinyl record manufacture to run straight to a class 1 specification where a class 10000 would be a great start. The records are commonly produced in what you and I would consider a garage and, in many cases, sharing the same room as the paper or packaging products production. I expect these production rooms to always experience a variation in the temperature, humidity, and airborne particles throughout the day. Temperature, humidity and particle counters can come in handy to keep these in check. A HEPA filter-supported clean room with some modest gowning would provide a significant dust-free environment and controlled humidity/temperature. Modest gowning is a hair cap, gloves, booties (foot covers), tacky mats, semiconductor grade notepaper, a lab coat, maybe a face cover if you have facial hair and for sure no makeup. The benefits: reduced static electricity, more stability in the process from ambient temp variations, reduced inclusions and particles into or on the record, improved yield and ultimately superior audio quality. Keep in mind human hair is about 7o μm thick, dry skin particles can range from .5 μm to 10 μm making these about the same size as the record grooves, 40 μm wide and 40 μm deep. More interesting is paper and hair do not burn until ~450F and the vinyl pressing process is at ~330f which means those particles become inclusions in the vinyl that can interfere with the pressing, the channel and perhaps the resonance of the channel/stylist interaction. This is easy to check; just take a blank record (no grooves) and take it through the process steps and you can measure the surface particles it collects with a surface-scanning laser inspection system.


Next how about a release agent that can be applied to the stampers? The release agent is in the vinyl and allows the stampers and the vinyl record to separate from each other. A little material science may be good here to understand the remaining residue on the vinyl record and the stamper but one could also look at some of the high-end lubricants used on molds like Dicronite. It's an agent that not only allows for a clean mold release but can manage temperatures well above the pressing requirements. It also improves the fluid dynamics of materials to fill out molds and this is one of the challenges with record pressing; ensuring that all the grooves are filled and the record is uniform from the inner to outer edges. Dicronite has been around and can be found at https://dicronite.com/plastic-mold-release-coating/


Finally, there is the stamper quality and expected life. The stampers could be laser imaged at T0 and then again at T10,000 to see the delta and resulting percentage variance or degrade. No guessing here on the quality of the stamper and the ability to provide producers guarantees of quality limits for each stamper and for customers to understand the difference from copy no. 1 to no. 10,001.


In my opinion, if the vinyl manufacturing industry adopts more of the semiconductor know-how, we will for sure see new equipment design, test, facilities and procedures. Let's hope the outcome is a better music experience for the consumer and an advance in analog audio space.


Signing off by sharing these two useful links


1) Nashville's United Record Pressing is the largest pressing facility in North America, churning out up to 60,000 records a day.

2) List of actual vinyl record manufacturers across the globe, visit Total Sonic Media site.


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