At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records has become so excellent that the staff continues to be turning away requests since September. This resurgence in pvc pellet popularity blindsided Gary Salstrom, the company’s general manger. The company is simply 5 years old, but Salstrom has become making records for a living since 1979.
“I can’t inform you how surprised I am,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they want to pay attention to more genres on vinyl. Because so many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, and then digital downloads during the last several decades, a tiny contingent of listeners passionate about audio quality supported a modest marketplace for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly everything within the musical world gets pressed too. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that vinyl record sales in 2015 exceeded $400 million from the United states That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, and yes it beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, like the free version of Spotify.
While old-school audiophiles plus a new wave of record collectors are supporting vinyl’s second coming, scientists are looking at the chemistry of materials that carry and have carried sounds inside their grooves after a while. They hope that in doing so, they will likely improve their ability to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist at the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of among those materials, wax cylinders, to determine how they age and degrade. To help with that, he is examining a tale of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders might appear to be a primitive storage medium, these were a revelation during the time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders wrapped in tinfoil, but he shelved the project to operate about the lightbulb, according to sources on the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell along with his Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Dealing with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon developed a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From an industrial viewpoint, the information is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started working on this history project in September but, before that, was working in the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him an original industrial viewpoint in the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just good enough for the purpose it needs to be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was clearly one looming problem with the stunning brown wax, though: Edison and Aylsworth never patented it.
Enter Thomas H. MacDonald of American Graphophone Co., who basically paid people away and off to help him copy Edison’s recipe, Monroe says. MacDonald then declared a patent in the brown wax in 1898. Although the lawsuit didn’t come until after Edison and Aylsworth introduced a new and improved black wax.
To record sound into brown wax cylinders, each one of these had to be individually grooved with a cutting stylus. But the black wax may be cast into grooved molds, permitting mass creation of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax had been a direct chemical descendant in the brown wax that legally belonged to American Graphophone, so American Graphophone sued Edison’s National Phonograph Co. Fortunately to the defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks showed that Team Edison had, in fact, developed the brown wax first. The businesses eventually settled from court.
Monroe has become able to study legal depositions from your suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks thanks to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which is working to make a lot more than 5 million pages of documents relevant to Edison publicly accessible.
By using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth along with his colleagues developed waxes and gaining a better idea of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. For example, in an early experiment, Aylsworth produced a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. During the time, industrial-grade stearic acid was a roughly 1:1 mixture of stearic acid and palmitic acid, two fatty acids that differ by two carbon atoms.
That early soap was “almost perfection,” Aylsworth remarked in his notebook. But after a few days, the surface showed warning signs of crystallization and records created using it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum towards the mix and found the best blend of “the good, the not so good, along with the necessary” features of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but too much of it can make for the weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also responsible for the crystallization problem. The soft pvc granule prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing while adding additional toughness.
In fact, this wax was a touch too tough for Aylsworth’s liking. To soften the wax, he added another fatty acid, oleic acid. But the majority of these cylinders started sweating when summertime rolled around-they exuded moisture trapped from the humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out your oleic acid for any simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added an important waterproofing element.
Monroe is performing chemical analyses on collection pieces and his synthesized samples so that the materials are the same which the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For instance, he can examine the organic content of any wax using techniques including mass spectrometry and identify the metals in a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the first results from these analyses last month at the conference hosted by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his first two efforts to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure along with no palmitic acid in it-he’s now making substances that are almost identical to Edison’s.
His experiments also advise that these metal soaps expand and contract quite a bit with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, for example universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Rather than bringing the cylinders from cold storage directly to room temperature, which is the common current practice, preservationists should let the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This can minimize the strain in the wax and minimize the probability it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity in between the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also demonstrates that the fabric degrades very slowly, which happens to be great news for anyone for example Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague on the Library of Congress.
Alyea wishes to recover the information held in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To do this he captures and analyzes microphotographs of your grooves, a strategy pioneered by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Soft wax cylinders were perfect for recording one-off sessions, Alyea says. Business folks could capture dictations using wax and did so up in the 1960s. Anthropologists also brought the wax to the field to record and preserve the voices and stories of vanishing native tribes.
“There are ten thousand cylinders with recordings of Native Americans in our collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured within a material that appears to stand up to time-when stored and handled properly-might appear to be a stroke of fortune, but it’s less than surprising taking into consideration the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The changes he and Aylsworth created to their formulations always served a purpose: to produce their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations as well as the corresponding advances in formulations led to his second-generation moldable black wax and ultimately to Blue Amberol Records, that have been cylinders made using blue celluloid plastic rather than wax.
But if these cylinders were so excellent, why did the record industry switch to flat platters? It’s easier to store more flat records in less space, Alyea explains.
Emile Berliner, inventor in the gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger is the chair of the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to start out the metal soaps project Monroe is working on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs depending on shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that would become a record industry staple for years. Berliner’s discs used an assortment of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and some carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured millions of discs using this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the marketplace from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Several of these discs are generally known as 78s due to their playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or have a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to back up a groove and withstand an archive needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped up the chemistry of disc records using a material referred to as Condensite in 1912. “I believe that is quite possibly the most impressive chemistry in the early recording industry,” Klinger says. “By comparison, the competing shellac technology was always crude.”
Klinger says Aylsworth spent years developing Condensite, a phenol-formaldehyde resin which was similar to Bakelite, that has been acknowledged as the world’s first synthetic plastic with the American Chemical Society, C&EN’s publisher.
What set Condensite apart, though, was hexamethylenetetramine. Aylsworth added the compound to Condensite to avoid water vapor from forming in the high-temperature molding process, which deformed a disc’s surface, Klinger explains.
Edison was literally using a bunch of Condensite daily in 1914, but the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product came with a substantially higher price tag, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
But when Columbia Records released vinyl long-playing records, or LPs, in 1948, shellac’s days within the music industry were numbered. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) records give a quieter surface, store more music, and they are far less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi, offers one more reason for why vinyl got to dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t speak with the particular composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights in to the plastic.
PVC is generally amorphous, but with a happy accident of your free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the material is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. For that reason, PVC has enough structural fortitude to aid a groove and withstand a record needle without compromising smoothness.
Without having additives, PVC is obvious-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs such as carbon black allow it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was choosing a polymer for records and cash was no object, he’d opt for polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, which is proven to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides could also reproduce grooves better and offer an even more frictionless surface, Mathias adds.
But chemists will still be tweaking and improving vinyl’s formulation, says Salstrom of Quality Record Pressings. He’s utilizing his vinyl supplier to find a PVC composition that’s optimized for thicker, heavier records with deeper grooves to give listeners a sturdier, top quality product. Although Salstrom may be astonished at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not seeking to give anyone any good reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush can usually handle any dust that settles on a vinyl record. So how can listeners deal with more tenacious dirt and grime?
The Library of Congress shares a recipe to get a cleaning solution of 2 mL of Dow Chemical’s Tergitol 15-S-7 in 4 L of deionized water. C&EN spoke with Paula Cameron, a technical service manager with Dow, to discover the chemistry which helps the transparent pvc compound end up in-and from-the groove.
Molecules in Tergitol 15-S-7 possess hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains which can be between 11 and 15 carbon atoms long. The S means it’s a secondary alcohol, so there’s a hydroxyl jutting dexrpky05 the midsection of your hydrocarbon chain to connect it to your hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is actually a way of measuring how many moles of ethylene oxide will be in the surfactant. The greater the number, the better water-soluble the compound is. Seven is squarely within the water-soluble category, Cameron says. Furthermore, she adds, the surfactant doesn’t become viscous or gel-like when mixed with water.
The result is a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that can get inside and outside of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The unhealthy news for vinyl audiophiles who might want to do this in your own home is the fact Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants right to consumers. Their potential customers are typically companies who make cleaning products.