On an industrial estate in Röbel, 90 miles north of Berlin, the vinyl presses at the Optimal factory were grinding and pumping away. They made a percussive racket – regular clunks, wheezes, and hisses, underlain by a droning hum – and created a distinct aroma, sharp and metallic, suggestive of steam engines and old cars: not instantly recognisable to a British visitor like me, perhaps, but the singular smell of things being made. My guide to the Optimal plant was its operations director, Peter Runge. Together, we watched copies of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Live From KCRW tumble from one of the machines. Across a narrow aisle, a press dedicated to seven-inch records was spitting out copies of The Boy From New York City, a 1964 single by the Ad Libs, a soul group from Bayonne, New Jersey. A few yards away sat fresh stock of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Next to those was a growing pile of the album Clandestine by the Swedish death metal band Entombed, being pressed on purple vinyl. Beside each machine, bins were collecting surplus plastic shorn off the edges of each disc, to be fed back into the production process.
“Instant recycling!” said Runge, who stared at the factory’s operations through rimless glasses. He grew up, he told me, in Rostock, in the old German Democratic Republic. When he was 19, he applied for an ausreiseantrag – an East German exit visa, the same day as the East German premier Erich Honecker visited West Berlin. This modest act of subversion led to an appointment with the Stasi, and he was barred from going to university. So he got a job in the university’s workshop, helping to build electronic prototypes, where he gained a practical understanding of engineering. When the Berlin Wall fell, two years later, he belatedly became an undergraduate at the same institution, and eventually earned a PhD in industrial maintenance. He joined Optimal Media in 1997, was put in charge of “process optimisation and re-engineering” and given the job of setting up a production planning system. Now 46, he oversees the manufacture of DVDs, CDs and books, but the task in which he takes the most pleasure is supervising the production of vinyl records, in what he and his colleagues claim is Europe’s biggest pressing plant. Their clients are split between the major record companies – who have trusted Optimal with the work of such titans as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie – and the independent companies who kept the vinyl format alive through the 1990s and early 2000s while the rest of a terrified music industry embraced digital technology. Optimal’s machines run 24 hours day, for most of the year, and production capacity has to be booked up to a year in advance. And every hiss and wheeze of the company’s machines attests to a story that, 20 or so years ago, would have seemed unthinkable: the renaissance of the vinyl record.
In the first half of 2014, officially registered sales of vinyl in the US stood at around 4m, confirming an increase of more than 40% compared to the same period in 2013. In the UK, this year’s accredited sales will come in at around 1.2m, more than 50% up on last year. That may represent a tiny fraction of the industry’s estimated sales of recorded music, but still, a means of listening to music essentially invented in the 19th century and long since presumed to be dead is growing at speed, and the presses at Optimal – along with similar facilities smattered across the UK, mainland Europe, the US and beyond – are set to grind and pump on, into the future.
“Isn’t it strange?” Runge mused. “I’m an automation engineer. I never thought I’d be dealing with vinyl. It’s unexpected. But it’s also unexpectable.” He shouted this over the din of the machinery. Each press sat in a space not much more than four metres square. Two circular paper labels were mechanically plucked from one end, while tiny vinyl pellets were sucked into a steam-driven heating process. The result was a hunk of plastic with the circumference of a beer mat, heated to 130C, to which the labels were attached, while 50 tonnes of hydraulic pressure squashed and spread it into a disc. Metal stampers pressed against either side, and it was quickly cooled to 40C. With another clunk, the finished product was dropped on to a spindle, ready to be inserted in its sleeve. The whole cycle had taken 27 seconds. Each day, the factory makes somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 records.
Hanging over everything Runge showed me was an awkward question. While demand for records is increasing year by year, Optimal’s stock of machinery is old, and getting older. New presses are unaffordable, unless the big companies were to invest, but vinyl is still too small a sector of the market for them to be convinced. The kind of painstaking maintenance and technical ingenuity one might think of as the Cadillacs-in-Cuba model keep the industry going. But for how long?
* * *
When former music journalist Michael Haentjes started the independent German label Edel in 1986, he relied on other companies to press his records. “They usually didn’t get him the best delivery times,” Runge said. “They put him to the end of the queue. So by the 90s he said, ‘No – I’m sick of it. I’ll build my own plant.’” Thanks to economic policies aimed at assisting reunification, Haentjes, who was from Hamburg, decided to locate his new factory on an industrial estate in Röbel, an unremarkable East German town in the Mecklenburg Lake District (20 minutes’ drive away is Waren, a spa resort where Soviet nuclear missiles were located as recently as 1988).
At that point, it looked as though vinyl would soon become obsolete. Records had first been superseded by cassettes, which were portable (they had become indispensable with the introduction of the personal stereo) but chronically unreliable. With the arrival of the compact disc in 1983 – introduced to consumers with the lure of cleaner sound and the entirely specious promise of indestructibility – old-style records looked to be finished. At a music industry conference held in Athens in 1981, executives had responded to a demonstration of the CD by chanting “The truth is in the groove!” But just over 10 years later, 70.5m CDs were bought in the UK, compared with a miserable 6.2m records.
In that context, Haentjes’s decision to begin pressing records looked ludicrously sentimental. The company bought and installed its first vinyl presses in 1995, to service demand from independent companies producing dance music. DJs still specialised in the art of playing and mixing 12-inch records. Moreover, if a dance single was to be a hit, its progress towards success would often start with its circulation as a limited-edition “white label” record, usually pressed up in the mere hundreds.
These records often sat at the cutting edge of musical fashion, but at the same time, Optimal’s vinyl production lines were redolent of a world that had recently disappeared from view. Then as now, many of its staff – from those who pressed and packed the records to its senior management – were former East German nationals, with vivid memories of life under communism. For them, the advent of the CD had coincided with the last phase of the cold war, so that those little silver discs became a byword for western aspiration, and the kind of technological progress the eastern bloc could not get near (in the GDR, Peter Runge told me, the authorities had approved the release of just three CDs, all of which were produced in the former Czechoslovakia).
Most of the pressing machines Optimal acquired had come from decommissioned factories, in the decade-long fire sale that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. “When you buy a press, it’s usually inoperative,” said Runge, as we passed giant piles of freshly printed sleeve art for Kraftwerk albums. “A lot of machines won’t work any more, because something is broken, the electronics are missing, or something like that. And then you have to find all the spare parts, or make spare parts – because the company who made the presses no longer exists. Then you have to strip the machine down, and redo all the hydraulics and the electronics.” Engineers from the old East Germany, he told me, tend to be very good at this. “They always know how to improvise.”
In the late 1990s, six machines were used for production, while the rest were kept in storage, for spares. But at this point, after years of steady decline, the international market for new vinyl was plummeting. By 2001, the dance music world was increasingly embracing CDs, laptops and MP3s – the latter could instantly be circulated around the world, bypassing the old ritual of white-label pressings altogether. Now, Runge began discussions with Optimal’s senior staff about whether they should leave records behind. “There were a lot of meetings,” he remembered. “We asked ourselves: how long will we make records? Should we continue to manufacture vinyl? But then we decided that it had to be part of our service.”
In 2007, Optimal was presented with the chance to buy 15 more Swedish presses from Audio Services Limited (ASL), a company based in a backstreet in east London that was facing liquidation. “We had to decide whether to get the machines and continue doing this on a larger scale, or leave the business small, like it was.” At the very least, they thought, some of the new machines could be used for the ASL business that would come as part of the deal, while others would be a much-needed source of spares. “So we decided, ‘Get the machines,’” said Runge. He cracked an understated smile. “And that was a good decision, I think.”
Runge made regular trips to the plant at Orsman Road, N1, where he inspected what was on offer – not just presses, but an archive of the metallic master copies of stampers used to make thousands of different records, by artists including Simon & Garfunkel and the Manic Street Preachers, all of which could conceivably be put back into production. And he immersed himself in negotiations with the factory’s owners.
“We bought everything,” he told me. “We emptied the building.” The presses were loaded on to two trucks, with the whole of ASL’s archive on hundreds of pallets, and ferried across the North Sea to Röbel.
The gamble was worth taking. During the 2000s, buyers had increasingly expressed a desire to hear music rendered as perfectly as possible. New vinyl-only labels had started to produce albums intended to capitalise on this interest, and on rock music’s inbuilt nostalgia. A new format had been created – 180g records as opposed to the standard weight of 120g – and to counter the digital streaming culture, these were records you’d want to own, presented in luxuriant box sets, complete with hardback books and exact-replica artwork. In 2008, vinyl had been given its own annual celebration: Record Store Day, on the third Saturday in April, when record companies would create thousands of limited-edition records coveted by collectors. Meanwhile, astute independent companies such as Rough Trade, Domino and Bella Union had begun accompanying their records with exclusive download cards, so that anyone buying them could also access digital versions of the music – and thus, if they wished, not just put their new music on phones and iPods, but keep their records pristine.
“The majors hopped on the wagon,” said Julia Völkel, 32, Optimal’s senior sales manager, another former East German, who joined the company in 2000. “And they were very interested in doing box sets. They found out that catalogue releases sold very well as gifts …”
“… And nowadays,” said Runge, “we’re 100% full. We’re running, always, on the brink of maximum capacity.”
In a meeting room near the factory, Runge projected a graph showing average monthly output between 1999 and 2014. When the line got to 2011, it suddenly shot upwards: in only three years, production more than doubled, and the risk Optimal had taken in 2007 paid off. By 2013, the company had 27 active presses, manufacturing records around the clock. This year (2015), with the addition of two machines that have been brought out of storage, the company says it will press 18m records.
* * *
In October 2010, on a Sunday evening, 14 people gathered in the wood-panelled upstairs room of the Hanbury Arms, on Linton Street in Islington, north London. Two of those present paid an entrance fee of £5; the rest were invited guests. They had come to listen to a vinyl copy of Abbey Road, the Beatles’ last album. The event was the first of a series called Classic Album Sundays, and the idea was simple enough: a small crowd would come together to spend a couple of hours eating, drinking and talking, before they took their seats, snapped into silence, and listened to both sides of an album played on hair-raisingly expensive equipment.
A similar concept had already been tried in Liverpool, under the title Living To Music, where, in August, a DJ and producer called Greg Wilson had gathered people to listen to a vinyl copy of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. He invited other people to do the same thing at the same time – 9pm on a Sunday – and then share their experience online. The idea reflected a key factor in vinyl’s revival: Spotify and iTunes propagated a mode of listening whereby people could flick between tracks on a whim and, for the most part, shut out others with the aid of headphones; vinyl represented the option of really listening to a whole record – often in company.
The London event was organised by an American named Colleen Murphy, who listened to the whole of Abbey Road lying on the floor. It was reviewed by the music magazine the Word, in which Kate Mossman described 40 minutes when “eyes are focused in the middle distance, unseeing, as though every sense is shutting down in service of the ears”, and a picture captured the attendees lost in music, stroking their chins, covering their eyes, or horizontal. In early 2012, Classic Album Sundays was the subject of an item on the BBC Breakfast TV programme. Ever since, most of Murphy’s events have been sell-outs, and there are now offshoots in Glasgow, New York, Oslo and Portland, Maine.
Murphy has lived in Britain since 1999. She DJs as under the name Cosmo, produces and remixes music, and runs a vinyl‑only label called Bitches Brew. At New York University, she became the programme director of the renowned college radio station WNYU – and in the early 1990s, she began an enduring friendship with David Mancuso, who pioneered parties in Manhattan known as the Loft, where he played music through ambitious audio set-ups, only ever on vinyl.
When Murphy first visited one of Mancuso’s events, she told me: “I couldn’t believe how some of the records that I knew sounded so different.” She decided to try the Loft idea in London.
Early in December, I visited Murphy at her home in Hackney, east London. One downstairs room was lined with somewhere in the region of 10,000 records, arranged alphabetically, by artist. In the lounge, a flatscreen TV was obscured by audio kit including two Klipsch speakers, encased in wooden stands, which sell at around £6,000 for a pair and have the same dimensions as a large fridge; and an Ace Spacedeck turntablemanufactured by Nottingham Analogue Systems (£1,500).
After making tea, she jumped up to put on Jeff Buckley’s Last Goodbye, from his only completed album, Grace, released in 1994. The song – built around swirling guitar lines, and Buckley’s dizzying vocal – was transformed. The kick-drum, which drives the song along but too often sounds buried in the mix, was suddenly at the heart of what I was hearing. The Guardian’s photographer delightedly pointed out an element of the music he had never heard before, rattled out on the bell of a cymbal. Buckley’s singing was so vivid as to evoke his physical presence.
For those who grew up in the 90s, this experience is new. “Some of the Classic Album Sundays regulars are hearing an album they might not know anything about, and they’re sharing it with friends, on an amazing system,” Murphy said. “They never did this before. Most people in their 20s grew up ripping stuff from online, and listening with earbuds. They didn’t say, ‘Hey come over – I’ve got the new Beatles album, let’s listen to it.’
“Things sound different. They take on a life of their own; they comeat you. Vinyl brings something else to it. It has a total warmth to it. Everyone talks about that, but it’s true. People often say, ‘I know that album but I’ve never heard it like that before.’ When you listen to CDs after you’ve been listening to vinyl for a long time, it sounds a bit … synthetic.”
The science behind this distinction is the subject of passionate discussion. In a newly published book Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age, by Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, Berlin-based mastering engineer Andreas Lubich traces vinyl’s supposed warmth to “the flaws of the analogue in comparison with the digital … It’s about distortion, and in the best case, harmonic distortion.” Another explanation centres on the fact that analogue technology captures a greater range of sound than most comparatively crude digital equipment, a point made down the years by Neil Young – who once damned the music industry’s approach to recorded sound as follows: “We don’t really need to see the sky in all its detail – just paint that in blue … No one will know.” If there is any certainty on this subject, it probably lies somewhere in the middle of these two theories.
“The other thing with vinyl is, you have to interact with it. You have to engage,” Murphy continued. “You’ve got to flip it. A CD, you can stick in, and walk away, and it turns itself off. But you have to be with a record, sitting in the room. You can’t, like, make dinner. It forces you to listen.”
One of Murphy’s Classic Albums runs took place in a 19th-century church on the Lulworth Estate in Dorset, where she had invited me to introduce Radiohead’s OK Computer. Scores of people sat in the pews and listened to Thom Yorke’s keening vocals, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Neil Young’s Harvest, while candles flickered. The turntable had been set up next to the altar. “At one point, I did say, ‘We worship our music,’” Murphy recalled, with a laugh. “And anyway, the acoustics in old churches are great.”
She bounced up and pulled two vinyl copies of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds from her shelves, and played God Only Knows from each one. The first, on a “remastered” version from 1999, sounded underwhelming: compressed, light on bass, palpably small. But the second, on an early 70s pressing which had been packaged up with a largely awful album titled Carl And The Passions – So Tough, was expansive, packed with nuance. The most stunning element was the vocal performance of the late Carl Wilson: so fresh and intimate that it seized my attention as though we were having a conversation.
So not all new vinyl sounds perfect. Indeed, Murphy reckoned, as big labels stampeded to get involved, and inexperienced startups joined them, there was a danger of vinyl’s magic being debased. “Some of what’s coming out is great,” she said. “Because in some ways, the public demand for quality is increasing, and people are making an effort.” She mentioned the ongoing reissues of Led Zeppelin albums, which are manufactured at Optimal. “Jimmy Page was in charge, they’re mastering them from the original tapes – that’s really good. But then there’s other records, and other labels …”
She mentioned an operation based in California. By coincidence, I had just bought one of their supposedly remastered vinyl albums and been so repelled by the sound – thin, full of pops and crackles and excessive sibilance – that I had taken apart my turntable, in search of a fault that was actually in the grooves. “Fucking terrible,” Murphy agreed. “I have a feeling they might even master from MP3. They definitely aren’t mastering from the analogue tape; the sound is too thin. They go on that whole, ‘We do 180g vinyl!’ thing. But I’d rather have something good on lighter vinyl, than a 180g frisbee.”
That evening, Classic Album Sundays hosted a launch for a new Bruce Springsteen box set, spanning seven albums, from 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ to 1984’s Born in the USA. It was held at the Blues Kitchen in Shoreditch: one of those faux-American restaurant-bars that attempts to evoke the Deep South, but ends up offering an atmosphere akin to a crowded film set. In a basement room, the event had pulled an audience of around 70, evenly split between the sexes, and spread across the age range.
To begin, Murphy talked about Springsteen with the Manchester singer-songwriter Badly Drawn Boy (aka Damon Gough), who chose a song from each album, and rhapsodised about his formative experience of listening to knock-down vinyl editions of Springsteen labelled as “Nice Price”, bought from a shop in his native Bolton. “Till I was 20,” he said, “I probably listened to nothing else. He made me feel like life was an endless Saturday night.”
During a break, I fell into conversation with three members of the congregation. Gareth Ragg, 29, from Norwich, recalled: “At school, all the cool kids had records. It was a badge of honour.”
“Vinyl is tangible,” said his friend Nicky Smiles, 29. “And it’s the medium the records we listen to were actually made in.” She had bought her first record at the age of 25: Gram Parsons’ first solo album GP, originally released in 1973, buffed up and given the 180g treatment in 2007.
“There’s a commitment there,” added 28-year-old Liam Hart. “You bought it,” he said, with an implied wonderment. “You own it.”
At 9 o’clock, Murphy cued up the first track from 1975’s Born To Run, which was to be played in its entirety. Many of the women reclined, and kept their eyes closed. Some of the men conducted with sweeping hand gestures; others sat stock-still, with straight backs and expressions of deep concentration, as if to underline the significance of what they were hearing. The record – manufactured, I later discovered, at a plant in Averton, in north-western France, and played on a Rega P9 turntable (£1,600 on eBay) with a Dynavector 17D3 cartridge (£650) – foregrounded parts of the music that in other formats might be submerged: not least, the glockenspiel parts played by Roy Bittan and the late Danny Federici, which heighten the songs’ sense of sweeping romance and damaged innocence.
At the end of each track, the audience broke into delighted applause.
* * *
The sound that can trigger such an awed reaction is founded on a production process essentially unchanged in 70 years. First, the original music – in the form of master tapes, or digital files – is cut into a lacquer of malleable plastic with a texture like that of nail varnish. This is the delicate stage of mastering, which Optimal carries out in a converted Catholic church in downtown Röbel. When Peter Runge showed me around, three cutting lathes were carving the grooves for the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s live album Sun Bear concerts, the American indie-rock band Warpaint’s first album The Fool, and a record by the San Francisco psychedelicists Quicksilver Messenger Service, which droned away in a corner. Each mastering machine was connected to an old East German Robotron microcomputer: the communist version of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. One had been attached to the first cutting lathe that Optimal had acquired. It worked perfectly well, said Runge, so the same set-up had been replicated on two more machines.
At this stage, what vinyl production requires can collide with the expectations of people used to the simplicities of digital sound. “You sometimes have to educate people,” said Völkel. “Like, ‘Don’t send us a CD master of the loudest techno music and expect that to be cuttable on a lacquer.’ (The high and low frequencies associated with this type of music can overheat the cutting lathe and cause the mastering machinery to shut down; pushing the process to its limits is the origin of some records being called “hot cuts”.) It can come down to things like that if you deal with product managers who are 23.”
After mastering, the acetate disc is sprayed with atomised silver and dipped in chemicals, creating a metallic cast of the original disc known as the father. Another metal disc, called the mother, is cast from this one. The mother is then used to create several mirror-image “sons”, or “stampers”, which are taken to the presses to imprint the grooves on heated vinyl. Every stage of the process, up to the point at which the records are tucked into their sleeves, is closely monitored. Optimal’s payroll includes a handful of people who listen closely to music all day, but this job is the reverse of what happens at Classic Album Sundays: the task of these listeners is to blank out the content, remain twitchily alert and check for any audible faults.
In the US, where there are only around a dozen pressing plants, the average waiting time between music arriving at a factory and finished records emerging used to be about four weeks. Now, it runs to three months – which, in a world where musicians are used to snap-releasing their material online, can create complications. At Optimal, record companies must block book production as much as a year in advance, often before they know the details of what they will be releasing.
If the demand for vinyl continues to increase, what will happen when the orders begin to outstrip capacity? And what of the inevitable prospect of old presses reaching the limits of reconditioning and simply dying of old age? As far as anyone knows, the last new machines were created in the early 1980s. Presses now change hands for around £20,000, double what they cost 10 years ago. But sooner or later, companies such as Optimal will surely have to start thinking about fresh machinery.
“We have heard about new machines, but we have not seen any,” said Runge. “There are rumours. People claim they have a new one. But then you hear from other people, ‘No – that’s not a new one. That’s an old one with a new control system.’ Which is exactly what we have here.
“A new press would cost between 10 and 20 times as much as an old one. And it has to pay off. If that took 30 years, no one would lend you the money. And that’s the reason nobody’s doing it right now. But if another 10 or 20 of our machines break down, and are unrepairable, then we’ll have no choice.”
Runge is always quietly hunting for new machines. “We regularly get inquiries about selling presses,” he said. “But we never say yes.” At one point, he half-joked about taking a working holiday in Cuba, where there might be old presses bought from the Soviet Union. Lately, he had looked even further afield. “We tried to get presses from Zimbabwe. I had a contact there, and we put in a bid. But I never got an answer.”
We got in his company Audi A4 and drove to Berlin. Just behind the gear stick was his smartphone: he had one or two MP3s on it that had been taken from CDs, but he never bought music from iTunes, or streamed stuff on Spotify. The way that one’s listening habits are monitored and then turned into recommendations jangled his East German nerves.
“I don’t want someone else monitoring what I’m listening to,” he said. “Some time soon they will categorise your taste – what music you like, what movies you see – and say, ‘You’re dangerous!’”
He was not a fan of Facebook, or Twitter. “The internet would have been the wet dream of the Stasi,” he said.
After an hour’s drive, we pulled into a darkening Berlin, and he dropped me at my hotel on Kastanienallee, the somewhat gentrified bohemian street that runs through the heart of Prenzlauer Berg. Across the road was one of the city’s scores of record shops: Musik Department. On its walls were the kitsch-looking sleeves of old compilation albums put together in tribute to the city: Das Ist Berlin, Berlin Bei Nacht.
The shop was empty and about to close; the sole member of staff on duty was 41-year-old Falko Teichmann, a Berliner who splits his working life between being a DJ and putting in a couple of evenings a week behind the counter. He had heard of the plant at Röbel. “People have pointed it out to me from the highway,” he said. “Everyone who’s involved with vinyl knows that a lot of pressing plants closed down, so it’s almost like a monument.”
At the front of a nearby rack was a copy of Led Zeppelin II, part of the new reissue series manufactured at Optimal, that Colleen Murphy had enthused about. Teichmann, though, looked troubled. “This is an aspect of the whole vinyl renaissance or whatever you want to call it that’s a bit worrying,” he said. “It gets quite absurd. Twenty years ago, people gave their vinyl records away. Then they bought the CDs. Then they probably bought box sets because of the bonus tracks. Now, they’re buying the vinyl represses all over again. It’s just old wine in new bottles.”
For all his doubts, he loved vinyl and wouldn’t play music on any other format. “Something happens to me more and more frequently,” he said. “When I DJ, I go on after someone younger, and usually they’ve been using laptops. A lot of them just play MP3s. And I swear to God: on a couple of occasions, they’ve played their last track, I’ve cued up mine, and I play the first vinyl record, and it’s almost like the music starts to breathe again.” Recently he had heard two French kids playing digital files of 1950s rockabilly singles. “I was like, are you serious? It sounded horrible: the bass was hardly there. The treble was painful to the ear. It was awful.”
Enough young people bought records from the shop to reassure him that vinyl would endure, but he agreed that the industry would struggle to survive as its machinery grows old. Teichmann had lately heard a rumour from a friend of a friend. “They said someone had told them that some big companies were getting together to make new presses,” he told me. But he had heard nothing more.
We talked about the process of making records; I gushed blearily about the impressive workmanship I had seen that day at the plant.
“It’s all worth it,” Teichmann said simply. “It just sounds better, doesn’t it?”
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