So you’ve finished your album. It’s going to blow our minds like none since Piano Man and you’re ready for the fame that will follow – What happens next? Your record has to be mastered by an engineer. This means your finished mix is stored on a single disc or tape or computer. The mastering engineer has experience working out details that will subtly bother your future listeners, such as noises and harmonic imbalances. His work may be straightforward if your album was recorded in a studio by a capable engineer, or very complicated if you recorded your album, say, at Sporty’s on a Wednesday night.
Next your master is sent to the pressing plant. The plant starts with what is called a lacquer – usually an aluminum disc coated in lacquer. This is placed on the record cutting machine and it’s stylus does the opposite of what your at home does. The machine feeds electrical signals into it (taken from your master) and the stylus cuts grooves into the lacquer reflecting this information.
The etched lacquer is coated in silver or nickel and when the metal is separated from the lacquer it is the opposite of the grooves you see on a record and now represents the information in the form of ridges – this new piece is called the metal master (not to be confused with this metal master). The metal master is used to make a metal record (yeah, like Diary of a Madman). The metal record is used to make the stamper.
And the stamper is essentially the negative of the record. The reason we talk about pressing a record is that the stamper is used in a hydraulic press pretty much the same way you used race cars and Star Wars guys to make imprints in playdough as a kid.
These stampers wear out. Theoretically the earlier it was pressed the better your copy is going to sound, whether it’s something numbered 0056/5000 or it’s a regular old copy of Glass Houses. There are businesses that claim to find these very best copies for you, examining the matrices (these are the numbers and sometimes famous drawings of ears etched into the dead wax between the last track and the label by the masterer), and presumably listening to hundreds if not thousands of copies of 42nd Street.
Recently a record auctioned on eBay caught the attention of people previously unaware that people actually bought records over the internet. A copy of the Beatles’ “White Album” numbered 000005 sold for over $30,000. It was reportedly given to a musician (unnamed) who visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the apartment they rented from Ringo Starr. He asked for a copy and John said he couldn’t keep number one. It has changed hands periodically over the years, and I like to imagine there’s a Sydney Greenstreet sort of eccentric millionaire out there searching for it like the Maltese Falcon.
I have an English mono copy numbered 58,849. While I have always been pretty pleased with it – the mono copies have an entirely different mix, which is pretty interesting when you’re talking about the White Album – but it’s not in particularly good shape. Take a listen:
Of course a copy of The Beatles under 100,000 really isn’t that big of a deal. In fact, I estimate that after my own copy and number five (“No disassemble number five!”) there are 99,998 more.
A couple of the most treasured records in my collection are test pressing. Three different local artists* have been generous enough to give Hymie’s a test pressing of their record – and just last month another (El Le Faunt) brought their copy to the record store to play it for the first time. Getting to share in this last moment was an inspirational experience for me, just as it was last fall when Joel Schmitz and Jon Wetzler of Buffalo Moon brought a test pressing of Selva Surreal into the shop for Laura to hear.
*I’m not gonna say what they are, and I’m definitely not gonna trade either for your stupid magic beans. These aren’t things we take home for our collection – these are the property of Hymie’s Records and they aren’t going to leave the record shop for a million dollars!
A specific copy of an album doesn’t have to be a test pressing or numbered to be special – an album you bought at a show, an album you were given, an album you found for twenty-five cents – twenty-five cents - at that flea market in Buffalo. Or Monticello, somewhere that way. They’re all unique. Nobody else bought or found or received that album.
Records are special.