Record collectors around the world will typically part with a much greater share of their hard-earned for a first pressing of an album, than for a subsequent re-pressing. But what does this actually mean, and is a first pressing any better in real manufacturing terms?
As previously discussed In Issues 92, 93, and -94, the vinyl record manufacturing process consists of three main stages: mastering, plating, and pressing. In the mastering stage, the recording is transferred from the medium it had been stored on (the master tape in the good old days and a variety of digital formats thereafter), to grooves on a blank master disk.
To ensure that the program material is compatible with how it would be represented on record grooves, signal processing may be applied, altering the original recording, with one of two aims. If the goal is the ultimate in sound quality and cost is no object (a very rare set of circumstances, both then and now), the usually very minimal changes that are applied during the disk mastering stage are intended to highlight the strengths of the particular mastering system with the given material and ensure that it sounds as good as possible when reproduced from the grooves of the final product. When the budget is low, signal processing often serves the purpose to merely to protect the sensitive cutter head from damage, with no regard to how this may impact the sound quality.
When an album is later remastered, the recording goes to the mastering stage anew, to create a new set of master disks. The new masters may be produced from a different source, using different equipment, by a different engineer, at a different facility. More often than not, remastering is necessitated because the original stampers (or mothers; see below) have been discarded, lost, damaged, or have deteriorated and a new set of masters is needed to create new sets of stampers for a repress. While all remastered records are also re-pressings, not all re-pressings are remastered. In purely technical terms, the remastering process does not in itself guarantee better results. It simply denotes that the final product may sound different from the original masters.
The author inspecting a freshly-cut lacquer master disk on a disk mastering lathe, using a microscope. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
Once the master disks are cut, whether these are original masters or the product of remastering, they are sent off for plating. In the plating stage, the stampers are created, which will then be used to press the multiple copies of the record.
A set of stampers can be used to press a few thousand records at most. This creates an interesting situation. An internationally renowned artist back in the 1970s could easily have a "first pressing" run of several hundred thousand copies, in anticipation of the expected volume of sales. That "first pressing" would not be possible with a single set of stampers and would most probably also require multiple sets of master disks, multiple sets of mothers and multiple sets of stampers, fitted to multiple presses. Depending on the standards of quality control, there could be minor or not-so-minor differences between records from within that first pressing. A "second pressing," done a few months later to satisfy the demand, would not necessarily have bigger differences that those found between samples from the first pressing.
Conversely, an artist at the onset of their career nowadays could order a first pressing of a mere 300 copies just to test the waters. If they sell, a repress of, say, another 300 copies would be made, using the same set of stampers used for the first pressing. In theory, sonic differences in this case would be extremely minor, if any at all. However, I have personally experienced two opposite extremes of unforeseen circumstances. In one case, the stampers were inadvertently damaged in between the first and second pressing. This created noise and distortion on the entire second pressing run. However, the opposite is also possible. In another instance, during the first pressing, some debris became lodged onto the stamper, creating a small click at a certain point in the music, during a quiet passage where it was quite noticeable, on approximately half of the records of the first pressing. For the repress, the stampers were carefully cleaned, so the repress actually sounds better than the first pressing, using the same set of stampers.
During the plating stage, multiple stampers can be generated from a metal mother. Replacing a worn or damaged stamper with a fresh one will usually result in a substantial improvement is sound quality. However, due to the nature of the plating process, the original "center" of the lathe is lost, requiring each stamper to be individually re-centered manually, using optical measurement instruments and a punch. This establishes the location of the center hole of the record, which would ideally be perfectly concentric with the groove spiral. In practice, however, there are manufacturing tolerances for that. As the stampers need to be securely mounted onto the molds of a hydraulic press, the hole punched on the stamper is larger in diameter than the center hole of the record, allowing a bush to be used to clamp the stamper down from the center. This leaves the characteristic mark around the center hole, under the paper label. A pin running in the bushing establishes the center hole on the final product.
As such, the centering of the stamper is only indirectly establishing a center. The accumulative errors of centering the stamper, mounting it on the mold, and the geometric errors of the pin, determine the overall concentricity of the final product. As a result, while a fresh stamper may improve some aspects of sound quality, it can introduce eccentricity, creating a different problem. Conversely, it could also happen that the fresh stamper is more accurately centered than the original, in which case the re-press would sound considerably better than the first pressing.
Scribing on a metal mother. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
The scribing on a metal mother. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.
Last, but not least, comes the pressing stage itself. A re-press is often done years later, at a different pressing plant, sometimes in a different country. Different presses, in different states of wear and tear, using different steam, water and hydraulic installations, in different climate conditions, using different virgin or recycled vinyl compounds, with an enormous diversity in operator skill and in-house manufacturing standards, all have a huge effect upon the sound of the final product. Even just using a different PVC compound will make a difference, using the same stampers. It is extremely difficult to guess whether the original pressing or a subsequent re-press would offer the best sound quality, unless more information is known about where and how it was done.
Collectible items, with records being no exception, are not necessarily valued for their usability. Rarity and bragging rights may often be valued much more than the sound quality. I personally value sound quality above all else. A remaster or a re-press may be better or worse than the original, depending on a huge number of factors. As a general rule, if detailed information is offered regarding how the process was done and specific people are named for doing it, this is usually a sign that quality did matter. If no information is offered, more often than not, there is nothing exciting to say. Would you buy a record advertised as "Remastered using automated settings by whoever worked the night shift and then pressed at the cheapest place we could find with no quality control whatsoever? " If the re-issue just states "Remastered," it probably looks better in terms of marketing cachet, but may imply the above. However, an original pressing does not necessarily mean that it wasn't mastered by the new trainee working the graveyard shift. Information is key to being able to estimate how high your expectations should be set. The availability of information adds value to a product, for me. Marketing is all nice, but it is the real substance behind it that makes a record sound good or not.
An SMT record press at United Record Pressing. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/David McClister.
Header image: J.I. Agnew reflected on a metal mother, played back on a turntable with a Shure V15III cartridge on an SME tonearm. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.