At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records continues to be so excellent that the staff continues to be turning away requests since September. This resurgence in pvc compound popularity blindsided Gary Salstrom, the company’s general manger. The company is simply 5 years old, but Salstrom continues to be making records for a living since 1979.
“I can’t tell you how surprised I am,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they need to tune in to more genres on vinyl. Because so many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, then digital downloads over the past several decades, a small contingent of listeners obsessive about audio quality supported a modest market for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly the rest in the musical world is to get pressed as well. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that vinyl record sales in 2015 exceeded $400 million inside the U.S. That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, and it also beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, for example the free version of Spotify.
While old-school audiophiles along with a new wave of record collectors are supporting vinyl’s second coming, scientists are considering the chemistry of materials that carry and get carried sounds inside their grooves after a while. They hope that by doing this, they may improve their ability to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist at the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of one of those particular materials, wax cylinders, to discover how they age and degrade. To aid with the, he is examining a story of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders might appear to be a primitive storage medium, these people were a revelation during the time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders covered with tinfoil, but he shelved the project to work around the lightbulb, as outlined by sources in the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured back into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell and his Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Working with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon developed a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From a commercial viewpoint, the material is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started concentrating on this history project in September but, before that, was working at the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him a unique industrial viewpoint of the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just good enough for the purpose it must be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was clearly one looming issue with the beautiful 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 filed for a patent around the brown wax in 1898. However the lawsuit didn’t come until after Edison and Aylsworth introduced a new and improved black wax.
To record sound into brown wax cylinders, every one would have to be individually grooved by using a cutting stylus. But the black wax could be cast into grooved molds, enabling mass creation of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax was actually a direct chemical descendant in the brown wax that legally belonged to American Graphophone, so American Graphophone sued Edison’s National Phonograph Co. Fortunately for that defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks indicated that Team Edison had, in reality, developed the brown wax first. Companies eventually settled away from court.
Monroe continues to be capable to study legal depositions from your suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks because of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which is attempting to make greater than 5 million pages of documents relevant to Edison publicly accessible.
By using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth with his fantastic colleagues developed waxes and gaining a greater comprehension of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. As an example, within an early experiment, Aylsworth crafted a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. At the time, industrial-grade stearic acid had been a roughly 1:1 combination of stearic acid and palmitic acid, two fatty acids that differ by two carbon atoms.
That early soap was “almost perfection,” Aylsworth remarked within his notebook. But after a couple of days, the surface showed signs of crystallization and records created using it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum for the mix and located the best mixture of “the good, the negative, and the necessary” features of all the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but too much of it can make for a weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also responsible for the crystallization problem. The rigid pvc compound prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing whilst adding some additional toughness.
In fact, this wax was a little too tough for Aylsworth’s liking. To soften the wax, he added another fatty acid, oleic acid. But most these cylinders started sweating when summertime rolled around-they exuded moisture trapped from the humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out of the oleic acid for any simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added an essential waterproofing element.
Monroe has become performing chemical analyses for both collection pieces along with his synthesized samples so that the materials are identical and that the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For example, he could look into the organic content of your wax using techniques like mass spectrometry and identify the metals in a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the first comes from these analyses recently at a conference hosted with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his initial two attempts to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure and had no palmitic acid within it-he’s now making substances which are almost just like Edison’s.
His experiments also claim that these metal soaps expand and contract a great deal with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, such as universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Instead of bringing the cylinders from cold storage straight to room temperature, the common current practice, preservationists should enable the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This will likely minimize the anxiety about the wax and lower the probability which it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity involving the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also implies that the information degrades very slowly, which is great news for anyone including Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague on the Library of Congress.
Alyea wishes to recover the data kept in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To accomplish this he captures and analyzes microphotographs of your grooves, a strategy pioneered by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Soft wax cylinders were great for recording one-off sessions, Alyea says. Business folks could capture dictations using wax and did so up into the 1960s. Anthropologists also brought the wax in 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 inside our collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured in a material that appears to stand up to time-when stored and handled properly-may seem like a stroke of fortune, but it’s not so surprising thinking about the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The changes he and Aylsworth designed to their formulations always served a purpose: to create their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations along with the corresponding advances in formulations resulted in his second-generation moldable black wax and finally to Blue Amberol Records, that were 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 much easier to store more flat records in less space, Alyea explains.
Emile Berliner, inventor from the gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger is the chair from the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to start out the metal soaps project Monroe is focusing on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs depending on shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that could be a record industry staple for decades. Berliner’s discs used a combination of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and some carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured countless discs by using this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the marketplace from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Most of these discs have become known as 78s for their playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or take a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to assist a groove and endure an archive needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped up the chemistry of disc records with a material known as Condensite in 1912. “I believe that is by far the most impressive chemistry of 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 that was comparable to Bakelite, that was acknowledged as the world’s first synthetic plastic from the American Chemical Society, C&EN’s publisher.
What set Condensite apart, though, was hexamethylenetetramine. Aylsworth added the compound to Condensite to prevent water vapor from forming in the high-temperature molding process, which deformed a disc’s surface, Klinger explains.
Edison was literally using a lot of Condensite each day in 1914, nevertheless the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product was included with a substantially higher price tag, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
But once Columbia Records released vinyl long-playing records, or LPs, in 1948, shellac’s days from the music industry were numbered. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) records give a quieter surface, store more music, and are a lot less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus with the University of Southern Mississippi, offers another reason why why vinyl stumbled on dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t talk with the actual composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights into the plastic.
PVC is generally amorphous, but by a happy accident from the free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the information is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. Consequently, PVC has enough structural fortitude to back up a groove and stand up to a record needle without compromising smoothness.
Without having additives, PVC is obvious-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs such as carbon black to give it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was selecting a polymer for records and cash was no object, he’d go with polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, that has been seen to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides can also reproduce grooves better and offer an even more frictionless surface, Mathias adds.
But chemists continue to be tweaking and improving vinyl’s formulation, says Salstrom of Quality Record Pressings. He’s working with his vinyl supplier to identify a PVC composition that’s optimized for thicker, heavier records with deeper grooves to provide listeners a sturdier, top quality product. Although Salstrom can be amazed at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not planning to give anyone any top reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush normally can handle any dust that settles over a vinyl record. But just how can listeners take care of more tenacious dirt and grime?
The Library of Congress shares a recipe for the 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 learn about the chemistry that can help the pvc compound enter into-and out 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 the hydrocarbon chain to connect it to a hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 can be a way of measuring how many moles of ethylene oxide are in the surfactant. The higher the number, the more 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 combined with water.
The result is actually a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that will get in and out of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The not so good news for vinyl audiophiles who might want to do this in your own home is the fact Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants instantly to consumers. Their clientele are usually companies who make cleaning products.