At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records is 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 five years old, but Salstrom has been making records for a living since 1979.
“I can’t tell you how surprised I am just,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they would like to listen to more genres on vinyl. As most casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, then digital downloads within the last several decades, a compact 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 the rest from the musical world is becoming pressed too. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that vinyl record sales in 2015 exceeded $400 million within the Usa That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, and yes it beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, including 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 possess carried sounds in their grooves over time. They hope that in doing so, they are going to increase their capability to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist on the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of some of those materials, wax cylinders, to discover the direction they age and degrade. To help you with that, he is examining a narrative of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders may seem like a primitive storage medium, these people were a revelation at that time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders covered with tinfoil, but he shelved the project to operate on 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 awesome Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Working together with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon created a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From an industrial viewpoint, the fabric is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started focusing on this history project in September but, before that, was working on the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him a unique industrial viewpoint from the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just suitable for what it must be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was clearly one looming downside to the stunning brown wax, though: Edison and Aylsworth never patented it.
Enter Thomas H. MacDonald of American Graphophone Co., who basically paid people off to help him copy Edison’s recipe, Monroe says. MacDonald then declared a patent on the brown wax in 1898. But 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 had to be individually grooved having a cutting stylus. Although the black wax could possibly be cast into grooved molds, permitting mass creation of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax was really a direct chemical descendant of 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 demonstrated that Team Edison had, actually, developed the brown wax first. The businesses eventually settled away from court.
Monroe has become capable to study legal depositions from the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks because of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which happens to be trying to make more than 5 million pages of documents related to Edison publicly accessible.
By using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth along with his colleagues developed waxes and gaining a greater comprehension of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. As an illustration, inside an early experiment, Aylsworth crafted a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. At the time, industrial-grade stearic acid was really 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 several days, the surface showed indications of crystallization and records made out of it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum on the mix and discovered the proper combination of “the good, the bad, as well as the necessary” features of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but an excessive amount of it makes for a weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also accountable for the crystallization problem. The rigid pvc compound prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing as well as adding additional toughness.
In reality, 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 your humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out your oleic acid for the simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added a vital waterproofing element.
Monroe continues to be performing chemical analyses on both collection pieces with his fantastic synthesized samples to be sure the materials are similar and therefore the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For example, he is able to look into the organic content of any wax using techniques such as mass spectrometry and identify the metals in the sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the initial is a result of these analyses recently at a conference hosted from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his first couple of tries to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure and had no palmitic acid inside-he’s now making substances which can be almost just like Edison’s.
His experiments also suggest that these metal soaps expand and contract quite a bit with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, including universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Instead of bringing the cylinders from cold storage straight to room temperature, which is the common current practice, preservationists should allow the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This can minimize the anxiety on the wax and reduce the probability that it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity involving the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also suggests that the content degrades very slowly, which can be great news for individuals like Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague with the Library of Congress.
Alyea would like to recover the info kept in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To do this he captures and analyzes microphotographs of the grooves, a method 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 in to the 1960s. Anthropologists also brought the wax into 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 your collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured in the material that appears to stand up to time-when stored and handled properly-might appear to be 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 adjustments he and Aylsworth made to their formulations always served a purpose: to make their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations as well as the corresponding advances in formulations resulted in his second-generation moldable black wax and ultimately to Blue Amberol Records, that had been cylinders created using blue celluloid plastic rather than wax.
But if these cylinders were so great, why did the record industry move to flat platters? It’s much easier to store more flat records in less space, Alyea explains.
Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger is definitely the chair in the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC and had encouraged the Library of Congress to start out the metal soaps project Monroe is concentrating on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs based on shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that might develop into a record industry staple for decades. Berliner’s discs used a blend of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and several carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured millions of discs employing this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the business from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Several of these discs are called 78s because of their playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or require a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to support a groove and withstand an archive needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped the chemistry of disc records with a material referred to as Condensite in 1912. “I assume that is probably 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 which was comparable to Bakelite, that was recognized as the world’s first synthetic plastic by 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 through the high-temperature molding process, which deformed a disc’s surface, Klinger explains.
Edison was literally using a ton of Condensite every day in 1914, nevertheless the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product came with a substantially higher price, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
However 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 in the University of Southern Mississippi, offers another reason why vinyl got to 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 with 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. As a result, PVC has enough structural fortitude to assist a groove and stand up to an archive needle without compromising smoothness.
With no additives, PVC is apparent-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something such as carbon black allow it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was deciding on a polymer to use for records and funds was no object, he’d choose polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, which is known to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides may also reproduce grooves better and provide a much more frictionless surface, Mathias adds.
But chemists will still be tweaking and improving vinyl’s formulation, says Salstrom of Quality Record Pressings. He’s working together with his vinyl supplier to identify a PVC composition that’s optimized for thicker, heavier records with deeper grooves to provide listeners a sturdier, higher quality product. Although Salstrom could be surprised by the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not planning to give anyone any good reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush normally can handle any dust that settles over a vinyl record. But just how can listeners handle more tenacious grime and dirt?
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 assists the transparent pvc compound go into-and out from-the groove.
Molecules in Tergitol 15-S-7 possess hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains which are between 11 and 15 carbon atoms long. The S means it’s a secondary alcohol, so there’s a hydroxyl jutting dexrpky05 the midsection from the hydrocarbon chain for connecting it to a hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is actually a measure of just how many moles of ethylene oxide have been in the surfactant. The greater the number, the greater water-soluble the compound is. Seven is squarely in water-soluble category, Cameron says. Furthermore, she adds, the surfactant doesn’t become viscous or gel-like when together with water.
The outcome is actually a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that may get out and in of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The unhealthy news for vinyl audiophiles who may want to use this in the home is the fact Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants directly to consumers. Their customers are usually companies who make cleaning products.