At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records continues to be so excellent how 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 business is just five years old, but Salstrom has been making records for the living since 1979.
“I can’t explain to you how surprised I am just,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they would like to pay attention to more genres on vinyl. As many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, after which digital downloads within the last several decades, a tiny contingent of listeners obsessed with audio quality supported a modest niche for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly everything within 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 within the U.S. That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, and yes it beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, such as the free version of Spotify.
While old-school audiophiles as well as a new wave of record collectors are supporting vinyl’s second coming, scientists are looking at the chemistry of materials that carry and get carried sounds inside their grooves as time passes. They hope that by doing this, they are going to boost their power to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist in the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of one of those materials, wax cylinders, to find out the way they age and degrade. To help you with that, he or she is examining a story of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders might appear to be a primitive storage medium, these people were a revelation back then. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders wrapped in tinfoil, but he shelved the project to be effective in the lightbulb, as outlined by sources at the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured back into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell with his fantastic Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Utilizing chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon created a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From a commercial viewpoint, the information is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started working on this history project in September but, before that, was working at the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him an original industrial viewpoint in the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just sufficient for what it needs to be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There is one looming trouble with the gorgeous 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 about the brown wax in 1898. Nevertheless the lawsuit didn’t come until after Edison and Aylsworth introduced a brand new and improved black wax.
To record sound into brown wax cylinders, each one of these would have to be individually grooved with a cutting stylus. But the black wax may be cast into grooved molds, permitting mass manufacturing of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax had been a direct chemical descendant from the brown wax that legally belonged to American Graphophone, so American Graphophone sued Edison’s National Phonograph Co. Fortunately for the defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks indicated that Team Edison had, actually, developed the brown wax first. The firms eventually settled from court.
Monroe has been in a position to study legal depositions from your suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks because of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which is working to make more than 5 million pages of documents associated with Edison publicly accessible.
Using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth along with his colleagues developed waxes and gaining an improved idea of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. As an example, in an early experiment, Aylsworth created a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. At the time, industrial-grade stearic acid was actually 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 the notebook. But after a couple of days, the outer lining showed signs of crystallization and records made out of it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum towards the mix and discovered the best combination of “the good, the negative, along with the necessary” features of all of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but an excessive amount of this makes for a weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also accountable for the crystallization problem. The soft pvc granule prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing whilst adding additional toughness.
The truth is, this wax was a touch too tough for Aylsworth’s liking. To soften the wax, he added another fatty acid, oleic acid. But a 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 of the oleic acid to get a simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added a significant waterproofing element.
Monroe continues to be performing chemical analyses on collection pieces and his synthesized samples to be sure the materials are exactly the same and therefore the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For instance, they can examine the organic content of the wax using techniques such as mass spectrometry and identify the metals inside a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the initial results from these analyses recently with a conference hosted through the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his first couple of efforts to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure and had no palmitic acid in it-he’s now making substances which are almost identical to Edison’s.
His experiments also claim that these metal soaps expand and contract quite a bit with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, such as universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Rather than bringing the cylinders from cold storage straight to room temperature, the common current practice, preservationists should let the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This will minimize the strain in the wax and reduce the probability that it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity in between the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also suggests that the material degrades very slowly, which can be great news for people including Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague with the Library of Congress.
Alyea would like to recover the details stored in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To do so he captures and analyzes microphotographs of your grooves, a technique 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 the 1960s. Anthropologists also brought the wax into the field to record and preserve the voices and stories of vanishing native tribes.
“There are 10,000 cylinders with recordings of Native Americans in our collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured inside a material that seems to stand up to time-when stored and handled properly-might appear to be a stroke of fortune, but it’s less than surprising thinking about the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The alterations he and Aylsworth intended to their formulations always served a purpose: to help make their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations along with the corresponding advances in formulations triggered his second-generation moldable black wax and finally to Blue Amberol Records, which were cylinders made with blue celluloid plastic as an alternative to wax.
But if these cylinders were so excellent, why did the record industry move to flat platters? It’s quicker to store more flat records in less space, Alyea explains.
Emile Berliner, inventor in the gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger is the chair of the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to begin the metal soaps project Monroe is working on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs based upon shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that will become a record industry staple for years. Berliner’s discs used a blend of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and some carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured millions of discs using this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the business from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Several of these discs have become known as 78s because of the playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or require a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to support a groove and endure an archive needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped up the chemistry of disc records using a material referred to as Condensite in 1912. “I believe that is probably the most impressive chemistry from 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 similar to Bakelite, which had been accepted as the world’s first synthetic plastic with 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 throughout 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 came with a substantially higher price tag, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
However, when Columbia Records released vinyl long-playing records, or LPs, in 1948, shellac’s days in the music industry were numbered. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) records provide 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 at the University of Southern Mississippi, offers another reason for why vinyl stumbled on dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t speak with the specific composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights into the plastic.
PVC is mostly amorphous, but with a happy accident in the free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the content is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. For that reason, PVC has enough structural fortitude to support a groove and stand up to an archive needle without compromising smoothness.
Without any additives, PVC is apparent-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something similar to carbon black allow it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was deciding on a polymer for records and money was no object, he’d opt for polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, that has been recognized to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides could also reproduce grooves better and give 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 with his vinyl supplier to discover a PVC composition that’s optimized for thicker, heavier records with deeper grooves to present listeners a sturdier, higher quality product. Although Salstrom might be surprised at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not seeking to give anyone any top reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush can usually handle any dust that settles with a vinyl record. So how can listeners take care of more tenacious grime and dirt?
The Library of Congress shares a recipe to get a 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 discover the chemistry that assists the pvc compound go into-and out of-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 of the hydrocarbon chain in order to connect it to some hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 can be a measure of the amount of moles of ethylene oxide are in the surfactant. The higher the number, the greater water-soluble the compound is. Seven is squarely in the water-soluble category, Cameron says. Furthermore, she adds, the surfactant doesn’t become viscous or gel-like when mixed with water.
The end result is a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that may get in and out of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The bad news for vinyl audiophiles who might want to try this in your house is the fact Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants directly to consumers. Their clientele are typically companies who make cleaning products.