Burlington Record Plant presses forward.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY BURLINGTON RECORD PLANT
In an unassuming industrial garage in Burlington, a fascinating musical demimonde lies hidden behind a heavy black door. Rows of specialized and obscure machines stand under an intricate labyrinth of thin metal pipes. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling in colorful custom-made records, which represent an eclectic range of genres from European Death Metal to Conscious Hip-Hop. As Justin Crowther energetically paces through the workshop, there is a focused and determined expression on his face while he inspects the dials and meters on his machines. Ever since he first founded Burlington Record Plant in 2014, Justin has channeled the same creative passion that fueled his career as a touring musician into the complex and nuanced craft of record manufacturing.
Justin recalls that the original inspiration behind Burlington Record Plant came from his desire to find stability and freedom as a self-employed entrepreneur. “When I was on tour playing drums for a country-western metal band called Waylon Speed, I came to an important realization. I understood that if I could figure out how to make vinyl records in Vermont, I would be able to work for myself doing something that I was passionate about. I was working five different jobs at the time, and I wanted something more consistent and fulfilling. After that initial ‘A-ha!’ moment, I didn’t stop working towards my goal until we made our first record here at Burlington Record Plant a year-and-a-half later.”
Justin says that after he found the space on Pine Street where he wanted to open his workshop, he then invested the entirety of his savings into specialized machinery from overseas. “I found some of the last available equipment on the market. Record pressing machines are certainly not easy to come by. The machine was located in Germany, and it cost roughly €20,000. It was originally custom-built in 1962, for the Warner Bros. factory in Europe. It had been out of service for 30 years. In order to bring it over here, I had to ship it from Germany to Amsterdam, then from Amsterdam to New York City. Once it was finally over here in the United States, I had it brought up on a truck from New York City to Burlington. I then dismantled the machine and commandeered the services of my friend who worked as an engineer over at Burton Snowboards. He helped me reverse-engineer some of the parts and figure out how the machine worked.
We managed to get the machine up and running, and we did the first initial test runs soon after. From there, I just kept moving forward and making more records. The business grew entirely through word of mouth. I never had to advertise or pay to promote it. As demand increased, we ended up custom-building an additional second machine ourselves with the knowledge that we had gained
from dismantling the first one. I learned everything I know from showing up every day and figuring it out one step at a time. There are only 100 or so other record-making operations on the planet. It’s an extremely delicate and complex process. It takes a lot of patience to get it just right.”
Justin explains that in order to begin the record-making process, you first need obtain the metal “negatives” for any musical project that you want to press. “Every record that we press here at Burlington Record Plant starts out as a ‘master lacquer’ in a studio down in Nashville. A master lacquer is an aluminum disc that is coated with a really soft paint lacquer. It has an approximate shelf life of 24 to 48 hours once it’s cut. The paint-coated aluminum disc is then placed on a cutting lathe, and carved with a very fine specialized sapphire cutting tip. The sapphire has a microscopic speaker within it that plays the music from the audio source that is being made. The vibrations from the speaker move the sapphire cutting tool back and forth, which cuts microscopic grooves into the paint lacquer. That’s how they make the original blueprint for the record. Once the master lacquer is finished, it moves onto the ‘electroplating’ stage.”
Before the electroplating process can begin, the master lacquer is scrubbed with soap in order to
remove any debris. Justin says that this is essential in order to make sure that no microscopic particles get caught in the grooves of the master lacquer. “In the electroplating process, the master lacquer disc is coated with pure silver, which fills the grooves that were etched by the sapphire cutting tool. They then ‘electroplate’ the master lacquer disc with nickel underwater to harden the material through a chemical and electrical reaction. After that, they peel the newly-formed metal coating off of the master lacquer. This metal coating is what is known as a ‘stamper.’ Once we receive the negatives for a project, we can begin pressing it in our workshop. Whenever we press a run of records, we place the ‘A’ and ‘B’ side stampers on the bottom and top sides of the pressing machine. That’s how the records get the grooves through which they play the music – through the
raised lines on the metal negatives that form microscopic indentations in the vinyl.”
Justin adds that each record is made using a compound that is created by feeding polyvinyl chloride (PVC) granules into what is known as an “extruder” machine. “The extruder machine heats and softens the granules into a ‘biscuit’ that forms a hockey puck-shaped mound. That mound of PVC material is known as the ‘pre-form.’ We then hand-load the pre-form into the record-pressing machine. The record-pressing machine uses a hydraulic press, which is powered by an independent hydraulic system. The process is controlled by pneumatic valves, and heated and cooled by a high-pressure steam boiler and a high-pressure water reservoir system across the room. When the press is active, the steam travels in pipes from the steam boiler to the pressing machine. The pressure builds up to 150 tons, and the material is pressed and heated in the record-pressing machine to the point that it molds the material to the shape of the microscopic grooves on the metal stamper. It’s a little bit like a massive industrial waffle iron.”
From there, the records are trimmed by a machine that utilizes a hot knife to carve a perfectly- symmetrical circular outline around the record. When the plant is working at peak capacity, it only takes one minute for the PVC material to go from the “pre-form” stage to a finished, playable record.
After the records are cut, one out of every ten goes through visual and sonic evaluation for quality control purposes. Justin says that this level of diligence is critically important, as any flaw that is repeatedly found in a batch of records can serve as a diagnostic indicator of larger manufacturing issues. “At every step of the process, it all comes down to the mindfulness of the operator. In the early stages, if the master lacquer isn’t properly cleaned or prepared, it can result in massive sound problems down the line. The same thing goes with what we do here at our record plant at the later stages. If any tiny pieces of debris contaminate the stampers while we’re pressing, the records are going to pop, and the sound is effectively ruined. You’ll have dents on the record, and you’ll hear them like heartbeats if the stamper is not correctly prepared and installed in the machine. Flatness is also very important. In addition to checking the sound of the records, we inspect one out of every ten to make sure that they are as flat as we can get them post production. If a record is warped, you’re going to encounter problems when playing them. We reject all records that are warped more than 2 millimeters.”
After the quality control stage, the records then move on to the final packaging stage, where they are sleeved in album jackets, shrink wrapped, and boxed and shipped out to customers around the globe. Each record’s color scheme is custom-designed in-house at Burlington Record Plant, allowing bands and artists to create a cohesive and personalized audiovisual experience for their fans and listeners.
In addition to a wide range of vivid “base colors” of PVC granules – such as “Opaque African Violet” and “Powder Blue” – Justin and his team are able to create mesmerizing visual effects by combining different types of granules together. According to Justin, many of his most striking record designs are made by making use of reclaimed ‘scraps’ from rejected records. “Many of our records are made using what we like to call ‘special effects.’ For example, if you take gold pre-form as the base for a record, and coat it in reclaimed black vinyl scraps, it’s going to give the record really cool black streaks and smudges that form a beautiful contrasting pattern. You can also do red streaks and splotches with clumps of reclaimed red material for ‘splatter’ effects. My friend and neighbor, Kalin Thomas, is an incredibly talented artist. We have a lot of fun figuring out complimentary colors that work well together.”
Justin says that one of the most fulfilling parts of his creative process is working with musicians to bring their visions to life. “Whenever I work with a band or musical artist, I like to consult with them about their artistic vision for the record. I try to guide them in their decision-making process based on my past successes and failures with different color combinations. We have some long-standing customers who love it when we pitch them ideas for their records based on their taste. Sometimes musicians will send me pictures or renderings of their potential album jacket covers from their art designers. I’ll take the album jacket art and experiment with different patterns to determine what color palettes and special effects would mesh well with it. Sometimes when there’s no pre-established visual precedent, I’ll look at a band or artist’s stage lighting and merchandise to determine what direction to take the color scheme in. I usually end up presenting my customers with more than one potential possibility. I always like to give people multiple options to work with. I recently had the opportunity to curate the re-issue of a record that I really love. They told me to ‘do whatever I thought would look great.’ It’s really gratifying to be able to express myself artistically through the records that I make here.”
As a firm believer in the importance of sustainable business practices, Justin goes above and beyond to minimize the environmental impact of his operation. “We use natural gas to power the steam boiler, which is the most energy-efficient way to create steam. We also use a closed-loop water system, and we monitor our process as closely as possible. We have a less than 5% ‘scrap rate’ here at Burlington Record Plant for the vinyl that we use to make our records. Anything but white vinyl can be added back into the black material, so our black records are made with a ration
of three cans of ‘virgin black vinyl’ to one can of ‘reclaimed vinyl’ from our own facility. We waste very few materials here. We run our pressing machine in a meticulously calculated manner that conserves energy and maximizes efficiency. All of our shipping materials are recyclable. All of our boxes are made here in Vermont. It helps us to reduce our carbon impact by sourcing locally. When you’re making records, you’re dealing with archaic technology. Whenever there’s an opportunity to integrate sustainable manufacturing methods, we carefully assess and implement without delay.”
Building upon that philosophy of ethically-minded craftsmanship, Justin is proud to be able to run his business in line with his personal moral principles.
“The best thing about owning this business is being able to use it as a platform to build the world that I want to live in. We’re not making a product that’s toxic or harmful to consume. We’re making
something that brings happiness and enjoyment to peoples’ lives. At the end of the day, this is still a labor of love for me. This business has never been about profits. We’re carving out a new way of doing things here at Burlington Record Plant – in more ways than one.”