Last week's Apollo/Transco fire may have hobbled the global vinyl industry. Matthew McDermott investigates.
Earlier this week, Rolling Stone published a report on Direct Shot Distributing, a California-based company that, until late last year, was responsible for delivering nearly 80 percent of the physical music on the US market. While that bottleneck led to inevitable delays and gross inefficiency (such as an entire freight-truck carrying just four records), last week's lacquer manufacturing plant fire presented a more dramatic metaphor for a ramshackle industry.
The fire broke out on Thursday, February 6th, at the Apollo/Transco factory in Banning, California, a small city between Los Angeles and Joshua Tree National Park. No employees were injured, but all of the company's equipment was destroyed. The company posted a note to its webpage stating that the fire caused "catastrophic damage," adding that it wasn't sure if the factory would reopen.
Apollo/Transco was responsible for 80 percent of the global supply of blank lacquer discs. If you're an artist, DJ, or even a record store clerk, you'd be forgiven for being ignorant on the importance of blank lacquers. But most vinyl records don't exist without them. Put simply, the lacquer master disc is the starting point in the vinyl record manufacturing chain.
"A blank lacquer disc is an aluminum disc with a thin coating of nitrocellulose lacquer—sort of like nail polish," said Bob Weston, a musician, recording engineer, producer and head of Chicago Mastering Service. He's handled mastering jobs for everyone from LCD Soundsystem to Elvis Presley to Jessy Lanza. In a mastering studio, Weston explained, audio is played back into a disc cutting lathe which etches a groove into a lacquer disc simultaneously using a ruby or sapphire stylus. (An alternative method, Direct Metal Mastering, forgoes the lacquer disc, using different lathe cutting machines to etch the groove directly into copper.) In traditional lacquer mastering, the final product is then electroplated with nickel, creating a negative image which is then used to form vinyl records from PVC at pressing plants.
Apollo/Transco was one of only two companies in the world manufacturing blank lacquer discs, leaving MDC in Japan as the only source of lacquers after the fire. Apollo/Transco was also one of two global manufacturers of the styli used to cut lacquers. Now, a Japanese company called Adamant is the only place to get those.
After hearing about the Apollo/Transco fire, Dark Entries label founder Josh Cheon immediately halved his vinyl release schedule for 2020. "I immediately emailed ten different artists and told them that I'm not putting out their record this year," Cheon said over the phone from his office in San Francisco. "It was kind of dramatic. I sent apologies and said, if you want to do a digital release I'm open to digital-only, it's not like it has to be vinyl. There's only so many lacquers to go around to all the record labels in the world."
Studios engineer operating a lathe, cutting a lock groove on an upcoming Dark Entries release.View this post on Instagram
For those asking what a lacquer is, here’s a video of Anne-Marie Suenram testing a lock groove cut for the forthcoming @sepehr.music_ album. Our mastering engineer George Horn cuts grooves in each lacquer to create master discs, which are then sent to pressing plants where they are plated with nickel to create the stampers that press records. We are aware of DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) that skips the lacquer and cuts grooves directly into nickel but for dance records this is not an option as the low end suffers considerably.
When I caught up with Dietrich Schoenemann, a key figure in East Coast techno since the early '90s and head of Complete Mastering, he hasn't slept in three days. Schoenemann is on the front lines of the Apollo/Transco aftermath. "I turned down 13 records today," he tells me. "That's a whole week's worth of work, I had to just say no because they're all new clients. They're all calling around looking for who has lacquers."
Japan's MDC, the world's only remaining lacquer disc manufacturer, is about a third of the size of Apollo/Transco, according to Schoenemann, who pointed out that their manufacturing capacity probably would have covered the world's lacquer disc needs before the recent resurgence in vinyl. Apollo/Transco was also the sole manufacturer of the lacquer discs used to make 10-inch and 7-inch records, meaning a future shortage in those formats is likely.
But Schoenemann, who has expanded his skillset from making techno records to mastering and distributing them, has a plan to start his own lacquer company with a small "vinyl industry coalition." They hope to have lacquers ready in six months. "We actually had started talking about this and were a few hundred hours in, but we stopped a year ago because of the expensive chemical testing. But now there's no choice."
But surely, one obscure factory going up in flames isn't the nail in the coffin for an industry generating hundreds of millions in sales? There must be some alternative? There is, but for club music, it comes with a catch.
Direct Metal Mastering, or DMM, is an alternative cutting method which allows engineers to bypass the lacquer disc, using Neumann-manufactured lathes to cut directly onto copper. While DMM is widely known to produce a vinyl record with less overall surface noise, Cheon flatly dismissed it as a viable back-up: "We are aware of DMM that skips the lacquer and cuts grooves directly into nickel, but for dance records this is not an option as the low-end suffers considerably." This kicked-off a spirited debate usually confined to the letters page of Tape Op Magazine.
Storm Rave legend and Sonic Groove boss Adam X was one of the most vocal detractors. For most of the '90s and 2000s, Sonic Groove exclusively used DMM mastering. (Their records were cut in a now-defunct New York plant called Europadisc.) "From personal experience, I've done seven or eight records of my own DMM and they sound amazing, exactly the way they should have," he said. "The bass frequencies on them are very heavy. They always say that if you put too much bass on the track because the grooves aren't deep enough they jump out, but I've never had that on any of my records."
Schoenemann, for his part, said, "There's nothing wrong with DMM, especially on an album. You want to pack a 25-minute side of a record, DMM's the way to go. If you know what you're doing, you're gonna make DMM sound as good as lacquer."
Weston, meanwhile, remained neutral on the copper vs. lacquer debate. "I'd say that the way a cut sounds has a lot more to do with the cutting engineer and their experience and skill with their equipment than which technology they use," he said. "A great cutter who knows her copper lathe well can probably do a great club 12-inch copper cut. And a mediocre lacquer cutting engineer can do a bad sounding cut on a lacquer lathe."
There are no DMM lathes in the US, and Cheon speculates there are only five or six in the world. "You're telling me those five or six lathes are going to take all the vinyl manufacturing jobs?"
Despite the gloomy outlook, records will continue to be made. Many mastering rooms have existing relationships with MDC. The European plant that Adam X uses, Record Industry, is equipped with both vinyl and copper lathes. "I wouldn't panic. There are still lacquers being made," said Weston. "And, eventually, some new lacquer plants will come online."