At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records has been so great 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 definitely five-years old, but Salstrom has become making records for any living since 1979.
“I can’t tell you how surprised I am just,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they need to listen to more genres on vinyl. As many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, after which digital downloads over the past several decades, a small contingent of listeners obsessed with audio quality supported a modest industry for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly anything else from the musical world gets pressed at the same time. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that vinyl record sales in 2015 exceeded $400 million in the U.S. That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, plus it beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, for example the free version of Spotify.
While old-school audiophiles and a new wave of record collectors are supporting vinyl’s second coming, scientists are considering the chemistry of materials that carry and also have carried sounds with their grooves after a while. They hope that by doing this, they will improve their power to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist at the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of some of those materials, wax cylinders, to learn the way that they age and degrade. To help you with that, he is examining a narrative of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders might appear to be a primitive storage medium, these were a revelation back then. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders wrapped in tinfoil, but he shelved the project to operate in the lightbulb, based on sources at the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell and his awesome Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Dealing with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon designed 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 in the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him a distinctive industrial viewpoint in the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just good enough for what it must be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was clearly one looming problem with the gorgeous 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. Although the lawsuit didn’t come until after Edison and Aylsworth introduced a fresh and improved black wax.
To record sound into brown wax cylinders, every one must be individually grooved using a cutting stylus. Nevertheless the black wax might be cast into grooved molds, enabling mass production of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax was 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, in reality, developed the brown wax first. The businesses eventually settled from court.
Monroe continues to be capable of study legal depositions from the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks due to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which is trying to make greater than 5 million pages of documents associated with Edison publicly accessible.
Using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth with his fantastic colleagues developed waxes and gaining a much better idea of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. For instance, in an early experiment, Aylsworth made a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. Back then, industrial-grade stearic acid was a roughly 1:1 blend of stearic acid and palmitic acid, two fatty acids that differ by two carbon atoms.
That early soap was “almost perfection,” Aylsworth remarked in their notebook. But after a couple of days, the outer lining showed warning signs of crystallization and records made out of it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum to the mix and located the correct blend of “the good, the negative, along with the necessary” features of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but way too much of it makes for any weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also liable for the crystallization problem. The upvc compound prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing as well as adding some extra toughness.
In fact, 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 through the humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out your oleic acid for a simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added a vital waterproofing element.
Monroe is performing chemical analyses on collection pieces with his fantastic synthesized samples to guarantee the materials are similar and therefore the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. As an example, he is able to look into the organic content of your wax using techniques like mass spectrometry and identify the metals inside a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the very first results from these analyses recently in a conference hosted with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his first couple of attempts 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 that happen to 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, like universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Rather than bringing the cylinders from cold storage right to room temperature, which is the common current practice, preservationists should enable the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This may minimize the worries around the wax and lower the probability that it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity between your original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also shows that the content degrades very slowly, which is great news for folks including Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague in the Library of Congress.
Alyea wants to recover the information kept in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To achieve this he captures and analyzes microphotographs from the grooves, a method pioneered by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Soft wax cylinders were perfect 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 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 within our collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured in a material that generally seems to endure time-when stored and handled properly-might appear to be a stroke of fortune, but it’s not so surprising considering the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The alterations he and Aylsworth created to their formulations always served a purpose: to help make their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations and also the corresponding advances in formulations led to his second-generation moldable black wax and eventually to Blue Amberol Records, that have been cylinders made using blue celluloid plastic rather than wax.
But when these cylinders were so excellent, why did the record industry switch to flat platters? It’s 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 of the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to start the metal soaps project Monroe is concentrating on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs according to shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that might become a record industry staple for several years. Berliner’s discs used a blend of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, plus some carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured millions of discs by using this brittle and comparatively cheap material.
“Shellac records dominated the business from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Most of these discs are now referred to as 78s because of their playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or go on a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to assist a groove and endure an archive needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped within the chemistry of disc records with a material referred to as Condensite in 1912. “I believe that is by far the most impressive chemistry in 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 has been 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 in order to avoid water vapor from forming during the high-temperature molding process, which deformed a disc’s surface, Klinger explains.
Edison was literally using a huge amount of Condensite every day in 1914, however the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product was included with a substantially higher cost, 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 supply a quieter surface, store more music, and they are less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus in the University of Southern Mississippi, offers one other reason for why vinyl got to dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t talk to the specific composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights in the plastic.
PVC is mainly amorphous, but from a happy accident of your 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 support a groove and endure a record needle without compromising smoothness.
Without the additives, PVC is clear-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something like carbon black to give it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was choosing a polymer to use for records and funds was no object, he’d go along with polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, which was seen to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides can also reproduce grooves better and provide an even 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 provide listeners a sturdier, top quality product. Although Salstrom might be surprised at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not looking to give anyone any good reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush typically handle any dust that settles over a vinyl record. But exactly how can listeners handle more tenacious dirt and grime?
The Library of Congress shares a recipe for any 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 which helps the clear pvc granule end up in-and from-the groove.
Molecules in Tergitol 15-S-7 possess hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains that happen to 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 your hydrocarbon chain for connecting it into a hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is a measure of just how many moles of ethylene oxide happen to be in the surfactant. The greater the number, the more 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 together with water.
The final result is really a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that can get inside and out of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The bad news for vinyl audiophiles who might choose to try this in your own home is that Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants directly to consumers. Their clientele are usually companies who make cleaning products.