At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records continues to be so great the staff has become turning away requests since September. This resurgence in pvc compound popularity blindsided Gary Salstrom, the company’s general manger. The business is just 5 years old, but Salstrom is making records to get a living since 1979.
“I can’t let you know how surprised I am,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they wish to pay attention to more genres on vinyl. As many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, and after that digital downloads within the last several decades, a tiny contingent of listeners obsessive about audio quality supported a modest market for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly everything from the musical world gets pressed also. 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, and it also beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, including 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 in their grooves after a while. They hope that by doing this, they will likely increase their power 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 learn the way they age and degrade. To help with that, he or she is examining a tale of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders might appear to be a primitive storage medium, these were a revelation at the time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders wrapped in tinfoil, but he shelved the project to work on the lightbulb, as outlined by sources at 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 with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon developed a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From an industrial viewpoint, the information is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started focusing on this history project in September but, before that, was working with the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him a unique industrial viewpoint from the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just suitable for the purpose it needs to be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was clearly one looming downside to 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 filed for a patent about the brown wax in 1898. However 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 would have to be individually grooved by using a cutting stylus. But the black wax could possibly be cast into grooved molds, allowing for mass creation of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax was a direct chemical descendant of your brown wax that legally belonged to American Graphophone, so American Graphophone sued Edison’s National Phonograph Co. Fortunately for your defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks demonstrated that Team Edison had, actually, developed the brown wax first. The businesses eventually settled from court.
Monroe continues to be in a position to study legal depositions in the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks because of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, that is attempting to make more than 5 million pages of documents related to Edison publicly accessible.
By using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth and his awesome colleagues developed waxes and gaining an improved idea of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. As an example, in a early experiment, Aylsworth crafted a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. Back then, industrial-grade stearic acid had been a roughly 1:1 blend of stearic acid and palmitic acid, two essential fatty acids that differ by two carbon atoms.
That early soap was “almost perfection,” Aylsworth remarked in his notebook. But after a number of days, the outer lining showed indications of crystallization and records made with it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum on the mix and found the best combination of “the good, the not so good, along with the necessary” features of all ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but too much of it can make for a weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also in charge of the crystallization problem. The upvc compound prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing as well as adding some extra toughness.
In reality, this wax was a little too tough for Aylsworth’s liking. To soften the wax, he added another fatty acid, oleic acid. But most these cylinders started sweating when summertime rolled around-they exuded moisture trapped from the humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out of the oleic acid for a simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added an important waterproofing element.
Monroe has become performing chemical analyses on collection pieces along with his synthesized samples to guarantee the materials are identical and this the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For instance, he is able to check the organic content of a wax using techniques like mass spectrometry and identify the metals in a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the very first is a result of these analyses recently in a conference hosted by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his initial two tries to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure and had no palmitic acid within it-he’s now making substances that happen to be almost identical to Edison’s.
His experiments also propose that these metal soaps expand and contract considerably with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, such as universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. As opposed to bringing the cylinders from cold storage instantly to room temperature, which is the common current practice, preservationists should permit the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This will likely minimize the worries in the wax and lower the probability that it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity involving the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also suggests that the material degrades very slowly, which happens to be great news for individuals such as Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague at the Library of Congress.
Alyea would like to recover the data saved in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To do so he captures and analyzes microphotographs of your 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 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 in a material that seems to withstand time-when stored and handled properly-may seem like a stroke of fortune, but it’s not so surprising taking into consideration the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The modifications he and Aylsworth intended to their formulations always served a purpose: to create 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 finally to Blue Amberol Records, that were cylinders made using blue celluloid plastic instead of wax.
But when these cylinders were so excellent, why did the record industry change to flat platters? It’s quicker to store more flat records in less space, Alyea explains.
Emile Berliner, inventor of your gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger may be the chair from the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC and had encouraged the Library of Congress to get started on the metal soaps project Monroe is working on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs depending on shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that could be a record industry staple for several years. Berliner’s discs used a mixture of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and a few carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured millions of discs applying this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the business from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Most of these discs have become generally known as 78s due to their playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or take a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to back up a groove and resist a record needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped the chemistry of disc records by using a material known as Condensite in 1912. “I believe that is quite possibly 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 much like Bakelite, that was 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 avoid water vapor from forming through 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, but the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product was included with a substantially higher price tag, 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 are much less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus on the University of Southern Mississippi, offers another reason why for why vinyl stumbled on dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t speak to the precise composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights in the plastic.
PVC is mostly amorphous, but with a happy accident of your free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the material is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. Because of this, PVC has enough structural fortitude to back up a groove and withstand an archive needle without compromising smoothness.
Without having additives, PVC is apparent-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something like carbon black allow it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was choosing a polymer for records and cash was no object, he’d go with polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, which is recognized to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides may also reproduce grooves better and present a far more frictionless surface, Mathias adds.
But chemists are still tweaking and improving vinyl’s formulation, says Salstrom of Quality Record Pressings. He’s working together with his vinyl supplier to locate a PVC composition that’s optimized for thicker, heavier records with deeper grooves to offer listeners a sturdier, top quality product. Although Salstrom may be astonished at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not planning to give anyone any excellent reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush usually can handle any dust that settles on a vinyl record. But how can listeners cope with more tenacious dirt and grime?
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 discover the chemistry which helps the pvc compound go into-and out from-the groove.
Molecules in Tergitol 15-S-7 possess hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains which can 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 in the hydrocarbon chain to get in touch it into a hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is really a measure of how many moles of ethylene oxide will be 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 together with water.
The outcome is a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that may get in and out of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The unhealthy news for vinyl audiophiles who might choose to use this in your house is the fact Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants straight to consumers. Their clientele are often companies who make cleaning products.