At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records is so great how the staff is turning away requests since September. This resurgence in pvc compound popularity blindsided Gary Salstrom, the company’s general manger. The organization is just five years old, but Salstrom has become making records for the living since 1979.
“I can’t let you know how surprised I am just,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they need to tune in to more genres on vinyl. As most casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, after which digital downloads in 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 anything else inside the musical world gets 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 it also beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, like the free version of Spotify.
While old-school audiophiles plus a new wave of record collectors are supporting vinyl’s second coming, scientists are considering the chemistry of materials that carry and possess carried sounds with their grooves with time. They hope that in doing so, they may enhance their capacity to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist with the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of one of those particular materials, wax cylinders, to find out the direction they age and degrade. To help you with the, 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 around the lightbulb, as outlined by sources with the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured back into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell and his Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Dealing with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon developed a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From a commercial viewpoint, the content is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started taking care of this history project in September but, before that, was working in the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him a distinctive industrial viewpoint of your material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just suitable for what it must be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was one looming issue 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 around the brown wax in 1898. Nevertheless the lawsuit didn’t come until after Edison and Aylsworth introduced a fresh and improved black wax.
To record sound into brown wax cylinders, each one needed to be individually grooved using a cutting stylus. Nevertheless the black wax might be cast into grooved molds, allowing for mass manufacture of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax was actually a direct chemical descendant of the brown wax that legally belonged to American Graphophone, so American Graphophone sued Edison’s National Phonograph Co. Fortunately for that defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks indicated that Team Edison had, in fact, developed the brown wax first. Companies eventually settled out from court.
Monroe is capable of study legal depositions in the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks thanks to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which happens to be trying 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 colleagues developed waxes and gaining a better idea of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. As an illustration, in an early experiment, Aylsworth made a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. During the time, industrial-grade stearic acid was really a roughly 1:1 combination 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 the notebook. But after several days, the surface showed signs and symptoms of crystallization and records created using it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum on the mix and located the right blend of “the good, the unhealthy, and the necessary” features of all of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but way too much of it can make for the weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also in charge of the crystallization problem. The rigid pvc compound prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing whilst adding some additional 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 a majority of these cylinders started sweating when summertime rolled around-they exuded moisture trapped in the humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out the oleic acid for the simple hydrocarbon wax, ceresin. Like oleic acid, it softened the wax. Unlike oleic acid, it added a vital waterproofing element.
Monroe continues to be performing chemical analyses for both collection pieces with his fantastic synthesized samples to be sure the materials are the same and this the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. As an example, he is able to look at the organic content of a wax using techniques such as mass spectrometry and identify the metals within a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the first comes from these analyses last month in a conference hosted by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his first two efforts to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure along with no palmitic acid in it-he’s now making substances which are almost identical to Edison’s.
His experiments also suggest that these metal soaps expand and contract quite a bit with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, including universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Instead of bringing the cylinders from cold storage instantly to room temperature, the common current practice, preservationists should let the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This will likely minimize the worries around the wax minimizing the probability which it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity involving the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also implies that the material degrades very slowly, which happens to be great news for people such as Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague with the Library of Congress.
Alyea desires to recover the details held in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To do so he captures and analyzes microphotographs in the grooves, a strategy pioneered by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Soft wax cylinders were ideal for recording one-off sessions, Alyea says. Business folks could capture dictations using wax and did so up 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 10,000 cylinders with recordings of Native Americans in our collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured in the material that seems to endure time-when stored and handled properly-might appear to be a stroke of fortune, but it’s not too surprising considering the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The changes he and Aylsworth designed to their formulations always served a purpose: to make their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations and the corresponding advances in formulations triggered his second-generation moldable black wax and eventually to Blue Amberol Records, that have been cylinders made with blue celluloid plastic as opposed to wax.
But if these cylinders were so excellent, why did the record industry move to flat platters? It’s simpler 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 is definitely the chair of your Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to start out the metal soaps project Monroe is focusing on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs based upon shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that might become a record industry staple for many years. Berliner’s discs used a combination of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and some carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured millions of discs applying this brittle and comparatively cheap material.
“Shellac records dominated the marketplace from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Many of these discs have become known as 78s because of the playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or go on a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to support a groove and endure a record needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped up the chemistry of disc records using a material generally known as Condensite in 1912. “I think that is quite possibly 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, which was recognized as the world’s first synthetic plastic by the American Chemical Society, C&EN’s publisher.
What set Condensite apart, though, was hexamethylenetetramine. Aylsworth added the compound to Condensite to stop 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 daily in 1914, although the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product came with a substantially higher asking price, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
But when Columbia Records released vinyl long-playing records, or LPs, in 1948, shellac’s days within the music industry were numbered. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) records offer a quieter surface, store more music, and they are far less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus with the University of Southern Mississippi, offers one more reason for why vinyl arrived at dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t talk to the particular composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights in the plastic.
PVC is mainly amorphous, but by way of a happy accident from the free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the material is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. For that reason, PVC has enough structural fortitude to assist a groove and resist a record needle without compromising smoothness.
With no additives, PVC is apparent-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something such as carbon black allow it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was selecting a polymer to use for records and cash was no object, he’d go along with polyimides. These materials have better thermal stability than vinyl, which has been seen to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides could also reproduce grooves better and offer 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 present listeners a sturdier, higher quality product. Although Salstrom can be amazed at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not trying to give anyone any reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush can usually handle any dust that settles with a vinyl record. So how can listeners handle more tenacious dirt and grime?
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 learn about the chemistry which helps the transparent pvc compound end up in-and away 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 from the hydrocarbon chain for connecting it to a hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is actually a way of measuring just how many moles of ethylene oxide happen to be in the surfactant. The higher the number, the better water-soluble the compound is. Seven is squarely in water-soluble category, Cameron says. Furthermore, she adds, the surfactant doesn’t become viscous or gel-like when mixed with water.
The final result is actually a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that may get inside and outside of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The unhealthy news for vinyl audiophiles who may want to try this in your own home is the fact Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants straight to consumers. Their clients are typically companies who make cleaning products.