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 pellet popularity blindsided Gary Salstrom, the company’s general manger. The organization is simply 5 years old, but Salstrom has been 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 want to pay attention to more genres on vinyl. Because so many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, then digital downloads over the past several decades, a small contingent of listeners passionate about audio quality supported a modest niche for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly the rest within the musical world is becoming pressed as well. The Recording Industry Association of America reported that vinyl record sales in 2015 exceeded $400 million from the U.S. That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, and yes it beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, like 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 have carried sounds in their grooves as time passes. They hope that in doing so, they will likely improve their ability to create and preserve these records.
Eric B. Monroe, a chemist at the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of among those materials, wax cylinders, to find out the direction they age and degrade. To help you using that, he is examining a story of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders may seem like a primitive storage medium, these people were a revelation at the time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders covered with tinfoil, but he shelved the project to operate on the lightbulb, based on sources with 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 together with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon designed a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From an industrial viewpoint, the fabric is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started taking care of this history project in September but, before that, was working at the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him a distinctive industrial viewpoint of the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just suitable for the purpose it must be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There seemed to be one looming issue with the attractive brown wax, though: Edison and Aylsworth never patented it.
Enter Thomas H. MacDonald of American Graphophone Co., who basically paid people off and away to help him copy Edison’s recipe, Monroe says. MacDonald then declared a patent in the brown wax in 1898. But the lawsuit didn’t come until after Edison and Aylsworth introduced a whole new and improved black wax.
To record sound into brown wax cylinders, each one of these needed to be individually grooved with a cutting stylus. However the black wax may be cast into grooved molds, making it possible 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 revealed that Team Edison had, actually, developed the brown wax first. The firms eventually settled away from court.
Monroe is capable to study legal depositions through the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks on account of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, that is endeavoring to make greater than 5 million pages of documents related to Edison publicly accessible.
Utilizing these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth along with his colleagues developed waxes and gaining a better knowledge of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. For instance, in a early experiment, Aylsworth crafted a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. During the time, industrial-grade stearic acid was actually 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 the notebook. But after several days, the surface showed indications of crystallization and records created using it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum for the mix and found the best blend of “the good, the unhealthy, along with the necessary” features of all of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but a lot of it makes to get a weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also responsible for the crystallization problem. The upvc compound prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing whilst adding additional toughness.
Actually, 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 from your 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 an essential waterproofing element.
Monroe has become performing chemical analyses for both collection pieces with his fantastic synthesized samples to ensure the materials are exactly the same which the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For instance, he can examine the organic content of any wax using techniques including mass spectrometry and identify the metals in a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the first results from these analyses recently at the conference hosted through the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his initial 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 that happen to be almost identical to Edison’s.
His experiments also advise 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. As opposed to bringing the cylinders from cold storage straight to room temperature, which is the common current practice, preservationists should let the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This will likely minimize the worries on the wax and minimize the probability that it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity between the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also suggests that the material degrades very slowly, which is great news for anyone for example Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague on the Library of Congress.
Alyea wants to recover the info stored in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To achieve this he captures and analyzes microphotographs of your grooves, a technique 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 to the 1960s. Anthropologists also brought the wax in 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 within a material that appears to endure time-when stored and handled properly-may seem like a stroke of fortune, but it’s less than surprising with the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The adjustments he and Aylsworth created to their formulations always served a purpose: to help make their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations along with the corresponding advances in formulations generated his second-generation moldable black wax and ultimately to Blue Amberol Records, that have been cylinders made using blue celluloid plastic as opposed to wax.
But if these cylinders were so great, 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 is definitely the chair of your Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to begin the metal soaps project Monroe is taking care of.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs according to shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that might turn into a record industry staple for several years. Berliner’s discs used a blend of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and several carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured an incredible number of discs employing this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the industry from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Several of these discs are now generally 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 aid a groove and endure a record needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped the chemistry of disc records having a material generally known as Condensite in 1912. “I feel that is probably the most impressive chemistry of 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 had been similar to Bakelite, which had been 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 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 lot of Condensite every day in 1914, nevertheless the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product came with a substantially higher cost, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
However when Columbia Records released vinyl long-playing records, or LPs, in 1948, shellac’s days from the music industry were numbered. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) records give a quieter surface, store more music, and they are a lot less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi, offers another reason why why vinyl got to dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t speak with the particular composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights into the plastic.
PVC is usually amorphous, but from a happy accident in the free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the content is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. Consequently, PVC has enough structural fortitude to assist a groove and resist an archive needle without compromising smoothness.
Without any additives, PVC is obvious-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something similar to carbon black to give it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was selecting a polymer to use for records and cash was no object, he’d opt for 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 provide a much 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 give listeners a sturdier, top quality product. Although Salstrom can be surprised at the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not seeking to give anyone any good reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush can usually handle any dust that settles over a vinyl record. But 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 that helps the transparent pvc compound enter into-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 in the hydrocarbon chain in order to connect it to a hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is a measure of the number of moles of ethylene oxide are in the surfactant. The greater the number, the greater number of water-soluble the compound is. Seven is squarely within the water-soluble category, Cameron says. Furthermore, she adds, the surfactant doesn’t become viscous or gel-like when blended with water.
The final result is actually a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that could get in and out of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The negative news for vinyl audiophiles who may wish to try this at home is that Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants directly to consumers. Their potential customers are usually companies who make cleaning products.