At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records has become so great the staff has been turning away requests since September. This resurgence in pvc pellet popularity blindsided Gary Salstrom, the company’s general manger. The business is merely five years old, but Salstrom continues to be making records for a 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 listen to more genres on vinyl. As many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, then digital downloads over the past several decades, a compact contingent of listeners obsessive about audio quality supported a modest marketplace for certain musical styles on vinyl, notably classic jazz and orchestral recordings.
Now, seemingly anything else inside the musical world gets pressed also. 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, plus it beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, for example 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 have carried sounds within 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 in the Library of Congress, is studying the composition of one of those particular materials, wax cylinders, to determine the way that they age and degrade. To help using that, he is examining a story of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders may seem like a primitive storage medium, these folks were a revelation during the time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders wrapped in tinfoil, but he shelved the project to function about the lightbulb, based on sources in the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell with his fantastic Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Working with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon designed a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From an industrial viewpoint, the material 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 unique industrial viewpoint from the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just sufficient for what it needs to 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 declared a patent on the brown wax in 1898. Although 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, every one had to be individually grooved having a cutting stylus. However the black wax may be cast into grooved molds, making it possible for mass manufacturing of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax had been 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 your defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks revealed that Team Edison had, the truth is, developed the brown wax first. The businesses eventually settled out from court.
Monroe continues to be in a position to study legal depositions through the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks due to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which can be endeavoring to make a lot more than 5 million pages of documents relevant to Edison publicly accessible.
Using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth and his awesome colleagues developed waxes and gaining an improved comprehension of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. For instance, within an early experiment, Aylsworth created a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. At the time, industrial-grade stearic acid was actually a roughly 1:1 mixture of stearic acid and palmitic acid, two fatty acids that differ by two carbon atoms.
That early soap was “almost perfection,” Aylsworth remarked in his notebook. But after a couple of days, the outer lining showed signs and symptoms of crystallization and records made out of it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum to the mix and located the correct combination of “the good, the unhealthy, and the necessary” features of the ingredients, Monroe explains.
The mix of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but way too much of it will make for the weak wax. Adding sodium stearate adds some toughness, but it’s also accountable for the crystallization problem. The soft pvc granule prevents the sodium stearate from crystallizing as well as adding some extra toughness.
In fact, this wax was a tad 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 through 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 an important waterproofing element.
Monroe has become performing chemical analyses on both collection pieces with his fantastic synthesized samples so that the materials are similar and therefore the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. For instance, he can look at the organic content of any wax using techniques such as mass spectrometry and identify the metals inside a sample with X-ray fluorescence.
Monroe revealed the very first results from these analyses last month with a conference hosted by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his initial two attempts to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure along with no palmitic acid inside it-he’s now making substances which are almost identical to Edison’s.
His experiments also advise that these metal soaps expand and contract considerably with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, for example universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Instead of bringing the cylinders from cold storage directly to room temperature, the common current practice, preservationists should allow the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This can minimize the anxiety on the wax and reduce the probability it will fracture, he adds.
The similarity involving the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also demonstrates that the content degrades very slowly, that is great news for folks like Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague on the Library of Congress.
Alyea wants to recover the data held in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To do this he captures and analyzes microphotographs of the grooves, a strategy 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 in 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 your collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured in a material that seems to endure time-when stored and handled properly-might appear to be a stroke of fortune, but it’s not surprising thinking about the material’s progenitor.
“Edison was the engineer’s engineer,” Alyea says. The alterations he and Aylsworth intended to their formulations always served a purpose: to produce their cylinders heartier, longer playing, or higher fidelity. These considerations as well as the corresponding advances in formulations generated his second-generation moldable black wax and eventually to Blue Amberol Records, that had been cylinders made with blue celluloid plastic as an alternative to wax.
However, if these cylinders were so excellent, why did the record industry change to flat platters? It’s much easier to store more flat records in less space, Alyea explains.
Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger will be the chair from the Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to get started on the metal soaps project Monroe is focusing on.
In 1895, Berliner introduced discs based on shellac, a resin secreted by female lac bugs, that could develop into a record industry staple for several years. Berliner’s discs used a blend of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and a few carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured numerous discs using this brittle and relatively inexpensive material.
“Shellac records dominated the business from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. Several of these discs are referred to as 78s because of the playback speed of 78 revolutions-per-minute, give or require a few rpm.
PVC has enough structural fortitude to assist a groove and withstand an archive needle.
Edison and Aylsworth also stepped the chemistry of disc records using a material called Condensite in 1912. “I assume that is by far 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 was similar to Bakelite, that has been acknowledged 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 during the high-temperature molding process, which deformed a disc’s surface, Klinger explains.
Edison was literally using a lot of Condensite daily in 1914, but 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 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 provide a quieter surface, store more music, and so are less brittle than shellac discs, Klinger says.
Lon J. Mathias, a polymer chemist and professor emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi, offers one other reason for why vinyl stumbled on dominate records. “It’s cheap, and it’s easily molded,” he says. Although he can’t speak to the actual composition of today’s vinyl, he does share some general insights in to the plastic.
PVC is generally amorphous, but with a happy accident of your free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the fabric is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. As a result, PVC has enough structural fortitude to support a groove and endure an archive needle without compromising smoothness.
With no additives, PVC is clear-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something similar to carbon black to give it its famous black finish.
Finally, if Mathias was deciding on a polymer for records and funds was no object, he’d go 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 a much more frictionless surface, Mathias adds.
But chemists are still tweaking and improving vinyl’s formulation, says Salstrom of Quality Record Pressings. He’s dealing 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 by the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not planning to give anyone any reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush normally can handle any dust that settles over a vinyl record. But just how can listeners deal 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 learn about the chemistry that can help the transparent pvc compound go 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 of the hydrocarbon chain to connect it to your hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is actually a way of measuring just how many moles of ethylene oxide will be in the surfactant. The higher the number, the greater number of 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 end result is really a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that may get inside and out of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The bad news for vinyl audiophiles who may wish to do this at home is that Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants right to consumers. Their potential customers are typically companies who make cleaning products.