At Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kan., the influx of orders for vinyl records has become 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 corporation is definitely 5 years old, but Salstrom has become making records for a living since 1979.
“I can’t inform you how surprised I am,” he says.
Listeners aren’t just demanding more records; they want to tune in to more genres on vinyl. Since many casual music consumers moved onto cassette tapes, compact discs, and then digital downloads over the past several decades, a compact contingent of listeners passionate about audio quality supported a modest marketplace 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 within the U.S. That figure is vinyl’s highest since 1988, and it also beat out revenue from ad-supported online music streaming, such as 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 possess carried sounds in their grooves with time. They hope that by doing this, they will 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 assist with this, he or she is examining a story of litigation and skulduggery.
Although wax cylinders might appear to be a primitive storage medium, these folks were a revelation at the time. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 using cylinders covered with tinfoil, but he shelved the project to be effective around the lightbulb, based on sources with the Library of Congress.
But Edison was lured back into the audio game after Alexander Graham Bell with his fantastic Volta Laboratory had created wax cylinders. Working with chemist Jonas Aylsworth, Edison soon created a superior brown wax for recording cylinders.
“From a commercial viewpoint, the fabric is beautiful,” Monroe says. He started focusing on this history project in September but, before that, was working in the specialty chemical firm Milliken & Co., giving him an original industrial viewpoint in the material.
“It’s rather minimalist. It’s just suitable for which it must be,” he says. “It’s not overengineered.” There was one looming issue with the stunning 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. 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, every one needed to be individually grooved having a cutting stylus. However the black wax may be cast into grooved molds, allowing for mass production of records.
Unfortunately for Edison and Aylsworth, the black wax was really a direct chemical descendant from the brown wax that legally belonged to American Graphophone, so American Graphophone sued Edison’s National Phonograph Co. Fortunately to the defendants, Aylsworth’s lab notebooks showed that Team Edison had, actually, developed the brown wax first. The companies eventually settled from court.
Monroe is in a position to study legal depositions in the suit and Aylsworth’s notebooks thanks to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, which is attempting to make more than 5 million pages of documents linked to Edison publicly accessible.
Using these documents, Monroe is tracking how Aylsworth and his awesome colleagues developed waxes and gaining a much better comprehension of the decisions behind the materials’ chemical design. For example, within an early experiment, Aylsworth crafted a soap using sodium hydroxide and industrial stearic acid. At that time, industrial-grade stearic acid was really a roughly 1:1 combination of stearic acid and palmitic acid, two fatty acids that differ by two carbon atoms.
That early soap was “almost perfection,” Aylsworth remarked within his notebook. But after a number of days, the top showed indications of crystallization and records created using it started sounding scratchy. So Aylsworth added aluminum towards the mix and located the correct blend of “the good, the bad, along with the necessary” features of all the ingredients, Monroe explains.
This mixture of stearic acid and palmitic is soft, but too much of this makes for a 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 while adding additional toughness.
The truth is, 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 from your humid air-and were recalled. Aylsworth then swapped out of 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 is performing chemical analyses for both collection pieces with his fantastic synthesized samples to ensure the materials are identical and that the conclusions he draws from testing his materials are legit. As an example, he can look into the organic content of the 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 last month at the conference hosted from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, or ARSC. Although his first two attempts to make brown wax were too crystalline-his stearic acid was too pure and had no palmitic acid inside it-he’s now making substances which are almost just like Edison’s.
His experiments also advise that these metal soaps expand and contract a great deal with changing temperatures. Institutions that preserve wax cylinders, for example universities and libraries, usually store their collections at about 10 °C. Rather than bringing the cylinders from cold storage instantly to room temperature, the common current practice, preservationists should enable the cylinders to warm gradually, Monroe says. This will likely minimize the worries about the wax and minimize the probability that this will fracture, he adds.
The similarity involving the original brown wax and Monroe’s brown wax also demonstrates that the content degrades very slowly, which can be great news for individuals such as Peter Alyea, Monroe’s colleague in the Library of Congress.
Alyea desires to recover the information kept in the cylinders’ grooves without playing them. To achieve this he captures and analyzes microphotographs of the grooves, a technique pioneered by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Soft wax cylinders were great for recording one-off sessions, Alyea says. Business folks could capture dictations using wax and did so up into the 1960s. Anthropologists also brought the wax in the field to record and preserve the voices and stories of vanishing native tribes.
“There are ten thousand cylinders with recordings of Native Americans inside our collection,” Alyea says. “They’re basically invaluable.” Having those recordings captured inside a material that appears to resist time-when stored and handled properly-may seem like a stroke of fortune, but it’s not surprising with 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 help 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 ultimately to Blue Amberol Records, which were cylinders made with 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 the gramophone, introduced disc-shaped gramophone records pressed in celluloid and hard rubber around 1890, says Bill Klinger. Klinger is the chair of your Cylinder Subcommittee for ARSC along with encouraged the Library of Congress to get started on 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 would become a record industry staple for decades. Berliner’s discs used a blend of shellac, clay and cotton fibers, and a few carbon black for color, Klinger says. Record makers manufactured an incredible number of discs employing this brittle and comparatively cheap material.
“Shellac records dominated the industry from 1912 to 1952,” Klinger says. A number of these discs are actually referred to 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 in the chemistry of disc records with a material called Condensite in 1912. “I think that is essentially 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 had been just like Bakelite, that was defined 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 to avoid water vapor from forming in the high-temperature molding process, which deformed a disc’s surface, Klinger explains.
Edison was literally using a bunch of Condensite daily in 1914, although the material never supplanted shellac, largely because Edison’s superior product was included with a substantially higher asking price, Klinger says. Edison stopped producing records in 1929.
However 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 supply 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 another reason 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 to the plastic.
PVC is usually amorphous, but by way of a happy accident from the free-radical-mediated reactions that build polymer chains from smaller subunits, the fabric is 10 to 20% crystalline, Mathias says. For that reason, PVC has enough structural fortitude to back up a groove and resist an archive needle without compromising smoothness.
With no additives, PVC is clear-ish, Mathias says, so record vinyl needs something similar to 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 known to warp when left in cars on sunny days. Polyimides also can reproduce grooves better and provide a much more frictionless surface, Mathias adds.
But chemists remain tweaking and improving vinyl’s formulation, says Salstrom of Quality Record Pressings. He’s dealing with his vinyl supplier to find a PVC composition that’s optimized for thicker, heavier records with deeper grooves to present listeners a sturdier, better quality product. Although Salstrom may be surprised by the resurgence in vinyl, he’s not planning to give anyone any good reasons to stop listening.
A soft brush usually can handle any dust that settles over a vinyl record. But 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 which helps the transparent pvc compound go into-and out from-the groove.
Molecules in Tergitol 15-S-7 possess hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains that are 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 for connecting it to your hydrophilic chain of repeating ethylene oxide units.
Finally, the 7 is really a way of measuring the number of moles of ethylene oxide will be in the surfactant. The higher the number, the greater 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 blended with water.
The final result is a mild, fast-rinsing surfactant that could get out and in of grooves quickly, Cameron explains. The negative news for vinyl audiophiles who may wish to use this in the home is the fact that Dow typically doesn’t sell surfactants right to consumers. Their customers are usually companies who make cleaning products.