As production bottlenecks continue to squeeze vinyl records' remarkable resurgence, Toronto's Microforum Services Group is investing in a crucial but obscure step in their manufacturing – making the grooved metal pressing plates – in a move that could cut down lag times for Canadian artists and record companies who hope to take advantage of huge global demand for LPs.
A handful of Canadian companies manufacture records themselves, but Microforum's new equipment would make it the only plant in the country to make stamper plates – incredibly precise negatives of a record that, on a presser with the perfect amount of heat and steam, squish grooves into unassuming pucks of PVC and transform them into physical music's last hope.
In one sense, vinyl records remain a niche product, accounting for 3.6 per cent of global recorded-music revenues. But their growth has surged in the double-digits for nearly a decade – with revenues up 23.5 per cent last year alone – as they've transformed into a de-facto luxury alternative to music's more ephemeral download-and-streaming mainstream. With companies the world over racing to accommodate the demand, Microforum's new equipment could position it not just as a Canadian one-stop pressing shop, but a key player in bringing global production in line with ever-growing appetite.
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"I think vinyl was held back the last couple years" because of production delays, says Noble Musa, partner and vice-president of sales and marketing at Microforum. "You're talking turnarounds of six to eight months.… [Growth] numbers could have been even higher."
The 50-employee company has been manufacturing media such as CDs since 2003, but began pressing vinyl earlier this year. Most new pressing plants worldwide have had to use old machines, but Microforum was actually one of the first to use brand-new, state-of-the-art Warm Tone presses from fellow Toronto company Viryl Technologies.
Microforum invested several hundred thousand dollars in the new plating equipment, and plans for it to be operational by August. Mr. Musa expects to have capacity to make up to 10 stampers a day, for his company and others. In total, he says Microforum has invested more than $1.5-million on vinyl-making infrastructure this year alone.
Combined with their printing and packaging capabilities, and their growing cache of presses – there are two, with two more in the works – the company wants to be a one-stop shop for records, sleeves and all. If it goes according to plan, Mr. Musa believes Microforum could press more than 10,000 records a day when it hits full capacity.
To get to the pressing stage, a physical "master" must be made with an album's finalized audio, often from digital files. This is traditionally done with a lathe onto a custom "lacquer" disc – which a handful of Canadian companies, including Toronto's Lacquer Channel Mastering, can make. Lacquer masters then need to be "electroplated" – sprayed with silver, then dipped into a metal solution with electric current to create a solid disc – which is repeated several times, until negative "stampers" are made that can precisely smoosh grooves into hot plastic.
While Canadian companies have offered electroplating services before, including the recently shuttered Canada Boy Vinyl, record-pressing plants here have lately had to go to the United States or as far as Prague for the service. For all the eager new names in the pressing business – including Microforum and Burlington, Ont.'s Precision Record Pressing – this can still mean delays.
"Whenever capacity increases in one area, that moves the bottleneck either up or down the line," says Kevin Park, Lacquer Channel's lacquer master engineer.
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Right now, Microforum's turnaround time for orders is about eight weeks. Mr. Musa hopes to cut that in half. For a "rush" fee, the company might be able to cut time for reasonable-size orders down to a week.
Mr. Musa believes the investment will pay off for a long time. "The vinyl experience is something people are really discovering right now," he says. "We're selling experiences, not just vinyl."