How Your Records Were Manufactured

"Now if we could come when the sentry slept and softly scurry through—" But the sentry at the gates of the Victor Record Pressing Plant doesn’t sleep, and nowadays no one is admitted anyway, so, for the entertainment of our readers, we shall describe how our magic merchandise is made.

Magic merchandise? This is what it continues to be in spite of years of close association. How can it be anything else when, as John Burroughs once pointed out, “the tone of a bell, the peal of a bugle, the wail of the violin, the ring of the anvil, and, above all, the soul of the singer as revealed in the human voice, can all be evoked from these fine wavy lines on a disc.”

To begin at the beginning: Going through big iron gates under the escort of a guide you would get the “once-over” from the watchman; then, half way up a courtyard, an iron door would be swung open and through it you would see great masses of machinery. This is the mixing floor and the beginning of the record, which will some day find its way into some home and some day, by moving folks to laughter or to tears, become part of the web of their experience—their spiritual life.

Just what the commercial record is made of is a secret, and a closely guarded one. They tell us that the ingredients are gathered from the four corners of the earth—as they are. It is less a question of what they are made of than the proportions of each ingredient. All of the materials used are used in other arts and manufactures, but they are so combined in the record plant as to form what is to all intents and purposes a new substance.

First comes the grinding, and it is evident that the mills must “grind exceeding small”; then, under rigorously prescribed conditions of heat and moisture, it is kneaded into a black plastic mass in huge machines. It comes to these machines, which are not unlike gigantic clothes wringers, in the form of a chocolate-colored powder. This powder is fed to the machines in shovelfuls by a quite impassive workman, and before one’s eyes it turns from a chocolate-colored “dust” into a smooth, hot, moist mass of black stickiness. When it has been thoroughly kneaded and roughly rolled out, it is folded up much as one would fold a huge, heavy blanket, and then it goes into another kind of “wringer,” which rolls it out into a long, thin strip, three or four feet wide and many feet long. In the rolling it is marked out in ten and twelve-inch squares. This long strip is carried about a hundred feet on a canvas conveyor belt, with the result that at the end of the conveyor the composition has cooled and hardened, so that it may be handled readily. Here it is broken up into individual squares and conveyed to the pressing floors.

On one of the pressing floors a girl seated at a gigantic press, and apparently quite unimpressed by the wonder growing under her hands, will receive a number of these black lifeless squares. Three or four at a time she puts them on a steel slab, steam-heated, and for all the world like one of the pancake cooking slabs one sees in the windows of the dairy lunch places. In a very few minutes they soften, and when double-face records are being pressed, this is what she does:

On top of the matrix—a beautifully polished steel replica of the original recording—a label is put face down over a spindle. Then with an implement not unlike a pancake turner the square of record composition is taken from the steam table and folded in a neat square on top of label No. 1. Then label No. 2 is put on top of the folded composition and the mighty jaws of the press, bearing the second matrix, are closed down. In a moment the insensate sticky mass becomes the inspired achievement of some celebrated artist. Not the song alone, but the very soul of the singer is there with all the exquisite and subtle touches of personality.

Between the original recording and the final pressing of the record there are many exquisitely exact and highly scientific processes to be conducted. These are the peculiar personal concern of the Victor Talking Machine Company, and may not be divulged, but after the pressing there is little more to do—your record is ready for you except that first the edges must be trimmed, the record itself polished, and it must pass a rigorous inspection. Then it will find its way to the store of some dealer and someone, perhaps, will, like Omar Khayyam,

“Wonder what the Vintners buy
One-half so precious as the thing they sell.”

From: A new graded list of Victor Records for the home, kindergarten and school. Education Department, Victor Talking Machine Company, 1918.