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Vinyl’s difficult comeback

On an industrial estate in Röbel, 90 miles north of Berlin, the vinyl presses at the Optimal factory were grinding and pumping away. They made a percussive racket – regular clunks, wheezes, and hisses, underlain by a droning hum – and created a distinct aroma, sharp and metallic, suggestive of steam engines and old cars: not instantly recognisable to a British visitor like me, perhaps, but the singular smell of things being made. My guide to the Optimal plant was its operations director, Peter Runge. Together, we watched copies of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Live From KCRW tumble from one of the machines. Across a narrow aisle, a press dedicated to seven-inch records was spitting out copies of The Boy From New York City, a 1964 single by the Ad Libs, a soul group from Bayonne, New Jersey. A few yards away sat fresh stock of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Next to those was a growing pile of the album Clandestine by the Swedish death metal band Entombed, being pressed on purple vinyl. Beside each machine, bins were collecting surplus plastic shorn off the edges of each disc, to be fed back into the production process.

“Instant recycling!” said Runge, who stared at the factory’s operations through rimless glasses. He grew up, he told me, in Rostock, in the old German Democratic Republic. When he was 19, he applied for an ausreiseantrag – an East German exit visa, the same day as the East German premier Erich Honecker visited West Berlin. This modest act of subversion led to an appointment with the Stasi, and he was barred from going to university. So he got a job in the university’s workshop, helping to build electronic prototypes, where he gained a practical understanding of engineering. When the Berlin Wall fell, two years later, he belatedly became an undergraduate at the same institution, and eventually earned a PhD in industrial maintenance. He joined Optimal Media in 1997, was put in charge of “process optimisation and re-engineering” and given the job of setting up a production planning system. Now 46, he oversees the manufacture of DVDs, CDs and books, but the task in which he takes the most pleasure is supervising the production of vinyl records, in what he and his colleagues claim is Europe’s biggest pressing plant. Their clients are split between the major record companies – who have trusted Optimal with the work of such titans as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie – and the independent companies who kept the vinyl format alive through the 1990s and early 2000s while the rest of a terrified music industry embraced digital technology. Optimal’s machines run 24 hours day, for most of the year, and production capacity has to be booked up to a year in advance. And every hiss and wheeze of the company’s machines attests to a story that, 20 or so years ago, would have seemed unthinkable: the renaissance of the vinyl record.

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