For First Time in 30 Years, Vinyl Records Being Made in Chicago

Andy Weber has always loved vinyl records.

Listening to them “allows you to slow down, sit back and listen to a side for 30 minutes,” he says. “Then sit back with your record jacket just like it’s a fine book to read.”

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As a Chicago DJ at CHIRP Radio, Weber has heard a lot of frustration from artists in the local music scene when it comes to releasing their music on vinyl. 

“Friends in bands would say they aren’t going to do vinyl because of cost and because of six-month wait times, and horror stories of shipments showing up damaged and the record plants not taking responsibility for it,” he said.

So Weber and some friends started their own record plant, the first in Chicago in about 30 years. Production at Smashed Plastic began in February, and they say 90% of their orders have been from Chicago bands and labels.

Co-owner John Lombardo also owns a small label. He says it amazes him that vinyl works at all. 

“The whole process is kind of magical,” he says. “The fact that you can cut a groove which is kind of emulating a waveform right into a piece of plastic. Then you can have a turntable and an amplifier do the opposite process, basically reading that groove, pushing that through speakers, amplifying it and creating sound waves. It’s kind of a crazy process.”

Video: Before Smashed Plastic can start pressing records, someone needs to turn the audio recording into a “lacquer” that will then be made into a “stamper,” to press the records. In Chicago, Carl Saff of Saff Mastering is one of only two people who makes lacquers. He explains the process. 

There are vintage record-pressing machines available, but Smashed Plastic bought a new machine from Viryl Technologies near Toronto. The manufacturing process starts with black or white PVC pellets. White ones can be tinted to make a rainbow of vinyl colors.

They’ve started production with a single machine that cranks out one record every 32 seconds – about 500 every day. They’re hoping to add two more machines soon.

Chicago musicians Katinka Kleijn and Bill MacKay stopped in recently to pick up their new record, “Stir.” They are both serious vinyl lovers.

“There’s something about putting the needle on this physical material and it turns into sound,” Kleijn said. “It’s less cold maybe – you don’t just press a button or something. When you make music you make sounds with physical things: metal and wood. Sound is physical!” 

Video: A phonograph needle moves in slow motion through a record groove. (Applied Science YouTube Channel)

More on this story

Smashed Plastic is about to mark its first anniversary. The company has pressed more than 40,000 records so far and is throwing a party Saturday night at Sleeping Village on Belmont Avenue.

Note: This story was first published Sept. 11, 2019. It has been updated. 

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