|Cascade Record Pressing Is Open For Business And Bringing The Heat To The Vinyl Record Manufacturing Competition|
"On May 28, Cascade Record Pressing's website went live, with the ability to accept orders from labels and musicians for all types of vinyl projects, with runs of 500 records and up. These orders are fulfilled at Cascade's brand-new plant in Milwaukie, Oregon, where sacks of PVC pellets the size of lentils are transformed into flat, shiny 12-inch records, packed with grooves of sound.
The record-making process is something of a manufacturing miracle, but the transformation of Cascade from a wild idea among friends to an economic reality is just as miraculous. It's the project of three partners: Mark Rainey, Adam Gonsalves, and Steve Lanning, all vinyl devotees and music obsessives. They embarked on a lengthy process of education and research, which took them down strange, arduous paths in their attempt to acquire and rehabilitate the six vintage record presses that are the backbone of Cascade's operation.
But before any of that happened, they each began with an individual and lifelong love of music.
"IT DEFINITELY STARTED out of a place of nostalgia," says Lanning, a licensed certified public accountant who handles Cascade's financial end. "Listening to records with my sister and my parents. Records are just this amazing invention. It's like the bicycle. The bicycle is effectively antiquated technology, but it's an amazing invention, and a record's an amazing invention and concept, too. Ultimately, too, it's a statement of support for a particular artist—if you buy a record, you're making a direct statement of support. And it's just this beautiful, tangible, physical thing that you can hold and look at."
Rainey, Cascade's chief operating officer, was similarly raised on vinyl. "It's how I was introduced to music as a child in the early '70s," he says. "I can't think of the hours I spent just sitting in front of my family's Dynaco record player setup and listening to folk records that my parents had, listening to Sesame Street records or little 45s that were based on some of my favorite movies or stories, and from that, getting my own radio and getting exposed to popular music and picking out 45s by bands that I liked. And that led me to becoming an obsessive record collector and music enthusiast."
Rainey started TKO Records in the 1990s, a label that has released landmark punk albums by Dropkick Murphys, Poison Idea, and Giuda. TKO expanded to a brick-and-mortar record store in Orange County in 2007, but in December 2013, Rainey started talking to Gonsalves about moving to Portland, Oregon.
"I think his first question was, 'Does Portland have space for another record store?'" says Gonsalves. "And I was like, 'Uhhh... [laughs] I don't think so! I think we're pretty good on that.' Eventually Mark brought up the idea of a record-pressing plant. The plant was his idea. So my first contribution—and I think it was a really valuable contribution—was trying to talk him out of it."
Gonsalves moved to the United States from Jamaica as a child in the early '80s, and like his partners, was surrounded by records growing up. "My mom's Jamaican, and she had all these old reggae and rocksteady records," he says. "She kind of gave them to me, because to her, when she came here, that was old fuddy-duddy music. She wanted to listen to, like, Diana Ross. She didn't want to mess around with her old reggae and rocksteady records, so I dove into 'em. And when I was in high school, I just kept buying vinyl, punk bands and indie rock and the people who were sustaining vinyl through the downturn. But those records... a Don Drummond record my mom had, it's got to be from the '50s. And it sounds great. Still!"
Gonsalves' passion for music led him to become a mastering engineer, and his ears and expertise provide the final step in making a record, linking the recording process to the manufacturing process. Gonsalves relocated his Telegraph Mastering business from Oakland to his wife's hometown of Portland a few years back, and it's one of the only places in the city that can cut a record—i.e., create a vinyl master from the original recording via the fairly intricate process of cutting a lacquer on his refurbished Scully lathe, which literally chisels out grooves in the lacquer with a ruby stylus.
In his capacity as a mastering engineer, Gonsalves has become intimately familiar with the record-pressing process. When his work at Telegraph is done, he ships the lacquers off to get pressed at various plants around the country, and he's all too knowledgeable about the problems that can occur in turning one of his masters into a finished run of records.
"You know, I think there are a lot of people who romanticize what it is," Gonsalves says of record pressing, and of Rainey's first attempts to enter the field. "It's fucking factory work. It's not the music industry. It's the injection-molded plastics industry. So I was calling friends at other plants and saying, 'Look, I have this friend and he's a client, too—could youcall him and talk him out of it? And tell him how much money he's going to lose?' I thought that would discourage Mark, but it didn't. It just gave him more information to come at it smarter."
Rainey had similarly been shipping off vinyl projects for his TKO label to his preferred record-pressing plants for manufacturing, but he'd been at it for long enough that he always received special treatment from his vendors. At the time, he wasn't immediately aware of the problems that other small labels and independent bands were beginning to encounter in trying to get their music pressed on vinyl.
"In running my store and talking to people at distributors and labels, I just started hearing all these horror stories, especially with small independent labels, how it was getting tougher and tougher to get jobs through," Rainey says. "The refrain that I kept hearing over and over again was, 'There are not enough plants; there needs to be more plants.' And no one's going to open new plants until there's new equipment, and all the reasons why things couldn't happen."
INDEED, the biggest problem with vinyl manufacturing is that recent demand has grown so much that it now greatly exceeds supply. Over the past few years, vinyl sales have skyrocketed: In 2014, 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the US, an increase of more than 50 percent from 2013. That's a number that would have been staggering in 2006, when fewer than a million records were sold in the US—and outright unthinkable in the early '90s, when CD sales were booming but fewer than 500,000 vinyl records were sold annually.
There are many reasons for vinyl's comeback, the most frequently cited of which is Record Store Day, a (now) semi-annual celebration of record retailers that's created a boom of vinyl reissues and catalog items. But there's a bit more than that to the resurgence: Like many things in the history of the music business, the current trend of vinyl sales is an equal and opposite reaction to the ever-shrinking physical size of the average consumer's music collection. A music collection of 12-inch LPs that would have once taken up an entire wall can now fit invisibly on one's phone; a hard drive can now contain more music than the biggest record store in town.
The transition of music from vinyl grooves into strings of zeroes and ones is undoubtedly a modern miracle of science. And the evolution of digital music from relatively clunky compact discs to teensy-tiny MP3s is, technologically speaking, almost supernaturally wondrous. But with that extreme convenience come drawbacks. Digital music robs the listener of the attendant fun of putting on a record—looking at the jacket, listening to an album from front to back without interruption. And the accessibility also directly leads people to listen to their music on substandard equipment, such as laptop speakers or cheaply made iPhone earbuds. Furthermore, it can be tough to navigate a substantial MP3 collection of thousands of songs, let alone the vast libraries of streaming services like Spotify. When you can listen to anything in the world, how on earth do you choose?
But the biggest downside to digital music—from CDs to MP3s to streaming media—is that it doesn't sound as good. Yes, this is a matter of opinion and endless controversy, but a clean, well-mastered, well-pressed vinyl record played on a good turntable through high-end speakers can sound three-dimensional, almost alive. As the needle (actually a microscopic and very sophisticated microphone) drags across a record's infinitesimal grooves, incredible things begin to happen. The drums punch, the vocals breathe, the bass covers you like a blanket. It makes you start using vague, bullshitty descriptors like "warmth" and "presence." The best analogy I can come up with is that listening to a good clean record is like looking at a painting in a museum versus referring to a reproduction—no matter how high quality—in a book.
Oh, and have you ever given someone the gift of an MP3? It's pretty unsatisfying.
Vinyl's comeback is apparent everywhere, from the merch booths at indie-rock shows to the shelves at Urban Outfitters. And it appears to be sticking around. But there are drawbacks: High-quality reissues of classic-rock staples from bands like the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin are driving the market as much as new releases. These high-run orders from major labels are monopolizing the capacity of the world's existing record-pressing plants, bumping smaller labels and independent acts to the end of the queue.
In other words, the vinyl resurgence has begun to eat its own tail. Fewer than 20 pressing plants exist in the US to meet the market's current demand, and it's tough to open a new one for a very simple reason: No one is making new record presses. They're expensive and complicated to build. They use technology that comes from a now-bygone age of manufacturing. And all of the old presses are either currently in use, in serious disrepair, or have been lost to the mists of time.
THE SIX PRESSES that now stand in Cascade's facility were not easy to come by. Rainey, Gonsalves, and Lanning acquired the machines from the now-defunct RIP-V pressing plant in Montreal, which in turn got them from the Hub-Servall plant in New Jersey. Hub-Servall issued millions of records during vinyl's heyday from the early '70s to the early '90s.
The six presses—which are referred to by their numbers: 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, and 11—were manufactured by the Tracy-Val corporation for specific use at Hub-Servall, probably in 1972, Rainey estimates. He explains that they were made by the Miller family. "Our machines represent the height of American record-pressing technology. They were probably some of the last machines made. I really don't think anything new was made in the States past the '70s."
The guys actually tracked down Dave Miller, who'd originally constructed these particular presses with his father. "He's intimately familiar with them," says Rainey. "He knows these machines to the point where, if one of them's not running right, in theory we can call him, tell him which number it is, then we'll hold the phone to the machine and he'll tell us what's going on."
Gonsalves says, "One of Mark's great skills is getting people on board with an idea that he has. He's got kind of an infectious excitement. So he got Miller excited about what we were doing. There was the concern, obviously, when we were organizing the sale, that the presses might not be in good shape, so Mark got Miller to go to Canada and pick out the ones that were the best. And he tagged them for us. Miller's been a huge help."
In getting the presses across the Canadian border, Lanning and Rainey had to do a large amount of research both logistically—these are huge, heavy pieces of factory equipment we're taking about—and in terms of taxes and tariffs. But the most difficult part in scoring the machines was navigating the tiny but somewhat cutthroat market of existing record presses.
At the beginning of last year, Rainey had some downtime after recovering from a couple of minor surgeries. He took the time to throw himself into researching the marketplace and exploring the dark corners of the vinyl-manufacturing network. The sale of an old record press on eBay led him to a series of contacts that were keyed into what presses were available, and where.
"Once you get into that world, it's actually a pretty small world," Rainey says. "There's a handful of, like, 10 people—at least in North America—and if you start sniffing around looking for equipment, they're all going to know about you. You're going to show up on their radar as a player. And the default setting with those guys was to try to scare you away. That's a result of vinyl obviously being very hot right now, and we're not the only guys with this idea. I think a lot of people who've shown interest think that making records is gonna be like, you get a record machine and then you plug it in the wall. They think it's like an Easy Bake Oven, records just start coming out."
Even in the months that Rainey was researching the market, he witnessed the prices for the small number of available presses rise substantially—even doubling overnight in some cases. "That's actually something I used to joke about with Dave Miller," Rainey says. "When we were calling him up and telling him what old presses were going for, he was like, 'Aw shit, maybe I ought to start making new ones!'"
Getting the actual presses—complicated machines that need to be run by qualified machinists and mechanics—was not the only difficulty. Cascade needed to coordinate a steam system, a pneumatic air system, and a water delivery system. "All these are pieces of basic technology but they have to be orchestrated and conducted in a very, very specific, synchronized way or you're not going to make anything but a mess," Rainey says.
Indeed, record pressing can be dangerous, even lethal. Tom Dillander, the owner of Palomino Records Pressing in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, died on February 7, 2013, after suffering injuries when his plant's boiler exploded. The Cascade guys bought and installed a boiler that's the size of a room, with its own cooling tower, and also made significant power upgrades to their Milwaukie warehouse.Lanning says, "We have a great landlord, and we're also down in what's called an enterprise zone, which is a state program and there are certain tax incentives for doing that. We originally wanted to be in Portland, but it just made more sense to be down in Milwaukie. When we were looking for spaces, there was a lot of demand on spaces that were the size we needed: 10,000 square feet. We've looked at multiple spaces within Portland that got rented out from under us."
|Assistant Plant Manager Amy Dragon inspects the grooves of a test pressing.|
WITNESSING THE MANUFACTURING process at Cascade is pretty exciting, as the raw materials are transformed into a finished platter that can go on a turntable. As the machine hums along noisily, tiny PVC pellets are warmed into what's called a biscuit, a hockey puck-like chunk of vinyl that's then pressed by 150 tons of compression molding. The paper labels are not affixed by adhesive, but are cured overnight in an oven so that all moisture is removed, then actually embedded into the vinyl by the sheer weight of the press. The stampers—metal plates that contain reverse images of the disc—are pushed into either side of the hot biscuit, ingraining the grooves into the vinyl, which is then trimmed of excess material to form a perfectly round disc. Cascade estimates that each machine, once it's properly aligned and fitted with the correct stampers, can make a new record roughly every 30 seconds.
Once the machine's work is done, quality control kicks in. Every hour or so, a record is pulled from the finished pile and scrutinized, both visually and aurally. The QC suite in Cascade's facility is a room isolated from the noisy machines, with a sweet McIntosh tube amp, some high-end speakers, a pair of Sennheiser headphones, and a microscope to inspect the grooves. If there are any issues, the run is stopped and the problem is determined and solved. On the day of my visit, the team is inspecting a Dead Moon reissue for Mississippi Records. It sounds terrific—raw and punchy and close.
The other part of quality control requires patience: letting the records cool once they're pulled from the machine. A record that is improperly cooled or stored can result in dished or warped vinyl. These defects are common pitfalls of newly manufactured records—if you've bought a substantial amount of brand-new vinyl in the past few years, you've probably encountered it. The current demand and quick turnaround has led some pressing plants to prematurely package and ship out their product before it's had time to cool, which leads to records arriving at the store already warped. It's something Cascade is determined to avoid; their records won't leave the warehouse before they're ready.
"If somebody is unhappy with the audio quality of a record, it might not directly be that plant's fault, but if the plant's doing QC, it should probably have come to their attention at some point," says Gonsalves. "It's like anything else: take your time, pay attention, and do a good job."
While the runs are still small, Cascade is slowly ramping up to full operation—they estimate that they'll soon be able to press 20,000 to 24,000 records a week with a single shift, although they may add a second shift eventually. Their team was built from the ground up, with a small crew of experienced mechanics who helped them get the plant up and running. Chief Press Operator David Mendoza even worked at Cleveland, Ohio's Gotta Groove pressing plant before he relocated to the West Coast.
"Jeff Truhn and Marc Takaichi, who are our machinists, are former mechanics," says Gonsalves. "Jeff was a motorcycle mechanic for almost 20 years and Marc was a fleet mechanic for U-Haul for many years, and then just an independent mechanic. You can sort of think of the presses as standup vertical engines that don't move anywhere, so they have a lot of skills that have been transferable and very valuable."
The guys at Cascade found that other pressing plants were supportive in getting them started. Gotta Groove, which opened in 2009 and was one of the signposts for Cascade that opening a new plant could actually work, even sent them an unofficial manual of information acquired while setting up their own plant.
But the local support from the Portland music scene has been the most gratifying. Cascade is prioritizing small and independent labels as their client base, and that includes Portland's substantial, thriving network of DIY music. Andrew Sloan of Tender Loving Empire experienced an ever-growing bottleneck in getting their label's projects manufactured at out-of-state pressing plants.
"If I were to graph it, it would be an exponential line down," says Sloan. "I've been in the vinyl-making business for five years now—for a good chunk of the Wild West of the music industry's modern era. When we first started making vinyl, it was great, but since then it's gotten much worse, most notably in the length of the [turnaround] time. It's gotten longer and unpredictable." Tender Loving Empire experienced some unfortunate quality-control issues, too, including an entire batch of unusable vinyl that's still sitting in their stockroom.
Tender Loving Empire embraced the opportunity to bring their vinyl business to a local vendor, and their upcoming release of Willis Earl Beal's new album will be a Cascade pressing. "We went down there and checked out the plant and saw what they've been up to," says Sloan. "Those guys are great, super experienced, super knowledgeable, and, most importantly, passionate about delivering a quality product. And now I can drive down to Milwaukie and pick up my records as opposed to having them shipped by freight from the Czech Republic, or wherever. If we can save time and money by going local, then everybody wins."
Eric Isaacson from Mississippi Records is also bringing his label's numerous projects to Cascade, and has thrown a series of sonically diverse stuff at them, including blues, gospel, and folk music from around the globe, plus local punk albums from Sad Horse and Sun Foot.
"It's always been my dream to press in Portland, to save on shipping and keep things as local as possible, so it was like they were from heaven," Isaacson says. "For years [REM's] Peter Buck and I talked about starting a pressing plant in Portland ourselves. But the logistics of it were so vast and difficult that every time I'd start to look at it, I'd get anxiety. So when [Cascade] started talking about doing it, I was like, 'Thank god we don't have to do it.'
"We've had four test pressings so far, and I was really surprised that they sounded as good as they did," Isaacson says. "They sound really good, really clean. I'm really, really happy with them so far. It was a huge sigh of relief. Portland needs a pressing plant so bad and they're doing a great thing."
RIGHT NOW Cascade is avoiding the problems that come with fulfilling contracts for major labels and undertaking massive projects like reissuing the Beatles catalog. At six presses, it's a smaller facility than some of the bigger companies, to begin with, and the quality of the finished product remains of utmost importance. "Looking forward, we really want to focus on independent local artists and labels," says Rainey. "I'm not ruling anything out. But we want to take care of our people. With some of the other plants, some of those types of clients are being supplanted or maybe not getting the service they were accustomed to getting in the past. That's a share of the market that we want to go after.
"As far as criteria for what we'll press, we want to work on doing one thing and doing it well," Rainey continues. "And right now that's 12-inch vinyl at 150 to 180 grams, depending on what the client wants. Various custom colors. We just want to have nice, clean, shiny, flat records that play well and sound great. That's really the focus."
In many ways, Cascade is the culmination of the owners' collective interest in music, which started with listening to vinyl during their childhoods and has evolved into their life's work. A record, treated properly, can last longer than any hard drive you will ever buy; witnessing the medium come back from the dead emphasizes just how important music is to those who obsess over it. Vinyl fanatics are willing to endure its unwieldy format and work with the relatively archaic technology simply to experience a recording in its absolute best setting. Cascade recognizes the responsibility of ensuring these experiences are optimized.
"I think the reason that vinyl endures is that there's a tremendous amount of humanity in the product," Gonsalves says. "It's not convenient like digital is. And while it's definitely a technical marvel, if you think about all the modern technology that goes into, like, making iTunes run as fast as it does, that's Seven-Wonders-of-the-World levels of technology, you know what I mean? So then the question is, why has vinyl endured as other, more modern forms of music playback have come and gone? People are still buying vinyl, and now they're buying it in numbers higher than they've bought it in decades.
"The frequency response of vinyl pins pretty closely to the way that humans hear," Gonsalves continues. "It's not as flat and as accurate as digital, but it's a pleasing sound to us. But beyond that, to leave all that stuff out of it, there's a ritual of getting this thing that has big, great-looking cover art and taking it out. It forces you to sit down and enjoy music. You can't listen to vinyl on the way to go do something else. You can't make it this sort of disposable afterthought in the way that a lot of other music is consumed these days. You have to sit down and engage with the music, one side at a time—often socially, with other people.
"And turns out that people really like that."