Lacquer vs DMM – what’s the difference in vinyl pressing?

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Everyone who has ever wanted to press their music on vinyl encountered these two terms: lacquer cut and DMM. Now, what part of the process is it exactly? What’s the importance of it and most importantly, does it make a difference for the listener? Let’s look into it!

Lacquer cut and Direct Metal Mastering – two methods of cutting the vinyl master

Master cut is the first step in the chain of vinyl stamper preparation. It is the very moment the sound becomes physical. Two methods of it have existed for decades now, although one much younger than the other:

Lathe variable pitch for lacquer mastering was created in the 1950’s by John J. Scully, allowing to cut the groove into lacquer-coated aluminum disc.

DMM – Direct Metal Mastering –  technology was developed by two German companies, Neumann and Teldec, in the 1980s. In this method, the lathe cuts the groove in copper plated steel disc.

Lacquer cut

In the beginning of the process, the cutter head stylus of the lathe device etches the music into the surface of the lacquer disc. The lacquer then – just like a finished vinyl record – has grooves (is positive). This means lacquer could be played, but at the same time, it is extremely delicate – it’s therefore a first, but crucial step in the process of making a durable stamper that will allow to produce many records. The process leading to obtaining stampers is called the electroplating – or galvanic – process, which we will describe below.

Direct Metal Mastering

In contrast to lacquer cutting, Direct Metal Mastering involves etching the groove into a steel plate with a copper layer (so-called DMM master disc). Due to the difference of material, these grooves are not as deep as in the lacquer cut, yet they are highly precise. This copper master disc can then be used in the electroplating process to produce the required number of stampers for vinyl pressing.

Differences during the electroplating process

Electroplating (galvanic) process can be named the first industrial step of records production, it allows the making of the elements (called stampers) that, when mounted into the machine, physically press the vinyl records. This process has its differences for lacquer and DMM masters.

1. From lacquer master to stampers and records

Lacquer handling process starts with cleaning and silvering. Liquid silver that is evenly sprayed on the lacquer sticks to it and the whole plate becomes a one sided silver disc with grooves intact. Next stage is called pre-plating process, during which the disc is bathed in a tank with special, chemical solution. Then, in controlled temperature and amperage, electric charge fuses the dissolved nickel to the silver. The nickel settles neatly into the grooves, creating a thin layer of metal on the silvered disc. Removed from the tank, the metal layer is manually separated from the original lacquer disc. This metal layer is a negative of the lacquer disc, it has ridges instead of grooves. It could be already used as a stamper to press vinyl records (in this case, the process is called 1-step plating). There are however, depending on the needs, it’s longer versions: 2-step and 3-step. In short, they could be described as follows:

One-step plating: The first metal disc separated from the master lacquer is turned into the stamper used to press the records. It is the only stamper made in the process.

Two-step plating: The first disc separated from the master lacquer is re-plated to create a “mother”, and then it is turned into a stamper to press records. If necessary, additional stampers can be produced from the mother.

Three-step plating: The first metal disc separated from the master lacquer is re-plated to create a mother. This first disc (a “father”) is shelved for future use as additional mothers can be made from it. The stampers are then made from the mothers.

2. From DMM to stampers and records

When processing a DMM, we can think of the 3-step plating method described above, but with copper DMM master filling – from the start – the place of a “mother”. Lacquer cut, silvering and first step of electroplating become obsolete and the whole process shortens significantly. The positive, grooved DMM (as “mother”) is re-plated during a similar nickel-solution bath, leading to a negative stamper being manually separated from it. After centering, trimming and forming it can be used to press records. During this one-step plating process, the DMM copper master disc can be plated to produce the necessary number of stampers. There is also the three-step plating process – if many stampers are needed, the DMM disc can be used to electroform a master/father and few mothers, from which tens of stampers are then made.

Lacquer and DMM-cut records – do they sound different?

We have already noticed that the process of DMM mastering is shorter and it involves less work when compared to the lacquer cut. Now, the question remains, do you hear a difference when playing a record? And audiophile will most likely agree, saying that lacquer cut records sound warm and analogue, with fantastic reproduction of the basses and the low end. On the other hand, DMM is said to convey more precise, cleaner sound, maybe quieter, yet with great high end reproduction.

Both lacquer cutting and DMM have their advantages and enthusiasts may have preferences based on the specific sound characteristics they prefer. Additionally, factors such as mastering engineer expertise, equipment quality, and the quality of the audio source also play significant roles in determining the final sound quality of vinyl records.

Conclusion

To sum up, the choice between lacquer and DMM in vinyl pressing is not just about sound quality but also about production efficiency and availability. Lacquer cutting, as the older method, often aligns well with the vintage charm associated with the vinyl industry. On the other hand, it may have limitations in terms of both lacquer discs availability on the market, as well as longer process of records production. On the other hand, DMM offers a bit more modern approach to vinyl mastering, potentially reducing production time and ensuring a smoother workflow for pressing plants. Understanding these differences allows artists and music labels to make strategic decisions that align with their production timelines and goals.

At MonotypePressing, we recognize the importance of providing flexible options for our clients. That’s why we offer both lacquer and DMM choices in our vinyl pressing services. Our online vinyl configurator now includes the option to select between lacquer and DMM, empowering artists to tailor their orders according to their production needs and preferences. If you have any questions about the differences between lacquer and DMM or need assistance with your vinyl pressing project, feel free to reach out to us. We’re here to support you every step of the way.

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