The Crucial Role of Test Pressings in Custom Vinyl Production

Vinyl records have made a remarkable resurgence in recent years, captivating audiophiles as well as casual listeners with their warm, analog sound. However, the process of producing high-quality vinyl records is complex and involves several critical steps, each of which must be meticulously managed to ensure the final product meets the highest standards. One such vital step is the creation and evaluation of test pressings. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the importance of test pressings in vinyl production, the processes involved, and the specific terms and checks in order to ensure the highest quality for your vinyl pressing.

The Importance of Test Pressings

Test pressings serve as a crucial quality control measure in the vinyl production process. They are essentially prototype records that allow artists, producers and engineers to evaluate the sound quality and physical characteristics before full-scale production begins. These pressings help identify and rectify any issues that could affect the final product, ensuring that every record pressed meets the desired quality standards.

Why Test Pressings are Essential

Sound Quality Verification: The primary purpose of a test pressing is to verify the sound quality. It allows you to hear the actual playback from the record and identify any potential audio defects.

Physical Inspection: You can examine test pressings for physical flaws such as warping, scuffs, or other imperfections that could affect playback.

Problem Identification: Test pressings help identify issues that may have arisen during different stages of production, whether during lacquer cutting, plating, or the pressing process itself.

The Test Pressing Process

The process of creating and evaluating test pressings involves several stages, each critical to ensuring the final vinyl product is of the highest quality.

Step 1: Lacquer Cutting and Plating

The journey of a vinyl record begins with the cutting of a lacquer master. This delicate process involves engraving the audio signal onto a lacquer disc. While it’s possible to play back the lacquer, doing so could damage it, so it is typically reserved for audio quality control (QC) checks.

After the lacquer master is cut, it undergoes electroplating. This step has a high chance of adding noise and defects. For instance, a small contaminant in the plating can cause pops or clicks, and improper handling can damage the grooves.

→ Tip: Read more about the vinyl master cutting & electroplating process in our blog article “Lacquer vs DMM – what’s the difference in vinyl pressing?”.

Step 2: Pressing and Quick Checking

Once the stamper is ready, the pressing of test records begins. A thorough quick-check is performed, which includes visual inspections under good lighting to identify any visible defects like smudges or water spots. The pressing is then listened to, often with a stopwatch running to note the times when issues occur. It’s crucial to distinguish between fixed flaws that appear in the same spot on every record and varying flaws that occur randomly.

Step 3: Evaluating and Documenting Test Pressings

After pressing, a detailed evaluation is performed to identify any audio issues. This process involves several steps:

Visual Inspection: Each test pressing is examined in good lighting to ensure there are no scuffs or one-off blemishes.

Static Elimination: Static electricity is eliminated using a static brush or other preferred methods to ensure clarity in audio evaluation.

Audio Evaluation: The needle is dropped onto the record, and a stopwatch is started as soon as audio is heard. This helps in accurately timing any issues that arise.

Multiple Listens: Often, a second listen is required to distinguish between static electricity and actual flaws in the pressing or plating. Any issues heard consistently across multiple listens are noted and circled as confirmed defects.

Common Issues and Terminology

Understanding the specific terms used in test pressing evaluations is crucial for accurate communication and problem-solving. Here are some common terms:

  • Crackle: A series of slight, sudden, sharp noises. Can vary in frequency and intensity.
  • Tick: A sharp, one-time event, typically in the mid and high frequencies.
  • Pop: A sharp, one-time event affecting the full range of frequencies, including lows.
  • Static: White noise or mid/high disturbances without sharpness, similar to crackle.
  • Distortion: Sound breaking up and lacking clarity.
  • Pre-Echo: A faint artifact of an intended sound heard just before the actual sound.
  • Sibilance: Distortion on “S” sounds in vocals, which can also affect cymbals.

→ Note: Please note that test pressing can often be noisier and sometimes slightly warped or in a different colour, owing to the limited press of 5-10 tests we run.

Tips for Checking Your Test Pressing

When evaluating your test pressings, you can follow specific checks and procedures to ensure a thorough quality assessment. Here are the key steps we recommend:

Visual Checks: Inspect in good lighting for any visible defects.

Weight and Flatness: Check the weight and ensure the record is flat.

Lead-in and Lead-out: Evaluate the first and last 30 seconds of playback for clarity and noise.

Crossover Evaluation: Rate crossovers for surface noise, whether silent or if the music continues.

Documenting Issues: Note the time and severity of any issues, and whether they are fixed or variable.

Conclusion

Test pressings are an indispensable part of the vinyl production process. Even though test pressings are not required in the order process, we strongly recommend them. They provide a critical checkpoint to ensure both the audio quality and physical integrity of the records before mass production. Through careful evaluation and documentation, test pressings help identify and resolve potential issues, ensuring the final product meets the highest standards. By understanding the processes and terminology involved, you can better manage quality control and deliver exceptional vinyl records to your fans.