Some records are made to be broken; at Brooklyn Phono, they’re also made to be recycled.
Typically, Brooklyn Phono uses only virgin vinyl or a mix of new vinyl and old vinyl, aka regrind, to make albums. But this year Green Owl, a label in Manhattan, specifically asked for records made from 100 percent recycled vinyl. So Brooklyn Phono had to source some of its regrind from outside its Sunset Park plant.
“We told them, look, we can’t be accountable for this material,” said Thomas Bernich, the founder of Brooklyn Phono. “We don’t know where it came from. But we actually had a great experience with it.” For their Green Owl runs, they used albums from at least as far back as the 1940s, including some Norwegian and Russian language discs.
It’s not just the vinyl itself that comes from a different era. The machine that Brooklyn Phono uses to cut into blanks is like a cross-section of records’ past.
Leandro Gonzales, who masters music at Brooklyn Phono, said the process begins by using a lathe to cut into a blank, which makes a negative mold of the record. The blank discs, also called lacquers, are made in L.A. and come in different sizes based on the final product–seven-inch records are cut on a ten-inch lacquer, ten-inch records are cut on 12- or 14-inch blanks and 12-inch records are cut on 14-inch blanks.
“This machine in particular is like a blend of different moments in the history of record-making technology,” Gonzales said. It houses an aluminum-cast lathe, for example, from the 1940s. The machine slowly cuts a groove into the blanks while a speaker provides the vibrations that will create the recording.
“It’s basically carving the sound,” he said.
Once the mold is ready, record presses in another part of the facility produce the actual vinyl records, using a process called compression molding. Records come out of the press with some excess material, which gets trimmed off. (This excess material is what is typically used for regrind.) Then they go to quality control, where they are checked for scratches and particles, and randomly selected for a listen upstairs. Once they pass muster, they’re sleeved, packaged, and shipped to the customer.
Vinyl sales are nowhere near what they were before the advent of cassettes, CDs and mp3s, but records are in the midst of a resurgence. When Brooklyn Phono opened in 2002, there were just two machines; now there are five, and they’re pressing thousands of albums a day. Still, to incorporate the ease of digital media, Brooklyn Phono albums also come with a code so the same record can be downloaded.
“The customer gets a tangible product as well as a portable product,” Gonzales said.
This tactile quality of albums–being able to lower the needle onto them, and physically skip songs–is part of the appeal for Bernich. But it’s more than just their physical qualities that he admires. “I love the sound of records,” he says. “I can’t make music, but being a part of the medium is very satisfying.”