On of the best characteristics of vinyl, besides the distictive sound, is its collectable aspect. Vinyl has quickly transcended its status as a mere audio medium to become an object of artistic expression in its own right, especially since its big comeback. While collectors searched for different pressings during the golden age of vinyl, today’s records come in many shapes and forms. Different colors, smoke and splatter effects, picture discs… vinyl is no longer limited to simple black records! While this trend was first observed in underground music scenes, in recent years the general public has been discovering the different aspects of vinyl. How are these variations of the traditional black disc achieved and do they have an impact on the sound?
Vinyl records are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a colorless material that requires the addition of dyes to achieve a specific color. For the production of records, it comes in the form of pellets which are heated and then pressed using special machines to make a disc that is then engraved.
If the first records were designed with black PVC in order to make the groove more visible, it has become common for labels to use different colored PVC granules. A whole palette of colors exists to the delight of collectors and artists who see their music take on a new dimension. It is also possible to use translucent and colored PVC granules to obtain a transparent record.
For a marbled vinyl record, the manufacturing process is similar to that of a colored disc, as you simply have to mix PVC granules of different colors while maintaining a certain ratio depending on the desired result. The same process is used with translucent PVC granules of different colors for records with a smokey effect.
Vinyl records with splash or splatter effect are a favorite with many artists, labels and collectors. Guaranteed to wow as soon as it is taken out of its sleeve, the splatter record is made of a PVC disc on which granules of one or more colors are placed before the whole thing is pressed.
This highly collectable type of record can cause a problem when it comes to sound quality. The picture disc has a poor reputation in terms of audio performance because it is no longer a question of simply changing the color of the PVC granules, but of printing an entire image on the surface of the disc. While standard vinyl records consist of an engraved PVC disc, picture discs have 3 distinct layers. The first layer is a transparent disc without music, the second is the image and the third is a sheet which contains the grooves. This last layer is thin and malleable and not as strong as regular discs, which can have a negative effect on playback and long-term durability. Not all picture discs have drastically inferior sound quality, especially newer ones. They are, however, much more prone to background noise and unwanted sounds and often have a more limited lifespan.
Picture discs generally feature a different print on each side, providing an additional means of expression for artists.
The size of vinyl records and the materials used in their design offer many opportunities to experiment. This is the case of records that abandon the circular shape to offer a totally unique vinyl format. Uncommon, this promotional format is often sold in a transparent sleeve to highlight the unique shape of the disc. The engraving process is similar to that of a picture disc, except that only the center is engraved, which is why these discs are mostly singles.
Unsurprisingly, the Monty Python comedy troupe are among the artists who have explored this format, with a disc in the shape of a goldfish bowl for their Galaxy Song, but also many world famous artists such as Iron Maiden, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Police, Devo, Rush, Madonna and the Wu-Tang Clan.
What type of vinyl offers the best sound?
Even today, vinyl enthusiasts are divided, with those who find that the black disc offers the best sound quality and those who think the difference is imperceptible.
As mentioned, the natural color of vinyl, without the addition of other colorants, is actually colorless. To make records black, vinyl is mixed with another ingredient, black carbon. The carbon mixed with the PVC helps reinforce the vinyl, making black records theoretically sturdier and more durable than a record made from PVC and different dyes. Another argument in favor of black vinyl is that adding different materials to the mix affects the sound as well as the density of the record.
In the end, there are as many opinions as there are music lovers and some black vinyl may sound inferior to another album pressed on a colored disc. As is often the case with hi-fi, it is personal taste and emotions that matter.