Laura KEŠYTĖ | The Magic Process of Making Vinyl Records

(And how the enigma kicked off with an old photo...)

What we, as music lovers, truly understand about the process of creating vinyl records is, in fact, quite limited or minimal. This becomes even more evident when chatting with folks like Dovilis Paliukas, the mastermind behind Darkoom Records, a recording studio spanning approximately 40 square metres, tailored for individual and small-batch vinyl record production.

Crafting each lathe-cut disc requires a careful and unique process, and there are simply too many things that could potentially go awry in the process. In fact, the technology is so difficult that you might find it easier to coach a lab mouse on how to use GarageBand instead (it was supposed to be funny; I’m sorry if it wasn’t.).

Today everyone has an opportunity to delve into the art of producing, mixing, and mastering digital music. This newfound accessibility owes much to the presence of YouTube channels, open courses, books, and virtual communities, not to mention the existence of academic institutions like schools and colleges.

But to those who possess a keen desire to embark on the journey of crafting vinyl records – brace yourself, as the path ahead is truly demanding.

Dovilis, who ignited his passion for vinyl recording 18 years ago, remarks, “There’s scarce knowledge available about the process – how to execute it, its essence, and the necessary equipment.”

“How did you find yourself in this geekish realm?” I ask him. 

As fate would have it, the story started with an ancient family photograph.

“I have a memory of one day when my parents found some old photos, among them was a picture of my grandfather," Dovilis recalls. “They said, 'Hey, it looks like a record.' I didn't get it at first, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It turns out, it was a recording from a long time ago, though I'm not sure when. You'd need old-fashioned equipment to listen to that recording.”

Throughout history, two varieties of record discs have existed – shellac and vinyl.

“Those shellac discs were exceptionally hard and heavy, but they were also quite fragile – a fall could cause them to shatter. The tracks on them were referred to as standard grooves, which were considerably broader than the contemporary microgrooves found on current records. Our technological advancements since the 1960s have enabled us to achieve remarkably precise listening experiences,” he explains.

That picture record can be played using an old record player equipped with a needle suitable for a standard-width track. 

“If I were to use a modern needle on that track, the sound quality would be quite poor, characterized by hissing. Eventually, I stumbled upon an old soviet vinyl record player called Accord that was equipped with an antiquated mono head featuring a substantial spike capable of reading it. So, I transcribed it, and to my great surprise, I heard my grandpa’s voice on the record! And on it he conveyed a wish dedicated to his mother, followed by a song,” Dovilis recounts.

What made the picture record so captivating and perplexing was the near-impossibility of creating an individual shellac record during that era. And yet, it happened!

“The vinyl record factory couldn’t have manufactured only a single plate. There must have been an alternative method available. Nowadays, it’s so straightforward: flip on the phone, record the sound, and it's captured. Back then, transferring sound was a challenge. Radio, turntable, tapes – those were considered luxuries. And in Lithuania, concealed behind the Berlin Wall, it was nothing short of a miracle,” Dovilis explains.


But let’s circle back to where we began. Why is it still hard to learn about vinyl recording, even with all the information available in this digital age?

One unquestionable response is that the technology is delightfully retro.

“There were just two primary heavyweight contenders in the world of disc-cutting lathes. In Europe it was the Neumann, and across the pond was the American model, the Scully. And recording studios with cutting rooms were in the possession of major corporations, operated by a handful of engineers who knew the special techniques. That intel was tightly guarded, and to some extent it still is,” Dovilis elucidates.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s with the rise of digital formats like CDs and, later, digital downloads, vinyl records saw a decline in popularity. Record-cutting technology has been in hibernation since the ’80s.

“CDs quickly replaced vinyl records and the entire scene began to fade away. Back then, there weren’t many engineers specialized in crafting those lathes. What surprised me even more was that professional lathes weren’t flawless either; they came with their fair share of problems. Using new mechanical parts and modern electronics, Flo Kaufman, a Swiss engineer, played a pivotal role in revitalizing the modern vinyl record industry,” Dovilis explains.

Because a disc-cutting lathe is a rarity, Dovilis crafted one himself, though it took him a significant amount of time and he had his doubts.

“There are no in-depth books on the topic. While there is a primary online forum, the deeper I explored it, the more I felt like I knew nothing at all. One record producer insists on doing it one way, another swears by a different method. After a few years, I realized that my own production setup met the high-quality requirements needed to achieve professional results,” he says.

Every environment comes with its own set of conditions – humidity, air temperature, available tools, and so on. All these factors weave into the fabric of the record-making process. “There isn't a one-size-fits-all formula for success. Every individual crafting vinyl records possesses a unique set of techniques in their arsenal to attain their desired outcomes,” he adds.

So, after successfully constructing the lathes from the ground up, the only components he lacked were the record-cutting head and an amplifier.

“The head is an incredibly complex and exceptional device, requiring a significant amount of knowledge to create. And a truckload of money,” Dovilis laughs. “The only place I knew where to ask was Flokason. When it comes to achieving precise head restoration, this is the only place I know of.”


Now let’s shift this topic to the last direction – production costs, quality specification, and working with suppliers.

Just to inform you, there are two options: cutting the disc to a lacquer or to a copper plate (DMM). Regardless of the chosen method, cutting vinyl is a crucial step that must be completed before a vinyl record enters the pressing phase. It’s the stage between supplying your music master and the music actually being pressed on the vinyl record.

Which cutting is the best, if valued from the listener’s perspective? 

“If a person is not skilled, they may not even think about it. I can’t definitively say that one way is better than the other; they involve slightly different technologies. Each material resonates in its own unique way. Personally, I prefer lacquer the most. Its sound can be both soft and sharp, with plenty of bass. For DJs, records are cut deeper to achieve a wider and deeper groove. Achieving this in metal is challenging. On the other hand, it’s possible to record longer albums on a copper plate. I’m not implying that it’s impossible to do the same in lacquer, but it’s preferable to avoid it due to other technical considerations,” explains Dovilis.

How can you ensure the music will sound good on vinyl?

“Whether it will be good or not relies on the mastering process – preparing the sound for the record. There are certain limitations when translating audio onto physical media. On the one hand, everything is clear; technologically, it must be executed a certain way. On the other hand, you need to have experience. Most often, the person who typically handles vinyl mastering isn’t the one who worked at the cutting lathes. So you need to have a sense for it, perhaps a connection with someone who is cutting the master discs, and that assistance proves invaluable,” he elaborates.

“And Dovilis, how do you make sure that your cutting is successful?” I ask.

“What is recorded in the lacquer, within the vinyl master, gets sent to the factory without any additional listening. It’s so delicate that you can’t even touch it with your finger. What you’re able to do, though, is meticulously inspect the master under a microscope. However, to actually experience the results, a test press needs to be done. First, a stamper is made from the master, which is then placed onto the vinyl record press to produce a set of a few test pressings, yielding records for your evaluation. Once you confirm that everything is in order, you can proceed with pressing the desired number of copies. This meticulous process serves as the primary quality control procedure when you finally receive those pressings,” he explains.

Recording music on vinyl is a costly indulgence. Or perhaps not? Are there any producers who could make it more affordable? No, there are none, as these are energy-related concerns, particularly now with the elevated costs of energy resources. 

“Printing requires high-temperature dry steam, and generating it consumes a substantial amount of energy. Also, a lot of electricity. Besides, cutting one-off records directly into a plastic disc needs special empty discs and a special diamond needle, which is not cheap. In short, it’s a cost-intensive field,” Dovilis says.

What makes producing vinyl records even more challenging is an extremely limited supply chain.

“Before the Apollo fire in 2020 in the United States, there were only two companies that made lacquer discs, and the other was MDC in Japan. Now, MDC supplies the entire market, and they struggle to keep up with demand. There are some restrictions on quantity for master disc purchases, but also I am happy with what I have,” Dovilis clarifies.

“So, what keeps you in this business?” I ask him outright.

“The process itself brings me joy, and the most rewarding thing is the music itself. I encounter so many incredible tunes I might never find searching on my own. And it’s all thanks to record production,” he says.

Additionally, the ability to produce a small batch of vinyl discs provides you with an exceptional opportunity to support various independent artists, he adds.

“For example, I was in contact with a Ukrainian band from Kharkiv who ordered 10 records from me once. When the war began, I asked them if I could use their music to create picture discs as a form of support for Ukraine. They sent me the music and artwork just as they were escaping from Kharkiv. I made their vinyl discs and raised money for support. Such events are truly inspiring.” 

He concludes: “Finally, I must emphasize the invaluable role my wife has played as a steadfast companion throughout this journey. Her support and encouragement fuel my determination.”

Read more texts from this Lithuanian Music Link issue here.