Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vinyl records firm presses on

Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

Detroit -- If ever a National Register of Historic, Cool, Hard-core, 20th-Century Machinery is created, Archer Record Pressing would be a landmark.

Archer is one of the last companies in the world still making vinyl records -- a technology the corporate music industry decided to banish four decades ago.

This third-generation family business doesn't fear the death of vinyl: There's always a subculture of musicians that want their work on albums. Archer fears its massive record machines will die. And the machines constantly break down.

"We rely on the best of 1970s technology," said Joe Archer, whose father Norm, started the business in 1965.

The company has no choice. The last record-making machine is believed to have been made in 1986, according to various Web sites dedicated to vinyl records.

The five presses at Archer were bought from the other record press companies that went under decades ago.

A sole company in North America sells the specialized parts for the machines. At its core, a record-making machine is a hydraulic press with a closing force of 100 tons. It has steam pipes, tubes, buttons, motors, molds and mechanical doo-dads specific to mass-producing vinyl.

In operation, the machines produce a kind of score of heavy industry sounds. The boom of the press can be heard a half-block away. There's a rhythm of hissing steam, a hydraulic whoosh, a high-pitched metallic slice, the low rumble of a generator.

Few know how to fix the record machines. One is Mike Archer, 43, who learned by growing up watching Joe, his father, fix them.

"It's a daily battle," Mike Archer said. "They're finicky machines. If your scrap rate starts going up, you start looking at the press and say, 'All right, what are you doing to me today?'" Scrap rate refers to the number of defective records.

"You try to isolate what's happening and narrow it down, narrow it down. Is it pneumatic? Electrical? Steam? Most times, it's an issue that takes two or three minutes to deal with. Sometimes, you can scratch your head for two or three hours. Once every couple months, you can feel like the sky is falling."

It is unclear how many record-making companies still exist. Web sites count between eight and 10 worldwide, and three to five in the United States.

Mike Archer knows of two that went under during the past year because their aging owners could not find anyone who wanted to take them over.

Archer has two full-time employees, including 25-year veteran Ken Moravcik. But only Mike and Joe know how to fix the machines.

"It would be a steep learning curve, but you could do it," Mike Archer said. "It's too bad we can't get some apprenticeship program going."

Archer Record Pressing is a landmark to some, including employee Andy Garcia, 33, a devotee of Detroit techno music.

"It's almost holy to me," he said.

Archer Records has survived thanks in no small part to the many Detroit techno artists who rely on vinyl to spin during their performances. Virtually every major Detroit techno artist, who often has their own record label, relies on Archer.

"Every album I ever (bought) had Archer Record on it," said Garcia, who grew up in Anderson, Ind. "When I moved to Detroit, I begged for a job here. I remember when I first came, I thought the place would be a little more spectacular.

"Detroit's like that: It's spectacular where it counts."

Another fan is longtime client Theo Parrish, an international techno artist whose label Sound Signature has had more than 30 albums made at Archer.

"Some of the most amazing dance records that have come out in the last 10 years have come out of this place," Parrish said.

He often stops by Archer when his albums are being pressed. "My thoughts are being translated into the physical universe right there. It's beautiful to see."

Parrish has been so moved by the sounds of the machines that he's producing a song based on them.

"That's one of the hearts of industrial Detroit to me," he said.

Archer has enjoyed a recent bounce in sales, although the owners decline to reveal specific figures.

"The iPod and file-sharing have actually been good to us. Some artists, especially independent rock bands, always want to ensure that enough people are actually buying their product," instead of downloading it for free, Mike Archer said.

"Vinyl will always be around. Whether there will be someone who has the will to mass-produce them? It can be done.

"But if someone will do it? That's a good question."


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