May/June 2022

by Richard Thorne

Pressing Vinyl The Stebbing Way

by Richard Thorne

Pressing Vinyl The Stebbing Way

The Jervois Rd location of the Stebbing Recording Centre in Auckland is a local landmark, the two-level building with its familiar neon sign having guarded the eastern corner of Herne Bay since 1969. In a quiet street just a five-minute stroll back towards Ponsonby Rd is the much less visible Stebbing manufacturing plant, a set of buildings that for a quarter century has housed the country’s biggest CD/DVD replication plant, and come early 2023 will also have the world’s newest vinyl record production line in the building adjacent. Richard Thorne was given an early tour.

The late Eldred Stebbing (father of current managing owners Robert and Vaughan – pictured) famously began recording music from his home back in the 1950s. Given the company’s history since in the reproduction of vinyl 78s, cassettes, VCRs, CDs and DVDs, it almost beggars belief that there’s never been an album pressing plant here previously, but there hasn’t – until now.

Robert Stebbing, now into his 70s, and younger brother Vaughan are almost boyishly enthusiastic to show me around the two main rooms of the new vinyl plant they have designed together. We also head out back to look at a cluster of tall 1000-litre roof-fed water storage tanks and to the warehouse next door where several more pieces of machinery are awaiting installation, alongside racks of packaged CDs and the raw materials of manufacture.

The main plant room is by no means huge, about 12m square, with various electrical machinery and mechanical components scattered around, some in situ, some waiting to be positioned and connected. There’s a boiler and two refrigeration units (one essentially a spare), electronic supply control panel, water purification plant and support framing for more water tanks. What’s most obviously missing is the press itself. Originally expected by September 2022, that’s now due for delivery by year-end, and expected to be in full-blown, two 12″ vinyl albums-per-minute operation by early March 2023.

Even without the Swedish-made Pheenix Alpha press there’s plenty in the room to talk about. Vaughan quickly notes that a key point of difference is the amount of effort they’ve put into minimising energy loss. While not billing it as a ‘green’ process, the Stebbings have gone all out to ensure their vinyl plant is extremely energy efficient and will be able to press albums to a consistently high standard with minimal long-term maintenance downtime.

“You have extreme pressures and temperatures happening in the press, going from 18 degrees to 180 degrees within seconds, and it’s switching back and forth constantly,” Vaughan explains.

stebbing pheenix“Basically, what’s happening within the mould all the time, is you’ve got steam going in there at 12-bar pressure, 180 degrees – that heats it up – then the mould closes and melts the puck of vinyl. Once the grooves are all nicely formed you fire cold water in there, and you’re cooling that right down to 18 degrees again before the stamper moulds separate. That happens within 30 seconds!”

In addition to recovering rainwater from the factory roof, the pair have designed a creative system for energy recycling.

“So we have a gas-powered boiler generating 12-bar steam, and then we’ll have a tank with the cooling water that gets injected. The idea was we actually don’t waste any water within the system, and we’re utilising and recovering as much energy as possible.

“Of course, the initial cold water that hits the mould just turns into vapour. There is water used in terms of the energy that gets left over as steam, but we will recover as much condensate as possible, and that’s all fed back to the boiler so it’s not wasted. Any cooling water left over goes to a warm water tank, then we will take that through a number of different systems to bring that down from about 50 degrees to 18 degrees again.”

The high-efficiency water boiler chosen is fueled by gas rather than electricity.

“We could have gone with an electric boiler,” Vaughan continues, “but the issue with that is it’s not as cost-effective and efficient as people would think. With gas you don’t require large transformers, and when you’re not using it, it stops.

“The likely future is these systems being turned into hydrogen-based heating systems, and what we were seeing is people obviously wanting to move to being green. Essentially, you’re not being green if you’re putting 400kW of electrical energy in to power the heating as well!”

As if to emphasise his point, by coincidence on the spring morning we meet, there had been a grid-wide Transpower directive to reduce load, which would have meant production couldn’t have started up. That 400kW energy demand is apparently about as much as the whole neighbourhood would normally need.

Robert describes another major point of difference to all but maybe a small percentage of the world’s existing vinyl plants – the water being used is going to be refined to a point of high purity.

“There’ll be no salts and stuff like that left in the water used, so therefore, none of the pieces of equipment will deteriorate because of a build up of corrosive salts.

“It means the boiler isn’t getting that typical build-up inside, so we will have no need of adding any of those horrific chemicals needed to correct that sort of slag problem. And so this will be quite green from that point of view. Also, we are using rainwater from the roof that will have hardly any dissolved salts anyway.”

It sounds almost extreme, but water purity is a winning trick the brothers learnt from the $20M CD/DVD plant Stebbing installed two decades ago, as Robert explains.

“It’s aimed at minimising the maintenance, getting it as close to zero as possible. These motors and pumps are very high-tech and go at about 27,000 revs. It can be about $15,000 for a replacement pump, and we had all the pumps being eaten away, and then they started to leak. So that’s why we switched to using distilled water.”

Vaughan notes that other vinyl plants they’ve looked at don’t seem to do a lot of with their water systems. Theirs will have a four-step microfiltration system, meaning the water used will be ‘better’ than your average distilled drinking water.

“The key factor for us is that if you want consistency in processes, like with the CD presses, you want all your water systems to be consistent. You want the steam at a precise temperature, same with the cooling water, everything should be maintained accurately day in and day out.

“Then your process controls are consistent. Then every record you turn out is like a CD – everyone’s the same! You haven’t got things happening, like where during the day if the sun comes out the cooling water temp rises.

“Talking to the company we’re dealing with in Sweden, they said this is a critical factor, that we need to maintain our water temperatures as close as possible to their specifications – and then you’ll achieve the consistency.”

The buildings are in a residential area so external noise is a real issue, meaning care has had to be taken with the water cooling process. A steel tower supports a grey tank unit up near the roof, where the used hot water will be pumped to be cooled, brought back into the system when cold.

“The actual tanks have never been done like what we’re doing them as well. If you started using outside air cooling – having 200 kilowatts of air-cooling on the roof, you can imagine the fan noise! So we’ve got a water cooling tank, which has got nearly 60 meters of tubular stainless steel within the tank [picture your own intestinal system as a vague guide], that are cooling coils. We have the coils already, they’re amazing, and the tanks themselves are under construction at the moment.”

Initially planning to provide system capacity for two presses, Vaughan now reckons there’s room for three side by side, though they’ve purchased just the one to start with. Because of their highly-designed system they don’t anticipate much delay between installation and readiness to run the press – a few weeks of fine-tuning maximum. They expect to be in production by March.

Though our conversation to date has been about other aspects, of course, it’s the vinyl press itself that will be the star of the show, and was the most critical choice to get right. They opted for the Swedish-made Pheenix Alpha AD12 – an automatic press that’s both new and old, as Vaughan explains.

“Well the AD12 we are getting is brand new, but is based on the original design which was basically made in the 1970s. When we were talking to Pheenix about this five years ago, they were mostly at that stage just getting old AD12 presses and refurbishing them.

“Generally around the world then, the top artists and groups didn’t want to use a newfangled press, they wanted their new vinyl to be made the same as how they were done back in the ’70s and ’80s.

“And so for quite a period of time, people were dragging their old presses out of storage and shipping them off to Sweden to have them completely overhauled. Then they’d be sent back and be put to use. Of course, ultimately they ran out of old ones!

“So the idea is that this is a new evolution of the original [Toolex Alpha] AD12 press. It doesn’t look like an old press at all, and is all new in terms of the way it is handled, but they did want to keep it very similar in operation. People buying this new model are really getting the same quality as what has for that long time been considered the Rolls Royce of vinyl presses.”

The inherent Pheenix (or rather phoenix) analogy works nicely for both the press and for Stebbing’s involvement in modern vinyl pressing. Another factor in choosing the AD12 is that it uses the most universal stamper shape, and as Stebbing’s sales manager Murray Cullen explains, that’s important for their business model.

“I keep on getting asked, ‘Oh, you’ll be cheaper won’t you?’ The short answer to that is no. We’re not entering the market to be the cheapest. If we were then we wouldn’t have spent all this money on doing all the things that we’re doing. We will be providing consistently good vinyl at the market price – and we’ll be able to give a quality assurance and a delivery assurance.

“We do have to be in the ballpark of where the market is, but the other part about this is that we’re local and you can talk to us. You can see it happening if you want to! And we are going to be assured of the quality that we’re delivering.”

He’s at pains to point out that the quality of each run will still be subject to the stamper mould that comes to them from overseas suppliers. They looked seriously at bringing that process in-house too, but found it simply not viable.

Cullen says that Stebbing have relationships for both cutting and stamping manufacturers in Australia and the States, and will also be happy to accept customers’ existing stampers – for those who already have them made, or have a relationship with a preferred lacquer cutter.

“One of the big things we can do is accept an Alpha stamper [the Viryl WarmTone type won’t fit] from wherever it comes from, and to be honest, my job will be easiest if all our customers walk in with a stamper – because that is where things might possibly go wrong!”

Along with the three years of research, design and preparation, Stebbing are investing close to $2M in their vinyl plant. It’s being built at a time when all manner of costs are escalating globally, but Cullen thinks that because of freight and the weight of vinyl shipping the world situation is going to be in their favour in overall costing. He’s taken numerous bookings already, and anticipated demand volumes mean they will be able to operate the plant enough to get a good commercial return.

The enduring challenge of vinyl pricing to the consumer lies in the high fixed costs and still relatively low sales volumes. At the CD and DVD plant’s peak, Stebbing were producing 60,000 units in one day. However one CD line is equivalent to 10 vinyl presses in terms of output, and doing the maths on vinyl pressing times, they might possibly manage 900 albums per day.

“A certain amount of any record’s cost is in that set up of making the stamper and the lacquer cutting, which is a fixed cost at the beginning, no matter how many you produce. And that also has a limited life, effectively we’re talking around 1000 or 1500 for each stamper that gets made. Then you need to add the costs of sleeve printing plus the vinyl label printing, which is proving a real challenge at the moment.”

Cullen says that runs of less than 200 will likely be uneconomical as there will be a minimum run fee, and expects that 250-500 runs will be the majority of the business. Pressed for an indication of likely costs he insists he can only give a ballpark guide.

“If you want 300 LPs from us, in black vinyl, then I’d expect the cost to be around $18 each. If you want 500 then it might be $16 each. Every time you do something different with vinyl you add to the cost, so if you want fancy-coloured vinyl then it might be $21. And what do you want for the record sleeve and jacket? It might run up to $25 each.”

“The big cost in the vinyl really is all the stuff around it,” Vaughan Stebbing affirms. “The cardboard and paper around it. The labels are a special paper and costly to print if it’s just a run of a few hundred. Then there is shrink wrapping, which we’ve already done a lot of workarounds to get it perfect, and freight of course. While it is less expensive in machinery there is a lot of expense in the hand assembly aspects of vinyl.”

Their attention to detail has gone as far as Robert designing the cardboard boxes for lots of 25 that will be dispatched once inspected, sleeved and individually shrink-wrapped. After long hours – months and years of discussions, technical drawings, calculations and re-calculations the plant is very much taking shape. The enthusiasm and pride of the two brothers is palpable – it seems like they’ve had fun doing this.

“Parts have been fun, other parts not much fun!” smiles Vaughan. “It got more and more complex.”

“It’s been very exacting,” Robert agrees, perhaps with some understatement and a hint of weariness.

As Murray Cullen observes, the fun was in the concept, the not-so-much fun has been engineering that into reality.

“There will be no other vinyl plant in the world that has what this one has. That’s not to say it’s better than anybody else’s, but none will be like this, because it’s been designed by these guys.”