Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Styrene: a risky purchase for vinyl record collectors?

"For those of you who have all these Decca albums from the 1950's, do not... I mean, DO NOT use a sapphire-type needle or a screw-type needle. Otherwise, it will permanently damage it, and it will no longer playable (sic), because you'll probably notice that this is a styrene Decca record."
-Chris from Brooklyn (aka HomeoftheGoodGuys, Musicradio77, WCPR1620AM, GEWildcatRocks, BrooklynMouse, etc.)

Back in the 20th century, record companies tried to give the best music to people via vinyl for a low price. Unfortunately, the price of cutting the cost for a 45 record included making it out of a very different sort of plastic: namely, polystyrene.

Polystyrene, in my opinion, may have been cost-effective as a material to make 45 records back then, but, as time has proven, it is certainly not enduring. "Why?" you may ask. Because records made of styrene tend to wear out in a much shorter time. And when they are worn out, they can put your stylus at risk AND will sound absoutely TERRIBLE compared to 45s made out of real polyvinyl chloride (with a few exceptions, such as my 45 of "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It").

So what's the big deal? Well, I can describe what a very worn styrene 45 sounds like. The grooves are noise-laden and the stylus ends up riding in what I like to call Sibilance City. And all that surface noise and distortion is within the well-worn grooves, because some person obviously played it billions of times back in the day with a phono cartridge that applied mammoth-like tracking force to the record!

So you might be wondering, how do you tell a styrene record apart from a record made out of real vinyl? Well, the question is answered in the picture below:



See the differences in the picture? They're pretty obvious alright. The vinyl 45 has a shinier surface, and the label is pressed on together with the vinyl mold by the pressing plant. The styrene 45's surface looks more "dull" compared to the vinyl 45 and also has a rough-edged rim around the label. And speaking of the label on styrene 45s, it is glued directly to the record. I guess this was done because styrene was more brittle compared to vinyl.

Should you stay away from styrene altogether? Well, not necessarily. If you want to dig up some of those golden oldies, there's still a way to give them a listen. Getting the best sound out of this material is doable with the right equipment. Here's a list of stylus types that would/wouldn't be the most suitable for a styrene record:

GOOD: spherical or elliptical diamond
BAD: "line contact" shaped diamond (especially the Audio-Technica AT440ML/MLa), sapphire/screw-type, osmium

(note: the absolute WORST thing that could happen to a styrene record is having them played on a wind-up gramophone with a steel stylus)

Interestingly, "line contact" shaped styli will eat up the grooves of a styrene record. This is because they are shaped after the stylus on a vinyl cutter head, and were designed with sound accuracy in mind, but not with styrene records in mind. Just goes to show you that different styli react differently to different materials used to make a record.

Finally, did you know that some record labels used styrene to press their LPs as well? That's actually true. Examples include some of Decca's late 50's LPs (as mentioned in the quote at the beginning of the article; they claim to have made them out of "Deccalite"), records pressed by Sunset (Liberty's "budget" division), Harmony (Columbia's "budget" division), and all the labels owned by the Record Corporation of America (such as Royale and Halo), just to name a few.

So that's just about it. If you want to hear a styrene 45 in action played with the right equipment, here is a video of my "Weird Al" Yankovic 45. Just goes to show that you can still get good sound out of styrene by using the right type of stylus (note: video blocked in Germany due to copyright restrictions by the GEMA):



Ryan

1 comment:

  1. Polystyrene 45's were common in the 60's to 70's. Though usually not as good sounding as records made out of vinyl, one advantage was they didn't warp. As far as record companies pressing records on styrene, the only record company that I know who did was Columbia records. One Columbia plant, in Santa Maria, pressed everything in vinyl. Capitol only pressed in vinyl. And no, RCA didn't use styrene when they were pressing records. Most record labels farmed out their pressing. The most common styrene pressings were done by Monarch Records and their clients were A&M, Atlantic-Atco, Liberty, UA, Warner Bros.-Reprise and many independent labels. Monarch changes to vinyl in the mid-80's, before they went out of business. When Capitol and RCA got out of the record pressing business, you started seeing a mix of Styrene and Vinyl records. When Columbia closed it's Santa Maria plant, most CBS group records were pressed in styrene at Terra Haute and Pitman, although some were vinyl. Currently, the main independent record pressing companies press in vinyl only, like Rainbo, United, RTI, etc. I haven't seen a new styrene record since the early-80's.

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