Blue Sprocket Pressing

Interview by Jordan Taylor
Issue 64 • June 2018 • Harrisonburg

Renewed popular interest in a classic music medium caused this recording studio to take on the ultimate challenge: pressing their own vinyl.

Above: Chris Jackson, Logan Stoltzfus, and Taven Wilson

When it comes to records, you take for granted a phrase like “hot wax.” That’s not a luxury granted to those who are physically pressing records—you quickly need to consider how best to cool a steam-heated 400-degree slab of vinyl. The phrase hides a lot.

For Blue Sprocket Sound, Harrisonburg’s homegrown full-service recording studio, the decision to move into the actual production of vinyl records may seem like an obvious next step. However, Founder Chris Jackson and Plant Manager Logan Stoltzfus are quick to note how wildly different the demands of the Blue Sprocket Pressing manufacturing facility are from the studio. As we cross the street from the studio and walk through the pressing plant, from the extruder to the chiller to the press itself to a source for vinyl compound to the reconditioned Heidelberg Press, the sheer size of the operation makes an impression.

Blue Sprocket is entering into a market where indie and DIY bands have re-embraced records and tapes as a medium for their music. That trend is in response to audiences who, though increasingly fixated on ephemeral streaming, also pine for the beautiful objects once synonymous with music appreciation. As vinyl fills up megastore music bins and online shopping carts, the album becomes as much lifestyle art accent as easy entertainment.

Northwestern Virginia was once an epicenter of record pressing in the U.S. when Capitol Records had one of its four pressing operations in Winchester. The plant cranked out copies of Abbey Road and other hits until the late 1980s, bearing their telltale “rifle” deadwax inscription (─◁). Appreciation of that kind of aesthetic detail animates both Jackson and Stoltzfus who spoke of loving “the boundaries created by the side of a record” and “how the limits of a record are appealing at a time of infinite continuous play.” Stoltzfus somewhat sheepishly admitted that he is a “huge vinyl nerd.” His “this can’t really be my job” attitude drives him to take on seemingly herculean tasks like mastering a Heidelberg that was last used by a salsa company in Texas.

Jackson, who radiates an amiable practicality, spoke of the financial decision to embark on such a venture. “We kept expecting at the next step that someone would see something that we had missed,” he said. “That we had missed this calculation by $300,000, but the finance people thought it made sense. They were seeing what we were seeing.” The trend they all were noticing was an increasing demand for vinyl, with some markets showing annual sales growth of over 50%.

This past November, the pair—with tentative plans in-hand—attended the first Making Vinyl Conference in Detroit, a gathering of professionals practicing a craft that was considered all but dead three decades back. There they found a community not wary of competitors, but eager to offer shortcut advice or quick caution. Jackson summed up the central kernel: “It will take twice as long as you think and cost twice as much.”

While they admit that such complications have come, Blue Sprocket’s decision to embrace Viryl Technologies’ WarmTone record press has also connected them with a larger operation that has lent support as they get their facility in place. In a fast year, Jackson and Stoltzfus went from entertaining a fanciful notion, to a plan to be producing records on site by the end of the summer, to a roadmap that, once complete, could result in a capacity north of five million records per year.

Like so many projects at Blue Sprocket, the move to manufacturing came about organically, meshed with their own existing interests as well as the lateral needs of the community around the recording studio. Already, Blue Sprocket has worked through a couple test runs with Elby Brass from Fredericksburg and The Judy Chops from Staunton, both relationships which grew from their time at Blue Sprocket Sound.

Jackson and Stoltzfus think of Harrisonburg’s perch in the northwest of Virginia as a strategic windfall. Jackson said, “Harrisonburg has often been described as a city where ‘a highway runs through it.’” While the bustling commerce of I-81 does not recall the tranquil fly fishing of Norman Maclean, its organic relationship to the routing of touring bands does appeal to them. Stoltzfus offered one vision of the future: “Ideally, I would love to see bands stopping in on tour to pick up their records.” Not only would that save everyone on shipping expenses, but bands could also witness firsthand the delicate ballet of the process that produced their album.

All these dreams rest on the promise of the WarmTone press, still wrapped in plastic on the factory floor, ready to be installed. Its digitally automated workflow brings modern manufacturing techniques to what has traditionally been a cumbersome analog process. That technology is at the heart of why Jackson and Stoltzfus are confident they can provide a better product to artists who have grown accustomed to the slow, pricey, and defect-prone offerings of European record producers. Reflecting on their progress so far, Stoltzfus remarked, “It’s nothing short of mind-blowing that it has all come together!”

When asked what aspects of this old technology remain magical, Jackson captured the beauty and complexity: “Think about an electrified stylus that you put to make different shaped impressions in grooves of vinyl, then you spray it with an electro-magnetic layer. Pull that off. Set the plates. Steam heat plastic compounds to have those shapes and grooves imprinted, and what comes out is essentially what’s recorded. Who thinks of that? Really, it’s all magic.”

To learn more about Blue Sprocket Pressing or request a production quote, visit bluesprocketpressing.com.

Photography by Brandy Somers

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