Appendix B: Manufacturing Materials used for Singles

 

Vinyl and Styrene

While we speak loosely of vinyl records, this description is not always strictly correct.  From the 1950s through to at least the mid-1980s, the majority of US-manufactured singles were made from polystyrene in this context usually just known as 'styrene'.  While true vinyl discs are made by squashing a PVC 'biscuit' between two hot stamper plates, styrene records were made by injecting hot, molten polystyrene between a pair of metal moulds.  While the equipment required for injection-molding was expensive (and therefore only justifiable for high volumes), the advantage for the record companies was that the singles could be turned out much more quickly, and the moulds did not need replacing until at least 100,000 discs had been produced.  Vinyl stampers, by contrast, needed replacing after about 1,000 pressings.

The down-side was that styrene records were less durable; in particular, they developed surface wear (and therefore noise) more easily than vinyl, particularly if they were played with cheap phono cartridges in heavy pickups.  It is often claimed that substantial surface noise could develop after only a handful of plays, even though the disc might continue to look perfect. The material was also more brittle and more easily cracked than vinyl.

This lack of durability was not seen as a great problem by the record companies, who regarded singles as high-volume, short-life products. By contrast, LPs were seen as deserving of a high-quality, long-lasting material, and so styrene was used very little.  Other countries, where sales volumes for singles were generally much lower than in the US, appear to have stuck with vinyl for all record-manufacturing, at least in the 1960s and 70s; this applies to Canada, the UK and Europe.

So while all Dylan LPs were pressed on vinyl, even in the US, it appears that in the mid-1960s the large majority of US-manufactured Dylan singles were made of styrene. Of Columbia's three pressing plants, only the west coast facility at Santa Maria, CA, made commercial copies in vinyl, and even there only some of the time.

How do you tell the difference?

  1. Styrene discs are generally lighter in weight than vinyl, and feel less flexible.

  2. A loosely-held styrene disc, when tapped, produces a more brittle, ringing sound than does a vinyl record, which will make a soft, 'dead' sound.

  3. The edge of a styrene disc is squared off and smooth, whereas vinyl singles typically have a thinner edge which often feels as though it has been rather roughly trimmed.

  4. On styrene singles the label is glued on after the disc has been produced, so it will have a raised edge that you can feel with your fingernail, and may on occasion be worn around the edge or show signs of lifting off the record.  On a vinyl disc the label is pressed right into the plastic by the hot stamper, so the edge will be flush with the vinyl.

Do you need to worry?

Clearly, if you have US Dylan singles from this period in your collection, you'll already know whether or not they sound worn.  But if they're made of styrene it's a good idea to make digital transfers sooner rather than later.  And play them with a conical stylus: apparently the elliptical styli that are used in most modern high quality cartridges, while optimised for playing stereo LPs, are particularly damaging to mono styrene discs.

If you're buying second-hand, the safest bet is to look for UK or European pressings where available.  If you want to buy a US copy, try and establish whether it's made of vinyl or styrene, and if it's the latter, make sure you can return it if the sound quality doesn't live up to the disc's appearance.  If the disc is genuinely unplayed, it should be fine: a really mint condition styrene single can sound just as good as a vinyl copy   some say even better and if played with care can still last well.

 

Most of the above information was drawn from the following online discussion groups:
    https://www.discogs.com/forum/
    https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/
    https://lathetrolls.com/

Particular thanks to contributor W.B. on the first two of these.

 

Last updated May 2019

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