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The LP comes of age: Quieter and better-sounding than ever

Quality Record Pressings, in Salina, Kansas, is making the world's best-sounding LPs!

As any record buyer knows, LP quality varies a lot. I'm not just referring to the dusty old records sold at yard sales; some new records have noisy grooves, clicks and pops, or they're not flat. Those imperfections are common vinyl woes; making consistently quiet records has never been easy. That's why I was thrilled to hear that Quality Record Pressings (QRP), in Salina, Kansas, employs the most advanced technology ever used to manufacture LPs. The proof is in the listening, and the sound is spectacular.

Gary Salstrom inspects the plating of a newly minted master at Quality Record Pressings Tom Dorsey/The Salina Journal

I spoke with QRP's Chad Kassem about the undertaking, which he started planning two years ago. Temperature control of the vinyl through the entire pressing process is key, and while other plants' record pressing machines are allowed a certain predetermined amount of time to squeeze the heated vinyl into a record, QRP uses a double-steam-valve system that reduces cycle time and closely monitors the actual temperature of the vinyl within the press. That's important, because it's the temperature variations in pressing that result in record inconsistency and noise. Each QRP LP is visually inspected, and from time-to-time during a production run someone listens to a freshly pressed LP to ensure the quality is consistent.

Before we go any further I should explain that QRP doesn't cut the original analog lacquer disc from which all the LPs will be made. That's the mastering engineer's job, which is probably done in New York or Los Angeles (or a few other cities around the country). The lacquer master is shipped to QRP, where Gary Salstrom electroplates it with nickel, and after a few intermediate steps produces "stampers." The stamper is the mold within the press that creates the vinyl records. The QRP Web site has a video that takes you through the complete process, from analog master tape to finished LP. Of course, LPs can also be made from digital masters, but again, that would occur before QRP's involvement.

Kassem sent a few LPs over, and I have to say they were all pretty stellar. Bluesman Freddie King's 1971 "Getting Ready..." LP rocked with a vengeance. It's no audiophile recording, but the pure analog sound and straightforward recording technique let the music speak for itself. Ah, yes, it was made in the days before Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, and click tracks were required to make music; all you needed was a great band and good songs. The King record has an immediacy that few contemporary recordings can match, and with the QRP vinyl you'll get so much closer to the sound of the analog master tape.

Ray Charles' 1964 recording, "Live in Concert," is one of my favorite LPs, and it just recently came out on CD for the first time. That's nice, but the QRP vinyl gives a very different, and far more musical rendition of his performance. I could feel that Charles was really leading his swinging band, and his reaching, pleading, and ultimately powerful voice was dramatically more present on the LP. It's the weirdest thing, I've listened to my original LP a zillion times, but this was not only quieter, the sound of Charles and the band were so much more three-dimensionally present than before. The sound improvements are similar to what you hear from a better-sounding phono cartridge.

While the QRP LPs were exceptionally quiet I don't want to give the impression that they are as quiet as CDs, they're not. If you crave dead silence, stick with digital media. This much I can say: the QRP LPs sound better than the vast majority of the records in my collection. I applaud their dedication to elevating the art of manufacturing LPs.

Vinyl's comeback is showing no signs of slowing down, and pressing plants around the country are running full-tilt. QRP makes records for Kassem's online record store, Acoustic Sounds, but it's not a closed shop; Blue Note Japan, Sony, Sundazed, Warner Brothers, and other labels are having some of their LPs made by QRP. If you're a musician or you're in a band that releases LPs, you can get your records pressed at QRP.