When I first started work on this site it had a different name. ‘Vinyl Junkies’ came about because of my enduring love of what seemed then to be a declining format. A lot of what I wrote about was stuff I’d picked up on 12 inches of plastic rather than my little digital friend. I’ve been buying vinyl since I was six and, while there are so many variables it’s hard to know anything with absolute certainty, I feel like I’m fairly well placed to comment on the way in which it is pressed, packaged and sold in the 21st century.
Those who follow me on Twitter will be used to my fairly regular commentary on the quality of numerous pressings and will also be alert to one particular source of my ire over the years. I find myself writing this to dip a toe in the water and see what is out there. I find myself writing this after getting the phrase ‘we’ve not had any other complaints’ a few times of late. I find myself writing this because the people responsible don’t seem too bothered right now and I have a suspicion it’s not just me getting frustrated.
I’m talking about the work of the world’s largest producer of vinyl records, GZ Media in the Czech Republic. Now, as an emphatic endorser of the format, you might expect me to be deeply indebted to their sizeable contribution to the racks of record shops the world over. And yet. While I don’t doubt that GZ can produce a quiet, clean, well packaged piece of vinyl – I even have a couple in my sizeable collection – it’s got to the point where I can spot their handiwork before the needle lands in the groove. You might recognise some of the following signs: LP incredibly tight to the sleeve, often with one or more of the sides of that sleeve cut through by the disc, light scuff marks on the disc itself, lines of some sort of white dust or grit that when brushed aren’t always keen to depart. Add in numerous releases where the vinyl looks blotchy, dirty or heavily scratched and you’re starting to get the idea. Now, those latter details are far less common, but the first list includes defects I encounter so very often. I am well aware that I’m a stickler and my sensitive equipment probably doesn’t help in my quest for quiet vinyl. However, the popular media narrative that vinyl has the ‘lovely warm crackle’ added to the sound is ludicrous. If you bought a CD and there was digital noise and distortion at points or, frankly, any sort of noise that wasn’t what the artist intended, you’d take it back as faulty. If you purchased a digital download and it didn’t play properly, an email would be swiftly sent. And yet, popular culture would have us believe that purchasing an LP with ticks and pops is all part of the charm. Pressing plants like MPO, Optimal and Pallas would beg to differ, but that’s largely because they consistently have higher standards than some of their competitors.
I’ve included a selection of pictures with this piece to highlight whether your LPs are GZ pressings. gzvinyl.com is often stamped in the run out groove, along with a digital stamped code similar to the one shown below. Increasingly, I’ve noticed the absence of the identifying web address, almost as if labels aren’t so keen to draw attention to a record’s origins. I’ve been in touch with people at GZ who have paid lip service to what I’ve said, assured me they’d investigate and get back to me and then gone silent. I’ve spoken to independent labels who’ve acknowledged a problem but pointed to the need to keep costs down. I’ve spoken to other independent labels who’ve switched to different plants to avoid such problems. I’ve even dealt with the physical production staff at the world’s biggest record label who actively switched production of a particular reissue programme from GZ to Optimal because of concerns about the quality of the product. They still use them for other reissues, but noticeably less when it comes to special editions where they know the quality will be especially scrutinised. As someone who buys a lot of vinyl and just wants it to sound good, it concerns me that people are so often able to pinpoint them as the source of so many problems. They are victims of their own success and the demand currently massively outstrips supply when it comes to vinyl production, but their refusal to engage on the subject and generous puff-pieces like The Quietus‘ recent feature on their operation do leave a sour taste. Could the labels insist on more? Yes. If Universal keep accepting hundreds of thousands of pressings without checking any of them will GZ be all that bothered about the odd determined complaint? Probably not.
So, in hope rather than expectation, I turn to you, the customers. I get rather tired of the “we’ve not had any other complaints” response from artists or labels. Most are all too happy to engage and some have even had pressings done elsewhere to make up for the problems with the initial GZ pressing, but there are still plenty who don’t want to know. I suspect this is largely down to lots of us being willing to put up with dirty, slightly noisy pressings. One music journalist I spoke with recently said he didn’t even notice surface noise when playing vinyl and I fully acknowledged I’m some way off in the opposite direction, but I still reckon there are plenty of people making do because it’s easier than chasing it up. In 2014, I resolutely returned every single even slightly dodgy pressing to my wonderful local independent record shop, Rise. They totally understood what I was getting at and helped me sort out decent copies wherever possible. I imagine I have a certain reputation as a result, but I know from previous Twitter rants on that subject that I’m far from the only one experiencing this downturn in standards. There’s already a fair amount of supporting evidence for my claims on this particular thread over on an audiophile forum.
For now, I’d just like people with experience of GZ pressings to comment below. Share a link to this page and see what we find. I’d like to be able to refer labels and artists to this page when I get the “first we’ve heard of it” response in the future. I’d like to point out to GZ themselves that the issues aren’t one-offs. I’d like more decent, quiet, clean records. So, please comment and we’ll take it from there. If I’m constructing a metaphorical geeky mountain from a gently neurotic molehill, then I’m sure you’ll tell me too. Over to you.