In Age of Digital Music, Vinyl Gets Second Life in a Brooklyn Factory
In an industrial and uninviting stretch of Brooklyn, near several strip clubs and a factory that makes electrical tubing, Thomas Bernich’s small plant recycles vinyl and preserves a fading piece of history.
In fact, Mr. Bernich’s workplace in Sunset Park is one of the few of its kind in New York City and in the country.
Inside the one-story, red-brick factory on 42nd Street, boxes of discarded albums from used-record stores are piled high on wooden pallets, awaiting their end and a new beginning.
The records are tossed into a large shredder to start the process of putting music on them again. The used vinyl is eventually fed into a press that creates new albums. “Taking rotten milk and breathing new life into it is not an easy thing,” Mr. Bernich said.
Mr. Bernich and the five employees at his company, Brooklynphono, have preserved the craft of applying music to vinyl.
Mr. Bernich stumbled into the record business after he realized that his talent for sculpture, which he studied at the Pratt Institute, could probably not support a career. But while at Pratt, Mr. Bernich, 40, started collecting records, inspired by a friend’s passion for vinyl.
“You have these moments when you are playing a record when you get caught in a location and time,” said Mr. Bernich, who lives in Brooklyn Heights. “There is a magic with vinyl and the memories that are connected to it.”
When he finally had the chance to buy two used vinyl-pressing machines from a plant that was closing, Mr. Bernich pounced, turning his hobby into a job and opening a small business. While vinyl records are clearly a relic, Mr. Bernich has found a niche. When it first opened in 2003, Brooklynphono was making about 2,000 records a month. Now, Brooklynphono has five pressing machines, making more than 10,000 records a month. It caters mostly to indie-rock record labels based in Brooklyn, but also to several European dance record labels.
One skill that has proved useful is the comfort with tools and machines Mr. Bernich gained while studying sculpture.
“I’m really not very musical, and the best thing I can play is the stereo,” Mr. Bernich said. “This fits because I have mechanical experience.”
He has tinkered with all his pressing machines, attaching them to a customized network of vacuum tubes and other pieces which automate the loading of vinyl plastic and the recycling of excess material and also maximize the power of the presses.
“Essentially, I’ve taken a regular machine and hot-rodded it,” Mr. Bernich said.
When the machines start up, the smell of warm plastic fills the factory. The vacuum tubes suck granules of vinyl from the industrial plastic shredder. The small plastic bits are then pumped into a hot extruder, which melts the plastic. Black vinyl flows out like toothpaste and is then formed into a misshapen puck. At that point, a label is glued on each side of the puck.
The pressing machine hisses as it opens and heats, the puck is slid onto the press, and 120 tons of pressure stamp sound waves into grooves on the vinyl. Once it cools, the flattened plastic is pushed out onto a trimmer, where any excess vinyl is cut, and the black disc is dropped onto a spindle. A record is born.
“I love how you can play a record, look at the cover art, and read the liner notes,” said Heath Bodine, 40, who does quality control at Brooklynphono. “You don’t get that with an MP3 file.”
While new vinyl plastic is still available, the material is expensive and hard to find. Mr. Bernich prefers recycled vinyl because it is suited to his retrofitted machines. “It’s like being a short-order cook,” Mr. Bernich said. “The music is only as good as the ingredients you get.”
A major responsibility for Mr. Bernich and his workers is tending to the pressing machines, which demand constant adjustment. During production, the movement of the machines causes parts to shift, and the slightest misalignment can cause a malfunction and stop production for an entire day. A disc can become jammed inside one of the machines, or the brace that holds the part that stamps grooves onto the vinyl can come loose.
Another worker, Sarah Himmelfarb, 26, wears latex gloves to test the machines and examine records. Every so often, she will stop the machines and use a small mallet to reposition the metal plates that keep the vinyl stamper in place.
Ms. Himmelfarb, who has applied to several medical schools and is waiting to hear back, compares the process of maintaining the presses to diagnosing problems in the human body. “There are symptoms, and they can be caused by a variety of things,” she said.
Zach Cale, a 32-year-old musician and a founder of All Hands Electric, an indie rock and folk music record label in Brooklyn, is one of Brooklynphono’s clients. Aside from the convenience of having records made by a local plant — his label saves on shipping costs by picking up orders — Mr. Cale prefers having his music on vinyl because, he said, fans like the tangibility of a 12-inch album. “We’ve always been really into the physicality of vinyl,” said Mr. Cale, who paid $1,300 for 500 records. “People really respond to it because it’s visual and it feels like you have a piece of the band.”
While vinyl records have largely been consigned to the dustbin of the music industry, Mr. Bernich said he still found magic in turning musicians’ ideas into physical objects to share with the world.
“Once a musician makes a record it lasts a very long time,” he said.