Gary Salstrom says that while growing up in Olympia, Washington, he decided early on that his future would have something to do with the music business. But as he reached adolescence, this frustrated musician says the only thing he was sure of was that in no way did that future include performing.
With those dreams dashed, after high school Salstrom pursued an electronics education in Phoenix, Arizona, hoping to land work in a recording studio.
Photo by Tom Dorsey,
Courtesy of the Salina Journal.
“While I was at the job board, a school secretary mentioned she had just taken a call from a company that had one position open and wanted her to send someone down for an interview,” Salstrom says. “That was the end of my electronics education.”
The gig was at Wakefield Manufacturing, a Phoenix pressing plant. They hired Salstrom to work in the plant’s plating department, finishing stampers for the press line. It was 1979. By the end of the next year, he was Wakefield’s plating supervisor. And by the time the plant closed in 1989, Salstrom was managing the plating, quality control and test pressing departments. With just a couple of notable detours, Salstrom has been plating and pressing records ever since.
And he’s now in Salina, Kansas, as the general manager for the upstart Quality Record Pressings. Salstrom will oversee all of the day-to-day operations at QRP and will work hands-on as the lead man in the electroforming (or plating) department, the area of his expertise.
In fact, Salstrom is widely considered to be the best plating man in the industry. The secret to his success? Pride and attention to detail.
“A lot of people consider electroforming to be kind of like magic, which it isn’t at all,” Salstrom says. “It’s paying attention. You’ve got to know the condition of your tank. Through filtration and chemical additions, you’ve got to be up on it on a daily basis. People tend to get a little bit lazy when it comes to that. Watching the temperatures. Not working too fast. Having pride in the final product.”
In a nutshell, the plating process includes first spraying a lacquer with silver nitrate to make it electrically conductive. From there, a nickel plate is added, creating a master. The master is a negative of the lacquer, meaning rather than grooves there are raised ridges. From there, a mother is created, which is a positive with grooves. The mother then produces stampers, typically at least five per mother. The stamper is what is set in the press to act as the mold that creates vinyl records. Each stamper should yield about 750 to 1,000 records depending on a number of variables.
Salstrom explains that while not every pressing plant has a plating department, having one at QRP is a tremendous advantage.
“Parts can be made as they’re needed,” Salstrom says. “The stamper has to have a certain taper and weight that you want to have set up specifically for your presses. You’ve got somebody in the same building that knows what your presses need and can provide that on a moment’s notice.”
Just as you can’t have an excellent vinyl release without a great recording, great mastering, a superior grade and weight of vinyl and an error-free pressing, you also can’t produce an excellent LP without great plating. It’s likely one of the more invisible links in the chain to most end consumers.
“It affects everything from something as basic as pre-echo and high-end loss all the way through to record profile and warping,” Salstrom explains. “And if you have stampers that aren’t evenly matched weight-wise and profile-wise, it can cause non-fill or stitching problems.”
One of the key elements to correct plating is respecting the fact that a lacquer is a soft material that, once it’s been cut (mastered), is always changing. If that lacquer is exposed to extremes – either in the environment or in the plating tank – it will result in pre-echo, and you can actually lose some of the high-end frequencies.
“A lot of people don’t believe that, but it’s been proven many times,” Salstrom says. “And unfortunately some platers don’t believe that. It’s very important that the lacquer get in to the tank right away.”
Salstrom learned his craft largely from the likes of Ed Tobin, considered to be “the guru” of plating until his death. Tobin had mentored Salstrom beginning when Salstrom was at Wakefield. After Wakefield closed, Salstrom went to work in the plating department at Record Technology, Inc. in Camarillo, California.
“Ed Tobin was the old-timer. He was the guy that knew his stuff, a no shortcut kind of guy,” Salstrom says of his mentor.
In 1992, Salstrom figured that LPs were on their last legs, and he left RTI to pursue his other personal passion – photography and specifically film.
“I just keep jumping from one dinosaur to another,” he jokes.
Salstrom enrolled at the Brooks Institute of Photography. In ’95, just before he earned his degree, RTI owner Don MacInnis rehired Salstrom to revamp RTI’s plating department, making it state-of-the-art. At the time, the offer to build and operate a plating department to his specifications was too good for Salstrom to pass up.
But eventually his photography itch needed scratching, and Salstrom left RTI in 2001 to open his own camera shop, which he operated for six years.
After the store’s closing in 2007, Salstrom went to work for Mike Hobson at Classic Records. Salstrom was a key contributor to the realization of several of Hobson’s innovations. Hobson had worked tirelessly to advance the art of record pressing in several directions, including recreating the flat profile from JVC’s legendary UHQR Japanese pressings, where the record is completely flat with no taper.
“There’d be a groove guard at the center of the record where the label was and there’d be a little teardrop at the edge,” Salstrom explains. “Otherwise it was completely flat. We had to figure out a way to get an even thickness across the playing surface and still create the backpressure needed at the edge to press without defects. That took a lot of time.”
It was also during this time that Hobson was working to bring his Clarity Vinyl (clear rather than black) to market.
Initially, Salstrom acted as Hobson’s point man at RTI, where the Classic product was being pressed. Soon after, Classic moved its business to Bill Smith Custom Pressing in L.A. Salstrom worked daily at the pressing plant to help its staff figure out how to create the coveted UHQR profile.
Eventually, Hobson started his own pressing plant (the parts of which have since been purchased by Chad Kassem as part of the startup of QRP). Salstrom recommended to Hobson the hiring of Mark Huggett, and along with Dave Cripe, the team assembled Classic’s plant, giving them a head start on the work they’d eventually do at QRP.
While Salstrom had been around presses most days since ’79, he had previously been focused on plating. His work with Classic brought him hands-on experience with the actual presses, an invaluable opportunity that essentially rounded out his working experience with all phases of a pressing plant, making him a perfect fit to run the show at QRP.
“I did most of my learning when I got to Classic, because Mike (Hobson) just kind of let me loose,” Salstrom says. “He’s very good at the experimentation side of things.”
Eventually, the commute from Salstrom’s home in Camarillo to L.A., where Classic’s pressing plant was located, became too much. Salstrom went back to RTI in 2009, this time as quality control supervisor.
Applying all of what he’s learned about his craft since that 1979 beginning at Wakefield, Salstrom says he’s very confident in what he sees as QRP’s potential.
“The machines – the way they’ve been rebuilt and modified – we’re looking at not just producing massive amounts of records. The goal is the best quality we can possibly get,” Salstrom says. “And I think that’s going to be about as good as anyone has ever done. We’re going to push it as far as we can. A lot of that is not just sound quality. It’s reliability and consistency.”