Is laser-cut ‘HD Vinyl’ the Holy Grail for audiophiles, or just a gimmick?

Guenter Loibl has every right to be tired. The slick-haired, 48-year-old entrepreneur and music distributor has bounced back and forth between Los Angeles and his home in Tulln, Austria over the past few weeks, spending every waking moment preparing for production of a brand new medium he has dubbed HD Vinyl.

“I’m really quite exhausted at the moment,” Loibl chuckles through the phone at the start of our interview. “But anyway, that’s fine.”

As far as sources of stress, a touch of jet lag is probably low on Loibl’s list. He and his company, Rebeat Innovation, have recently secured $4.8 million in private funding after years of courting investors. In the next six months, Rebeat will take delivery of two $600,000 industrial lasers capable of searing miniscule grooves into specially designed ceramic discs. With them, Loibl hopes to simultaneously revolutionize the vinyl production process and take the fidelity of analog audio beyond its previous high water mark.

The phrase “HD Vinyl” is well shrink-wrapped marketing speak.

“We can put the grooves much tighter than it has been possible before. We can put 30 percent more information onto the disc — that can be more dynamics, more playing time, higher volume, or a combination of those three,” he says. “This is the part that you will immediately hear when listening to HD Vinyl.”

Loibl and his team have been putting in the long hours, but will they actually be able to deliver on such lofty promises? To begin to answer that question, you first need to know more about the technology behind HD Vinyl itself – and the hurdles it faces.

What the heck is HD Vinyl?

The phrase “HD Vinyl” is, to some extent, well shrink-wrapped marketing speak.

Unlike the physical differences between most evolutionary formats, such as the paradigm-shifting move from tape-wound cassettes to laser-etched CDs, the technology Rebeat is developing won’t actually change the size or material of the records that spin on your turntable. That’s because, at its core, HD Vinyl technology will simply combine two steps in the existing vinyl manufacturing process, aiming to improve upon the quality of the finished product.

But first, a quick lesson in current vinyl production.

At present, every record goes through a three-step process before it hits your local record shop or online shopping cart. To begin, a mastering engineer uses a specially designed lathe to cut music into a lacquer disc. That disc is then shipped to an electroplating facility where a chemical process will adhere metal (typically nickel) to the outside. This metallic “Father” disc will then be popped off of the lacquer, duplicated into numerous “Mother” discs, and shipped to a pressing plant, where each Mother disc will be repeatedly pressed into hot pucks of plastic to form the records you’ll spin on your turntable.

Nobody on the planet has ever manufactured a full-size vinyl disc using this new process.

Loibl thinks this process — particularly the physical lathing and electroplating steps — is antiquated, and he’s positioned Rebeat to change it. “Why are we using the same production process that we did 80 years ago?” he recalls asking himself when first dreaming up the HD Vinyl project. “Why don’t we use laser technology [to cut Mother discs]? This should be easily possible.”

In the HD Vinyl version of the pressing process, recorded music will be digitally mapped by a mastering engineer using software, then laser cut onto special ceramic discs.

Loibl claims that these ceramic discs will be more durable than the lacquers engineers typically cut, and therefore won’t need to be electroplated. Instead, they can be shipped straight to pressing plants and used to directly manufacture vinyl in presses, cutting the three-step process down to two.

Structure, texture, and surface pattern of vinyl record. This is how the grooves look through a microscope lens with moving light over the surface. cinejinn/Getty Images

In addition to cutting out electroplating (and the noxious chemicals that come with it), Loibl claims there will be audible benefits to records made with these laser cut ceramic “stampers.” With each groove being digitally mapped and recreated in perfect detail via laser, Loibl says, mastering engineers will be able to craft vinyl with increased dynamics and longer playback time.

Traditionally manufactured Mother discs must be changed throughout the pressing process to maintain sound quality, but Loibl says the ceramic discs won’t — meaning the first pressing will be identical to the last, which isn’t the case in the current production system.

Because the original master doesn’t have to be duplicated into a Father disc — which then has to be duplicated into Mother discs — Loibl says no fidelity is lost between the mastering studio and the pressing plant. Loibl also claims that his process will be so superior to traditional production that the entire pressing industry will quickly shift towards it.

“We strongly believe that within five to seven years, 95 percent of the production of vinyl will be HD Vinyl,” he says.

That’s an extremely bold claim for as-yet unreleased and untested technology, but there’s at least some interest in the technology among industry insiders.

“I’m looking forward to hearing more about it,” Universal Music Enterprises’ head of Urban Music Adam Torres told Digital Trends in a recent interview. “Any kind of changes in the vinyl market that can bring better audio quality, people are always looking for.”

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