Unlike ordinary vinyl records, which are quickly formed from lumps of plastic by a mass-production molding process, a so-called acetate disc is created by using a recording lathe to cut an audio-signal-modulated groove into the surface of a special lacquer-coated blank disc, a real-time operation requiring expensive, delicate equipment and expert skill for good results. They are made for special purposes, almost never for sale to the general public. They can be played on any normal record player but will suffer from wear more quickly than vinyl. Some acetates are highly prized for their rarity, especially when they contain unpublished material.
Acetates are usually made by dubbing from a master recording in another medium, such as magnetic tape. In the vinyl record manufacturing process, an acetate master disc is cut and electroforming is used to make negative metal molds from it; each mold, known as a stamper, can be used to press thousands of vinyl copies of the master. Within the vinyl record industry, acetates are also used for evaluating the quality of the tape-to-disc transfer. They were once a favored medium for comparing different takes or mixes of a recording, and if pressed vinyl copies of an impending new release were not yet available, acetates were used for getting preview copies into the hands of important radio disc jockeys.
Although once produced in a wide range of sizes (from less than 7 to more than 16 inches in diameter) and sometimes with glass core discs, the examples most commonly encountered today are 10, 12, or 14 inches in diameter and consist of an aluminum core disc coated with black nitrocellulose lacquer, commonly but incorrectly called "acetate". The term "acetate" derives from the material used in examples cut before 1934, when the substrate was in fact cellulose acetate. Cellulose acetate was only in use for a short while, but the name "acetate" for these discs persisted. Blank discs were traditionally produced in several different grades, with the best and costliest grade featuring the sturdiest core, the thickest coating and the most perfectly flawless mirror-like surfaces. These top-quality blanks were intended for cutting the master discs that, once Silver-coated, would be electrodeposited (under water!) with Nickel in order to electroform parts used in making stampers (negative profile metal molds) for pressing ordinary records. Lower-quality blanks were considered adequate for non-critical uses such as tests and demo discs. Lower-grade blanks were formerly made for home use by amateurs and may be very thin and flexible, may have a cardboard rather than a metal or glass base, and may have noticeably dull or slightly orange-peel-textured surfaces. In addition to the usual central spindle hole with these lower quality "dubs," there is traditionally at least one drive hole in the label area, meant to be engaged by a special pin that prevents the disc from slipping on the turntable during the recording process on lathes that don't have a vacuum turntable. Drive holes are often hidden by labels applied after the recording was cut, but they can usually be detected by careful inspection of the label or by holding the disc up to a light bright enough to penetrate the labels. Such holes are not present in lacquer masters - only "dubs." The second hole would interfere with the elctroforming process done to master lacquers. Professional mastering lathes use vacuum turntables that hold the workpiece (lacquer) in place with suction. One pump usually provides suction for both the turntable and the chip tube that pulls away the fine string of (nitro-cellulose) lacquer removed by the groove-cutting stylus.
Acetates have not always been used solely as a means of evaluating a tape-to-disc transfer or cutting the final master disc. They were widely used for many purposes before magnetic tape recorders became common, and in the modern era they are used by dance music DJs. They were used extensively in Jamaica by sound system operators in the late 1940s and 1950s. Acetates were often used as "demos" of new recordings by artists and record labels.
Before the introduction of magnetic tape for mastering, disc recording was done "live" (see direct to disc recording), although sometimes intermediate disc-to-disc editing procedures were involved. Before acetate discs were adopted for the purpose, the master recording was cut into a disc of wax-like material that was too soft to be played non-destructively and had to be electroplated to produce a metal stamper, which was in turn used to make playable pressings. Acetate blanks allowed high-quality playable records to be produced "instantaneously".
Acetates were widely used in radio broadcasting to archive live broadcasts, prerecord local programming, and delay network feeds for broadcast at a later time. 16-inch (40 cm) discs recorded at 33-1/3 rpm were used for these one-off "electrical transcriptions" beginning in the mid-1930s.
Around 1940, disc recorders designed for amateur home use began appearing on the market, but their high prices limited sales and then World War II brought their production to a halt. After the war, the popularity of such recorders greatly increased. Countless discs were cut at parties and family gatherings, both for immediate amusement value and to preserve audio "snapshots" of these events and of the voices of relatives and friends. Schoolchildren and adults alike used them to practice speeches, amateur musical efforts were immortalized, and snippets of radio broadcasts were captured, all limited by the 3 or 4 minute maximum playing time of the 78 rpm large-groove format which was still standard for all home-use records.
During the early tape era (1950s, primarily), acetate discs and portable disc recorders competed with magnetic tape as a location-recording medium, both for broadcast and semi-pro use. Acetate discs inherently are less durable than magnetic tape, and have the disadvantage of not being physically editable—unlike tape, they can't be cut and spliced.
In preparation for a record pressing, acetates are used for quality control prior to the production of the stampers, from which retail copies of the record will be pressed. The purpose of the test acetate(s) in the mastering process is to allow the artist, producer, engineer, and other interested parties to check the quality of the tape-to-disc recording process and make any necessary changes to ensure that the audio fidelity of the master disc will be as close as possible to that of the original master tape. The actual stampers can be made either from normal acetates, or from a DMM disc (see Direct Metal Mastering).
In the dance music world, DJs cut new or otherwise special tracks on acetates, in order to test crowd response and find potential hits. This practice started as early as in the 1960s in Jamaica, between so-called sound systems, as a way of competing and drawing bigger crowds. These discs are known as dubplates. But the word dubplate can interchangeably mean an actual disc or just the music/recording, which can be on any other medium (e.g. CD). Dubplates were used by reggae soundsystems worldwide, and later adopted by producers of various dance music genres, most notably drum and bass and dubstep. Trading dubplates between different DJs is an important part of DJ culture. Actual acetate dubplates are declining in popularity, and being increasingly replaced by CDs and vinyl emulation software because of weight, durability and overall cost.
Material and packaging
Despite their name, professional grade "acetate" discs do not contain any acetate. They consist of an aluminum disc with a coating of nitrocellulose lacquer. Glass was often used for the substrate during World War II, when aluminum was in short supply. The production process results in a disc that is different in several ways from the vinyl records sold to customers at retail. Most noticeably, vinyl records are comparatively lightweight and flexible, while acetates are usually rigid and considerably heavier because of their metal cores.
Acetates commonly come in two sizes: 10" discs for singles and 14" discs for albums. The record's sleeve is typically nothing more than a generic cover from the manufacturing company and the disc's label is similarly plain, containing only basic information about the content (title, artist, playing time, etc.), which is usually typed but may be hand-written.
Due to their rarity, some acetates can command high prices at auction. Brian Epstein's collection of Beatles acetates fetched between $1,000 and $10,000 per disc. An acetate from The Velvet Underground, containing music that would later appear on their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, sold on eBay in 2006 for $25,200. An acetate of Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" sold for $82,393.60 in 2013. Elvis Presley's first recording – an acetate disc from 1953 featuring "My Happiness" backed with "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" – sold for $300,000 at a Graceland auction.
- Fonopost A service offering recordings by mail using acetate discs.
- "Preserving Sound Recordings". 2005-04-28. Archived from the original on 16 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- Documenting Early Radio: A Review of Existing Pre-1932 Radio Recordings, Elizabeth McLeod, 1988-9
- "She's Leaving Home acetate". 2000-02-12. Archived from the original on 11 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- "Beatles recording fetches $10,000". BBC News. 2001-11-18. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- eBay - VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO 1966 Acetate LP ANDY WARHOL, Second auction, ended December 16, 2006 (auction details).