The business of manufacturing vinyl in Canada is certainly a volatile one. Here at FYI, we’ve reported on the birth and death of one company (Calgary’s Canada Boy Vinyl), the expansion of another (Burlington, ON’s Precision), and the creation of a Toronto company based around designing and manufacturing vinyl presses (Viryl Technologies).
Microforum Vinyl bills itself as “Canada and North America’s newest pressing plant, and the most technologically advanced plant in the world.” We recently took a closer look at their operation by visiting the plant in North Toronto and interviewing company partner and VP Noble Musa and Marketing and Sales Manager Aine Guiney.
Though the company has only begun pressing vinyl this year, it is well-established (since 2003) as a manufacturer of optical technologies (DVDs, CDs and BluRay). The 60,000 square-foot facility also houses a large print operation, one making box sets, labels, booklets, inserts, vinyl jackets, gatefold jackets, download cards, and more.
Musa explains that the move into vinyl was a carefully considered one. “We got interested in vinyl about four years ago when we started to see more requests. When that happens we hate to say ‘we can’t do it, you have to go to the US or Europe.’”
“It kills us to do that but there was no viable option for pressing reliably then. We have a standard of service. We don’t like to tell clients it’ll be 4-6 weeks then call them back and say it’ll be much longer. Those were the stories we kept hearing.”
“We have built a reputation on timely delivery, but you couldn’t do that as a broker of vinyl before.”
“We started the hunt a few ago, and you quickly learn there are no machines. If you do find some for sale it is 40 or 50 years old.”
Microforum President Frank Stipo personally visited a US vinyl pressing plant that was for sale but was not impressed. “He came back distraught, saying this isn’t for us,” Musa recalls. “They had 11 lines at the plant. Only five worked and the rest were being pillaged for the parts, while the operators knew where to hit the machine to make it work. Moving a plant like that would have been a disaster.”
The turning point for Microforum came when they learned of the plans of Viryl Technologies, conveniently also located in the GTA. “We heard about engineers trying to put a new machine together, so right away you request info and ask to see the machines. We started that process, and our President was visiting them weekly to check developments.”
Impressed at the progress being made on the prototype of the new vinyl presses, Microforum and a group from Texas placed the first orders in August 2016.
“The first machines arrived in January, and we then installed them and trained the operators,” says Musa.
Two WarmTone Advantage vinyl presses are now up and running, and the infrastructure is in place to accommodate four more. “We want the next machines to handle 7-inch as well as 12-inch vinyl, and our goal is to have two more running this summer, then another two by the end of the year,” Musa explains.
Each press has a capacity of around 3000 units per day, and by the end of the year the capacity to press around 20K units a day is anticipated.
The fully automated and digitized presses have a cycle time of 25 seconds, claimed to be the fastest anywhere.
So who is booking the Microforum presses? “Not the major labels yet but we’re definitely talking to them,” says Musa. “We are dealing with independent labels and artists at the moment.”
The first official vinyl client was Toronto roots music duo Harrow Fair, and member Andrew Penner praises Microforum for being "very transparent in all aspects of their production and delivery. Very direct and knowledgeable and I hope to work with them a lot more.”
On our tour of the plant, we noted pressing being done for the likes of Rheostatics, Leeroy Stagger, Paper Lions, and Six Shooter Records acts including Sam Outlaw, Whitney Rose and Tanya Tagaq, plus New Damage act Powerflo.
Roger Hodgson of Supertramp fame is a recent international client. He requested that his new 12-inch release, the double album Open The Door, be in the 45 rpm not 33 1/3rd format, for higher sound quality, and he’s reportedly pleased with the result.
One artist and label Microforum would love to snare is Drake and OVO Sound. “We’re reaching out to him,” says Guiney. “We’re the only vinyl plant in The Six, so we could put the phrase ‘Pressed in The Six’ in the vinyl!”
Setting up to manufacture vinyl doesn’t come cheap. Musa cites a figure of $1.5M as being spent this year to purchase the presses, adjust the infrastructure and buy the plating equipment that has just been ordered.
The arrival of these stampers will be a boost to the process, enabling Microforum to shorten turnaround times further.
Guiney explains that "we state our current standard turnaround time is 8 weeks, and in a rush, we can do a full turn around in as little as 2-3 weeks. Of cours, once we start the in house plating and receive the next order of presses from Viryl, we do expect that to get even faster. Technically, once we are doing the plating, we could have the ability to turn a full order around in half that rush time."
Microforum presently has two operating lines each for the manufacture of CDs and DVDs as well. “That is still our largest segment but vinyl is catching up,” says Musa.
The company is starting to get vinyl orders for US clients, and the low loonie gives them a competitive advantage there.
Musa is optimistic about vinyl’s future as a format: “A hurdle vinyl has faced is the supply and that has held it back from growing more in the last couple of years as people were fighting over the space at pressing plants.”