There's a ceremonious feeling that comes with opening a record player and laying down the needle. When Alex Cushing, chief operating officer of Hand Drawn Records, does this on a recent sunny day in January, there's palpable anticipation, like watching a magic show. The album, Charley Crockett's In the Night, was pressed down the hall from where we're standing, on Hand Drawn's new equipment, considered the newest fully-automated record presses in the world.
The needle hits vinyl and -- ta da! -- the Dallas musician's blend of rhythm and blues seeps through the speakers.
Dallas-based Hand Drawn Records began as a label and artist management company in 2011 and eventually expanded into record brokering under the moniker Hand Drawn Pressing to better serve the needs of its bands. Business on the pressing side was booming, which led Hand Drawn co-founder and chief creative officer Dustin Blocker to consider opening his own manufacturing plant.
But there was one problem: The equipment necessary to do so was outdated.
Record presses operating in the U.S. today use machines revived from their heyday in the 1960s or '80s to meet astronomical demand for a musical medium that was once considered dead. (One exception is Jack White's Third Man Records, which recently bought newly-built manual presses from a German company.)
That's why Hand Drawn's setup is revolutionary: It's one of the first pieces of modern technology built for vinyl pressing.
And for an industry that's struggling to keep up -- stores sold 13 million records in 2016, the highest volume since Nielsen began tracking vinyl sales almost three decades ago -- that means better efficiency, fewer product issues and ultimately more happy music lovers.
"I best equate it to an old car," says Blocker. "Say you have a really great 1960s Camaro. It can't touch all the technical pieces of a 2016 Camaro."
So how did this kind of innovation make its way to North Texas?
Blocker, who is also member of rock band Exit 380, stumbled upon Canadian company Viryl Technologies while scouring the internet in search of information to build his own record press. The business is run by a group of engineers whose "passion for music, vinyl records and machinery brought us together with one goal in mind -- to create the world's first fully-automatic, modernized record press," according to the website. The result is called the Warm Tone press.
Hand Drawn, which is Viryl Technologies' first client, began operating its two presses late last year in an Addison warehouse it shares with packaging company Stephen Gould.
The presses function just like their predecessors: Pellets of vinyl enter an extruder where they are ground up and heated to a viscous-like quality before being shaped into a round mold. The machine then stamps the malleable vinyl between two nickel plates inscribed with the master recording and trims off the excess around the edges.
What's different about these presses is their speed: The whole process happens in 25-30 seconds, roughly three times faster than the industry average, Blocker says.
The presses are also controlled primarily by computers, which diminishes their margin for error to less than 1 percent yield loss, adds Cushing, which means the machines rarely miss a beat.
Cushing expects Hand Drawn Pressing will produce 1.5 millions records in its first year through projects with internal artists as well as external clients. (Band of Heathens recently enlisted Hand Drawn to produce its new LP, Duende.) He hopes to double that in the future, thanks in part to a relationship with Stephen Gould, which takes freshly pressed products and packages them.
Customers likely won't be difficult to come by, either, Cushing says, as some music lovers gravitate toward a tangible experience over digital streaming.
The vinyl industry's growth is "a symbol of how people are living their lives," he says. "What it signals is a definite, clear movement."
If successful, Hand Drawn's adoption of Warm Tone presses not only paves the way for new and existing record pressing plants to clear order backlogs, but it also could allow them to invest in future vinyl innovation. Vinyl record sales generated more revenue than ad-supported streaming services such as YouTube and Spotify in 2015, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, so imagine if they came with additional engagement features, such as coloring books or virtual reality components.
"I think you'll see an elevated luxury experience that's just begun to be explored here," Cushing says.
Blocker and Cushing also hope the plant's opening will spotlight the Dallas-Fort Worth music industry.
Hand Drawn Pressing joins Josey Record MFG in Dallas, which was formerly A&R Record and Tape and long the only record-pressing plant in the Southwest. That, along with the large network of music venues and wealth of talent, could enhance D-FW's image and infrastructure as a bona fide music mecca like Nashville or Los Angeles, they say.
"You have a tremendous talent pool basically from high school up through college, which is fantastic. You have tremendous engineering skills here, you have some great studios," Cushing says. "As long as we all sort of do it together, [the region] will continue to grow and be a factor."