On a recent afternoon, I found myself contemplating the number three as two friends and I took a tour of Third Man Records. We joined a group for one of three tour times offered that third Friday of the month in Midtown Detroit.
Our guide explained that Jack White, founder of Third Man Records, opened an upholstery business over 25 years ago. He was the third upholsterer from his block and so he named it Third Man. It was at that point on the tour we encountered the couch, made by White himself, with three seats in three colors that appeared over and over and over again.
The color red represents the White Stripes, the band Jack and Meg White formed in 1997 which found worldwide success. Yellow, Pantone 109C to be precise, represents Third Man Records and its predecessor upholstery shop. And thirdly, the color blue represents live music in the Third Man-verse.
But that’s not where the threes stop – even the tour itself had three parts.
Part 1: The Record Store
We began in the storefront – the space where anyone can enter and browse during normal business hours. One of three locations – the others being in Nashville and London – Third Man is a music store and so much more.
Detroit’s Cass Corridor location opened in 2015. The decor, the merchandise, and the employees are decked out in yellow, black, and white.
All records sold in the store are pressed there. While the label started with the music of The White Stripes, today you can find artists ranging from Patsy Cline to Jay Z to Coldplay.
A stage sits in the back third of the store, constantly enveloped in blue light. When the store transforms into a concert venue, musical artists perform intimate shows, which are recorded live in a single uneditable take.
Our tour guide pointed out the large collection of albums near the stage – all with blue sleeves – of shows recorded, mastered, and pressed on-site.
Part 2: How a Record is Pressed
Part two of the tour was the pressing plant, established in 2017. The plant employs manual and automatic presses using a combination of vintage and new technology and techniques.
The record pressing process starts with the completed album on a lacquer – a disk similar in shape and size to a record but made of aluminum.
From the lacquer, the “mother” stamper is created, which in turn is used to create the production stampers, which press the albums. PVC pellets slide down a hopper which melts them into a “puck” (referred to as a “biscuit” everywhere outside of Hockeytown).
The puck goes into the press to be smooshed between the stampers, and the extra is trimmed off the edges. Once it cools, the record is ready for playing.
Our guide explained all this as we stood outside the factory looking in through a large window. The first thing you notice about it is that yellow color.
How many factories are built with an aesthetic in mind? I admit, I haven’t been in too many factories, but I’m guessing not that many. It is also immaculately clean to keep dust and debris from getting into those record grooves.
Into the Plant
We then stepped through the doors and into the otherworldly hustle and bustle of the pressing plant, a rhythmic harmony of machines stamping away and steam hissing through the intricate crisscross of pipes above us. Water powers the whole process, heated to meticulously controlled temperatures as even slight fluctuations could impact quality.
The smell of warm PVC filled the cavernous room unnoticed by the employees who had become used to it; we were assured the air quality was closely monitored.
To the side of the machines, stacks of pressed records sat to finish cooling and setting. Someone nearby checked the quality of the sound. Approved albums were packaged and prepared to send out.
Just inside the plant sat a table covered with records in different colors, small bowls of colorful PVC pebbles, and unpressed pucks.
The urge to reach out and grab struck me hard and gratefully, our guide permitted us to touch. These were the samples, the discards, and the mess-ups, now providing us laypeople with a tactile experience.
The items demonstrated another layer of artistry that goes into creating the records – while it’s mostly about the music, the physical object itself is also a work of art. Third Man can make records not just in vinyl black, but in color, with sparkles, or translucent.
Some of the mess-ups see another life as sculpture, bent into boxes, flowers, or the trees on display for the holidays.
Part 3: Music Mastering
Part three of the tour was the part I didn’t see coming. We moved out of the factory and traveled through the staff kitchen and three sets of doors to arrive at Third Man Mastering.
Starkly quiet in contrast to the plant floor, the room is red and yellow and filled with sound-mixing controls, speakers, and a comfy couch.
Sitting in one corner is an unassuming piece of equipment to the layperson but the linchpin in the whole operation: the 1974 lathe that produces the lacquer from which all the records originate.
In this room, the sound is mixed and mastered and readied for the big time. Our guide explained how it all works and the rarity of the process and equipment. Then she asked for a volunteer.
Master of Sound
No one else in our group moved so I took that as my cue to step forward. She pointed out a dial for the volume. Taking Me Back, a song from Jack White’s recent album, had been playing silently in the background this whole time, and now it was time to find out what sound could sound like.
I slowly turned the knob to the right and the sound rose. I then turned it a little higher. I checked in with my group – was everyone ok to go louder? They assured me that yes, they were, so I turned the dial some more.
The tiny room had the effect of making me feel like I was in the song, with guitar and synthesizer riffs whizzing past me on all sides and drums grounding me in place.
Visit Third Man Records
For $15, you, too, can experience the sensory delights at Third Man Records. The tour runs about an hour and the guides are friendly, knowledgeable, and full of fun facts and behind-the-scenes stories.
Anyone from a casual fan to an obsessed music lover will walk away with new knowledge and an urge to blast the stereo on the drive home. Check out their website to reserve your spot ahead of time. I recommend arriving at least 3 minutes early.