Mark Huggett has got some knack for happy accidents. In 1978, answering a classified ad in Phoenix, Arizona, with the hopes of finding a pay raise, Huggett very accidentally fell into a life of pursuing his passion – records.
Photo by Tom Dorsey,
Courtesy of the Salina Journal.
“It (the ad) just said Wakefield Manufacturing was looking for a mechanic,” Huggett recalls. “It didn’t say anything about what they did. But when I saw labels on the wall that I’d been paying good money for, and they told me I could have a record and a cover a day, I kind of forgot about what they were paying. I was all over that job!”
Wakefield Manufacturing, of course, was a premier pressing plant located in Phoenix. And Huggett was nothing if not a rabid record collector who’d also been “turning wrenches” since a kid in his dad’s hot-rod garage in Huntington, West Virginia. Not too shabby a date with destiny.
Huggett had been working in the refrigeration business, having earned his gas fitter and electrician licenses. Over the next 11 years at Wakefield he worked to become the plant’s maintenance manager, implementing several key innovations that contributed to Wakefield’s reputation still as among the finest pressing plants ever operated.
“They took me in to the automatic press line and showed me the SMTs,” Huggett says about his first weeks on the job. “I got the manual out of the office, took it home and read it – a couple times. That’s when I discovered that the label pickup system was supposed to go back after labels if they fell off. But to get it to work, I had to clean the vacuum system up, which nobody had done because apparently nobody had read the manual. Of course, understand, the manual was the size of an unabridged dictionary.”
From there, Huggett became something of a master at troubleshooting Wakefield’s eight SMT presses that were churning out two million records a year. The plant had always had trouble with the extruders overheating. Huggett replaced the inaccurate temperature controls with solid-state models that would cycle the valves on and off so that the ideal temperature wasn’t overshot. With the presses able to achieve an ideal biscuit temperature, Wakefield’s reject rate dropped to 1 percent, which is totally unheard of in the pressing business.
“I’ve bought records (from other pressing plants) that never would have gotten off our plant,” Huggett says. “They would have been in the reject bin.”
Which is why he accepted Chad Kassem’s offer to come to Salina, Kansas, and start – from the ground up – Quality Record Pressings (QRP).
“We have an opportunity to make the best records we’ve ever made. And we’ve made some good records,” Huggett says. “Other people wouldn’t let us make these advancements.”
”These advancements” include a literal slew of reforms to how records have been pressed for decades. When Wakefield closed in 1989 after the CD toppled so much of the vinyl business, Huggett worked for Penn Athletic and then Hinkley and Schmidt as a microprocessor technician and roving troubleshooter. Though he had retired a few years before Kassem called, Huggett had always yearned to apply his knowledge of microprocessors to his passion of pressing records.
“There are a lot of things that have never been done before that microprocessors make possible,” Huggett explains. “We’ve developed a die with an imbedded temperature sensor that we can use to cycle the press.”
To date, presses, by and large, have closed and opened based on time. That time was set according to what the press operator predicted would be the stamper’s temperature.
“Rather than close and open based on timers, we have them close and open based on temperature,” Huggett says. “The advantage of that is it corrects for variations in your support water temperature, cooling water temperature and steam pressures. So we can get a more consistent product.”
Huggett and crew have also installed a unique double steam valve system that reduces die temperature cycle time and provides a finely tuned level of temperature control so that records are produced without the temperature variations that result in record inconsistency.
They’ve also brought all of the extruders back to their original specifications, again to control the temperature of the vinyl. Huggett says that many of the most common errors we all hear in defective records today has to do with overheated vinyl.
“You have to protect the molecular integrity of record vinyl,” Huggett emphasizes. “If you overheat it, it gets noisy.”
And rather than relying on the old-fashioned cooling tower technology that’s used throughout the industry, Huggett and crew have installed a state-of-the-art chiller to provide water at a consistent temperature regardless of the time of day or season.
These are just a few of several advancements Huggett and his team have introduced in their quest to literally press the best records that have ever been made.
“Anybody can make a good record. The trick is to make all the records good,” Huggett says.
Huggett says that pressing plants haven’t introduced improvements like these because they’ve been satisfied with their product as it’s been and there’s been no competitors raising the standards. Furthermore, since vinyl has begun to enjoy its renewed popularity, pressing plants are already operating at capacity. Why shut down presses to introduce changes?
But in Kassem, Huggett has found a kindred spirit. For Kassem, quality is the overriding factor in each decision, even trumping cost.
“That’s been the beauty of working for Chad,” explains Huggett. “He says, ‘Will it give me better records?’ If it gives him better records, he’ll spend the money.”
Back to those happy accidents: Huggett was originally scheduled to come to Salina to build two presses over the course of three to six months. As it is, QRP so far has six working presses, including SMTs, Toolex Alphas and Finebilts.
“I ended up building the whole plant,” Huggett says, having been in Salina since March 2010.
And he’s not complaining a bit about the overtime. Yeah, retired life was nice. But he’d waited a whole career to have this kind of impact on a pressing plant.
“I love records,” he says. “And I have an opportunity to make better records that I can buy.”