Chad Kassem doesn't like compact discs. He never has — not now, not back when manufacturers started churning them out in the 1980s. There are CDs in his office at Acoustic Sounds, the Salina-based music empire that he runs. But he listens to those only to decide whether his company will rerelease a better-quality vinyl version of the music contained on them.
"CDs push you out," Kassem says, standing inside a concrete-reinforced vault adjacent to his office. He tugs randomly at the sleeve of one of the thousands of vinyl records stored here. "Vinyl is more emotional. It feels better. It draws you in. You start playing a CD, and dogs leave the room.
"The major labels tried to kill vinyl," he continues. "At first you'd go to Sam Goody, and they'd have a little box of CDs, and the rest was records. Two years later, it was all CDs and a box of records. So I've been swimming against the current ever since I started Acoustic Sounds. But I trusted my ears. Now the Johnny-come-latelies are coming back to vinyl. I knew vinyl wasn't really going anywhere all along.
"But here's what I didn't predict," he says, and his eyes gleam. "What I didn't predict was that CDs would die so hard."
Kassem has earned the right to gloat. CD sales are plummeting, and vinyl sales rose for the fifth year in a row in 2012, from 3.9 million units in 2011 to 4.6 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Kassem is perhaps better positioned than any individual in America to benefit from these trends. Acoustic Sounds and its subsidiaries, all of which are located on a 70,000-square-foot campus near the train tracks that run north of downtown Salina, are essentially a massive bet on the market for vinyl. The company retails and distributes new and used records — plus an assortment of audiophile paraphernalia, such as turntables, preamps and speakers — online at acousticsounds.com. It supplies wholesale vinyl to independent record shops. It records artists at Blue Heaven Studios. It plates and presses vinyl records at its plant, Quality Record Pressings. And it reissues rare and out-of-print albums from such labels as Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige.
It has been only two years since Kassem decided to start pressing vinyl in Salina, but Quality Record Pressings already has an international reputation for high-end audio.
"I've visited almost every vinyl pressing plant in the world," says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine and editor of analogplanet.com. "And QRP is right at the top, along with a handful of others. There's Pallas, in Germany. There's Optimal, which is also in Germany. There's RTI, in California. And there's Chad and QRP. And I'm not sure there's anybody else getting the consistency he's getting. And here's another thing: RTI has been around 30 years. Pallas has been making records since before World War II. QRP just came out of nowhere."
In 1984, Kassem moved from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Salina to get sober. Why the middle of Kansas? "You don't send a drunk to New Orleans or Miami to get sober," he says.
He got a job as a cook at Russell's Truckstop Café and started collecting records as a hobby. Using mail-order catalogs, he traded, bought and sold rare and high-quality blues and jazz records. By 1986, he put a name on his operation: Acoustic Sounds.
Kassem has an obsessive streak and an audiophile's ear — advantageous characteristics for record collectors — and his business grew quickly. He moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a house with four bedrooms to accommodate the stacks of records piling up. By 1991, Acoustic Sounds was doing $100,000 a month in sales. "The neighbors started complaining about the 18-wheelers delivering pallets of records outside," Kassem says. "So we finally had to move to a commercial space."
Soon after he relocated operations to downtown Salina, Kassem started a reissue label, which he called Analogue Productions. He contacted record labels and negotiated deals to license their artists' original analog recordings, then had them remastered and pressed on high-quality vinyl. Then he sold the new records through Acoustic Sounds' mail-order catalog. (Analogue's first reissue was a classical record, Virgil Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains.)
Kassem also founded Analogue Production Originals (APO), a label dedicated to releasing new music from aging blues legends. In 1997, he bought an old Victorian church in Salina, converted it into Blue Heaven Studios, and began recording APO artists there. In the years since, APO has released new material from semi-forgotten blues figures such as Honeyboy Edwards, Jimmie Lee Robinson and Jimmy Rogers (a member of Muddy Waters' original band), plus Kansas City blues legends Myra Taylor and Little Hatch. He often records these artists while they're in Salina for Blues Masters at the Crossroads, the blues festival that Acoustic Sounds throws.
"He's recorded a wide range of American blues music down there," says Chuck Haddix, local blues historian and host of KCUR 89.3's The Fish Fry. "He brings a lot of love to those projects, and he does it right. The recordings he does are high-fidelity, 180-gram vinyl, and he captures these guys at the top of their game. He doesn't put out that much, but what he does is top-shelf, both artistically and technically. It's kind of a throwback to an earlier era. I mean, he holds a blues concert series in a converted church. Things take on a greater meaning in that kind of environment."
All record collectors dream of a big score, and Kassem's came about in 2004, when he bought a collection of 30,000 sealed records from a widow in Olathe.
"It was a pretty wealthy family, and they were all busy with jobs and careers, and they just didn't have the time to deal with sorting through all the husband's records and figuring out what was worth what," Kassem says. "I offered them a lump sum, drove down and picked up some guys from under a bridge near Southwest Trafficway, and we hauled every last record out of that place."
Acoustic Sounds moved into an old Dillon's grocery store shortly thereafter. Then, in 2011, it moved again, when Kassem decided to start pressing records himself.
Kassem's voice sometimes arches up into a yell. It is unclear how much control he has over it. "Stand over here," he barks, from behind his desk.
Kassem wears hoodies to work, but not in the hip manner of Silicon Valley CEOs. He pairs them with sweatpants in a way that suggests a man who does not think too hard about his physical appearance. His cluttered office gives a similar impression. Two human-sized speakers occupy the space across from Kassem's desk, where you might expect visitors' chairs to be. The rest is just promo boxes and stacks of records.
He drops the needle on People, Hell and Angels, an album of unreleased Jimi Hendrix songs that QRP recently pressed.
"You see how loud it is, but it's not hurting your ears at all? We can talk while it's on," Kassem says. "With bad recordings, you have to turn it down to really hear. I want to be able to turn it up. Why have the volume knob if you can't turn it up?"
He plays Counting Crows' debut album, August and Everything After, which QRP also recently pressed. "If the guys in this band ever heard this, they'd fire every fuckin' engineer or producer they ever hired before," he says.
There are only about 15 vinyl pressing plants in the United States and 30 worldwide. This relative scarcity would seem to suggest opportunity. But opening a pressing plant is not as simple as buying some machines and hiring some workers to operate them. It has been decades since new pressing equipment was built. After CDs were introduced, manufacturers assumed that the record presses and plating tools required to make vinyl records would become obsolete, and they stopped producing them.
To start their pressing plant, Kassem and his team had to track down old presses and then recondition them. The 10 presses and assorted machinery now churning inside QRP were hauled to Salina from such locations as London, Sweden and South Korea.
Finding someone with the knowledge and ability to oversee a pressing plant presented another challenge; plating and pressing records is a highly specialized skill. Kassem was able to convince Gary Salstrom to leave RTI in California, where he had earned a reputation as one of the most respected plating technicians in the world, move to Salina, and become QRP's plant manager. (Salstrom's wife grew up in Overland Park, which worked in Kassem's favor.)
"It was very shrewd of Chad to bring Gary in," says Marc Mickelson, the founder and editor of the Audio Beat, an online audiophile publication. "He's a really renowned guy in the audiophile world."
"There are only a few Garys in the world," Kassem says. "His expertise pushes us to a serious level. Because of Gary, we're able to produce the absolute highest-quality records."
Salstrom says he simply shares Kassem's philosophy about QRP serving discerning listeners. "We can't compete with [pressing plants] Rainbo and United. They're bigger, and they can offer lower prices," he says. "But the quality is not as good as ours. And there's a larger group of people out there moving toward quality, and those are the people that are seeking us out."
In the beginning, QRP cranked out only the albums that Acoustic Sounds wanted to press and sell. Quickly, though, QRP attracted customers: Smaller labels looking to press vinyl that had to wait in line behind the Sonys of the world to get their records done. Now bigger labels are calling, having heard the quality of other QRP releases.
So what is QRP doing that's so different than other plants? "If you overcook vinyl, you get dead spots," Salstrom says. "We keep plate lacquers at lower temperatures — plates at higher temperatures can induce pre-echo and high-end loss."
"I hate to make the analogy to McDonald's, because QRP is producing the equivalent of gourmet food, but there's a uniformity to the process at QRP that is kind of McDonald's-like," Fremer says. "For instance, they've installed sensors inside the actual tools so they can control and monitor the temperature. Nobody else has those. Other companies depend on the skill and intuition of the pressmen. They've also installed a valve system, where they know the precise temperature of the water coming in and going out. In other plants, that temperature will vary, and it will affect the quality of the sound on the finished product. There are a lot of small things like that that they're doing to ensure quality. Basically they're using modern computer technology to take an old technology and make it much better, and much more consistent.
"At first, the records were just OK," Fremer says. "They had to work out the kinks of their system. But now I get records from QRP, and they're quiet, flat and beautiful. You put the stylus in the groove, and you don't hear any noise. The depth of the quiet is really amazing. Chad made the investment from the beginning to surpass everybody else in terms of technology, and it's paid off."
Acoustic Sounds doesn't disclose its finances, but it keeps hiring — 56 employees at last count — and new business keeps coming in. On a good day, 500 orders leave the Acoustic Sounds warehouse. Recently, QRP pressed the entire Doors catalog, a boxed set of six studio albums that retailed at Acoustic Sounds for $400. Soon, Kassem's company will repress most of the Beach Boys' discography. My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James released his first solo album earlier this year; Salstrom plated it, QRP pressed it, and you can buy it on Acoustic Sounds' website as a 200-gram vinyl LP.
Kassem seems pleased by the progress, but he's still scheming. He has his eye on a new target: MP3s. "One of the main things we're finding is that people who want quality really want quality," he says. "So the next thing we're getting into is high-resolution downloads. They're as close to vinyl as you can get.
"I don't give a shit about the money, I really don't," Kassem says. "This whole thing started as a hobby, and it's still my hobby. To reissue my favorite albums and have them sound better than they did before — that's what I'm about."