Take a spin inside Shinola’s Detroit turntable factory

Detroiters on Shinola’s audio team returned to their music roots to create a turntable for all generations

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Larry Sanders tore up a few turntables back in the day — and got a good scold from his father whenever he’d pull up the arm.

“He’d say, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, son! You can’t do that!’ ” the 61-year-old Detroiter said. “I took them apart playing with them, and now I’m actually building them.”

Sanders is the team leader of Shinola’s audio division, which started producing turntables at the company’s New Center headquarters inside the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education in March. Unlike the Detroit-born assembly line, the five production members each build the turntables from scratch — spinning out a black and silver or rose gold model every 45 minutes.

Sanders originally worked in leather above on the fifth floor, embossing the Shinola logo on wristbands, before he heard about the company’s plans to produce the $2,500 Runwell Turntables.

“Me being from the Motown era, and the turntable was in my era, I got very excited about it,” said Sanders, sitting in front of racks of turntables in the 5,100-square-foot factory, wearing a navy lab coat and #RollUpYourSleeves black tee. “I like all kind of music. This was just the perfect fit for me.”

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In fact, his favorite Motown artist has a street named after him outside the building. Sadly, Sanders was at the Cass Corridor Shinola store when Stevie Wonder came in December for his street dedication.

“I’d probably drop if I ever seen him,” Sanders laughed.

In August, Sanders will mark three years at the Detroit-based company that handcrafts watches, bags, journals, bikes, and now, turntables and speakers. This fall, the audio division plans to add headphones, which Sanders will help manufacture.

The grandfather of seven worked in the auto industry for nearly 20 years, until American Axle shut its plant during the Great Recession. The workers at this factory, he said, are more like a family. Plus, he has an opportunity to introduce the iPod generation to a relic from his past.

“Back in the day ... it was just a turntable. You could play it on 78 to 33 to 45. You could put four or five albums on the top, and you could put the hold on it and eject one at a time,” he said, trailing off into his memories. “It was just fascinating, and I’m glad that young people can see what music was really all about on the vinyl versus the computer.”

Turning out sales

Shinola Audio Director Alex Rosson said there’s always been an interest in vinyl, but the industry has seen a “very large spike” in sales recently, which translates to more turnable sales. Shinola doesn’t release sales figures, but the audio team produces about 10 turntables a day, down from 25 a day last fall.

There’s a few reasons people are gravitating to analog devices, Rosson said.

“You can actually bring something tangible home and cherish it and play it whenever you want,” he said, “and it’s not just the instant file MP3.”

Rosson co-founded the headphone company Audeze and stepped down as CEO in 2015. Two hours after posting his resignation, Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis called him to join the now 30-member audio division.

The 38-year-old, who splits time between Detroit and Los Angeles, grew up around vinyl.

“I like to listen to everything except for maybe show tunes,” Rosson joked. “It’s just not my thing.”

Dextina Booker, a 23-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, is a mechanical engineer and only woman on the Detroit audio team. Growing up in Brooklyn among a Caribbean family that listened to reggae, she has a new appreciation for the unfamiliar ’80s tunes her coworkers blast and the turntables she designs.

“When you look at an older person’s face when they tell you, ‘My mom used to have a record player and we could never touch and she’d play it on Sundays,’ it’s a really good feeling to have them open up and share that fond moment with you,” Booker said.

A vinyl resurgence

Third Man Records co-founder Ben Blackwell doesn’t think Shinola is at all crazy for branching into turntables.

“Around 2012, things really got stratosphere to a point we’ve never seen before, nor anticipated,” he said, referring to vinyl sales.

According to a Deloitte Global report, vinyl revenue is predicted to reach $1 billion globally this year — a record for the millennium.

In a phone interview from Third Man Records’ Nashville headquarters, Blackwell explained that record players and speakers have improved as a result.

“You might have an old console in your basement or you mom might have an old turntable you can grab out of your garage, but as vinyl becomes more and more mainstream, the demand and quality and variety necessary for playback is being addressed,” he said.

While Archer Record Pressing has operated in the city for over 50 years, Jack White’s Third Man vinyl pressing plant that opened in February is a newcomer.

Blackwell, 35, said he was excited when Shinola started making turntables in November at the Shinola store — next to his and White’s plant.

“This does not exist anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Where else could you see a record player made in front of you, buy it, and then walk two doors down, see a record made in front of you, and buy that?”

Delivered to America

Steve Golembiewski, head of quality assurance, blared The Stooges’ “No Fun” as he ran down his cosmetic checklist to ensure a turntable was level, scratch-free and had an aligned tone arm.

“We have a speed test to make sure it’s playing at the correct speed,” he said, pointing his fingers encased in black gloves to avoid fingerprints.

Next comes the audio test, where he places the needle on the record without the belt and cranks the volume to check for residual motor noise.

“If there’s no issues, I can get it done in maybe 20 minutes,” he said of the process.

The turntable then goes to the burning rack where it plays at 45 rpm overnight, and the electronics “sink in,” Golembiewski said.

“If we have any pulley issues, it will show up after a couple hours,” Golembiewski explained.

The 36-year-old Detroiter started two years ago making gears for watches. A classic rock and heavy metal fan, he jumped at the chance to join the audio team.

Sanders, too, gets giddy chatting about the turntables and putting together kits his team uses to construct them. Everyone makes one turntable to keep, but Sanders’ eyes gleam as he talks about one he made for someone else.

After President Barack Obama left office, the team mailed him a turntable they all signed. While each has a unique serial number, Obama’s has one extra unique touch.

“I was the one elected to put the coin in the middle with the presidential seal on it,” Sanders said. “It was a very proud moment for me.”

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg