Into the Groove
By Andy Langer
OCTOBER 6, 1997: Last month, unbeknownst to either party, the recorded legacies of Stevie Wonder and Silver Scooter became inextricably etched in vinyl. No, the local pop band didn't simply cut a B-side cover of "I Just Called to Say I Love You." By the principal of six degrees of separation, Wonder's 1973 classic Innervisions is linked to Silver Scooter's The Other Palm Springs by just one degree. And best of all, the association gelled in a funky North Austin home. How do we know for sure? The legal proof, like some sort of vinyl DNA, lies in each album's grooves.
For starters, a phonograph record is only as good as its grooves -- the circular indentations through which your turntable's stylus (needle) moves. And up until the point where a super-fast, helium-cooled drill digs out said grooves, every record starts off virtually the same -- as a "lacquer," a blank, flat disc of acetone, which incidentally, is the active ingredient of nail polish.
For vinyl, the device that chisels grooves out of that lacquer is called a lathe. And to the excitement of local vinyl enthusiasts like Silver Scooter (see accompanying story), the exact lathe used 24 years ago in Los Angeles to gouge out Innervisions and a host of other Motown projects is now in Austin and cutting as many as six records a day for local and regional producers and artists.
It's nearly impossible to stand in front of this lathe, tucked into a bedroom in Troy Dalmasso's Fat Tracks Studio, without stopping to marvel at the technology itself. Even if vinyl itself has been rendered archaic, vinyl's engraver appears wholly modern. Looking like something out of a NASA storage facility, Dalmasso's lathe hails from 1969 and is a complex system of computers, drills, vacuums, and microscopes. At the time of its manufacture, this lathe cost large vinyl producers $250,000. More than two decades later, this same lathe cost Dalmasso $13,000, but the fact remains that this machine is no less state-of-the-art now than it was when it rolled off the factory line and into a Los Angeles studio.
Those studios utilized lathes for mastering, the process of preparing a recording's
fidelity for mass production. For CDs, mastering has evolved into digital assembly,
with a computer manipulating sound. But for vinyl, mastering still involves using
the lathe to cut grooves -- a painstaking process geared towards balancing out the
feel of vinyl's natural warmth with the volume, bass, and pitch. In the years between
Innervisions and The Other Palm Springs, neither the lathe technology
nor the mastering process have undergone any significant improvements.
Even if Dalmasso's lathe weren't the only one of its kind in Texas, Fat Tracks is certainly the only place in the Southwest to find, under the same roof, both a studio and lathe, a combination that enables direct-to-vinyl tapeless recordings. Either way, in just under a year, Dalmasso has found that a big piece of a small market can add up fast, with Fat Tracks' overall revenue on target to gross $250,000 this fiscal year alone.
"Since the advent of the CD age, people just haven't been in the market for lathes," says Dave McNair, an Austin producer who's worked with everyone from Prescott Curlywolf to Jimmie Vaughan. "It hasn't been perceived as a smart business plan for mastering houses. But Troy, in some stranger quirk of wisdom, decided to buy a lathe and try to master vinyl. And as it turns out, there's a larger market than anybody could have thought."
Getting the Music
photographs by: Todd V. Wolfson
|1-2: Timing the
analyzing its content for pitch, bass, and EQ levels
|3: Gearing up
the lathe with helium,
thereby cooling and protecting the cutter
|4: Lowering the vacuum on a fresh laquer|
|5: The cutter head lowers and proceeds to cut|
|6: Groove examination|
One component of that market Dalmasso has tapped into is McNair, who produced The Other Palm Springs. McNair says he was surprised as anyone to hear that a lathe had surfaced in Austin, because he'd been encouraging his clients for years to put out their releases on vinyl as well as CD, and had always been forced to farm out the mastering work to out-of-state production houses that owned lathes.
These large mastering studios and manufacturing plants, centered mostly in Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York, typically master thousands of CDs and hundreds of records a year by mail-order. But according to McNair, the risk of sending your recordings to an out-of-state mastering house is that the fine points of an otherwise well-produced and engineered album can be greatly diminished by even an average job of mastering. And because the majority of artists interested in small runs of vinyl lack the contacts or finances to find and hire a reliable mastering engineer, there are even fewer guarantees of quality now than there were in the Seventies or early Eighties, when these same mastering houses had lathes cutting dozens upon dozens of records a day.
"When vinyl started to look like it was on the way out, the mastering houses became even less careful," says McNair. "They began to concentrate all their efforts on CD mastering, because they thought so few people would be listening to the vinyl. But obviously, those people that are hearing it have bought the vinyl in hopes of listening to a better product."
The most common way some large mastering houses skimp on quality, say McNair and Dalmasso, is by treating the mastering process as more of a science than an art. For these entities, mastering is simply a formula. The levels of melodic pitch, overall volume, and extraneous or intentional noise are wholly dependent on the depth of an album's grooves. Wider grooves mean better sound quality, in regards to both overall volume and bass clarity. Pitch, which in mastering describes the rate at which a phonograph's stylus travels across the disc, is also dependent on groove depth, because the deeper the groove, the more carefully the stylus must read a groove and amplify its content.
Unfortunately, the nature of records is one of limited space. A 12-inch record has 86 inches of recording space, and can only fit 225 grooves per inch. Furthermore, there are only so many grooves that can be cut into a side before those indentions begin colliding into each other. That resulting mess, called an overcut, causes mistracking and can actually kick a needle out of the groove. The formula used by many large mastering houses, calculated mostly by computers, simply plugs the time of a side into the size of a record thereby giving the mastering engineer a hard number of grooves per inch. "It can get the music to vinyl in a technically proficient way," says McNair, "but it doesn't take into account what the producer or artist are looking for in regards to volume, bass, treble, and compression."
The artistic approach is based more on trial and error than it is mathematics. The formula may still be used, but the difference lies in the test cuts -- practice cuts of an album's loudest or most bass-heavy section that are used as a sample representation of the rest of the record. Those cuts, made on test lacquers, can then be listened to on a phonograph or examined under a microscope for overcut. At that point, groove depth and size can be manipulated until the overall record meets the producer's expectations. The difference between this method and that of large mastering houses is that Dalmasso will listen to the same piece of music over and over, tweaking small instrumental passages or whole songs until the recording isn't just reproduced on vinyl, but rather becomes a separate and distinct vinyl work.
"The typical faceless guys can cut a side with the formula that leaves plenty of margin for error," says McNair. "Technically, you never have to hear it or do test cuts, but it's going to be quieter and often not sound nearly as good. It's assembly line work, whereas by burning through references and constantly testing and checking the levels, you can add depth and character to the record that a formula can't. That's art, not so much science."
McNair says that when he took The Other Palm Springs masters over to Fat Tracks it was partially to experiment with the artistic elements of vinyl mastering and partially out of necessity. The entire budget for the Silver Scooter record, including McNair's fee and the studio time, was less than a typical mastering session. By taking the masters to Fat Tracks for the vinyl version, McNair says he not only saved a chunk of the money a one-stop mail-order master house might have charged, he also got his hands into the creative process. The session's lesson, he says, was that the lines between recording and manufacturing were just as blurry as the ones between science and art.
"I was fascinated by the fact that vinyl mastering is the last artistic step and the first manufacturing step rolled into one process," says McNair. "And while it represents the last real chance to do something with the sound, you're also committing to a piece of machinery that's going to make a record."
Give him just a moment, and Dalmasso will reel off mastering facts and figures with the same enthusiasm with which a 13-year-old reels off baseball stats. Maybe it's because instead of reading Baseball Digest or the Sporting News as a kid, Dalmasso started his MIX Magazine subscribtion at 13. After 15 years of digesting MIX, the studio industry's trade bible, Dalmasso not only bought his lathe last year, he decided to house it in a suburban workshop (his home) rather than a modern state-of-the-art studio. "All those pictures in MIX turned me off to the wood floors and sterile doctor's office studios that are common today," says Dalmasso. "I'm definitely more interested in running a studio that's rugged and practical."
Dalmasso's clients don't seem to mind all the shop talk or the messy shop itself, though; they're coming in to get their music ready for vinyl, after all, not to lounge around and play pool. And by all appearances, these are clients that believe in vinyl's functionality, unlike a corporation like Sony or artists like Pearl Jam or U2, who may press the occasional record solely for its novelty or as a promotional item they think will impress journalists or radio programmers. As such, the vast majority of artists coming to Fat Tracks in search of vinyl mastering hail from one of three genres: hip-hop, electronica/techno/jungle, or noise/pop/punk. And perhaps just to make the mastering process even more complex, each genre presents its own vinyl challenges.
For hip-hop, maximizing the all-important bass is best done on vinyl with deep grooves, which helps explain the genre's long-standing relationship with the 12-inch record. On 12-inchers, three or four mixes of a single tune fit comfortably, which has also made it a popular format for electronica, an equally groove-demanding genre, because of its necessity for varying bass, pitch, and vocal separation. Interestingly, both hip-hop and electronica deejays often use the lathe as their first and last mastering step, because they can mix their beats, cut the master, and take the sole lacquer for immediate play in the clubs. In essence, these "dubs" are the deejay equivalent to a mix tape, because there's a virtual guarantee no two will be the same.
"A lot of deejays don't even intend to press their records for consumers," says Dalmasso. "And the only drawback is that you don't get as many plays as you would with actual vinyl. Each time you pass the stylus over the lacquer, you take off some of the top end, because the lacquer materials are much softer than the end-product vinyl."
That softness also represents a challenge for the pop and punk contingency, who
may have intentionally high frequencies softened by the lathe's cutting technique.
High frequencies, like the "S" sounds in vocals or a drum kit's cymbals,
generate so much energy that they can damage the lathe's cutter by forcing it too
deep into a lacquer's soft acetone material. Instead, the machine's internal safeguards
automatically reduce high frequencies to levels similar to the rest of the recording.
The way around this is called "peak limiting," the process of controlling
groove-by-groove the odd dynamic peaks created by occasional percussion or loud guitar
string slaps. Many punk or pop bands commonly opt for a
7-inch, which, with just two or three songs, allows for increased groove size and therefore increased loudness and dynamic range.
One of the biggest challenges when working with artists of any of these three genres, says Dalmasso, is convincing the band or producer that a well-mastered piece of vinyl, in any size, is rarely going to sound identical to the DAT or recordable CD the album was originally delivered in its sub-master form. For his part, McNair says their constant tinkering with the vinyl version of The Other Palm Springs (due in stores this week) yielded substantially more bass and treble than its CD counterpart.
"I'd love to do more vinyl mastering," says McNair, who says he learned a great deal about the mastering process through his work with Dalmasso. "If he gets something that he feels is artistically challenging, I'd like to try. Troy and I had a nice relationship. I didn't know anything about juggling side length, pitch, bass, and level, and he taught me what he learned. And I think I taught him some of the finer points of EQ and how to get some of the more artistic juice out of it from a producer's angle."
Because most producers and artists can't or don't take as active a role in the mastering process, and yet are generally critical of the end product anyway, the latter pieces of production wisdom McNair passed along may just come in handy for Dalmasso.
"When the McNairs of the world aren't around to tweak the EQ," explains Dalmasso, "those kinds of decisions end up defaulting to the mastering engineer. Traditionally, an engineer should be as transparent as possible and just take care of the technical aspects, but with no producer or band, I'm faced with artistic decisions and subjective opinions that need to be made. And because of that, I'm constantly checking out different genres of music, even stuff I wouldn't normally listen to, just to see what makes it tick and what they're looking for. Most of the houses notorious for poor mastering I'll assume are not familiar with a lot of the genres they're producing. And that's what separates good mastering engineers from bad ones -- knowing this music needs to have this bass at this level for it to be thumping in the clubs or home stereo."
One Business Under A Groove The Other Palm Springs may have been Fat Tracks' most labor-intensive project to date, but it wasn't the company's first. In less than a year, Dalmasso has mastered dozens of records for both a local and national clientele -- from 12-inch hip-hop business referred by local DJ Casanova to regional punk bands impressed by Dalmasso's work with locals like Glorium and the Prima Donnas. All told, Dalmasso's mastering services represent nearly 40% of his business. "At this point, I've got records coming in faster than I can cut them," says Dalmasso, who operates the lathe alone and primarily blames his backlog on the UPS strike that stopped his incoming shipments of blank lacquers for over a month.
In addition, Dalmasso has been spending his time trying to learn computer layout, because Fat Tracks also offers complete ready-to-sell manufacturing packages for both vinyl and CD releases, covering all points between mastering, artwork, and shrink-wrapping. Still, the most potentially profitable part of Dalmasso's business may be his brokering of audio equipment. Because audio gear is so expensive, by matching seller to buyer for vintage consoles, microphones, reel-to-reel tape decks, mixing boards, and even vinyl presses, Dalmasso's brokering could pay off big. Better still, the profits from Dalmasso's brokering will not only lead to better equipment for Fat Tracks, but also better prices for mastering clientele, because the quick, no-hassle equipment deal can help defray the labor costs he incurs with the more time-consuming lathe jobs.
"My aim when I started was to get the bands 7-inchers they could put on the streets as cheaply as possible," says Dalmasso. "I realize they're coming from a garage band situation with very little disposable money, so I'm cutting profits as low as possible. I'm lucky to make $50 on a batch of 500 singles in white dust sleeves, and that includes the cutting."
Dalmasso's good will towards the little guy might result in part from the fact that although he got a relatively good deal on his lathe, he financed it delivering Chinese food. Either way, the $13,000 Dalmasso paid last Thanksgiving is dramatically less than the $80,000 its previous Ohio-based owner paid in 1982, when it was acquired from the L.A. mastering house that had done Innervisions. And with the increased consumer demand for electronica and hip-hop 12-inches (particularly overseas) finding lathes for sale has been increasingly difficult.
Nonetheless, Dalmasso has said he'd like to buy another, in part to increase his workload, but also to guard against losing business should his lathe break down and need hard-to-find vintage parts. The replacement of a lathe's cutterhead alone can cost $8,000, with repairs taking months, because the only remaining lathe repair specialists are in Germany. In the meantime, Dalmasso says he's just going to try and keep in step with what he believes is an exponentially growing market. Looks like reports of vinyl's death have been exaggerated -- especially when Dalmasso is getting 30 or 40 calls a day and sending out an average of 100 brochures a week. In fact, to watch Dalmasso use the lathe, stop and answer the phone, and then continue to cut his records, it's easy to believe Austin is primed to become a one-man vinyl Mecca.
"Sure, the fact is that any place that's into any one of the three genres is primed to be a vinyl Mecca, and in Texas we've got plenty into all three," says Dalmasso. "And yet, the general consensus for people over 30, who grew up on vinyl, is that this is a dead art. But you'll find the younger groups that appreciate these genres, appreciate the vinyl. Twenty percent of my vinyl business is hip-hop and nearly 40% come from the electronica stuff. I've had people come in for raves from Houston, bring by their masters, and leave with dubs they can play at the rave later that night. And I have 7-inch customers that can produce their own sleeves at Kinkos, and hit the streets with real vinyl product very inexpensively. Those are things people appreciate."
Fat Tracks Recording, 8310 Reeda Lane, Austin, TX 78757. 512/459-7519
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