Don't Call It Vinyl Cutting

Though the first production of a sound “record” dates all the way back to the 1800s- (it was merely a drum covered in wax then), the modern vinyl record has itself, only slightly evolved since then. The tank-like built machinery used to make, master, and duplicate these waves in space has survived through the epochs and is capable of enduring an even longer history. To better understand the survival tactics of this admirable medium, and dismiss the myths about vinyl’s imminent demise through degrading technology, DJBroadcast will explore the production process and present insight from a few of the industry’s masters.

The 200 years that preceded us have included disk production with materials like copper coated wax, hard rubber, even beetle shellac. It has also seen the rise of the commercial nature of vinyl production with industry leaders, such as Columbia Records, pushing the medium for at-home listening.

“...No one was sharing information
about vinyl. It was closed...."

In the ‘20s popularity wavered as the convenience of radio industries suggested a new norm. By the early ‘90s, the sure-to-supersede digital CD format again threatened to turn the vinyl experience into a relic format. Despite the odds the PVC prototype has not only endured, but also prevailed in proving itself a significant and surviving product. Part of the modern indication that vinyl's importance is nowhere near fading, is it's persistence in the electronic music industry.  The production process that  once belonged to the commercial behemoths has been passed on to the niche studio engineers and mastering artists. 

The Economist reported that “vinyl sales so far in 2014 are the best they have been for ten years.” A leading charts company in the UK alone predicted a 13% increase in vinyl sales, and a pressing plant in the USA suggested that they will be doubling production by next year, buying 16 presses to accommodate the increase.

The Process From Master Lacquer to Pressing Plant
1/ A flat aluminum disk is initially coated with lacquer (nitro cellulose). There are only two plants in the United States and Japan that still actually do these productions. Could this be create a potential for speed-bumps? More on that later.

2/ The master lacquer is sent to a mastering engineer, who has created optimized digital versions of the sound files, to be carved onto the disk.

The cutter head stylus, shaped like a spade, has two magnets with voice coils that move and convert electrical energy (from the digital sound recording) into mechanical energy that carves, or “cuts” grooves into the record.

The record lathe is the “turntable” that rotates the master being carved. Neumann and Skully are the two professional lathes used in the industry. The last ones were manufactured in the 80s, though many being used for mastering are even older. There are typically two cutter heads (SX74 and Westrex) used in conjunction with these lathes.

3/ This “master” can then be used as a one off record, and this is known as a dub-plate. Most records however are sent off to a pressing plant where they are washed and coated with tin chloride and liquid silver on each side, then spun in a nickel tank with a charge, creating a negative metallic disk of each side of the original. These negative metal layers are dubbed “stampers”.

4/ At the pressing machine a PVC biscuit (formed out of PVC pellets) is inserted between these “stamper” negatives. A mechanical press at 193 degrees Celsius and 100 tons of pressure ensures that this vinyl patty melts into a record, replicating the grooves of the negative onto its form.

Vinyl History with Flo Kaufmann
DJB was fortunate enough to interview the Swiss musician and sound engineer Florian Kaufmann, who industry friends introduced as a rare “top dog” in the vinyl business. His complex cutter head repair and fabrication of his own parts for the mastering process have played an important contribution to the modern industry. Back then though “No one was sharing information about vinyl. It was closed. Big companies were doing it. Cutting rooms were working for these big companies. It was not an open thing, like now where you can go to the cutting rooms. That was not the case,” he says lamenting on the dominance of corporate industry.

“...Everybody thought there was five years more for vinyl..."

In early ‘90s Berlin, Kaufmann closely studied with older engineers that were servicing lathes thought to be going defunct because of the CD industry. “Everybody thought there was five years more for vinyl. It was the big companies that decided to trash all the equipment.”

By '94 Kaufmann launched Vinylium, his mastering studio, where the lack of affordable servicing for his machinery inspired Flo to get closer to the mechanics himself. (This too reflected the commercial and expensive nature of the business at that time.) “Some guy called me from Jamaica and asked ‘can you fix my lathe?’ as he’d seen my stuff. At this point we saw there’s some need for technology, not only cutting.”

Because the demand for technology is now stronger than ever, Flo has decided to relaunch a similar company dubbed Floka Son. “There was this peak in ‘97 and ‘98 with the dub-plate thing and drum and bass. [It] was the first peak in demand of machinery and change to young people and independent people. But now it’s stronger than ever. I have seen places where they are cutting in three shifts. 24 hours a day. Six days a week. If they had more machines they would make more. If I had the machinery I could sell [one] every two weeks.”

Vinyl History with Len Horowitz
Dubbed as the repair man for the Skully cutter head, Len Horowitz lives in Los Angeles where he runs the History Of Recorded Sound studio. For over 20 years Len worked with the honorable Otto Hepp, the solo engineer that handmade Westrex cutter heads. Len’s current gifts to music include the restoration of vintage recording equipment, electronic design and specialty mastering. He has even been a technical consultant for one of the world’s two remaining lacquer production plants (namely Apollo in the USA). But if you talk to him about the art of “vinyl cutting”, call it by its proper name: lacquer mastering, since vinyl is actually only the final pressed disk made out of PVC (vinyl).

"...If you talk to him about the
art of 'vinyl cutting',
call it by its proper name:
lacquer mastering...."

“Record mastering is a cottage industry now,” he says. “There is no quick answer about changes in the mastering business. Mostly everything has changed...It might be easier to focus on what has not; Young people still want to learn and bring their own experiences to it. Records are exciting because new ideas make it exciting. Records are part of the art and collectables world.”- Len Horowitz

Speedbumps for Vinyl Production
There are however potential problems for the vinyl production process. As mentioned before, the original nitro cellulose lacquer disks that get the recordings cut into them, are only being produced by two companies in the world. MDC is a company in Japan making 10” and 14” records only for mastering, not dubs. Apollo in California, makes all size records for dubs and masters.

“There was a point when all the lacquers were shitty,” says Kaufmann. “For over two months, when the tsunami in Japan happened, the company there was out of business for almost a year. So then there was just one company. Can you imagine everyone there [at Apollo]? They cannot just double the production.

“...The equipment is not
going to fail..."

Arguing against the common misconception he concludes that “the equipment is not going to fail,” but the focus should be on “the people who are needed to maintain it.” 

The cutting head stylus / needles are also produced by the same two companies, and Flo suggests that recent halts in the replacement capacities highlight a point of concern. Len Horowitz adds that, “Out of the world's population of 7+billion people there are only 100 that could probably make a lacquer disc, 50 that could make a recording stylus, and six  that could repair a Neumann recording head. These numbers probably haven't changed by much over the past 50 years.”

Not Aging Machinery
“The cutting side is no problem,” says Kaufmann. “The machinery is so good. Most of the machines used are from the ‘60s and ‘70s but they’re built like tanks, mechanically, and all the rest is electronics which can be upgraded or replaced.” Pressing machines too, he says, are constantly being refurbished and repair is ‘nothing complicated’ for a capable engineer.

“A sixty year old cutting system can produce a disc recording that is super high fidelity ... giving current technologies a run for the money,” Horowitz adds. “Aging machinery is not as fragile as an aging mastering engineer. Most of the lathes will outlive 20 owners. The early recording lathes from the  "teens" recorded 78s without... noise,  and [would] work today if they were maintained. Our three Scully lathes are more than 60 years old.”

"...No one will tell you that mechanical watches will go out of style in the next 100 years..."

Future of Vinyl
“The huge thing, since 10 years ago, has been [transparent] polycarbonate disks,” states Kaufmann. “It’s not pressed: You just take an empty polycarbonate disk and you cut the sound into it. And that’s it. It’s nice because it’s much cheaper than acetate dub-plates. You can run 10 or 20 copies. The material doesn’t cost a lot, so you don’t have to make negatives, stampers, you can make it for 15 bucks each. You could never do that with pressed vinyl. The sound is almost there, but it’s never the same as a fresh cut acetate.”

Skimming the history of big industry and efforts of modern self proclaimed “freak” engineers, it seems that the only true speed bump for vinyl is the ambition of man. And we’re not going anywhere.

The next time you put the needle on the record or watch your favorite DJ move a room, consider that the antique disk in front of you, just might outlive all of your trendsetting. “There is no reason why you should have a mechanical watch, but people are attracted to the analog interface,” states Kaufman. “They like an analog product. No one will tell you that mechanical watches will go out of style in the next 100 years.”