Every month 5 Magazine’s Man+Machine features talks about musical machines and the men & women who love them.
This month, we’re going in a little different direction.
Meet (if you don’t already know him) Todd Mariana. Todd is a DJ, a producer – and a record cutter. Todd operates Deep Grooves Mastering in Chicago where he practices this increasingly arcane art with the lady he lovingly refers to as “Charlotte”, his VMS70 record lathe.
We asked Todd to walk us through how he came to be involved in record cutting and mastering, from how he acquired his machine to the process of record cutting itself.
All photos are courtesy of Todd Mariana and Deep Grooves Mastering.
Todd, tell me about this machine. Where did it come from? What is it’s history? How did you come to own it and how did you learn to use it? Because I’m pretty sure you could lock me in a room with that machine and in a fight I would probably lose.
I’ve always loved vinyl. In high school I would always buy vinyl (which I still have). As I become more involved in music production I wanted to learn to DJ. After purchasing 1200s and having them for some time, I wanted to be able to do the transfer to disc. It was sort of the last piece of the puzzle.
I started researching how records were made. I learned about the entire process from cutting to pressing. I started poring over posts on The Secret Society of the Lathe Trolls. I read and read and read. I asked questions. I dreamt about cutting. And I saved every penny I could.
Everyone I spoke with suggested contacting Al Grundy. Everyone said he was the man. They were so right! I’ve never met anyone more knowledgeable on record cutting systems. I came to think of Al as my Audio Grandfather. He had this sort of lost way of speaking. Very ’50s. I’ve never met anyone more knowledgeable on record cutting systems.
Unfortunately, we lost Al last year. This was a pretty big blow to the community. Fortunately, he did mentor a number of folks on the East coast, so his knowledge and wisdom lives on. Some of these old pro’s pass away without sharing their knowledge. It really hurts the rest of us trying to restore and use old lathes and presses. He wasn’t that way. Always willing to share and help.
Al was a part of Gotham Audio. They were the exclusive US importer for Neumann. Any studio or record company that wanted to set up a record cutting room with Neumann gear went through Al. When a number of studios shut down their record cutting rooms in the ’80s, they contacted Al to see if he was interested in buying it back. Al purchased somewhere between 10 and 20 lathes over the years. He would completely restore them and re-sell them. By the time I contacted Al in 2009 he had only two functional cutting systems left. It took him close to a year to fully restore the system for me.
Once the restoration was complete, I booked flights, accommodations, rental car and rental truck for my trip to the East coast. My close friend Brian Gardner joined me for the trip. He has since become a sales rep for the business. We flew out East, got situated, and the following morning set out for our first day of training.
We met Al at his workshop in New Brunswick at 9am. Try to imagine mountains of old parts and components and gear of all sorts. Things that looked like they would be in the background of some old B movie in some mad scientist’s lab. That was the workshop. To me, I saw invaluable resources. Irreplaceable gear and spare parts. A cornucopia of rarities. And, at the center of it all, like a shining beacon, sat my lathe.
“Charlotte”, as I’ve come to call her, is a Neumann VMS70. I have a VG74B amp rack with BSB74 Acceleration Limiters. Original platter motor and Pitch/Depth Computer. Her name is Charlotte in homage to Charlotte’s Web, one of my favorite stories from childhood. Charlotte spun webs. My Charlotte has certainly trapped me up in her web – financially as well as with respect to domineering my free time.
After Al passed I was able to find out exactly where she originated from. My lathe came from Herb Powers. If you don’t know the name, look up PM Entertainment. He mastered and cut a lot of early Rap and Hip Hop records. This was music that was instrumental. Music that exploded and redefined boundaries. Music that was cut on my lathe. I feel that history every time I operate her. Knowing this makes having her that much more special.
The name of your business has the word “mastering” in it, but what do you do for real? Production has become very do-it-yourself, with as few people involved as is necessary. As a result, a lot of this is becoming a kind of lost science even to people who are firmly part of the industry.
Yes, what I do is “mastering”. You’ve heard this word before in relation to preparing audio for distribution, but that’s not actually the correct term. What is done in a studio on a track is actually known as “pre-mastering”. “Mastering” is the final step prior to preparation of the master plate used for physical (in either CD, DVD or vinyl record production). Mastering involves processing the audio in a way such that you are accounting for the physical nature of either the media or the device used to transfer the audio data to the media.
In the case of CD or DVD the device is a laser and the media is a glass disc with a light sensitive emulsion layer. The audio is processed in a way that insures the most accuracy when actually transcribed by the laser. It has more to do with digital conversions than anything else.
When it comes to vinyl records, audio is transcribed by a device called a cutterhead. The cutterhead operates much like a speaker. There is a coil of wire in the presence of a fixed pole magnet. The coil is driven with voltage from an amplifier. When current is driven, the coil moves in the presence of the magnetic field. This movement is what is transcribed to disc by a cutting stylus that is attached to the coil via a piston. Configuring two of these piston/coil/magnet combos at a right angle to each other and you can now transcribe movement for two channels: left and right. Literally, a record is simply the physical transcription of the movement that represents the sound waves themselves. There is both lateral and vertical movement encoded into a record groove which is a modulation of the left and right channels. The cartridge on your tonearm is what decodes this movement back into a very small voltage for two channels which is then pre-amplified and amplified for playback.
To properly master for vinyl, you have to understand how the cutterhead actually transcribes sound and what its physical limitations are. You must also understand the limitations of the cutting stylus as well as the blank media itself. Compensating for these physical limitations is at the heart vinyl mastering.
What I do to master mostly has to do with frequency and volume. And without doing this, the cut disc would have terrible distortion, especially in the highs. Also, without mastering the source material I run the risk of actually damaging my cutterhead. It is not uncommon to actually run so much juice through the head that the coils get too hot and the enamel on the wire melts. That causes a short circuit which produces a dramatic cloud of smoke. Smoking your cutterhead is the last thing you want to happen.
When someone comes to me for a vinyl run, they submit their tracks to me digitally. I process them and get them prepared to cut which includes adding my lathe automation cues to my ProTools Session. Audio is sent to the lathe and amp rack and transcribed to disc. After a number of test cuts, I am prepared to make a final cut into what is called a Master Lacquer. The master is never played. Therefore, in order to know the cut is correct, you make cuts into what’s called a Reference Dub. It is a reference to the master. Dubs/acetates/lacquers all refer to the same thing. They are the discs used to check cuts prior to cutting the final Master Lacquer, which is never played. You can of course cut just a dub for a single record order (a one-off).
Once a master is cut it is sent out for electroplating. A metal negative is made from the master lacquer and this is called a Stamper Plate. You’ve seen these before. When an artist gets a framed “gold record”, those are actually stamper plates that were used to press that artist’s record. They trim the stamper, electroplate it with 1/10th gram of gold and frame it.
Stamper plates go into a record press. Hot vinyl compound is placed between two stamper plates. Heat and several tons of pressure are applied. The pressed disc is now a positive copy of the original lacquer cut by me. So, I don’t actually press out records. I work with several pressing plants. I make the originally transfer of audio to disc. They take it from there. My biggest order to date was 400 units. My smallest pressed runs are 100 units. However, I can cut as many individual discs as any customer might like to order. I can cut into both lacquer and plastic. Plastic is more durable than lacquer and is preferred for individual one-off orders. You can scratch with plastic cuts. They get 100,000 clear plays vs. the 200 to 300 clear plays from a lacquer dub. I get about equal orders for one-offs as I do for pressed runs.
Every year for the last four years, it’s been reported by mainstream news (with a combination of amazement and amusement) that vinyl sales are up. Does your anecdotal experience at DGM match these reports?
Well, I have no prior direct knowledge of the business before 2009. I can say that there has been renewed interest in vinyl. I’ve had more orders each year. I know that sales figures show a big jump within the last ten years. It’s not just hype. This is a real revival.
One thing that should be noted is that CDs are going to be killed off. The majors are no longer going to produce anything other than special boxed sets after the next year or so. Quite literally, vinyl has outlived eight tracks, cassette tapes, minidiscs, DATs and now CDs. Disc recording isn’t going anywhere.
For sure digital is convenient. I play CDs as well as vinyl. I know a number of DJs who are Serato-based. But, most of them also carry a few vinyl releases. Some artists still refuse to distribute digitally. Digital really seems to screw the artist more than any other media for distribution. When it’s all said and done, when the label and distro have taken their cut, the artist is left with little. At least when you release on vinyl, those records stick around. Even if you aren’t selling in excess of 500 copies and making a decent profit, your music will have staying power. People lose entire hard drives of tracks all the time. People clear out the old for the new regularly in the digital realm. Records are kept, loved, cherished, rediscovered. They have a life of their own.
What kind of craftsmanship goes into this? It seems like it’s more of an artisan activity? In daily life, in contrast, it seems that we’re surrounded by things that were tooled by machines with a minimum of human input.
My lathe represents the height of both engineering as well as electronics/computing for its time. The same technology that sent humans into space. The same level of exactitude. Everything is measured in 1/1000s of an inch (1 Mil). But this is just the basic requirements for cutting. Good cuts are a result of the human factor. The same machine can produce complete garbage as it can a masterpiece. It is all in the operator. This is a labor of love. More effort generally goes into a cut than is ever compensated for. We do this because we love vinyl records and want to see this media remain viable for the next generation. Cutting studios made famous by their work on albums over the years owe their success more to the mastering and cutting engineers than they do to the gear that was employed.
I’m a DJ that buys MP3s and WAVs. I’ve been reading 5 Magazine and this asshole keeps interviewing people about vinyl, and Mike Huckaby is telling me he moved 3,000 units of his last record with no digital release to speak of. And I think, maybe I should give this a shot. Walk me through the process of becoming your latest customer, Todd.
I have a number of resources on my web site for anyone wanting to do a vinyl release at deepgroovesmastering.com. The FAQ page is a great place to start. We have a gallery of images so you can see the lathe and some discs we’ve cut. You can also use our Quote Generator to price out your vinyl run. You can play with all of the various options like unit count, white label/one color label/full color label, die cut jackets, shrink wrapping, test pressings, etc. We can do anything from as few as 100 copies to as many as 5,000. The more copies you have made, the lower you per disc cost, which means the more you can recoup on each distributed disc. One hundred copies are a promotional item. You will likely lose a little on this. Two hundred copies are certainly at the break even point. Three hundred or more and you will likely get a return on your investment.
As with any distribution, who you work with is very important. That goes for digital as much as it does vinyl. Most distributors are happy to take your vinyl if you provide them a reasonable number of units on consignment at a fair price. It should, however, fit their catalog. If you are writing Deep House, ask a friend you know who has done Deep House vinyl releases who they used for distribution. Then, present the music to that distributor.
Finally, never rule out bringing your discs directly to a record store. There are at least five that I can think of in Chicago alone. Most will take a short stack on consignment directly from you. This can also help build your own personal network.