Monday, March 3, 2014

Bands Banding Together Poll Is Live, Notes From Lathe Night at Welcome to 1979

Posted By on Mon, Mar 3, 2014 at 6:01 PM

A few weeks back, we told you about Bands Banding Together, a project being undertaken at Welcome to 1979, the studio complex owned and operated by Chris Mara (who also records the Upstairs at United sessions; go enjoy some video from the Cults and Bobby Rush sessions that went live last week, including the best non-Beatles version of "Come Together" I've heard yet). If you recall, Bands Banding Together began with an open call for participants interested in doing a live-to-lathe recording — as in direct-to-vinyl, zero undo, don't screw up the last song or you have to do the whole thing over recording — who could register through Feb. 15. The next phase is a Facebook poll to determine who will get to participate in the project, and the '79 camp tells us that the poll is live now!

Of the 10 finalists, the five who receive the most votes will be making a unique direct-to-disc LP later this year. There's a decent range of styles among the finalists, and a fairly broad geographic spread; three are Nashville bands, and the rest are from all across the eastern half of the U.S.

Your Finalists:
- East Side Americana pickers Don Gallardo and How Far West
- Music City pan-American punks Max and The Wild Things
- Northampton, Mass., folk rocker Jamie Kent, who hits my ear like The Wallflowers
- Philadelphia's Toy Soldiers, a little less country than Promised Land Sound but in similar territory
- Duluth-based pop singer-songwriter Mary Bue
- A coed folky string band from Astoria, New York (aka Queens), 2/3 Goat
- Nashvillian bass mistress Sharon Koltick and her rock group Kink Ador
- From Washington, D.C., indie rockers Alex Vans and the Hide Away
- Panama City bluesy kinda-active rock from Jam Therapy
- Racine, Wisc. pop singer-songwriter Liza Day

Fans can vote once per day, every day, through the end of March. Wanna make sure three of the Top 5 are our boys and girls? Then mouse on over and rock the damn vote!

All this chatter about recording live to the lathe got my gear-nerd curiosity peaked, so while The Spin was checking out The East Room's anniversary party on Saturday, I cruised over to Welcome to 1979 for an event they call Lathe Night. If you also find yourself curious, check out a few notes (and photos) I made after the jump.

Believe me, you don't always want to know how something is made. My great grandpa managed a meatpacking plant for 40 years, and I'm not digging into the family archives for hotdog recipes anytime soon. A few years back, Welcome to 1979's Chris Mara and Cameron Henry ran into a problem that required them to get into the nitty-gritty of making vinyl records: Projects they were shepherding through the production process came out sounding weak and hollow on vinyl, a medium revered by fans and bands alike, whatever it means for the industry as a whole (some more thoughts from The Week's Peter Weber).

Calling bullshit on the explanation "that's just the way vinyl is," they sought out help from revered Nashville mastering engineer Hank Williams (not that Hank Williams, this one), who guided them to a Neumann VMS 70 cutting lathe dating from the mid-'70s (it's one of the last models designed by Neumann, and that was in 1973), and went all Mr. Miyagi on the delicate art of cutting their own lacquer masters — the physical discs (made of aluminum coated in lacquer not too far from nail polish; not actual wax) that get coated with liquid metal, and later turned into the stampers that embed your album in a hot puck of PVC.

A few years and a bunch of trashed blanks later, Cameron Henry has become an old pro at cutting lacquers, making Welcome to 1979 one of a very few places — and one of only two purpose-built studios he knows of (not counting The Blue Room where Third Man Records cuts their Live to Acetate series, since its primary function is as a venue) — where a band can take a project from basic tracking to final product in every format. A couple of times every year, Henry and Mara demonstrate the process for interested parties as part of their Tape Camp weekend program (this particular instance attracted folks from as far away as Brazil and Arizona), and they agreed to let me sit in and take a few snaps.

After we got settled in, Henry cued up a Pro Tools session with a few songs Mara recorded on tape (including some Cory Chisel and Bobby Rush tracks), and showed us the dry-run procedure for cutting one side of an album. During this process, there's no media loaded, but audio runs through several protective circuits and a device called a pitch computer. In this case, "pitch" has nothing to do with sound — it's referring to the amount of real estate between the grooves on the record.

The pitch computer constantly analyzes the loudness of the audio coming in to determine how close it can pack the grooves together (by changing how quickly the cutting head moves in a straight line), so you can balance between fitting more audio and having it play louder (the louder you play, the wider the groove is horizontally). It's an all-analog device — no software here, this is from the days of punch-card computers with less processing power than a graphing calculator sending men to the moon. Since the speed at which the disc is rotating remains constant, changes in cutting-stylus pitch don't affect the pitch — as in frequency — of the audio. Neat factoid: Playing with this is how they make the visible lines that mark the tracks on an LP.

There are concerns about out-of-phase information, especially low frequencies, causing the stylus to cut the groove dangerously deep, which are resolved by careful application of a device (in '79's case, a software plug-in) called an elliptical equalizer, which allows the engineer to pull low frequencies out of the sides if the situation gets hairy — though he or she has got to add them back to the middle to keep the bass as thick and delicious as it was in the original mix. Other concerns include the stereo width, if it's a stereo signal; it pays in the long run to take time to get this part right.

Once you've run through the material and all readings are within tolerances, you can then run it again — in real time — and cut a reference lacquer (sometimes you hear about "acetates" or "white labels" of famous artists being auctioned off for big bucks — those are reference lacquers), which you can check out on a turntable to make sure it sounds the way you want. When he's working for an out-of-town client, Henry will turn reference lacquers into digital audio files to speed up the approval process. Once everyone's happy, he'll cut a master lacquer (which has a couple of extra inches in diameter, so that it can be bent around a stamper when it's time to make copies) and ship it off to a pressing plant like United or one of the few others operating around the globe. Before they make a ton of copies, test pressings are then made — but if you don't like the sound by that time, you're already several days and a bunch of cash behind.

It's a cool process to hear and see (and smell, there's nothing like the smell of old audio gear) for yourself. Making vinyl masters is a process that a whole new generation of engineers are having to learn, since it's been out of vogue for about 20 years. The sweat equity of applying these techniques to a live performance results in a clean, warm sound, and knowing you will have to live with four or five performances in a row without being able to correct a note requires a certain kind of ballsy attitude that's bound to translate to the performance.


Tape Camp participants check out a 14-inch lacquer master blank.


Welcome to 1979 cutting engineer Cameron Henry keeps dust off the reference lacquer with nitrogen. Compressed air is cheaper, but it holds moisture, which you can't have in this situation.


Welcome to 1979 cutting engineer Cameron Henry shows Tape Camp participants how to adjust the range of the cutting stylus for 12-inch, 10-inch or 7-inch lacquers.


Welcome to 1979 cutting engineer Cameron Henry plays tracks to be cut on one side of a 12-inch record from a Pro Tools rig.


"I'm afraid you're just too darn loud." Welcome to 1979 cutting engineer Cameron Henry explains some of the indicators that you have to watch while cutting a lacquer on the lathe. If this ammeter shows that the cutting stylus is drawing more than 1 amp of current, there material is too loud, possibly distorting the master and causing damage to the stylus. And those things are 'spensive.


Welcome to 1979 owner/operator Chris Mara talks about how he and Cameron Henry ventured into the vinyl mastering business.


During the silence between songs, Welcome to 1979 cutting engineer Cameron Henry taps the switch that makes those visual markers that delineate separate tracks on your vinyl LP.

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