July/August 2010
Adam Kempa

Vinyl Cut Pro

Being a primer on oddly grooved records

Discussed: Infinite Audio Loops, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Turntablist Culture, A Fetishized Drum Machine, Mind-Bending Inside-Out Cuts, Usenet, Monty Python, Post-Listening Situational Comedy, Johnny’s 256 Possible Outcomes, Mute Amnesiacs, Trick Grooves

You’ve probably heard about how the sales of newly pressed vinyl records have been trending upward in the past few years, despite the tailspin in which the rest of the music industry has found itself. The reemergence of this most physical of mediums just as musical playback has settled into a firmly nonphysical experience makes a certain kind of sense: there is an artisanal quality to the creation of records that often goes overlooked. 

Most people couldn’t begin to explain how records are made—the titular character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie imagined a sort of thick black batter applied via a single circular stroke of a wooden crêpe-spreader. In actuality, the grooves are first cut out of a smooth blank disc coated in nitrocellulose lacquer (a by-product of cotton) using ruby needles driven by purpose-built lathes. Once completed, inverted molds of the lacquer master are created by plating it with silver and nickel. These plates are then turned into the stampers that a pressing plant will use to squeeze hundreds of hockey-puck-size wheels of vinyl into identical records. This last step is the process that most people think of as “making records,” but every step beyond the initial cutting of the master is merely an exercise in reproducing it with as much accuracy as possible—it’s in the cutting of the master lacquer that a record’s quality is truly determined.

I recently spoke with Louis Bell at Aardvark Record Mastering, a four-person, two-cat, one-dog operation based in Denver, Colorado. Aardvark doesn’t press records—it sticks to cutting and plating the masters. Master lacquers are cut in real time, meaning that as the audio is played to the cutting stylus, the mastering engineer is simultaneously monitoring signal level, groove depth, spacing, and other variables. Before beginning the actual cut, Bell listens twice to each track he masters to familiarize himself with changes in level (particularly bass-heavy sections) or anything else that might affect the cut. “I follow the process I’d want someone to follow on my record,” he says. When asked about the tools of the trade, Bell emphasizes what a specialized endeavor record mastering is: “They aren’t making this equipment anymore, and when you do find it, it doesn’t come with a manual.” Founder Paul Brekus acquired and assembled the bulk of Aardvark’s gear in the mid-1980s, and has steadily added an impressive repertoire of unusual grooving techniques to its standard offerings.

Large-scale liner notes are commonly understood to be the greatest loss associated with the music industry’s shift away from vinyl, but album art has been scanned and preserved. Trick grooves are among the only attributes of the vinyl format that an MP3 legitimately cannot approximate—and in some cases they are central to the work itself. 

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Adam Kempa is an Ann Arbor, Michigan–based web developer who is obsessed with any artistic endeavor made unnecessarily complicated. You can intermittently read his nerdly musings at kempa.com.

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