Vinyl is booming, but having it pressed can be slow and unpredictable. Enter a retro-focused Nashville studio with an ambitious business plan...
Back in 2007, Chris Mara and his wife Yoli looked at the retro mood engulfing music, and saw an opportunity. Tiring of engineering for others on Pro Tools platforms, and with an eye on the resurgence of vinyl, Mara opened a small studio based around his MCI JH24 two-inch 24-track deck. Almost simultaneously, he started up a side business restoring others’ vintage decks — in the process acquiring a few himself. These would become the foundations for the aptly named Welcome To 1979 Studios, its large upstairs control room boasting a 1978 MCI JH428 console and racks of outboard hardware, in the still dodgy but quickly gentrifying The Nations neighbourhood of Nashville. It’s all surrounded by shelves holding seemingly endless LPs and two-inch tape boxes, seasoned with some odd marginalia like a 1973 Honda CB450 motorcycle and a turntable suspended from the ceiling.
Mara’s gamble in founding a studio based on ’70s gear and techniques has paid off, and the studio attracts a steady clientele looking for magnetic comforts. Most recently, however, it’s also turned into a launching pad for two newer ventures, which see Mara taking the retro aesthetic a big step further.
Three years ago, Mara was growing disturbed. Many of his clients chose to have their music pressed on vinyl, but many manufacturing plants were delivering pressings that sounded radically different from his final mixes. “The test pressings just didn’t sound good,” he says. “I was used to digital downloads and CDs that were indistinguishable from their masters. When the vinyl test pressings came back here, there was a drastic difference, and it was for the worse.”
Mara began asking around at mastering houses, educating himself on what transpires on the way to the pressing plant. The answer was “a lot”: first comes the reference lacquer, cut to an aluminium disc coated in nitrocellulose lacquer from either analogue tape or Pro Tools. After one or more 12-inch reference lacquers are approved by the client, the final 14-inch master lacquer — the larger disc offering extra space on the outer diameter for handling, and to have excess metal that is needed to be formed around the press die — is shipped to the plating facility. There, it’s coated with a thin skin of adulterated silver, then dipped in a chemical bath in which the silver attracts a nickel mixture, until the entire disc is fully electro-plated. This metal master, which is in essence a negative image of the recording (with ridges where the grooves would be), is electro-plated a second time to produce the metal mother master, from which up to five sets of stampers (aka negative-profile metal moulds), used to press doughnuts of vinyl into actual LPs, can be made.
It’s a complex process, with about as many remaining universal standards as, say, alchemy. And there are few remaining places that perform this process: perhaps 15 record-pressing plants are operational in the US today, some with a lacquer lathe, and only five electro-plating facilities, all but one of them located within a pressing plant, and all of which are running overtime to handle demand.
Realising that problems with the end results could occur anywhere in that chain, Mara began educating himself on the lacquer-cutting process. Veteran Nashville mastering engineer Hank Williams encouraged Mara to jump in and take control of the post-mix process by doing his own lacquer cutting. Working with Williams and mastering-technology guru Chris Muth, Mara sought out a Neumann VMS70 lathe through an equipment broker and had Muth restore it. Cameron Henry, a freelance engineer who worked often at Welcome To 1979, also took an interest in Mara’s quest, having experienced the same dubious outcomes from pressing plants with his mixes. “We spent an entire day with Hank here before we even turned the lathe on,” he remembers. They spent hours squinting through the lathe’s attached 16x-power microscope, which can measure grooves to one-2000th of an inch. “He was teaching me,” Henry recalls, “what a record really looks like.”
The logical next step was to bypass multitrack recording and mixing altogether, and offer bands the chance to cut their music directly to vinyl. Welcome To 1979 began building direct-to-disc into a business slowly, using pizza-and-beer jam sessions populated by many of the musicians who regularly tracked at the studio, getting used to the idea that once the stylus hits the lacquer, there’s no pausing the process. “Vinyl is a medium of limitations,” Henry declares. “Digital has lots of dynamic range but people use compression and limiting to get the music louder. On vinyl, the battle is getting the music to physically fit on that disc. The louder the music, the more the groove deviates and requires more space.”
In vinyl-speak, the depth of the groove is known as ‘pitch’. The Neumann lathe has a pitch computer that listens to one of the two playback heads on the specially designed (and rather rare — it was featured on the cover of the February, 1980 issue of Mix magazine) Studer A80 quarter-inch mastering deck. This head is physically configured, via a series of rollers and capstans, to hear tape about one second before the other head, which is used for monitoring (the exact routing varies according to tape speed). This gives the pitch computer the time it needs to adjust groove depth for louder and softer musical passages, thus maximising the lacquer real estate. (When the mix master is sourced from Pro Tools, the playback to the lathe computer is simply time-shifted digitally.)
Welcome To 1979 have done D2D recordings as long as 29 minutes per side, but the average length is about 18 minutes. “When the music gets quieter, the grooves can be tighter, which saves space,” Mara explains. The real stick-and-rudder piloting of the lathe occurs when there’s a lot of low-frequency energy and/or sibilance. Both of these can cause playback issues such as distortion and skipping, which occur when the physical manifestation of that energy literally knocks a stylus out of the groove. “That’s why phase correction in low frequencies is very important,” says Henry, who adds that the ‘cheap’ method of avoiding LFE is to filter it out, which of course can also throw the sonic baby out with the bathwater. The proper approach, one he takes pride in, is massaging the low frequencies with EQ. At the other end of the spectrum, an acceleration limiter built into the lathe’s computer has an adjustable threshold control that addresses rapid onsets of HF sibilance. “It works like a de-esser, by grabbing the upper end, and protecting the stylus,” Henry explains. Other techniques include making minute corrections to the pitch computer on the fly, to more quickly catch level changes.
Then there’s the helium thing. As the stylus cuts into to the lacquer, the vibrations create heat, which can distort the grooves as they’re being cut. Helium, as a very light but inert gas, is the perfect choice to blow over the point where the stylus meets the disc. However, for a variety of arcane industrial, military and political reasons, helium is in short supply at the moment, and in addition to its rising cost, you need a medical-grade regulator to dole it out as precisely as the lacquer-cutting process requires. Mara says he’s had to jump through paperwork hoops to get the gas he needs, while looking longingly at the Bullwinkle and other helium-filled balloons that get all the gas they need every Thanksgiving for the Macy’s Day parade in Manhattan. “That bastard Snoopy gets all the helium he wants!” he says, in mock anger.
This kind of hands-on manipulation of the D2D process to create a master for metallising has a certain Zen to it, one that Henry and Mara consider a lost art; for them, the contemporary focus on the analogue multitrack and mix stages is over-emphasised. “I had no idea of what goes on in this process before this,” Mara marvels, adding that the directness of it — you sing, it turns into electricity, it vibrates the cutting head, it’s like a seismograph — is beautifully primitive. “It’s such a musical process. It can change how things sound drastically, but it’s also the last step before the manufacturing stage, so it’s critical. It extends the creative process before manufacturing, instead of ending it at the mix. It just hasn’t gotten the attention it needs. This was something they knew decades ago, then the knowledge went into hibernation because it wasn’t needed. Now, we’re becoming those people again.”
It also more deeply engages a recording’s artists, producers and engineers. Mara says it’s important that they stay involved in the post-recording/mixing stages as long as possible. Henry says he can give them two or more sets of test masters at the end of a session that can differ considerably sonically, underscoring how much the master-making process influences the final outcome of a record. They can take the reference masters home to listen to, or hear them from the studio’s turntable, which has a re-amplified output that can be fed directly into Pro Tools. “Not everyone has a great turntable at home,” says Henry. If bands are on tour, he’ll make a 24-bit/96kHz copy of it and send it to them as a file. Each set of parameter settings remains stored in the lathe’s computer memory, so the artists can choose the final version. In a very real sense, these are the equivalents of alternate mixes. The 14-inch master is never played — it has to remain immaculate as the source of the mother masters.
Aside from extending the lacquer-making process into the creative part of the recording routine, having lacquer-mastering capability solves another issue. One of the properties of the lacquer material is that it remains relatively viscous and malleable, never fully curing. That’s one of the reasons that these masters aren’t intended to be played — bands have created a new merchandise category by offering them as museum-like artifacts for fans. But that same quality also causes them to, in essence, want to ‘heal’ themselves, with the grooved surfaces slowly trying to revert to a flatter state, an effect known as ‘spring-back’. Back in the days when this was the way all recordings were made into products, this effect wasn’t a major problem, because the manufacturing process began quickly after the masters were made. But today, as vinyl’s popularity bumps up against the very real limits of its manufacturing infrastructure, those lacquer masters can sit for weeks or months waiting their turn for metallising. Sitting in a FedEx package in the cargo hold of a DC10 stuck in a ground stop in Miami in August will accelerate the natural degradation that is part of its very make-up.
“As soon as it’s cut, the clock starts ticking,” says Henry. “They have a lifespan; the AES literature says they should be electroformed within 48 hours of being cut, but it takes that long at least to get them to the plant these days. Then they sit for days or weeks, also collecting dust, which is really bad for them.”
The problem is, there’s a huge bottleneck at the plants, thanks to a lack of metallisation capacity and expertise. So, after first realising the physical damage caused by delays between mastering and metallising, Mara began researching what it would take to bring that capability in-house, as well. At first, he considered looking for an old electroforming system to rehabilitate, as he’s done with countless tape decks and consoles. But this electro-chemical process was far more complex than recapping a vintage desk or reinvigorating a calcified servo motor. “With something like [electro-]plating there would be too many variables,” he says. “If it turned out badly, we wouldn’t know if it was the process, the materials, the consumables, whatever.”
That led them to Digital Matrix, a New Jersey company that began life in 1982 building electro-forming/plating equipment for the Laser Disc industry, but really took off as the CD and DVD sectors bloomed, fabricating metalisation systems for those formats. The company had to call in a retired employee in order to conjure the knowledge base needed to build a new metallisation system for vinyl-record mastering. It wasn’t cheap — a newly made electro-forming system cost nearly 10 times the $45,000 the Neumann lathe did, and Mara brought in an investor for this aspect of the business.
Lori Hines knew what a turntable was but not much more about the process of making records. Her background was in automotive parts manufacturing. But she listened to Mara and Henry outline the processes and the challenges of plating and says she agreed there was an opportunity here. “We could offer the record labels a way to reduce the cycle time for their vinyl products by as much as 300 percent,” she calculates, and that’s precisely how they have presented the idea to a number of record labels, including all of the major labels (who account for the vast majority of all vinyl records made today, which contributes greatly to why manufacturing is so backed up now), as part of validating their business plan. That plan, like all good business strategies, accounts for the possibility that vinyl may prove to be more of a fad than it seems like now, with a 2.5-year return on investment calculated into the cost/price structure.
“Is vinyl at a peak now, or does it have years of growth left?” are questions she asks. “We don’t know, but we do know that there will always be some demand, and we can capture that if we can put the mastering and the plating together as a package,” solving the bottleneck problem.
The electro-plating system arrived at the studio in February. There was no issue with finding space for it: Welcome To 1979, appropriately enough, occupies about a quarter of what used to be one of the country’s largest record-pressing facilities, National Tape & Disc, which handled much of the Motown Records catalogue in the 1960s, later manufacturing records, eight-track tapes, cassettes and eventually CDs for RCA, Columbia, Capitol, Atlantic, Arista and other labels before ceasing operations in 1979. The new electro-plating operation is located in a part of the 33,000-square-foot building that already houses Mara’s tape-deck rebuilding business. But while the building’s pedigree may augur well, they are also relying on two former employees of the old record-pressing business that was located there in the late 1960s, who have come on as consultants to help jump-start and run the electro-plating as a day-to-day business. “They know things you can’t get out of a textbook,” says Mara. “We were lucky they were still in Nashville.”
Electro-plating is far from the sexiest part of the vinyl process... “But it might be the most important part,” Mara admonishes, noting the current six-month-or-longer backlog at pressing plants. For artists or labels with a metal master in hand, that wait could drop to less than a fortnight. With the major record labels having become the biggest customers for vinyl, they’ll likely become the core clientele for the electro-plating service, giving it a solid financial footing early on.
Meanwhile, the direct-to-disc business has been attracting a half-dozen or so clients each year, and it’s provided exposure to what’s turned into a steady business of creating quality lacquer masters. Taken together, what the Welcome To 1979 crew have done is recreated a workflow that faded sometime back when Thatcher was PM, in support of a market that had its heyday a decade before that. It’s been a voyage of rediscovery taken at the right time: vinyl grew 30 percent last year to 11.9 million unit sales in the US, according to Nielsen, and likely millions more are sold untallied directly by artists at shows or through small shops.
“We’re looking at this as clear-eyed as we can,” says Mara. “We love the way analogue and vinyl sound, but at the end of the day, it’s got to be a business, too.”
The electro-plating process is, superficially, straightforward: the lacquer master is taken from the cutting lathe to the electro-plating area, where it’s cleaned with soap and water to remove any dust or oil, and then a chemical soak that prepares it for a thin coat of sprayed-on silver nitrate. The lacquer is immersed in a chemical bath that has an electrical current passing through it, causing the nickel to be attracted to the silvered surface. When coverage is complete, in about three hours, the master is removed and the metal master is peeled away. This is electro-plated one more time to form the metal master mother, from which up to five sets of stampers can be made. That metal master mother is the ultimate product that Welcome To 1979’s metallising business will sell.
The processes are ones that date back centuries — Italian chemist Luigi Brugnatelli invented electro-plating in 1805, performing electro-deposition of gold using a Voltaic Pile — and though not as subjective in outcome as direct-to-disc recording is, it still has its own vagaries. “We have to monitor the plating-bath water temperature carefully,” says Cameron Henry. “If it gets too hot, it can cause audio anomalies.” These include expansion of the lacquers and/or metal parts that can induce pre-echo, a phenomenon where you hear a bit of the song before it starts. Other common plating issues are dust that can cause ticks or pops, and dimples in masters due to improper back sanding.
In addition, every vinyl-pressing machine manufacturer has their own specifications for the masters they use, so the studio has collected the die casts for each of the major models that are used, so that they have each press manufacturer’s distinct contour to their press plate — the component of the press machinery where the metal actually meets the hot vinyl. “We [have to] form our metal parts to fit these presses perfectly, which require different moulds depending on which plant the metal is being shipped to,” Chris Mara explains.