The First Cut Is The Deepest

Published on December 8, 2011, by in Feature, Interviews and Features.

I’m sat here freshly invited to contribute to the site knowing the records I want to review are a postal service away, what do I do? I spend all my time making music and have just completed something I’m really pleased with yet am nervous about, but I feel should be released. I think its a good track, good enough that if I sort myself out again I feel would be worth releasing myself and this in turn may make a good thing to write about.

We buy music, we listen to music, we play music to others, we make music and as great as mp3’s are for rapid dissemination of feelings and ideas its generally records that are of interest. I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of the different mediums as its been done time and time again and is right there with the computers versus hardware, analogue versus digital debate. Different things perform in different ways and have different functions. Putting out records however, requires money and therefore a belief that the music being invested in will be received well enough that at the worst a little bit of money may have to be written off as the equivalent of a good night out. I can’t speak for everyone but for me having tracks cut to vinyl is what its about, the holy grail. Maybe its because I grew up buying records and so its partly a generational thing. When people invest in you by releasing the music on that format, they show belief in you and are willing to take quite a hefty cash wager on their beliefs and that makes me feel very honoured when people want to release my music. Not everyone shares the same vision though and sometimes its best to just show balls and do it yourself, but in today’s economic climate with current consumer trends regarding vinyl there are many things to consider. I can’t really write a definitive “how to” guide as my experience in this field is rather limited but I have researched and experienced a few things that are worth sharing, so based on that here is how I currently see the whole music to vinyl process in terms of putting your own record out. If you choose to do it, its going to cost you. A lower limit is squeezable, there is no upper limit.

Initially you have a track. You’ve spent ages on it, or maybe you haven’t but just know its right, know its raw energy is what you would buy and you want it out there. Its not about making money, its not about getting glory, its not about getting gigs, but is simply the desire to convey that feeling to others of a like mind. Where to from there? How do you get that music from your DAT, tape or computer to vinyl.

Mastering is a good first step. Supplying your music without all the multi-band computer compression plugins favoured by so many people, clean to someone who knows what they are doing is a good move. You’ve made the music and have a certain emotional attachment to it and the way it sounds, but mastering is a more objective process. Its about getting the maximum out of what you have made without overly reducing the dynamics of the music, therefore it should be provided to the engineer in its raw form. Getting it louder isn’t always the best bet, but some compression of the rogue frequency spikes will allow an increase of volume and something that will sit comfortably on vinyl. The thing to remember is, that as vinyl plays and the needle gets closer to the centre of the record, space will become important and getting it wrong will mess up the whole thing. Mastering for vinyl is a different ball game to overall mastering for CD or Digital, though in all fairness it is very debatable. How many people will notice? In the end its all about feeling. With mastering you can get a fuller sound but without it you have the raw artistic feel, a representation of what has just come straight out of the machines whether they are digital boxes (including computers) or analogue boxes. I’m not decided either way. Sometimes its a question of artistry, sometimes it can be a question of economics. If you’re reading this on This Is Our House, the chances are you’ll have some of both in your record box and maybe won’t even know it. To give you an idea of costs, mastering can be around £60 a track plus vat. Bear this in mind as a three track E.P. will therefore add £180 to your costs before anything has even made it to the cut.

The cutting stage is where audio modulation is mechanically cut to a disc. Usually this is done to an aluminium disc coated with lacquer, but there is another option and that is DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) where the audio is cut straight into a copper plate. The equipment for DMM is very specialised, and after being developed by two German companies (Telefunken-Deca (TelDec) and Georg Neumann Gmb) it was Neumann who manufactured the cutting equipment. As of 2009 there were only six or seven cutting facilities offering DMM and one was bought by the Church of Scientology. So with this in mind, in all likelihood, it will be a traditional lacquer disc you go for. If you go down the mastering route, and can’t hear the audio before it gets to the cut there will be additional costs before you get to the point where you can hear errors have been made and you’ll have to try and wrangle with professionals over the issue. If you can’t be there in person, have the masters sent to you and okay them first as it saves a lot of hassle all round. Even well known and respected professionals in the industry can get it hideously wrong, and with the costs involved they are unlikely to back down without a fight. The quality of the cut also varies from place to place and has a bearing on the overall sound, but this can only really be gauged once its completed. Now is the point where you can have etched (if there is space) any catalogue numbers, words of wisdom or dedications you have in mind. It seems to me like a waste of runout groove not to have something like this, and once the lacquer/acetate leaves the cutting room there are no more modifications. Its worth remembering additional costs such as transport, it has been known for people to leave their acetates on the train, literally money down the tube, so using a courier may be advisable if the cut doesn’t take place at the site where the next process is to be carried out.

From here the discs are galvanised. The galvanic stage is where the lacquers get turned into a metal stamp that can later be used to press the vinyl. The disc is spun and coated with a fine and even mist of silver and through a process known as electrolysis, is then plated with nickel, using electromagnetism in a similar way to how cutlery, tankards and such like are plated. Each side of your release has to undergo this process which costs on average £80 per side. Once the galvanic process is complete, the new stamp now bears a negative image of the grooves and the acetate/lacquer can be discarded (recycled – aluminium still has a value).

Now processing is complete we finally we come to the pressing stage where the metalwork is clamped to a pneumatic stamp. A blob of hot vinyl comes through a tube, then BANG down goes the stamp, out comes you first test press. Its ALWAYS worth getting test pressings done and listening to them. If something has gone wrong somewhere along the line this is the last chance to try and correct the mistake and potentially start over, before your consignment gets manufactured. The rest from here is obvious. You give the go ahead, records get made and then you (if you’re hand crafting the labels) or your distributer get a delivery of records. The actual cost of the records is very low when compared to the costs of the whole process of mastering, cutting and galvanizing, but they all go hand in hand. In fact, the quantities are interesting. There is very little difference between the price of 150 units and 200 units. 300 is a slightly larger jump and speculation of sales must come into play. Gone are the days of first timers getting 5000 or even 1000 units pressed and being able to make all their money back. It just doesn’t happen now, which is why so much is sold as limited. Its not really about exclusivity as it is simple economics. Once the records are pressed the plant (the one I use at least) archives the metalwork so repress can be called upon at a later point. If you want, for an extra charge these can be sent to you and you can look after them. Any vinyl pressed from this time costs less to manufacture as the costly processing has already taken place and you’ll only need to pay set up charges and material costs plus postage.

The economics of the game are quite variable as are time scales, as far as I’ve been able to tell. For example, there is only one, maybe two companies in the UK that can carry out the entire process on site. All others perform some of the processes then send off to Europe for the final manufacturing stages, where it has been known for some of the larger plants to buy presses that come up for sale, simply to keep them out of the market place and limit competition. This additional transport means you need to factor in potential additional costs to your release, and probably additional time. My last experience of pressing had a total turnaround time of 10 days, and when I called to thank the guy in charge, he told me that some places can easily take up to 8 weeks. And bear in mind, this is if it all goes right and is time that money is potentially out of your pocket without any finished product to sell on.
I currently favour pressing single sided vinyl as it reduces the costs of two of the stages (cut and galvanisation) by 50%. Costs and therefore risks are kept to a minimum and the result is that the finished product can go out cheaper and less units need selling to cover costs. The difficulty here is that single sided vinyl isn’t always a favorite so shops aren’t always keen to take it and sometimes people simply aren’t interested in a cheap record. Perversely the uniqueness can add a value which then inflates the price due to perceived collectibility resulting in raised prices to the end customer, therefore putting the record buying public off and further reinforcing the opinion that people don’t like single sided vinyl. There are further ways to beat cost down, and maintain a unique product. I spent money getting a stamp made, and then press it into molten wax instead of paying money out for multicoloured, printed labels. I have a friend who makes silk screens and prints his own labels once the vinyl comes from the manufacturer. Even stencils and spray paint can be effectively employed, just look at the Ugly Edits series. Things like this add a personal touch which I think is desirable on a number of levels. As well as adding to artistry it adds to the personal sense of fun and achievement in completion of your vision.

Getting that product to the people who want it……well, thats a different kettle of fish.

How a record is pressed

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