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Video Direct-to-Vinyl Recording Makes a Comeback (Video) 166

For many decades, gramophone records (the black vinyl discs in Grandma's attic) were made by cutting grooves directly into an acetate disc, then making a mold from that "master" and "pressing records." Nowadays, of course, we use digital recording software on our computers or even on our mobile phones. Vinyl? Strictly for fogies and maybe a few audiophiles who think analog recordings have a depth and warmth that CDs and MP3s lack. Naturally, SXSW is a haven for these folks, and among them Tim Lord found Wesley Wolfe and two German compatriots from, busily demonstrating their vinyl recording system, which is sort of the gramophone record equivalent of print on demand. Lots of background music in the video makes the voices a bit hard to hear; some might prefer the transcription -- although those who do will lose out on watching the vinyl recording machine in action. Either way. Or both. Up to you.

Tim: Wesley, we're at the booth at South By Southwest. What are we here for? What is this?

Wesley: Well, this is a vinyl lathe where you can make your own vinyl record from any audio source direct to vinyl.

Tim: Why would someone want to do that?

Wesley: Well, I am an independent musician. I put out my own vinyl records before. I have pressed like 300 of them, I’ve sold 50; and I am planning to move on to another project and I had a closet full of records. So this was my way of putting out my records in a limited quantity. I hand-make it. And I can move on to other projects afterwards.

Tim: Is that the way to build it?

Wesley: That’s what made me fall in love with it. Yes.

Tim: Right. So what’s different about working with vinyl than say with a CD?

Wesley: The music is alive. For CDs, so you know Super Mario brothers, the first Super Mario he had a square nose. That’s what your audio looks like in 16-bit format. So what vinyl’s actually doing is stretching those square waves and rounding them out.

Tim: Now you are here at South By Southwest, because you got these couple of guys from outside the country.

Wesley: Right. I am here with Souri and Fritz. They are the masterminds behind the machine.

Tim: And they are behind the machine.

Wesley: Right. Correct.

Tim: So, what’s their story?

Wesley: Well I bought the machine about three years ago, I went to Germany, did the training, came back. I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do with the machine, and they had I mean, they couldn’t go to South By and they were curious about it. I was their contact here in the US, and so we came here last year, and now we are back again, because last year was such a hit for us.

Tim: You said you went to Germany for training, how complicated is it to set up a vinyl machine?

Wesley: Well, I have no technical training at all. No mechanical engineering experience. So it is a craft and we get included in this is a day of training.

Tim: And the price is €3200 right now?

Wesley: Right. €3200. Right now in the US, that is about $4000.

Tim: Is it hard to do? There are a lot of things, complicated machinery.

Wesley: Oh no. This is the machine from my house. I brought this here, I drove it here from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Tim: Usually in 2013, you see people going from vinyl to digital formats, here you are doing the opposite, you’ve got a CD player here that’s feeding music over to a vinyl cutting lathe.

Wesley: Right.

Tim: It is kind of a _____ right now.

Wesley: Right. The world is in balance now.

Tim: Okay. And behind you, you showed me before, you’ve got the stuff, can you explain where that comes from?

Wesley: This is the outcut. This is the music. The physical sound cloud.

Tim: That is the actual detritus from the grooves.

Wesley: Yeah, the “swarf”.

Tim: It is called what?

Wesley: “Swarf”.

Tim: Interesting. Okay. You had to learn German while you were doing your training?

Wesley: Right.

Tim: Can you walk us through the parts of the machine a little bit?

Wesley: So the master of the machine is the cutter head, that’s how the audio gets printed or cut into the vinyl.

Tim: And the vinyl itself, is it ordinary vinyl that you get if you think about records is it the same material what you get in Presto record?

Wesley: No it is like Coca Cola and Pepsi. It is his own secret recipe.

Tim: So this is not only this is the razor and blades, what do the other blades cost? The price to get the vinyl blanks?

Wesley: Okay. Normally the sapphire is how you would cut a lacquer, an acetate. And that is how you normally would get a dubplate is it’s like finger nail polish soft, so you get 50 plates of a lacquer acetate and that would run you maybe $100 to get one cut. These blanks you can cut a 180-gram record for about five bucks. And the stylus is not sapphire it is diamond.

Tim: So that part you don’t get to replace very often if it is made out of diamond?

Wesley: The sapphire gets about 10 hours of cutting, and the diamond will get up to 300 hours.

Tim: How durable are the resulting records?

Wesley: Oh they are just as good as my vinyl records at home.In fact, I have got like some that were cut in the ‘60s. Apparently, my grandkids will be able to listen to the records I cut.

Tim: When you listen to these at home, what do you play these back on?

Wesley: I have an Audio Technica turntable and I also have a Technics 1200 ___ .

Tim: Do you find that vinyl really is undergoing a renaissance right now?

Wesley: Oh yeah, yeah, like I am backed up with my business until June right now for cutting.

Tim: How about ____ machines?

Wesley: Yeah, but they have been at this a long time, so they are a little bit more organized than me. So they have a system in place, that if you get in contact with them, they can have something available for you pretty soon.

Tim: There is not a lot of wait time?

Wesley: There is, there is a mailing list, so get it while you can.

Tim: And where does this stuff go? It’s all over the world?

Wesley: All over the world. We’ve had people from Australia come all the way to Germany.

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Direct-to-Vinyl Recording Makes a Comeback (Video)

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  • by steveha ( 103154 ) on Monday March 25, 2013 @04:32PM (#43275459) Homepage

    One of my favorite albums was recorded "direct to disk", with a vinyl cutting machine recording the performance live, and the band playing each record side straight through in one set. (The album was James Newton Howard and Friends.)

    But here's the thing: they also ran a digital recorder, and the CD was made from the clean digital recording. Then they mastered the CD properly, and it's a very nice CD. I don't think it would be improved by a less-clean recording process.

    Oh, my. It's been re-issued [], with a new master made from the direct to disc vinyl recording! So it looks like Sheffield Labs thinks it is improved by using a less-clean recording process. No thanks, I'll keep my clean digital copy.

    There is exactly one good thing about vinyl recordings: they make it impossible to really over-gain the music to where the wave forms are mangled by hard-clipping. But the alternative is to make a digital copy and just, you know, don't over-gain it.

    As with tube amplifiers, there is distortion associated with vinyl records that some people like. The solution is to make a digital filter that simulates this distortion. I helped write such a filter, and I actually like using it when I listen to music with headphones. But I don't want this sort of distortion impressed forever upon the music at the time of recording!

    We have the technology to just make a clean copy of the artist's performance. Once that is done, the album can be mastered, and remastered. Heck, record it with a clean digital process and then carve it into vinyl if you want to... just keep the clean digital copy around, so that someday you can change your mind and release a version without the analog distortion.

  • Re:Yeah! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Farmer Tim ( 530755 ) <> on Monday March 25, 2013 @04:51PM (#43275705) Journal

    Does anybody know what sort of bandwidth a record can manage?

    An Ortofon DSS731 cutting head has a usable response from 5Hz to 25kHz, but typical playback systems fall short of this.

    Telephone lines were never good enough

    Telephone lines have a frequency response from 300Hz to 3kHz.

    Do records have enough bandwidth that you could coax 128kb/s, or even more, out of a suitably formatted recording using the various modem techniques?

    The bit rate of compressed audio isn't directly related to frequency response. A 64kb/s MP3 can reproduce a discrete 20kHz tone, provided no lower frequencies deemed more important by the psychoacoustic processing are present (the "swooshing" from hi-hats on low bit rate MP3s is the encoder deciding you don't need to hear those frequencies).

    But to answer the question, a fresh vinyl recording played on a properly balanced tone arm should be indistinguishable from 48kHz uncompressed audio because it's uncompressed audio.

  • Re:Meh (Score:3, Informative)

    by Airon ( 108830 ) on Monday March 25, 2013 @07:34PM (#43277161)

    Playing a vinyl album requires taking it out of its cover, placing it carefully on the turn table, maybe dusting it off with a special long brush and lifting the arm up to the vinyl(or use some automatic system you rich person you). Then you might sit there with the open jacket covers that are almost as large as a 24 inch monitor and liste to it front to back.

    That process does give the experience some gravity, as opposed to flipping a piece of shiny plastic in to an open tray of a CD/DVD/Blueray player, or a drive in a PC for ripping.

    Then there's the unfortunate tendency to limit the dynamic range of what are mixes with much higher fidelity than those thirty years ago to such a degree that the tracks are often so noisy and distorted that people complain about fatigue setting in. Vinyl records have to be mastered to within the limits of the medium, which does not permit such harsh treatment of the material as is possible on CDs.

    The vinyl as a medium is vastly inferior in quite a few ways, but the material does tend to be mastered differently for it, which is often much more pleasant.

    Thankfully we're starting to see some trends in the opposite direction in which digital recordings are mastered without the harsh treatments. for example sells some of those tracks, like a remaster of Green Day's American Idiot album that has actual drum transients, instead of clipped dog shit.

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