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You can't quite beat vinyl - find out how to cut a 12" record, and what you'll need to get it done.
Getting a record cut
We all love CDs, but there's something... irreplaceable about records. When you throw them at the wall, they smash. Oh, and they sometimes sound better than CDs too. That's why, despite all prophesies, they've refused to die out. Tom Kerswill takes you through the long and windy process of cutting a record, including:
- Types of pressings
- Quantities and costs
- Making it loud
- The manufacturing process
- Cutting an acetate
- Stuff you'll need to take
Types of pressings
Welcome to the arcane world of record pressing. The record has survived - some would say against all odds - in a big way. The reason becomes obvious when you get to a radio studio, sit down at the desk, then play a CD followed by a record. For dance music, there's no comparison. The tracks sound fuller - "fatter" as some would say.
Getting that fat sound is no easy process. Here we'll set you on the long road to getting a decent-sounding record. Unlike the world of CDs, it's not an exact science, and there are quite a few pitfalls to be aware of.
For an up-and-coming artists wanting to run out a few copies of a new track, there are two major ways to go:
Pretty much the stuff you'd buy in the shop. There are differences in hardness between types of vinyl though. Your gran's classical Beethoven records will be harder than a dance record because softer vinyl allows deeper grooves and a fatter sound. Apart from that it's the same stuff.
And perhaps surprisingly, the process used to make it hasn't changed over the last 50 years. It's a bit complicated, as you'll see below, but at least it's tried-and-tested.
Acetate is a softer material. This stuff is great because you don't need a full-blown pressing plant to do it. So you can run off only a few copies. It's ideal for sending promos to a few DJs. And it's not uncommon for DJs to get their own acetates pressed, either for dropping new stuff into the mix or for adding beats and loops. Acetates also go by the name of dub-plates.
This material is soft, so there's a major disadvantage. Acetates can only be played a few times. It used to be that they'd wear out after about 10 plays, but (surprisingly) record-player stylus technology is moving on in leaps and bounds, and now you can expect 50 to 100 plays out of your acetate. So we're told.
So while Acetate isn't that good for shop-bought records, it is ideal for radio and club DJs.
Costs and quantities
For running out vinyl copies of a single, the process only becomes economic if you're doing over 300 copies. Expect to pay around £700 for this number. Since the "cutting" of the master record and the "manufacturing" of the things you'll sell in the shops are completely separate, you could even shop around and save money by cutting the master with one company, and pressing the discs with another.
Acetates are slightly different. You can expect to pay £30 to £60 per acetate. There's no minimum amount. The cost increases if you want pro mastering on your tracks, and as you'll see in the next track, this can work wonders.
When it comes to records, mastering is all about The Art Of Making Stuff Louder... and this can be pretty important in dance music. I'm reliably informed that Public Enemy's success was entirely down to a record that was oh-so-slightly louder than anything else at the time. Or so the mastering engineers say.
When you make a CD, you're probably used to "normalising" tracks - making them as loud as possible before you get "clipping". Because CDs are digital, normalisation is an easy process. If you're running a computer, it can even all be worked out digitally.
It's different with records. Make them too loud and you don't just get clipping, you get a disaster.
This is because the sound on records is contained in concentric grooves on the vinyl. The louder the track, the wider those grooves will be. The record-cutting lathe is like a backwards record player. Your track comes from CD or DAT, and wobbles a needle which cuts into a disc called a"lacquer". Get the sound too loud, and you'll find this needle will cut right through the current groove and into its neighbour. Not surprisingly, the record will be ruined and you'll have to start again.
It's not as simple as pure volume. Different instruments and frequencies make the needle vibrate more or less violently. It takes an experienced mastering engineer to make the most of this, and get the track as loud as possible.
One other thing to be aware of... the longer your track, the quieter it is. That's right, finally there's recompense against boring Indie bands who think it's cool to play the same riff for seven minutes.
This sounds counter-intuitive, but it's all to do with something called inner groove distortion. As the track goes on, and the needle gets close to the centre of the disc, the distance it travels each revolution decreases. That means the quality and dynamic range of the track decrease too. This gets noticeable about 5 minutes into the song. From then on you'll find that trebly stuff like cymbals begin to disappear. So keep them short and snappy. Resist the temptation to get your money's worth and fill all 12 minutes of the 12 inch.
Cutting a record
Cutting the lacquer on the lathe is just the first part. A metal disc is pressed from the lacquer - it's an exact copy except there are ridges rather than grooves. A bit like the negatives in photo processing.
This could be used to press the vinyl discs. Except that's too dangerous, because if the master got damaged you'd have to go back to the beginning and make a new lacquer. Instead, a right-way-round copy is pressed from the master, and further negative is cut from this. This is called the "mother" and is used to press the records.
The unpressed vinyl arrives as slabs called "biscuits" which are smaller and fatter than the final product. Once the press has done it's stuff, they emerge miraculously as shiny new 12-inches.
Initially, you should get a short run of "test pressings" (TPs). They'll be sent to you so that you can check the quality is okay, before commencing the production run.
One word of advice - get an acetate cut at the same time as the lacquer. Then you'll be able to compare it with the TPs, to see if anything has gone horribly wrong with the pressing process.
Cutting an acetate
This is easy - you can dispense with most of the stuff in the last section if you're just getting an acetate cut. The process is identical to the lacquer-cutting step. The acetate is mounted on a lathe and the grooves are cut using sound from your CD or DAT master.
Remember your granny's Beethoven CD? Chances are this was cut using another method. Rather than the lacquer, the master is made from a copper disc. The grooves are cleaner, but they're also less deep. Great for classical or jazz music, but they won't sound as fat in the club.
What you'll need to take
As well as your master CD or DAT recording, you may well need to provide something called a mechanical copyright license. This is basically a certificate to say the material you're pressing is actually yours, or that you're allowed to copy it. The cutting house might insist on this, just in case you're actually a dodgy pirate copying some bootleg of a concert you went to in the 80s. Or something.
To get an "MCPS" you'll need to fill out a form. You'll need the "application for license" (AFL) form, available from the mechanical copyright protection society:
The MCPS-PRS Alliance
29-33 Berners St.
Tel: 020 7306 4801 Web: www.mcps.co.uk
They may be arcane and.... quaint, but there's no comparison between vinyl and CDs in the club. Shop around for the best deal, remember to get your MCPS license and master recording, and head for the cutting house. And if you can, go and watch the thing being cut. It's a little more exciting - and nerve-wracking - than burning CDR copies of your latest album in the home studio.