american vinyl co lathe 10 inch

The Brave New (Old) World of Cutting Vinyl on a Lathe

When I was younger, I always wanted to have my own record shop (or my own vintage clothing store, if truth be told). It seemed like the ultimate dream job: be around music and music lovers all day long while having the opportunity to debate and solve such long-disputed quandaries as Roth Vs. Hagar. And while I have also occasionally fantasized about having my own indie label, I never actually thought of taking the bold, brave, and insanely intimidating move of physically making my own vinyl albums. This was something that literally never crossed my mind; it seemed too complicated and other-worldly to even contemplate as a mere human. Yet, there are the few, the courageous, the no-holds-barred mavericks who have not just considered this idea but have also flourished in this endeavor.

From tracking down obscure and long-discontinued equipment to learning the intimate, multi-step alchemy required to create perfect discs, these entrepreneurs have helped not only keep but perpetuate the love and adoration of the LP in our lives. I had the pleasure to speak to two of these amazing and inspiring companies, Birds Hit Records in Salford, England, and American Vinyl Co., in Asheville, North Carolina. In an ever-more seemingly capitalistic world, both of these ventures offer an aspirational reminder about following your passion, being fearless, and the incredible power of art for art’s sake, not as a strictly mercenary, disposable consumer good — an increasingly important and much-needed lesson for this incredibly uncertain world. I sat down (virtually) with Ryan Schilling from American Vinyl Co. and the fab duo of Melissa and John from Birds Hit to get the lowdown on how they went from dreaming of creating their own vinyl to actually having a viable business.

Discogs: How did you come up with the idea to start making your own records?

Melissa (Birds Hit): I inherited a deep love for vinyl records from my mum who was one of the first professional female DJs back in the day. I had been intrigued by the idea of creating as well as playing discs for ages despite having little technical knowledge further than being able to set up a party. My friend, John, wanted to get away from audio engineering, as it had become all about sitting looking at a screen all day; he had always been more into the analog side of things. Our other business partner, Caroline, is an extremely talented artist and photographer. One night, the three of us had a chat over a bottle of whiskey and it seemed like a good idea. The next day, it still seemed like a good idea. All we needed was the means to do it. Seven years later, we’re still doing it.

american vinyl co lathe machine

American Vinyl Co. / Facebook

Ryan (American Vinyl Co.): I had been recording people since I was in high school but it had mostly been digital. I could never find the sounds I was looking for so I started poking around with older recording equipment. Alan and John Lomax would probably be my ultimate inspiration. Learning about them, the recordings they made, and how important and authentic those recordings were was something I had to be a part of. I learned they used portable Presto disc recorders in the field. That snowballed into a research frenzy that led to my interest in record cutting. From there, I was thinking, “Why is getting a record made exclusive to only the people who can afford hundreds of records?” There was a time anyone could get a record made at a fair, radio station, on a remote recording truck, studios, even in their own homes. Since other technologies came along, the thrill of making a record for the average person kind of got forgotten. I wanted to create a place where you could make a single record or 1,000. Later on, we made the American Sound Truck where anyone can come in, talk into the mic, and walk out with an all-analog record, exactly how it used to be in studios like SUN Records using a tube console, RCA microphones, and a Presto lathe.

Discogs: How did you learn to cut vinyl?

Ryan: I started learning on my own with the help of old photographs and forums. I found a busted-up Airline home recorder 10 minutes away from my house and rebuilt the tube amp, cut a circle out of a picnic plate, and started trying to make sounds that weren’t terrible. Those machines were meant for recording family members or radio snippets, so nothing hi-fidelity. But when I heard my first cut sound, I was hooked. I didn’t know at the time it would put me down this path. I just wanted to make some records for fun for our band. After that, I found out about an old man in rural Germany that makes cutting lathes out of his barn (not exaggerating). I took the risk, flew out, and trained with him for 24 hours straight. After bleeding money for years, reading as much I could, and cutting thousands of records, I finally felt I was becoming a cutting engineer. This craft is blood, sweat, and tears. Emphasis on the tears!

Melissa: We didn’t know how to cut records when we started this, but fortunately, John has been working as an audio engineer for almost 25 years and had decent knowledge of electronics and basic mechanical engineering skills. The first lathe we got — probably the first lathe around 70% of the people offering “cuts-for-hire” services got — was a Vinyl Recorder T-560. That comes with compulsory training in Germany, with the creator of the machine, Ulrich Sourisseau, known to his acolytes as “Souri.”At the time, this felt like the audio-equivalent of going to the Dagobah System for Jedi training!

 

Our #lathecave where all your great music is born into the physical world 🎶

Posted by American Vinyl Co on Monday, April 6, 2020

 

John (Birds Hit): That experience is a bit of a story in itself. Driving from Munich airport, deep into the German countryside with a few thousand Euros in cash (Souri insists on cash payment), getting lost, and basically stumbling across his workshop after driving round in circles for a while with no sat-nav or phone signal. Souri’s workshop is in a disused railway station and involved driving down what used to be a railway line. It was totally dark by this point and I hadn’t slept much the night before or eaten since about 6 a.m., so I was tripping out a bit. It all felt like Blair Witch or The Hills Have Eyes or something. Finally, I saw lights up ahead and two silhouettes, so I stopped, hid the money, and got out of the car, half-expecting something bad to happen. Fortunately, it was Souri and his brother!

Melissa: After that came the “real” learning process, which involved John locking himself in a room for six months making lots of terrible records before the mysteries of the machine were at least partially unlocked and consistently good records were being made. Also, a lot of reading old, long-out-of-print textbooks and pretty much every post on the internet forum The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls. That place is a godsend and one of the most welcoming and generous corners of the web. The knowledge contained in those pages and the heads of the people who frequent it is “the ark” of record cutting. We will be forever in their debt.

Discogs: Where did you get the equipment?

Melissa: As we’ve already said, the first lathe came from Souri’s Automaten in HoBkirsch, Germany. Then came the next lathe and another trip to Germany, though this time it was to an alpaca farm in the Alps and we drove all the way there and back. This was a special trip. We met a wonderful guy named Thorsten who runs one of the most beautiful studios we’ve ever seen, full of old German broadcast gear and a collection of lathes. One of these lathes happened to be the last-known complete Presto 28N anywhere in the world. It is believed to be one of five used to transcribe the Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II. An identical machine was also used by Cosimo Matassa at J&M Studios in New Orleans. We took this machine back with us and began a two-year-long restoration project involving a lot of blood, sweat, tears, oil, Vaseline, late-night soldering sessions, junk food, and tons of help and support from some very wonderful people from Salford, UK to Oregon, USA to Kilkis, Greece … Again, something of a story in itself. Aside from the lathes, there are various bits of recording gear that John has amassed over the years or made himself.

Presto 28N

Ryan: I’ve owned probably over 15 lathes; all of them came from different places. Some were from talking to a guy who knew a guy who heard his friend might be selling some old radio station stuff. Others are from online hunting. If you’re resourceful and you start relationships with the right people, they’re out there! We recently acquired our first Neumann VMS-66 mastering lathe. To be honest, I never thought I’d own one. It was wasting away in Virginia in a garage filled with mold. Rumors are that it was one of Sterling Sounds Neumanns in the late ’60s … you can speculate that it cut some very historical records (Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Rolling Stones, etc.). The Neumann is a true magic machine. Electronics, mechanics, and music all perfectly synchronized to make that one thing happen.

Discogs: Has COVID changed your business? How?

Ryan: Emotionally, it has been a lot for everyone. A lot of musicians had to transition from live shows as a primary income to live streams and selling more merch. So it was nice to be in a place to help with making short-run vinyl for people to sell. We’ve really kept busy with working on our Neumann and keeping our heads up day-to-day. We all can’t wait for live music!

Melissa: Urgh. Yes. In good and bad ways. The “cuts-for-hire” side of things has been hit by sloooooow deliveries, materials shortages, and general lockdown-related misery, but on the upside (for us, at least), we’re busier than ever. Since live music in the UK has been chucked under a bus and artists/musicians sacrificed at the economic altar, they’re looking for other ways to get their material out there and to survive doing what they love. The pittance streaming services pay isn’t much help and pressing plants are generally stacked-out with long wait times (even longer since the Apollo/Transco fire), so lathe cuts are really going through a sort of boom right now.

Discogs: What has been the biggest challenge?

Melissa: Probably the “e-commerce” side of things with none of us being naturally business-minded, as well as dealing with “digital impatience” whilst doing something analog that just can’t be hurried and challenging misconceptions about the medium, particularly around mastering. Some of those misconceptions are quite deeply held and people are prepared to argue passionately that the sky is green and the grass is blue! The amount of stuff we’ve had that has “been mastered for vinyl” and has been slammed into a digital limiter with every transient hitting full-scale as a square-wave, zero dynamic range, phasing problems, sibilant vocals, etc. It’s pretty astonishing, really. People seem very reluctant to let go of the loudness thing and you just can’t put that stuff on-disc without problems. For instance, the only way to cut these super-loud, hyper-compressed digital masters (if at all) is to, conversely, cut them relatively quiet and even then you end up with a bit of distortion. Earbuds have a lot to answer for!

Really, the audio bit is the easy bit. The mechanical side of things, keeping the lathes running, is — whilst challenging — a lot of fun and has involved forming some good relationships with long-ago-retired machinists.

Finding a permanent home for the operation has been challenging, particularly with the rampant property boom going on in Manchester. Fortunately, we got a room at Islington Mill in Salford (just across the River Irwell from Manchester) and we’ve got quite cozy there. It’s run/owned by artists for artists and isn’t one of these cynical “let’s sit on it until we’re ready to turn it into posh flats” arrangements. It’s kind of a last-bastion of something real and a lifeline for businesses like ours.

Business-wise, competition has become quite hot the past couple of years. There are quite a few outfits offering these services now, so staying on top of things like being under-cut can be quite stressful. Our records are cut straight to disc using recording lathes, so each record has to be cut one at a time, in real-time. The maximum run we will do of any format we offer is 50, though we will cut up to 100 7-inches if possible. It just isn’t economically viable to do more using this method.

Ryan: I’d say the limited resources. The cutting community really does share knowledge if you are committed to the craft but you’re trying to keep 50- to 70-year-old machines running that have few, if not any, spare parts available. We spend a lot of hours on maintenance and troubleshooting. The supplies are starting to become more available, but at a time, everyone had to make their own blanks and scavenge old cutting styli.

Discogs: Who are your main customers?

Ryan: Oh man, it is all over. Which is exactly what I wanted for us. Every day we are surprised by something. We’ve done runs for historical projects, Chili’s jingles, people proposing on vinyl, bands, mixtapes, people interviewing their kids, podcasts, jukebox singles, and the list goes on. Since we’ve got our Neumann running, we’ve been doing a lot of lacquer cutting for bigger runs, too.

birds hit records presto lathe

Birds Hit Records / Facebook

Melissa: Mainly DIY bands and small labels, occasionally some big-shot corporate clients to pay the rent. Most come in word-of-mouth, from people who’ve been happy with something we’ve done for so-and-so who they know, or specifically because they want their discs cut by John and/or on the Presto. We cut a lot of punk/post-punk and the various derivative genres, synthy-wig-out/analog electronics stuff, and tons of hip-hop. So much hip-hop. Fortunately, we love hip-hop! Some very bizarre stuff, like gravestone carving sounds and dogs snoring. We try to avoid the wedding compilations and so on; there’s something quite perverse about cutting mp3s to disc.

Discogs: What are your hopes for the future?

Melissa: Pick up where we left off before C-19! Focus more on the recording side of things; there’s an increasingly large queue of people waiting to come and do a direct-to-disc session or have John go out and record them with his portable reel-to-reel set-up and then cut a small run of those. This will happen as soon as we’re out of lockdown. Live events. Get more people involved, cutting their own discs and running things a bit more cooperatively/collaboratively — “seize the means” and all that. Generally, to expand without getting locked-in to this very destructive, perpetual growth model. Keep pushing the joy of analog through workshops and educational activities.

Ryan: I hope that the country gets past these hard times and starts to heal. We are stoked every day to do what we do and all we can ask for is just to be able to keep doing it. We are always exploring new ways to have fun with vinyl and make it a special experience. I’d also like to mention our kick-ass team consisting of Izzy, Sean, Charlie, and Nathan. Their dedication to quality and passion for music is what makes AVC what it is.

Discogs: Want to find out more about these two incredible companies?

Check out Birds Hit Records at:

Check out American Vinyl Co. at:

Feature courtesy of American Vinyl Co. / Facebook.

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