Scott’s Guest Blog at The Vinyl District, Weeks 9-10

It’s been a couple weeks since one of these Vinyl blog updates here on The Masterdisk Record. Last week (Week 9) we posted an interview Scott did with Tony Dawsey about his vinyl cutting experience. This week (Week 10) Scott gets deeper into the specs for vinyl set by the RIAA and answers the question “How many grooves are there on a typical record?”

Week 10: How many grooves are there on a typical record?

Week 9: An interview with master cutting engineer Tony Dawsey.

Week 8: What happened to my masters?

Week 7: How quiet are your records?

Week 6: Is your turntable cartridge doing a good enough job for you?

Week 5: All about the RIAA EQ curve: the standard that made the LP possible.

Week 4: All About the Groove, Part 2: the stereo cut explained.

Week 3: All About the Groove, Part 1: a really close look at some grooves.

Week 2: An appreciation of the vinyl aesthetic.

Week 1: Introduction: the basics of cutting records.

Scott’s Guest Blog at The Vinyl District, Week 7

What can make a mild-mannered mastering engineer bend lacquers into a V-shape over his knee in anger? What has thrown many a sane mastering engineer into a foaming stupor? Find out in Week 7 of Scott Hull’s guest blog at The Vinyl District!

Week 7: How quiet are your records?

Week 6: Is your turntable cartridge doing a good enough job for you?

Week 5: All about the RIAA EQ curve: the standard that made the LP possible.

Week 4: All About the Groove, Part 2: the stereo cut explained.

Week 3: All About the Groove, Part 1: a really close look at some grooves.

Week 2: An appreciation of the vinyl aesthetic.

Week 1: Introduction: the basics of cutting records.

Scott’s Guest Blog at The Vinyl District, Weeks 5-6

We’re at about the midway point in Scott Hull’s guest blog series at The Vinyl District. Here’s a rundown of what’s been covered so far.

Photo: Knipsermann

Week 6: Is your turntable cartridge doing a good enough job for you?

Week 5: All about the RIAA EQ curve: the standard that made the LP possible.

Week 4: All About the Groove, Part 2: the stereo cut explained.

Week 3: All About the Groove, Part 1: a really close look at some grooves.

Week 2: An appreciation of the vinyl aesthetic.

Week 1: Introduction: the basics of cutting records.

Scott’s Guest Blog at The Vinyl District, Week 3

It’s week three of Scott’s guest blog series at The Vinyl District, and it’s a good one! This week Scott starts getting into the geometry of the record groove, aided by some photos from the new camera we have installed on our lathe’s scope. Hope you enjoy it!


http://www.thevinyldistrict.com/2011/02/tvds-on-the-record-with-masterdisks-scott-hull-3/

Music Packaging Today: An Interview with Sarah Robertson and Scott Pollack of A to Z Media

A to Z Media is a small New York City-based company that’s facilitating some of the best music packaging and manufacturing in the world today. I recently sat down with A to Z’s Sarah Robertson and Scott Pollack to discuss the state of physical media in 2011.

James: Tell me a little about the company.

Sarah: I came over from England in May of 1994 and set up the business. There was a need to serve as the conduit between large and impersonal printing and optical media plants, and small-to-medium size music companies.

Scott: That’s very much why brokers exist, to fill that gap.

Packaging for High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project by Loudon Wainwright III

Sarah: I worked from my apartment for the first year or so, and since then we’ve been in this NoHo neighborhood for the entire time, and in our current space for five years. A lot of the clients we have now are people we’ve had relationships with for many years. They may now work for different record labels, or have set up their own labels, but it’s very much been an organic growth. There was Michael Dorf from the Knitting Factory, who introduced me to John Zorn, and we still work with John’s label Tzadik today. We’ve done close to six hundred releases with them. It’s all been word of mouth.

James: As we all know, physical media is said to be in its “death throes,” despite the fact that people are still buying a good deal of CDs and records. What’s good about physical media? Why should we stick with it?

Sarah: Well it gives you the whole story. With a CD or an LP you don’t just get the music, you get the whole vision and story of the artist behind it.

Scott: The thing is, you’ve got to give people a compelling reason to want to purchase a tangible music item today. How are you going to make it compelling?

Multi-colored Baroness 45s.

Sarah: It doesn’t have to cost a ton of money to make something compelling. I mean, when you’re talking about something really out there — if you’re printing stuff on plastic, things like that — it’s going to be expensive. But we’ve been able to do smaller, hard-bound books that are four color — really beautiful hard bound books — in a run of 3,000. This is something we’re going to be sourcing in China. We’re trying to meet two needs. People want to have beautiful packaging, but some of it, made domestically, is very, very expensive. You just can’t do it. But there are other options, and I think that’s where we see the market moving. So we’re trying to be positioned to be the resource whether you want to run 1,000 or you want to run 300,0000.

James: What would you say are the main things that people can do to improve their music packaging?

Scott: As many great packaging options as there are, there’s no substitute for good designers. We help source out the packaging materials, configurations, how it works, how it fits together. But honestly we’ve never really gotten involved in the graphic design. Packaging design, yes. But graphics no. Art direction is really important.

Sarah: It’s good for a label to have a go-to designer.

Scott: Like Tzadik. John [Zorn] was very visionary in how he wanted the music packaged, and he’s been able to maintain it.

Sarah: And he does very different things. Like in the Archival series (which is his own stuff) he’ll come up with ideas where I say “how on earth do you come up with that?” It’s taking something that is simple, and making it beautiful. Some packages are “template” but some of them are completely out there.

James: I’m always impressed with the quality of the printing of the Tzadik releases — some of the lines are so fine, yet they don’t look jaggy.

Sarah: Especially now, some of Heung-Heung’s [Tzadik house designer] things are very very fine. Did you see the Interzone release they just did? It’s really cool: a very simple black image printed on a foil stock. And embossing and debossing — it’s a very clever thought process.

Packaging for John Zorn's Interzone CD
Detail of Interzone package.

Scott: Heung-Heung is getting more and more intricate.

Sarah: I’ll always say to them, honestly, that’s not going to work, you’re going too small. And John will say “trust me, it’ll work.” And then it works, miraculously. They did a tip-on wallet — an old school jacket, but a little one — and he was doing very thin type on the spine. All hand assembled. I was concerned that it wouldn’t work — and it did.

James: We just started doing vinyl with Tzadik at Masterdisk.

Sarah: Yes, we have it right here.

Scott: The artwork is absolutely beautiful. this is an old style tip-on jacket. There’s literally only a few folks who can print those. And it’s a picture disc, and it sounds really good. Beacuase picture discs don’t always sound that great.

Dreamers picture disc.
Dreamers packaging including insert.

James: Scott [Hull] worked hard on this with the plant to make sure it would come out great.

Scott: Whatever he did it sounds really really good.

Sarah: We just did some shaped vinyl for The Sword. It’s hexagonal.

James: Do you talk to the plant and they’re like, “what?”

Scott: There was one vendor in the world that was able to do that one.

Sarah: We want the record labels and the individuals to come to us and say “I want to do this,” and we say “sure.” and we find out how to make it happen.

James: What are your thoughts about the trend of super-deluxe packaging? Releases that come with both CD and vinyl, and books, and alternate albums, and headphones…

Sarah: Well, we did that with Matador [the 21st Anniversary box set]. It was an expensive package. It’s an example of a record label giving something back to the fans.

Matador's 21st Anniversary Box

Scott: Though I think what James is talking about is the far extreme end — this uber deluxe “let’s package it with an amp” trend. We’re not really dealing with too many artists on the Springsteen and Bowie level, so our thought process tends to be how we can do something nice at a 5, 10, 20,000 piece run — and bring it in at a competitive price. If anyone can successfully do that, that’s how you’re going to be able to keep packaging relevant for the indie community. Whatever Sony’s doing for Springsteen… that’s a whole other universe.

James: OK, and what about the other end of the spectrum: indie artists starting out with a small number of fans.

Scott: I think we’re talking about runs of 1,000 or even 500. We’ll do it.

Sarah: Maybe they run a little more print on it. You get a price break as soon as you move up to 1,000 units and more on the print, so you save some money that way. But even for small runs, it’s still spot varnishes and other more expensive-looking touches.

Scott: The threshold for your basic band used to always be 1,000 pices or more. It’s now dipped to 500, and quite honestly we’re getting a lot of requests for less — people want to do 300 fully packaged items. We can do it, as can many other people in the marketplace. I think the quality is a bit iffier at that number — it’s not quite the same as the 1,000 piece run. For the price you’re going to pay per unit at 300 or 500, you might as well run 1,000. But people are saying, “I know it’s more expensive, I know the quality is not quite on par with 1,000, but I just don’t need 1,000 pieces sitting around my apartment.”

Sarah: They’re moving away from jewel boxes too. It’s much better to take wallets or digipacks on the road instead of schlepping jewel boxes.

Digipack packaging for Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

James: So how is the CD doing in general?

Sarah: I’ve been doing optical media for probably over 20 years now. When I started, you were selling just the CD for over $1.60. Now it’s a fraction of that. The market has changed enormously. The question is how to sustain the CD as a relevant product in the marketplace. Our clients are people that still embrace a finished product.

Record labels are still getting product in the stores, even though we’ve been hit by the changes. In a way, I think it’s been a good thing. People re-evaluate how they’re going to package; how they’re going to reach the consumer. A lot of companies are stronger financially through digital sales, and any money coming in helps. I’m happy for somebody to make 3,000 CDs instead of 5,000 and be able to pay their bill because they’re doing 2,000 units in digital sales. It’s changing, and you change with it.

Scott: If digital music makes the companies that we’re working with healthier, that’s a good step for everybody. Even if they’re ultimately going to be running less physical product.

James: It seems to me that physical releases won’t go away if for no other reason than to have something to sell at shows.

Scott: Though we’ve done download cards for that purpose, too.

Sarah: Almost everyone’s putting download cards in with their vinyl. I think that’s fair enough. You’ve bought the product, you should be able to have it. You can’t ignore the digital marketplace, you’ve got to embrace it. Many of our clients are smaller companies, and, being small, they’re a bit more sprightly on their feet. The independent community are much better big-picture thinkers — they adapt, because they’ve always had to be scrappy. It’s been the same way with us. We need to think of the next thing we can do for our clients. And we do lots of different things.

Young Prisms cassette.

Scott: We just did our first cassette in many years. It was only for 150 cassettes but it was cool. We can do 8-track, and flexi-discs are coming back. People have been clamoring for flexies for a while. I think they’re kind of expensive at the smaller run, so i don’t know if a band’s gonna sell them but they’re great for a magazine.

Sarah: I don’t think flexies are going to make some kind of big comeback though.

James: They don’t sound great.

Sarah: No, they don’t — it’s more of a novelty thing. But if magazines find that they’re able to get labels to contribute exclusive content, flexies could provide a way to introduce value back into their printed editions.

Flexi
A flexi-disc proof.

Scott: And they look pretty cool. You can do them in different colors; we spec’d one that was almost like a picture disc. But back to your question, I think the CD had a really good run. And i think it improved on the previous generations of media for the most part. You can argue about the merits of the audio — someone like Scott [Hull] would be the expert on this…

James: CDs were very convenient.

Scott: But you know what’s more convenient? The iPhone. To have a micro device that has the ability to encapsulate your entire collection and does 15 other really cool things. That’s what’s undone the CD. And it’s a natural progression. We can’t hate on that. You can’t get away from the fact that you could buy any record on iTunes at 3 o’clock in the morning from the middle of nowhere, and you can’t do that with physical media. Especially because there’s no stores. Although I have to say that I think the CD has now reached a point, price wise, that it’s on par with digital for the most part. I think labels should lower their pricing a little bit — the cost should be on par with a digital release. And if you’re introducing just a modicum of interesting packaging or content into that release, I can’t see why physical media won’t live for an indefinite period of time. It’ll keep getting smaller and smaller, but that physical pie, between CDs and vinyl, maybe cassettes, maybe a hybrid where you’re still getting the downloads — it should continue to be viable.

Sarah: I think a bigger problem is getting more people to legitimately start purchasing music again in whatever the format. I think that’s been the real shock of the last 10 to 15 years. People don’t seem to want to buy music in whatever form it’s coming. It’s partly a generational thing. When you say what’s killing the industry, digital versus finished goods, you have to look at the generational impact — how many kids are buying music? When you look at the tween to early twenties, there’s less of a frame of reference for physical media. If you appeal to a 17 year old about beautiful packaging and interesting liner notes — I don’t know if they care.

Two-color vinyl edition of After the Fall's latest album.

Scott: They’ve grown up in the era of free music. Why buy a physical something? The question is how can everyone in the industry get physical sales back up to par to sustain operations, pay the artist, and really make it so it could be a career choice for people all down the line in whatever facet of the music industry that might still exist.

Sarah: You can still be in a band and play out and make a living. It’s hard but it’s done.

Scott: Touring is not going anywhere. The live touring industry is pretty healthy. And that’s something you can’t replace.

James: So how long do you think it’ll be before we get CD nostalgia? We’ve got vinyl, and now cassettes…

Scott: I think a few more plants would have to go out of business. When you won’t be able to make a CD, people will say, “I like those CDs!” Well, there’s only 4 CD plants left, so it’ll take 2 months to get your CD. Remember you used to get it in a week? Now it’s going to take 2 months. I think we’re a few years away from that.

Sarah: I think we’re a few decades away.

Scott: I don’t know if there’s 20 years left in the CD business. We sure as hell hope there is. I think there will be some nostalgia for it, but it’s a few years off. But you’d be surprised. Everybody talks about “the death of the CD.” I gotta tell you, from our little perch, the plants that we work with are very very busy. You walk through these plants and all sorts of companies and industries are running CDs.

Sarah: You think of the CD as music — and certainly from A to Z’s point of view, 70% of our business is music. But we do corporate stuff. We do DVDs, CD-ROMS for the corporate market. But you walk around the plants and it’s things you’d never think of. They’re making loads and loads of CDs.

Scott: I think you could say that the reports of the demise of physical media have been greatly exaggerated.


Masterdisk and A to Z have worked on a lot of projects together, including the Loudon Wainwright III, Lou Reed, and Tzadik releases pictured above. They’re pretty much our number one referral when our independent clients ask us what they need to do to get their product finished, once the mastering process is complete. And the reason we refer them is because of the high quality of their work, and their personalized service; we know that our clients will have a good experience. To check out more of A to Z’s phenomenal packaging work, head over to their website.

Scott Hull Guest Blogs at The Vinyl District

We’re psyched that Scott Hull is doing a guest-blog series over at The Vinyl District, which is the official blog of Record Store Day. Look for a new post up there every Friday up until April 16, or as we know it around here, Record Store Day 2011. Scott will be talking about all aspects of the vinyl experience: from cutting records to playing them; from the history of vinyl to the future. The first post went up this morning — have a look here:

http://www.thevinyldistrict.com/2011/01/tvds-on-the-record-with-masterdisks-scott-hull/

We’ve got a couple other tricks up our sleeve for RSD 2011 — more on those as they develop. In the meantime, take a look at some of the coverage we did for RSD 2010, here.

Scott Hull on the Production of La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano (Gramavision 1987)

“The first choice is clear. I’m confident that La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano will receive little competition as the most important and beautiful new work recorded in the 1980s. Young’s achievement is unique, the recording a technological triumph.” — Kyle Gann, FANFARE November/December 1987

“…this marvelous recording of a landmark piece in contemporary music and the work that probably coined the categorical term Minimalism is born. The Well- Tuned Piano is an extremely insular, calming and personal work and a masterpiece at that. Listening to the entire five-hour-plus composition [one] discovers something new each time.” — Brooke Wentz, DOWN BEAT August 1987


The Well Tuned Piano
The Well Tuned Piano (Gramavision 1987)
The 1987 edition of La Monte Young‘s The Well Tuned Piano on Gramavision records (full title: The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 6:17:50 – 11:18:59 PM NYC) is something of a holy grail for experimental, avant garde, and minimalist enthusiasts. The multi-album set was released in CD, LP and cassette editions, which, as of this writing, go for hundreds of dollars on the used market: the set is out of print.


The Well Tuned Piano is a very long (approximately five hours on the Gramavision recording) piece for just-intuned piano. Its construction is part composed and part improvised and involves series of cycling themes and sound clusters (called “clouds”).

Bob Ludwig is credited with mastering the Gramavision recording of The Well Tuned Piano, and his then-assistant (and current owner of Masterdisk) Scott Hull is credited with digital editing, which was no small task in the case of this particular recording. In fact, it was rather epic.

One July afternoon I sat down with Scott and asked him to go back to the days he spent in 1987 editing this storied recording.

THE WELL TUNED PIANO

JB: What was your role in the production of the album?

Scott Hull: Digital editing would have been my title though the task took on a life of its own. It was very unusual to take so many days to edit an album together.

The deck they used to record The Well Tuned Piano was a Sony PCM-F10 — one of the first digital recorders. The piece was a five hour continuous performance and the only recording medium that was capable of doing that in 1987 or 1988 was Beta 1 F1 — a slow speed video deck capturing 16 bit 44.1 digital.

Scott Hull
Scott Hull

The first part of our process at Masterdisk was getting the F1 transferred to a professional format. Because you can’t edit the F1 [tape]. There’s no method of doing digital tape editing and the music ultimately had to be cut up into sides: the ultimate destination was for CD, vinyl and cassette. Each required their own side splits and it’s a continuous performance: no breaks, no intermissions. It is a continuous performance that creates a meditative sort of atmosphere continuously.

The first problem was to transfer all the F1s to a 1630 tape system, which is professional digital audio that could be edited. But the F1 didn’t want to play particularly well. And we also had a problem because this piece was so continuous and repetitious — the themes come back again and again in cycles — that it was very hard to tell where you were in the piece just by listening. Even the composer would have trouble telling where he was in the piece unless he could listen to a significant portion of it.

We needed to find a way to time-stamp the thing. And the beta tape that was used had time code, but my professional 1630 Sony audio machine wouldn’t read it.

Bob Bielecki was the recording engineer on the project. He was known for doing some pretty wild and interesting performance art recordings, so he knew the kinds of editing challenges involved. He’s an astute technician as well — so he understood that the time code that was coming off the beta tape wasn’t clean enough for my editor to read it — and he figured he could fix it. He asked me if I had some parts he could use. We went into the shop. “Well what do you need, switches or something?” I said. He says “I need an op-amp or a transistor or two and I need a couple resistors and something to attach it all to.”

This was the evening — the session didn’t start until 7 or 8 at night — and the technician was gone. So I showed him the drawers in the shop. He rattled around for about 20 minutes and came back out with a little board that had standoffs on it, he had wired a cap around a transistor, put a couple resistors on there, attached an input connector, a volume control and an output connector. He made a time code reshaper in the shop while I wandered around wondering “what are we going to do next?”

I plugged it in and tweaked it a little and the damn thing worked. I suspect that it still sits in a drawer somewhere around here because I didn’t throw it out. I thought it was a marvel. [Ed – we did in fact find it, in July 2011; now pictured below.]

So we got the time code reshaped. It was necessary because sections of the tape had to be transferred more than once to get a proper playback. And now, thanks to Bob, each time you played back that same stretch of tape you’d get the same code so we could line it up.

JB: Why would you have to have multiple transfers to get a good playback?

SH: The slow speed beta format liked to drop out. If there was a drop out, we’d have to go back and change the tracking manually — basically fiddle with the area of tape that it was having trouble with — and figure out a way to get through it. You couldn’t generally get through the tape in one whole pass.

So, the first night was sitting with this piece attempting to get the F1 beta tape transferred to 3/4″ digital. That took many hours. I don’t recall whether we even started editing it that night or whether that was another night.

La Monte Young photographed by John Fago
La Monte Young (Photo: OtherMinds©John Fago)

Eventually we created a running master of the entire show, split across 3 or 4 U-matic tapes with overlap. I had to recreate the F1, basically, but smooth out the overlapped edit bits. Each one of these edits had to be acoustically scrubbed-to. The time code would get me close, but I’d need to be more accurate. So I was using room noises — chair squeaks and stuff — in the recording to tell definitively if it was lining up exactly. It would have been possible to do edits in the music, but it was easier if you could find a steam pipe squeak or a bang. Because there were some occasional steam pipe bangs — you’ll hear them in the recording. We were able to seamlessly remove a couple that were in spaces where there was no music. But in the midst of the performance when somebody shuffled around or a chair moved or something there was no way to get it out with the technology we had then. Now, you might be able to get it out. Maybe you wouldn’t want to anyway — we were going for authentic representation of the event.

By the way, at the performance people were invited to bring whatever they needed to make themselves comfortable for several hours because the piece was very long. So they were sitting on pillows and blankets, some were curled up… I assume some of them fell asleep at different times, coming in and out of consciousness while listening to this thing. Because even the engineering team fell in and out of consciousness while listening to this piece! (laughs) It was very difficult to remain completely engaged for, you know, 5 or 6 hours at a time. It was just exhausting.

I don’t believe LaMonte came in for any of this. I think it was just Bob Bielecki and I doing the assembly. It was very technical.

Next we got word of where the side-breaks were supposed to be. Like how long each LP side was going to be, and where in the performance we should break for the CDs. We all needed to make sure it didn’t break in the middle of a sequence of musical events.

From the three tape running master we created three tape sets of LP, three tape sets of cassette and 3 tape sets of CD masters. Each with the appropriate fade-down at the end of each side, and fade back up.

We created the CD master first, and then we put one additional fade in the middle of each CD to create the album. I think we found the CD breaks first because we didn’t want to create more than we absolutely needed to. So after the CD masters were made the decision was made where to make the LP breaks.

I really have no idea how many days and nights were spent on assembling this thing. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. It would have been impossible even with the foundation that was funding it to actually bill for the time and the equipment that was being used for the durations that were really needed. There was only one way to do this well, and it required completely tying up a room that was normally booked for $200-250 an hour. And this is back in the 80s!

The technology today makes this so simple to pull off that it’s really easy to forget how hard it was to do this digitally. But they really wanted to guarantee that the performance was captured the truthfully. They wanted a running master from top to bottom.

After we got all the running masters together La Monte came in to listen to them with Marian Zazeela. He wanted to listen through the whole thing to hear the fades — to listen to it as a consumer would listen to it.

I got them comfortable, got the music playing back in the room, and asked them if they needed me to be in the room. They didn’t, which was good! Quite frankly at that point I’d heard this piece in its entirety about twelve times. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sit through it again and show the respect it, and they, deserved. I didn’t want to be in there looking bored! So I waited outside.

Photo of Bob Bielecki timecode reshaper
The impromptu timecode reshaper by Bob Bielecki
Shortly into the playback, La Monte came out to find me, looking worried. He said there was something wrong, and asked me if there was some way that the music could be playing at the wrong speed. I was immediately very concerned because of all the work we had done up to that point — we were essentially done with everything!

But there really wasn’t any way that this could have been running off speed because it’s digital, and all locks to clock, and everything about that is pretty stable. So I came back in and La Monte asked me to play a section of it, and then it got to a spot where the piano was holding a tone. And he said “There! Right there! Like that — that’s a spot I mean”. And I was very confused because I didn’t know what he was hearing. I was expecting him to be talking about something that sounded like it was warbling — you know, changing pitch.

So I stopped the music, I asked him to explain what it was that he was hearing, and we talked about it a little bit, but he suddenly stopped talking. “You hear that?” he said. I didn’t know what he was hearing. He said “I’m hearing beats NOW! There’s something in the room, even without the music being played.”

So I started shutting off equipment until I figured it out. The Sony 1630 tape recorder we were using was a big, professional video deck with a significant motor inside it. And a fan to keep the motor cool. I had two of them in the room. And these fans were running at ever so slightly different speeds. With the two machines running there was a very slight modulating sound, and it was affecting the way that La Monte was hearing the beats and the relationships within his music. The fans were effectively superimposing additional “beats” on the top of his music! His hearing was that sensitive.

I didn’t need to have both decks on while we were doing the playback so I shut one of them off and I covered the other deck with acoustic foam to cut down on the amount of noise. And then I played it back for him and he said “That’s it! It’s perfect!”

JB: The “wrong speed” question must have confused you initially considering that in digital, tape running at the wrong speed would not effect pitch.

SH: Right. It’s something we just believe in: word clock is word clock. We know now that information that’s been converted to analog and back to digital can show some microscopic drift, even with digital. Especially with workstations. But this was digital audio on video tape so it’s all referenced to video sync. Word sync is derived from the video interval sync so there’s just no way that it’s running off speed. Well, I should say that when everything’s working properly there’s no way for it to be running off-speed. La Monte was just trying to guess at what could possibly be causing the reaction he was having; this unpleasant feeling that he had.

After La Monte’s approval we went on to make running masters for the cassette, the vinyl and CD. And each one of them had to be listened to in real time; proofed for dropouts and for any other problems.

And we had one other problem through this whole process — a technical problem. During these years CD run time was generally 65 to 70 minutes. But albums started getting longer. That’s when the reissues were happening and people were trying to put out longer and longer CDs. So they came up with longer tape formats because the original 1630 tape format was a 60 minute format. Then they came out with one that was 74 minutes, and then 75 minutes, and finally these 80 minute tapes which gave you a bit of buffer at the head and tail.

Well those 80 minute tapes didn’t play so well in machines that hadn’t been modified for them. And so one out of five of all these tapes I’d pull out of a box to try to use on The Well Tuned Piano would fail. Sometimes after we had already done the whole process the tape would get a crease — it was very thin Mylar. So many of our sessions were interrupted with me lifting the cover off the tape machine and taking a crinkled tape out of the thing and figuring out where it had been damaged, monitoring it up to that point and then doing an edit in the midst of some abstract tone cloud. So there was a lot of time spent just fighting the technology to get it done.

Then I assisted the cutting engineer who was Bill Kipper I believe. Bob [Ludwig] was credited with mastering on it, but it was essentially transferred with Bob Bielecki’s sound and EQ. And the vinyl I believe was cut by Bill.

JB: What would you say is the main thing you took away with you from your work on The Well Tuned Piano?

SH: It was one of my first experiences with an artist where I learned that just because you don’t hear something you can’t say it’s not there. I mean La Monte’s hearing was absurdly accurate. Even if you can’t measure what an artist is hearing, they’re hearing something. So I learned that my first reaction can’t be “oh, you must be hearing it wrong.” That’s definitely the wrong approach.


The quotes at the top of this post were selected from a collection of press quotes at the MELA Foundation website.

Scott Hull has continued his work in experimental and avant garde music throughout his career. He regularly masters albums for independent artists and labels in the experimental music field, and has mastered all the releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label since 2001.

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Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering

I’ve just been over at the Masterdisk website editing some of the text on our Vinyl page. It’s a good article that was originally put together by Scott Hull to highlight why a) a potential mastering customer might want to master for vinyl as well as digital; and b) what’s cool and different about vinyl. Though it has a more of a sales bent than what we normally post on the blog, the content is excellent and I wanted to share it with blog readers that might not normally get to our main site. So here it is: “Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering”. I hope you enjoy it. – jB


The Masterdisk Lathe
The Masterdisk VMS-80
Have you considered joining the recent vinyl revival? Masterdisk is one of only a few companies worldwide that has been continuously making masters for vinyl. We have more experience cutting masters than nearly any other facility. Before digital, vinyl record mastering was Masterdisk’s sole business, and we were at the top of the heap. Producers would fly to New York from England on the Concord Jet just to have their records mastered at Masterdisk. We are very proud of that heritage and master vinyl records with great attention to detail.

Not All Record Cutting Equipment is the Same.
Masterdisk has maintained one of only a few existing VMS-80 lacquer cutting lathes. It is quite simply the finest disk cutting lathe ever produced. With it’s “modern” 1980’s technology, a master cutting engineer can fit a longer side at a louder level than any other lathe. You will find that many disk cutting businesses that have sprouted up recently are not using this superior equipment. Even experienced cutting engineers can’t produce the same results on lesser quality lathes. Channel separation, distortion specs, bass quality and transient integrity are all vastly improved with our cutting equipment. And modern enhancements and modifications extend the low frequency response, improve high frequency tracking and allow us to cut a louder and more dynamic record.

Experience Counts.
Record mastering was and is an apprentice-learned craft that took several years to master. Young engineers and studios have to experiment with hundreds of variables to try to achieve a high quality cut. We’ve seen all of the problems and pitfalls that can beset a vinyl project, and we get it right the first time. Choose your vinyl mastering engineer carefully. We can make your records sound amazing!

Masterdisk VinylPlating and Pressing.
Once your record masters are cut you’ll need to get them processed, plated and pressed into vinyl records. This too is a process where lots can go wrong, so choose a pressing plant with a great reputation. Give us some information about your project and we can help match you up with the best pressing — standard or any degree of “deluxe” — for your money.

What’s Cool About Vinyl?
People really cherish their record collections. Why? It’s because records provide a musical experience that you want to come back to. Vinyl returns us to a time when music was something to set aside some time for, not just something that you put on as a background to a day’s activities. Records are a very tactile and visual experience. Full-size artwork, combined with the hi-fi sound, makes vinyl a more immersive musical experience. And vinyl holds its value much better than CDs; on the collector’s market some vinyl trades hands for three figure sums. Whether it’s being spun on a high quality playback system or an inexpensive USB turntable, vinyl is resonating with people because it provides a rich experience and value for money.

Loud Records vs Loud CDs.
There are virtually no level wars on vinyl: the length of the sides and the depth of the bass in the recording dictate how loud the sides can be cut. In some music genres — like rock, hip-hop or pop — the compression and limiting used to “make it loud” can actually make the music sound small on vinyl. Interestingly enough, a heavily limited and compressed recording cannot be cut to sound as loud as a recording that has most of its dynamics intact. The cutting lathe needs the slightly quieter sections to help make longer sides fit better. If you know in advance that you are going to make vinyl, consider asking your mastering engineer to make a separate master for vinyl or at least making a second pass that has less peak limiting and allows the music to breathe. The vinyl will sound better, and it doesn’t have to be heavily limited to sound loud.

Masterdisk VMS-80Cutting from Analog Tape.
Masteridsk is one of only a small group of dedicated mastering studios that can truly cut to vinyl directly from analog masters. Specially modified tape machines are needed to do this. There is a small computer in the lathe that needs to know what music is coming before it reaches the cutter head. This “preview” or look-ahead signal tells the lathe how much room to leave on the disk so that the next wrap (groove) will clear the previous wrap and not collide with the already cut groove. So, if you don’t have one of these specially manufactured preview tape machines, then you simply cannot cut from tape to the lathe. Many studios that claim they can cut from analog actually have to send the audio through a digital delay box, and send that digital signal to the preview and main converters. There is a lot wrong with this method, and because of that, most studios are not completely clear with their clients about their signal path to the lathe. If you have analog masters, you really should — if at all possible — plan on cutting directly from them. The record will turn out better.

Cutting from Analog Tape: Panic at the Disco
In 2008 Scott Hull cut the Panic at the Disco album Pretty. Odd. straight from tape. Scott says, “I did two distinctly different masterings for the record. One was only for the CD. It wasn’t terribly loud or compressed, but it had a competitive level and sonics for radio play and shuffling in iPods. For the vinyl, however, I re-mastered straight from the original analog mix down masters. This meant that I had to edit the heads and tails and splice the original master together. It was like it was 20 years ago! The bottom line is that the final product really sounds amazing.”

Expect the Best from Masterdisk.
Please call to talk with one our project coordinators about your upcoming cd and vinyl mastering. It doesn’t matter if you mastered your music at another facility or if you used one of our engineers. We will process your order, cut your record, and help you understand all of the details, with all of the quality, integrity and professionalism you would expect from Masterdisk.

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Record Store Day 2010 Wrap-Up

The line outside J&R
The line outside J&R at 8:30 AM.
Well, it’s late afternoon on April 17, 2010 — Record Store Day — here in NYC. My feet are hurting and the limited Jimi Hendrix “Live at Clark University” is spinning on my turntable, so that means that it’s time to wrap up my RSD coverage!

I started out this morning at around 8:30 at J&R, way downtown. Since this was the store with the earliest opening hour in town, I figured I’d find a high concentration of the most fanatical record nuts there, and I wasn’t disappointed. The line outside (I estimate it was 100 people long by 9) was pretty mellow except for the occasional outburst of nervous anticipation. “What?! You got the Doors single? Doors?!” — that kind of thing.

And it was a pretty smooth operation once the doors opened — well, the first 20 minutes were a bit of a frenzy — and the stock of exclusive items looked comprehensive. (They didn’t have the Moby Grape 45 though — luckily I grabbed that later. It’s impressive.) It seemed like folks were getting what they came for. Store Manager Charlie Bagarozza said it was going to be a fun day; Record Store Day was off to a good start at J&R.

Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records
Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records.
Next up was Sound Fix in Brooklyn. I hadn’t gotten to cover the shop in the lead-up to RSD, but I would have liked to since it’s a nice place. It reminds me of Other Music; it’s got high ceilings, a similar shelving system, and carries predominantly indie stuff. But it does have its own vibe and is worth a trip. I didn’t realize that Sound Fix was as popular as it is — I got there about a half-hour after they opened and it was jam packed! It was all about the indie releases at Sound Fix, whereas at J&R it was more about the Springsteen, Stones, and John Lennon.

After some lunch I headed down to Other Music. They have their RSD down to a science there: lines around the block, because they were making sure that the place didn’t get too crowded. When I showed up ABC TV was in there. Crazy. I got to duck into the store for a few minutes and look around. It was mellow! Some soothing electronica spinning on the stereo, kinda quiet talking, everybody calmly looking through the racks… it was really well done. Other Music have been around for a while and they clearly know how to handle the big events. Kudos.

The line outside Other Music
The line outside Other Music.
I wrapped up at Academy Records on 18th Street which was doing some brisk business despite not carrying any of the limited releases. I usually find something cool in their bins — either CD or vinyl — and today was no different: a super clean Jeff Beck “Flash” LP, for $1. Now, Flash isn’t considered one of Mr. Beck’s finest moments (hence the price tag), but it IS Jeff Beck after all, and Epic pressings from the mid-70s to the early 80s sound real good in my opinion, especially when they have the MASTERDISK stamp in the deadwax like this one does.

Anyway folks, I hope you had a good time out there today and heard — and will hear — some good music as a result of Record Store Day. See you back here at The Masterdisk Record next week, as we get back to our regular programming with a story about engineer Randy Merrill’s mastering of Darcy James Argue’s critically acclaimed album Infernal Machines.

Limited RSD items at J&R
The limited edition wall 20 minutes after the frenzy.