King of the grooves
In a lot of ways, records are not practical,” declares Cameron Henry, the lathe operator at Welcome to 1979 studios. “They’re heavy and bulky, they take up a lot of physical space, they’re easily damaged, and they’re not portable.” It seems like a surprising statement from a 33-year-old that devotes most of his working hours to the very format he disparages, but there’s more to the story.
“All the formats that came after vinyl tried to fix those issues,” he continues. “There’s been this false quest for perfectness. When CDs were introduced, one of the big selling points was that there was zero degradation to a CD, which wasn’t really true. If you scratch a CD there’s a good chance it won’t play at all. You can almost destroy a record and you can still hear at least some of the music on it. It may be crackly or skip, but you can still get recognizable sound out of it, and vinyl records have seen the birth and death of almost every format designed to replace them.”
Not only have phonograph records survived, they have returned with a vengeance. While sales of CDs and digital downloads continue to decline, the market for vinyl records has boomed, with demand continuing to grow each year. Audiophiles on both sides of the analog/digital line argue incessantly about the advantages of one format over the other, but records have an undeniable coolness that has never been successfully duplicated. For Henry, the appeal is in the inherent imperfection and humanness of records.
“A digital file or CD can be perfectly duplicated endlessly,” he says. “With records, only so many can be made from a pair of metal stampers. To make more means starting over and doing it again, and it’s never exactly the same. A new lacquer master has to be cut, and new stampers have to be made. It’s different every time. Even if the same person cuts the master there’s going to be a slight difference.”
Henry has mastered the ability to keep those differences to a minimum and infuse the creation of new records with life specific to the medium. In just three years, he has cut the masters for over 3,000 records, all on equipment over 40 years old using skills that were a dying art just a few short years ago.
A bulky, 80-pound steel turntable is slowly and constantly rotating behind Henry in the cutting room of Welcome to 1979. Decorated in the finest 1970s retro chic, the room is dominated by the tool of his trade: a massive 1973 Neumann VMS 70 cutting lathe that fills almost half the space. The lights, dials, and display meters surrounding the turntable resemble a control console from NASA’s Apollo-era Mission Control. But with Henry at the controls, Houston, we won’t be having any problems.
The path that led to his mastery of this art grew out of frustration and necessity. A native of Toledo, Ohio, Henry’s interest in music began early. “I started as a musician and began dabbling in recording right out of high school,” he says. “There were a lot of bands in Toledo, but there was no money to be made. If I stayed there, recording would always be a hobby, so I decided to move to Nashville to try and flip my hobby into my real job.”
Henry moved to Nashville in 2006 and settled on the East Side, just as the local music scene was kicking into high gear. He found plenty of bands eager to record.
“I went to a lot of shows at The 5 Spot and got to know a lot of people,” he says. “I was buying equipment, and I ended up having a little analog studio in my house. About this time, Welcome to 1979 opened. I started coming here and recording and then mixing and overdubbing at home.”
Welcome to 1979, opened in 2008 by recording engineer Chris Mara, focuses on the revival of classic analog recording techniques from the decade that has been declared the “Golden Age of Recording.” Housed in a former record pressing plant in West Nashville, the studio was a perfect home for Henry’s skills and sensibilities. Although he was mastering the art of recording music, bringing music to vinyl remained a mystical process.
“I didn’t know anything about how records were made,” he says. “As far as I knew, you plugged a flash drive into the side of a record press and they just shot out of it like hot pizzas. One of the main reasons I got into the production side was that the artists I was working with started putting out their music on vinyl. We would get test pressings, and it would sound lackluster compared to the master source. The first time that happened, I talked to the guy that cut the record. I thought there might be something I could have done differently. He kind of patted me on the head and said, ‘That’s just how vinyl is, don’t worry about it.’ It really pissed me off. Then it happened again, and it happened to other people that I knew. I didn’t know anything about how records were made, but I started feeling I can do better than these guys.”
As Henry learned about the process of converting magnetic tape or digital files into the grooves of a record, his annoyance proved justified. The first step in creating a record is vinyl mastering or “cutting a lacquer.” Using a diamond-tipped cutting lathe, grooves are cut directly onto a 14-inch aluminum disc coated with a thin layer of lacquer. It’s an exacting process requiring the lathe operator to vary groove width, depth, and placement based on the dynamics of the source recording. One lacquer is cut for each side of the record, and they are so delicate that playing a lacquer even once degrades the quality of the sound. Sometimes a duplicate, 12-inch lacquer reference disc that can be played is also cut using the same settings.
With the lacquer master finished, it is used to mold a metal stamper that is a negative image of the disc with ridges instead of grooves. This process destroys the original lacquer master. The stampers are then inserted into a hydraulic press to produce LPs and 45s. While quality control is important throughout the process, the skill of the lacquer cutter means the difference between a great sounding record and a
“Everything else will be screwed up if the lacquer master isn’t cut properly,” Henry explains. “A lot of audio equipment is meant to manipulate sound, to change it into whatever you want, but a cutting lathe is the opposite. You don’t tell it what to do; it tells you what you can do. There are all these factors like how much current the machine is drawing, how deep the groove is being cut, and more that affects the way the record
At the same time Henry was learning about the process of creating records, Chris Mara was searching for a cutting lathe for Welcome to 1979. With the massive increase in record production, the tightest bottleneck in the process has been the important first step of lacquer mastering. Henry estimates there are fewer than 50 professional cutting lathes in operation around the world, supplying the masters to manufacture every record pressed. Since new cutting lathes have not been manufactured for over three decades, finding a quality, working lathe was challenging, and locating a skilled, experienced operator was practically impossible.
“Anyone that knew how to run one was either retired or was doing it elsewhere and didn’t want to relocate,” Henry says. “There is no literature on how to do it properly. It’s totally a mentorship art that was passed down. After Chris bought the lathe, I told him when he found someone to operate it to let me know so I could hang out and learn about it. His said he couldn’t find anyone and why don’t I just give it a shot. I didn’t even have to think twice.”
Although Henry began his learning process through trial and error, he soon located a mentor. “I tracked down a mastering engineer named Hank Williams — his real name, believe it or not,” he says. “He had run the lathe at Woodland Studios and been a king at it, but he hadn’t touched one for 20 years. The first time he came over here, he said, ‘I don’t know if I remember how this works.’ Then he started it up and fell right back into it.”
Working with Williams, Henry began to sharpen his cutting skills, listening to the results, and correcting mistakes. It took three months of practice before he felt ready to offer his services to the public.
“We put it on the website and the next day a major label called us,” Henry says. “They had a problem with the masters on a pretty big record by a major artist. I recut it, and they pulled the old job and used mine instead. They said they had it done in LA because they had no idea we were cutting masters. They asked how long I had been here, and I said, ‘Oh, seven years.’ I didn’t want to tell them it was my first professional job cutting.”
Since launching their vinyl mastering service in 2013, Welcome to 1979 has built a reputation among audiophiles for top-notch mastering work. Henry currently spends five days a week cutting lacquer masters and devotes his weekends to freelance work as a recording engineer and producer. For him, the care he takes as a producer applies equally to the masters he cuts.
“For every record I cut, I, in effect, join the band,” he says. “I pretend like it’s my music. I try to understand it both in terms of the frequency response and on an emotional level. What is really important in this music? If something needs to be modified or changed, how can I do that where it doesn’t affect the feeling of the music?
“Some things just can’t be cut into a record without some type of mechanical playback problem. There have to be adjustments made. If you have low frequencies that are extreme in the stereo separation, like a bass doing a crazy ping-pong effect between the right and left channels, it can actually launch the needle right out of the groove. Some people’s response to that problem is to just take it out of the stereo mix and move it to the center. It prevents the needle from skipping, but will compromise the overall fidelity of the record. I pride myself on reshaping the sound in such a way so it will still have the same energy, but will track better.”
Even more challenging are sessions where artists choose to record direct to disc. Artists perform their music live in the studio with tape rolling, but at the same time, Henry is in the cutting room, capturing the performance directly on a lacquer master.
“We’re one of maybe three companies in the world that have direct-to-disc capabilities that are open to the public,” he says. “We’ve done about a dozen albums direct to disc, including a session last year with Pete Townshend. It’s really the best sounding of all recording mediums, but the cutting is like a performance in itself. I’m hunched over the microscope, watching the grooves and playing the recording wave so to speak.”
While Henry takes great pride in the work he’s doing, the idea that each lacquer he cuts is a temporary, ephemeral piece that is destroyed by the duplication process simply makes his work more special.
“There is like a sad romanticism to the process,” he says, “but I kind of love that idea. It’s a little like street art. It’s not intended to last. It has its moment, gets photographed, and then gets painted over. Vinyl mastering is kind of a niche boutique skill that has become a full-time job for me, and I love it. I get to listen to a lot of music, but it’s even better to go in a store and see one I cut as the favorite record of the week.”