First , I have to give a little background before I get into the story of my adventure.
THE LP RECORD ( otherwise known as VINYL)
Some of you are old enough to remember when the LP record was the ONLY way for ordinary citizens to hear music. Predating the cassette and CD formats, it uses technology and techniques that have basically remained unchanged for over a hundred years. It is a technology that presents the musical content totally in an analog way, as does magnetic tape. Continuous waveforms are represented, as opposed to the approximation of waveforms that occur in digital systems. It also had the advantage of being easily duplicated, being made of plastic that could be made from molds.
But along with the waveform accuracy, the LP has the downside of being a mechanical system, with the attendant noise, wow, flutter, scratches and pitch inaccuracies.
Today, the arguments for and against LPs are rather moot. The CD has been dominant with the public for years, yet today we find the LP format is currently undergoing a renaissance. Turntables are still being made and sold, and you can get cartridges and stylii ("needles?") at any Radio Shack store.
The biggest segment of turntable users today are collectors, dance music DJs or high-end audiophiles. These segments pay big money for these new releases, as they are made in small quantities and the price recovers the difference. The average city has at least one place where you can find used, and in many cases, good quality music on vinyl.
THE CALL TO MASTER
I had known these facts, yet I was ignorant of a small record company called CLASSIC RECORDS in Hollywood until last October, when I got a call from Michael Hobson, President and CEO of the company. He told me that CSN management had signed a deal with him to reissue the "COUCH" album. Not just that, as it turns out, he wants to release the WHOLE CSN catalog on VINYL!
When I mentioned the Crosby solo IICORMN, he got very excited, said he wanted to release that one too and wanted me to come down to LA as soon as I could so I could participate — We would do the 'COUCH' album first, then IICORMN. So I made plans.
BERNIE GRUNDMAN and the HISTORY OF MASTERING
It's October 26 2000 and I'm in Hollywood, California. I've stayed the night in the Roosevelt Hotel, and Bernie Grundman's Mastering facility is located a few blocks down the street. Bernie is an institution in the West Coast music scene.
One of the first mastering engineers to cater directly to an artist's needs, he developed and used one of the first A-B mastering systems in the world. This is a method of having two sets of eq, level and limiting controls; while one set of eq's and levels are playing for the cutting of one song, the other side can be set up with alternate settings. This allowed fine control of the mastering process.
Previous to 1966-67, mastering was considered a manufacturing function, not an artistic one. A music artist, or more likely his company's A&R man would "turn in" his master tape, and the project was then out of his hands.
But the Beatles and especially "Sergeant Pepper's" convinced the record companies that letting the artists have more control over what happens to their product wasn't a bad idea.
Simultaneously, LA area recording studios were changing. The older studios owned by the labels weren't keeping up with new recording equipment and techniques. New upstarts such as Sunset Sound, United-Western, Wally Heider, Sound Factory and A&M were breaking the corporate stranglehold on studio time by offering better, customized service, and fresh, open minded and hip studio engineering talent.
FROM LEFT: BERNIE GRUNDMAN, MICHAEL HOBSON, PRISCILLA SANCHEZ, SQB
In 1968, when working for an independent studio, Bernie joined A&M Studios and started the legendary mastering studio inside what exists today as Henson Studios.
Bernie quickly got a reputation as someone who 'got into it' and as a guy that worked well with artists, especially Herb Alpert himself. As well as most of the 70's A&M Records output, Bernie has worked with everyone…. literally.
After many years with A&M, he left to start his own one room facility in east Hollywood around the mid-80's. A second mastering room in Tokyo was built a couple of years ago. By 2000 he has acquired a new space (and a large staff) on East Hollywood Blvd.*, with an incredible amount of interior space, inside which our mastering session is to take place.
Bernie's was chosen by Classic because he's always been one of the best digital and disk mastering guys around and also has a wonderful collection of vintage gear. I'll describe this later in the article.
MORE ABOUT CLASSIC RECORDS
Michael Hobson told me the concept of Classic Records was to recreate the vinyl experience of the late 50's — that is, a tube signal path, sensible levels and a quality transfer to disk. The manufacturing stage uses quality plating and pressing techniques on 180 gram vinyl.
To save money on plastic, many manufacturers after 1960 cut the amount of plastic used in a biscuit, thus making a thinner, more warpable record. Sometimes old records were even ground up and fed into the fresh plastic hopper, making a much noisier product. A lot of the great classic records we loved in the 70's were rushed through production and the quality of many of them suffered greatly. With 180 gram pure vinyl, Classic has created an product that is as close to perfect as possible.
Another cool aspect of the Classic vinyl experience is the cover. They get an original cover and reshoot it perfectly, often printed better than the original. And they keep the logos and liner notes exactly as originally presented. Only a tiny 4 point font at the bottom reveals it's a recreation. Quite a feeling to put a 180 gram disk on the turntable and hear wonderful silence….then the MUSIC….
The CLASSIC RECORDS approach to the sound of the LP is to try and approximate the intentions of the original producers and mastering engineer by listening to an original first-run pressing. This is then compared to the master tape, and an attempt is made to strike a balance between the revisionism of a cleaner transfer and the original LP experience.
Bernie has the gear. A collection of new and old.
Starting at the tape machine, a highly modified STUDER A80 Transport with advance head. The advance head gives the disk mastering system advance warning of upcoming audio information.
This deck is designed for one purpose: Mastering to disk. The first and second stereo heads are connected to a second pair of preamps, faders, limiters and eqs. The first head gets the music first, then the second head. This allows the electronics in the disk cutting 'computer' to know in advance when a louder or softer section comes up before it happens — so it can instruct the disk cutter to widen the spread and deepen the groove for loud passages, and narrow the spread and shallow the groove for quiet ones. This increases the possible playing time and the dynamic range.
Your componentry can really add up if you have preview and program channels then fed into an A and B set!
The special impedance program playback head on the Studer transport is connected to a set of 3 AMPEX 350 Tube Eletronics (preamps) totally rebuilt by Grundman tech Beno May.
Next in the chain is the A-B console mentioned previously. You can only see the 'B' section on Bernie's right, the 'A' section is covered by stuff.
One of the main tools in this console is the extensive multi-band equalizer built into it. Not only is there a complete unit for Left and Right (with previews), but a matching set on the other side. The output of this console feeds the Haeco cutting amplifiers, and the WESTREX cutting head on the SCULY LATHE.
This cutterhead is designed for the 45-45 standard of recording stereo on a disk. In fact, you can see these angles clearly in the design. The astute will notice more than 2 wires going in each site — the extra pairs are for feedback coils that are fed back to the ampifier stages to reduce distortion.
In laymans' terms…"It's like having a couple of really high-quality loudspeakers wobble a needle"….
The copper tubing coming in from behind is suction, to remove the material that the chisel-shaped cutting stylus shaves from the soft laquer-covered disk. The stylus is also wrapped with a small coil of wire with current going through it — the 'hot stylus' makes a quieter, cleaner groove.
The head is mounted on a lathe base — in fact it looks similar to ones found in machine shops. A motor turned screw, called the leadscrew, propels the carriage and the head along a linear path. The cutting computer tells the motor to go faster or slower, thus increasing the speed of the screw, and ultimately, the spacing of the grooves.
After the master disks are cut, they are then sent to a plant for plating, pressing and packaging.
THERE ARE VERY FEW VINYL RECORD PRESSING PLANTS AROUND ANYMORE, but the ones that have survived now service Audiophile and Dance labels. CLASSIC RECORDS uses RTI, a pressing and plating facility in Camarillo, CA.
Rather than copy their site, here's a link to the RTI site.
1640 North Gower Street
Hollywood, CA 90028
Phone 323-465-6264 Fax 323-465-8367