In the Groove: Well-made music for Record Store Day
An annual event designed to drive consumers to independent record stores, Record Store Day takes place this year on Saturday, April 20. The list of exclusive releases that you’ll be able to purchase only at brick and mortar stores is a long one. Since most of those releases are coming out on vinyl, we decided to talk to Clint Holley, a guy who makes the “master plates” for Cleveland-based Gotta Groove Records and other vinyl pressing plants, to learn more about the art of the record and to get his perspective on vinyl’s rising popularity.
Let’s start out with an explanation of what you do.
My job would be called “cutting the master” or “making the master plate” for record production. What that means is that I take audio that the customer supplies, usually digitally these days, and I use a machine called a cutting lathe to actually cut the audio into a disk. That disk gets plated with metal and that metal is formed into the stamper that’s put into the record presses to press the record. Essentially, it’s the first “record” produced for any given job that we do.
Not that you would, but you could actually play the version that you cut?
You could, but it would ruin it. We do cut samples that aren’t the “master” and listen to those to judge the quality and make the decisions that need to make for the master cut. But once you do that master cut and blow off the dust, that’s it. You don’t play that one.
So, how do you know then that the final is good to go? That you did the right thing?
You don’t know until a month later when it comes back from the plating shop and they’ve made test pressings out of it. The test pressing goes through several stages of approval. There are guys at Gotta Groove with that job; they listen to records to see if there are skips, pops, distortion or anything that shouldn’t be there. If they give the test pressing the thumbs up, they send it to the client who listens to it and gives final approval of the test pressing. We offer a service where we’ll send samples to people if they aren’t exactly sure how music is going to transfer to a record. We’ll cut up to ten minutes of various parts of the album, maybe a little bit of each song on the record, which I can the play back on my turntable and record into my computer to send to the client. They can listen to it and determine if any adjustments need to be made to the music before we go through the whole process of cutting the master, plating it and doing the test pressings because that obviously costs everyone money and time. By doing it this way, clients can have a better idea of how it’s going to turn out on the other end before all of that work gets done. That way if someone says, “Oh, I just want to turn the bass up a little bit,” they can make that decision before they’re so far into the industrial process.
So, that begs a question. Do you have to master an album differently to be cut as a vinyl album versus a digital copy or a CD?
Yes, but there are basic “rules” for mixing and mastering music in general that make it sound good or acceptable to most people and if you follow those rules, you’re about 95% of the way there. The only real big difference for vinyl is that the piece called the cutter head—which is where all the action is taking place—doesn’t like high-frequency material, like tambourines, high hats and cymbals. It is also really sensitive to sibilants— that “s” sound when people sing—so we ask people to use a tool called the de-esser. It’s a plug-in now for the computer and you can set a frequency range to catch those tails and it turns them down a little bit every time that they occur. The other thing you want to do is make sure that everything that is kind of a bass-oriented—like the kick drum, bass guitar, the bottom end bass parts on a keyboard—you’d want those to be centered, not in the left or right channels, because that actually makes the groove too narrow for a needle to track through. If the bass sounds are in the middle, you get a nice, solid groove. And just levels in general, they may have to be turned down a bit to make them fit into the vinyl.
Is it much more expensive to cut a record than make a CD or put out a digital recording online?
Sure. There are multiple steps involved and many are very human-oriented. There’s the job I do, obviously, and there are the people who run the presses, the person who is paid to listen to like every 50th record to make sure something is not going wrong with the press or the stampers aren’t deteriorating, and even something simple that you would think would have been automated years ago—taking the records and putting them in a sleeve and putting them in a jacket—that’s all done by hand. There are no machines that do those things.
Why do people want to make records then? Why are they going back to an old school process that costs more?
Obviously, right now it’s cool to do this and there’s a hipster factor. But the format itself offers a lot of what I think are advantages. I think people bought CDs because they were very convenient. Do you remember when they first marketed them they were marketed as being indestructible? We all found that was a lie and that they’re just as easily scratched or damaged as a record. They were very portable, though, and very convenient. They were also cheaper to make but they could charge more for it, so at that point the record companies were probably laughing all the way to the bank. Now the convenience factor has moved away from CDs to MP3s. Now all you have to do is take your phone and the music dwells in the cloud and you can stream it to a device.
I truly believe there is something psychological about buying a record. Sure, with digital, it’s all easy, but it’s also all isolated. I can buy anything at any hour of the day from any location without interacting with anyone. When you buy an MP3 you don’t own anything physical. There’s no real gratification there. When people purchase something they want to own something. Part of it for people who collect music is going to the store. The local record store is kind of a place for people to hang out and socialize, almost like a barbershop. You have regulars and because some things are harder to find there is an element of the chase. Also, in its truest form, when a record is brand new, it sounds pretty amazing. I don’t say one is better than the other—I think digital and analog have their place, but I like the process of listening to a record better. I like pulling it out of the jacket, putting it on the turntable, flipping it over . . . really interacting with it. You don’t get that same tactile experience with digital stuff.
So, take us back. How did you fall into this field and how did you learn to do it?
I taught myself. I was lucky to run into some people who were generous with information and time. The short version of the story was that I had put in ten years at The Beachland and ran sound there. I had taken that as far as I could take it without owning my own venue. I was actively looking for something new to do and the opportunity presented itself when Gotta Groove opened in Cleveland. They were actively looking for someone to do the job that I do now. By chance Vince [Slusarz], who owns Gotta Groove, asked me to accompany him on a fact-finding mission to another studio called Suma Recording Studio in Painesville. Vince offered Suma the cutting work and they turned it down. I came home and [my wife] Bonnie told me I should buy one of those machines. But it’s not you go to Guitar Center and buy one. I had to spend the next year and a half doing a lot of phone work which is something that I wasn’t all that comfortable with—asking people for stuff on the phone. The information I needed wasn’t readily available even, say, on the internet. Basic stuff on the web led me to people I contacted down the line, but it was one of those things where you had to pick up the phone, call people and hope for the best. Luckily most people I contacted were really cool and all roads led me to Albert Grundy, an 80-something-year-old guy in New Jersey who was restoring these machines and who had been working on them since the ‘50s. He told me what it would cost and I put a business plan together from there.
And then you taught yourself and you now have two machines?
I got my machine in the beginning of March 2010 and I cut my first master which was a Cleveland band The New Lou Reeds at the end of June 2010. It took me about two months to figure out what I needed to get work out the door. I’ve honed the skill over the last three years and I’ve probably cut over 3,000 records over that time. I do this for Gotta Groove and some guys out of Nashville. And, one of the cooler things I do now is through a relationship I have with Concord Music Group who owns the rights to Rounder Records, Fantasy Records and Stax Records. Just today I was working on a Stax record with Booker T. of Booker T. and the M.G.s that will be a new release on the Stax label.
You have a jukebox and a turntable, so you obviously buy records. Have you bought one you cut?
I do have some in my collection. One that we thought was funny, because it was supposed to be funny, was a guy from Dayton named Joe Tritschler. He had us cut his album from tape instead of digital and it turned out really well and I wanted a copy to show people the potential of an all-analog release. I have never been as much of a new record buyer as a used record buyer because I go to flea markets and used record stores; I am kind of a chiseler by nature. But I will go to local record stores to support them and I’ll buy new releases from Alejandro Escovedo, The Sadies or Tom Waits.
What are some of the more interesting albums you’ve worked on and did you gain a new appreciation for them by working on the material in this way?
I got to work on a Johnny Cash reissue. It wasn’t what you’d consider prime period Johnny Cash; it was made in the ‘80s. But what was really interesting to me about it was that it was produced by Nick Lowe at a time when he was married to Johnny Cash’s daughter which is interesting if you’re a Johnny Cash nerd. I got to cut a reissue by a famous band called Rockpile, which was Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds and they only ever put out the one record; it was called Seconds of Pleasure. Willie Nelson’s last record I got to do and the cool thing about that is that the company requested I cut the record. Willie Nelson’s contract stipulates that all his stuff has to go through United, which is down in Nashville, but someone I work with insisted that I do the cutting because they like the work that I do.
In terms of stuff that maybe I hadn’t heard that I now have an appreciation for because it came across my desk, there was an extensive reissue of a catalogue of a band called The Residents. They are an odd band that is famous for wearing these giant eyeballs on their heads. They are very experimental, avant-garde band. They made a record and agreed not to release it till everyone forgot about it and that just came out like three years ago. Their stuff is really pushing the edge of experimental soundscapes and it’s something that I wouldn’t normally be into but those records, by working on them, I gained an appreciation for and really learned to enjoy.
How long do you think this popular fascination with vinyl albums can last?
No one has a really good answer for that. I recently had a conversation with Gotta Groove people about this because I have to make decisions on how I am going to work based on how busy they’re going to be. One of the things they pointed out that I thought was really interesting was that sales of high-end turntables and playback gear is on the rise. If you spend the money to buy something that is higher end rather than a $99 turntable with a USB connection for your computer, it seems like you’re making a commitment to the format for a longer period of time. That’s a positive thing; it says there is always going to be some market for this stuff. Vinyl is never going to be the mainstream format again like it was pre-1980s, but I think the niche, which had gotten very small at one point with just metal, techno and some hip-hop, is much bigger. I don’t think it will explode into the mainstream, though it has leapt into the mainstream a bit. I watch Pawn Stars, for example, and they ran an episode recently where they dug out all the vinyl to put it on display because it is popular again. And, if you watch commercials, vinyl records appear in advertising a lot more now. It’s simmering under the surface as maybe a pop culture type of thing, but I think it’ll be around for a while.
Does Cleveland has a record pressing legacy?
The most famous example has been in the news a lot lately because of a box set release; it was called Boddie Recording Company. This was an African American recording studio with its own pressing facility. They did everything from soul music to mobile recording like recording a sermon at a church and they also did a lot of hillbilly music. So Boddie was just kind of open for business to whoever walked through the door. But some of their soul records in particular are things that collectors look for. The first professional recording studio and one that operated a long time was Cleveland Recording which was started in the 1930s. Those that are into Cleveland music know that they did stuff by the James Gang and Grand Funk Railroad and all kinds of Pere Ubu.
What does Record Store Day mean for what you do and for the industry?
It at least doubles my workload from November to January. Bands should be thinking about Record Store Day by October of the previous year. Since this is a very labor-intensive process and it gets very busy, bands need to think ahead to meet that date.
The tie-in with vinyl and Record Store Day is very cool. Record Store Day really started out as more of a celebration of independent record stores. But, with the resurgence of vinyl, and since it is independent record stores who carry and sell albums, it has become a natural hand-in-hand situation. Independent record stores can also afford to care about their customers and stock the things their customers want. Even in Cleveland, Music Saves caters more to indie rock people while My Mind’s Eye caters more toward metal fans. Both of those—indie rock and metal—are being put onto vinyl. In fact, metal never really stopped being put on vinyl.
If a band is going to put their album out on Record Store Day it makes it an event. You’re more likely to go and pick it up on that day and musicians even play at stores to promote their release. Both independent record stores and vinyl were both considered casualties of the music industry and, working together, they’re both on the upswing now.