Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Visit the Indie Vinyl Press Where No Order Is Too Small (Like, Even Just One)

The 38-year-old guitarist-turned-lather Wesley Wolfe runs the boutique vinyl pressing company Tangible Formats. His prices for custom jobs are far less than what the record-pressing giants charge. His minimum runs are small too—customers can order ten or five copies of their album, or even just a single record. Wolfe's workspace is small and efficient, and he uses a limited selection of gear to lay digital files to good old reliable wax.
Making vinyl records is complex and labor-intensive. It requires a small army of technicians, a chain of skilled subcontractors, and lots of heavy machinery. The process is neither cheap nor fast. Short runs? Forget it. Record factories have minimum orders. The going rate is 250 LPs for $2,000. And that’s if they can fit you in—typical wait times are around three months.
There is an alternative. Founded by musician Wesley Wolfe, Tangible Formats is a one-man record plant where no order is too small, turnaround time is three weeks, and the prices are indie-friendly. Local bands that peddle hot wax to their fans, international DJs who want to scratch their EDM tracks, juke box collectors who crave rare Blue Note 45s, the lovesick Romeo who wants his marriage proposal recorded after the fade-out on “our song.” This is the small but loyal clientele that Mr. Wolfe’s lathe-to-turntable movement caters to in today’s increasingly fragmented music ecosystem.

Wolfe's "cutting studio" is a 12x12-foot plywood shed that's shoehorned into a self-storage unit like an egg in a nest. Located on a spit of parched land in central Florida, a Frisbee toss away from Space Coast (Cape Canaveral), this modest address keeps overhead low and prices within reach of struggling artists. The vinyl menu ranges from a one-off 7-incher (45rpm) for $30 to the "Band Meeting" package: five 12-inch LPs for $250.

The first step is to run the customer's audio file (24-bit/44.1 kHz WAV files are preferred) through Pro Tools for frequency analysis. Wesley is looking for the Goldilocks mix, where volume, treble and bass are perfectly balanced to ensure smooth tracking of the cutter-head. A severe low-frequency dip, for instance, will result in a deep groove that collapses on itself like a black hole and pops out the cutting stylus. "Subtle EQ and expansion can make a big difference," says the wax master. Those Yamaha HS8 monitors deliver impressive bang-for-buck performance. Sennheiser HD 600 pro cans (not pictured) pick up the details masked by container storage acoustics

  During the heyday of vinyl, mastering engineers used hulking Neumann lathes to cut the lacquers that would then be electroplated to make stampers, the molds used to press records. Wolfe dispenses with that analog inconvenience, recording direct-to-disc. He uses two German cutting lathes that are designed to clamp onto the classic Technics SL-1200 turntables. Known among Lathe Trolls as the T-560, these precision machines have made DIY vinyl recording a thriving cottage industry. When cutting two records simultaneously, playback is monitored through separate L and R headphone channels. "You have to really focus," says Wolfe. "It sounds psychedelic."

  Every lathe-cut disc is a master. That's because the music is recorded direct-to-vinyl in real time. Since it cuts deeper, wider grooves than mono lathes, the LPs that Wolfe cuts time out on the short end: 18 minutes per side. This slight loss in tracking time, however, results in a better fidelity and a volume boost. Every cutting is monitored by sight (the scope detects groove anomalies) and sound (the tracking gap between the cutter-head and the SL-1200 stylus is less than a second). Peeking out at the bottom here is a Tonar Banana loaded with an OM5E Ortofon stylus, a workhorse rig favored by Euro DJs. "I use a crappy cart because if the record sounds good with the Banana, it will sound great on a nice turntable."

The Technics SL-1200 has an extremely accurate and powerful direct-drive motor. But add a 37-pound aluminum platter (on top of the stock platter), not to mention a heavy 12-inch slab of vinyl, and suddenly an auxiliary belt-drive motor is required. "It increases torque, decreases wow and flutter, and keeps speed consistent," explains Wolfe. "It makes this little guy seem more like a serious mastering lathe."  

A 40X bench microscope used to install and inspect the all-important diamond stylus attached to the cutter-head. Just like your turntable cartridge, a dirty or dull stylus will adversely affect the sound quality. Made by Souri, the same German company that handcrafts the T-560 lathes, these delicate needles typically last 100 hours when cared for properly. No fancy cleaning regimen—just isopropyl alcohol and Q-Tips.

While the stylus heats up ("I never measured the temp," Wolfe says, "I just turn the dial to 12 o’clock."), a 500-watt halogen bulb, hovering just above the disc, softens the vinyl to a scorching 104 degrees Fahrenheit. These thermal conditions allow the diamond stylus to plow through hard plastic and etch a sound wave in the negative space of the groove. That thin filament, about the diameter of a human hair, is the "swarf." It’s sucked into a brass tube attached to a shop-vac and is collected in a small bin that looks like Tupperware. Curled in a white ball, the swarf can be as lo long as a third of a mile for a double-sided LP. Wolfe calls this vinyl detritus the "sound cloud." 

What makes the T-560 unique is that it records in stereo. Other prosumer cutting lathes only offer mono cutting-heads. Each of those black things flanking the sides of the aluminum headshell contains a powerful neodymium magnet, one for each channel. The magnets transmit the vibrations of the music through the diamond-tipped stylus, which carves out an audio signal in the shape of a groove. This monster cart tracks up to 25 grams, the weight necessary to burrow deeply into polycarbonate plastic.

Here's another scope. This one, attached to the lathe, is what Wolfe uses to monitor the quality of the grooves as each record is cut.

 Wolfe keeps plenty of 7-, 10- and 12-inch blanks on hand. This isn't cheap wax from Shenzhen. Like the T-560 and the diamond stylus, these blanks are another Souri exclusive from Hosskirch, Germany. They're made of virgin vinyl that's as beefy and silent as most "audiophile grade" plastic. Wesley stocks both 140-gram (1.5mm) and 180-gram (2mm) LP blanks.

Some will object to transferring digital source material to vinyl. Wesley chuckles at this: "Many expensive audiophile records are made with digital files. Most people can't tell the difference." This rack, stacked with enough digital gear to give analog purists fits, allows Wolfe to weave his direct-to-disc magic: stereo meter, stereo switcher, vinyl optimizer, cutter amp, even a cheap CD player (CD rips are accepted). That little box on the right generates the 12 volts of juice necessary to heat up the diamond stylus.

The thing with the red handle is an Allen wrench. It's used to attach and remove that large brass donut, which securely holds vinyl blanks in place during the cutting procedure. The purple tube is a scale for weighing cutter-head tracking force. That small brass donut is a 45-adapter. The awl is for etching vital data in the run-out groove area of freshly lathed discs: A or B, "WW" (Wesley Wolfe), and pithy aphorisms like "Paul Is Dead" and "Vinyl Rules."

Wolfe isn't shackled to the Unabomber shed. He also records live performances on vinyl: local bands, corporate karaoke nights, Lollapalooza Brasil. "Everything fits in four suitcases," he says. "I'll fly anywhere if the price is right." Field recording gigs like this range from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on travel time and services rendered.

Half of Tangible Format's business is repeat customers. Much of that has to do with the value-added factor. In addition to mastering and double-sided recording, all prices include center labels, laser-printed cover art, paper and clear poly sleeves. Wolfe calls these perks, which some lathers charge for, "a gesture of appreciation." No art? No problem. The vinyl guru will design your cover for 25 bucks.

Chun, Rene. "Visit the Indie Vinyl Press Where No Order Is Too Small (Like, Even Just One)." Wired.com. June 17, 2016. Accessed June 21, 2016. http://www.wired.com/2016/06/visit-indie-vinyl-press-no-order-small-like-even-just-one/.