December MIX magazine CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the GROOVE KIND ©2012 by eddie ciletti

I can trace my passion for music and sound back to when I was three years old. My parents used 45RPM records like flash cards, and while I was too young to read, I recognized the label colors and word patterns - bright yellow Columbia, deep purple Capitol, RCA's black label with Nipper and the Victrola, Routlette's wheel and host of independent labels like End (with half a Dachshund on either side). On the album side, Capitol's silver oval shield on black background with it's rainbow ring was mesmerizing as I watched the needle follow the grooves from the lead in to lead out. 

My dad always put a stack of 78s on as he cut my hair (not because he was a barber, but to save $$$). The increased rotational speed made every part of the mechanism go faster. As the needle was heading toward the label, it got trapped in an eccentric groove designed to trip the reject mechanism. From there, the arm quickly lifted and swung out of the way. Those thick shellac discs slammed down and made the whole record player bounce on its springs! 

And then there was the sound! The contrast of Sinatra's South of the Border with Les Paul's Mandolino took me from 'Mexico' to outer space in a matter of minutes. My dad explained that Les played all of the instruments. How was that possible??? The most tangible part of 78s was that the grooves were big enough for a kid's fingernail to play them – well, enough to feel the vibrations! I was hooked! 

I was a very serious listener – thrilled by the music, equally curious about the technology and trying hard to understand the lyrics. A kid's mind is very literal, after all – and adult songs like Sinatra's All of Me were, at first, literally translated in a most cartoon-ish way. When my older cousins discarded their pop records, it was equally hard to parse Elvis's Hound dog and Dee Dee Sharp's Mashed Potato (yeah, yeah, yeah). All of those records had one thing in common, the sound jumped out of the grooves and made small speakers sound huge – especially when listening as close to the speaker as I did!

In third grade, my friend, Tom Malaby, could tell me what each Beatle was playing and who was singing – we were eight-years-old! A few years later my friend John Dearing and I pooled our resources – his 15 watt amp and mine, along with my dad's record player equipped with a ceramic stereo cartridge. Whoa! By 8th grade I was on my third tape recorder, which when combined with my John's new receiver and AR turntable – all graduation gifts - we were marveling at Beatle stereo mixes in his Koss headphones. How cool it was to isolate the Left and Right channels! Less then ten years later I was sitting in Bearsville's B control room listening to Abbey Road from a 15IPS copy-of-a-copy of the Master tape on Super Red monitors with Mastering Lab crossovers. 


A year into my career I got the chance to resurrect a mono Fairchild lathe, with its massive McIntosh tube amp. A year later, Frankford-Wayne mastering engineer Dave Moyssiadis cut a two-sided stereo acetate for me on his Scully lathe. In 1980, I got to resurrect a Westrex vacuum tube cutting amp at Nola Studios on 57th street (down the block from MediaSound). It was a real eye opener to be able to cut my own mixes - getting stuff to disc was a whole other animal compared to 'just' mixing to tape. Now I could directly compare my own stuff to commercial releases. I had a lot to learn about monitoring systems and EQ!

By 1982, I was taking finished albums to Howie Weinberg at Masterdisk (I had met him at Secret Sound Studios a year or two earlier). It was the first of my Neumann lathe encounters. The following year – 1983 - is significant because it marks the birth of the CD and my migration to 1841 Broadway, home of Atlantic Studios. There I was commissioned to build two custom transfer consoles to make production copies for international distribution. 

As I stood in the room to meet the person for whom I was to do the work, I glanced at a tape box and saw the musical script ' sf' in the space reserved for Engineer. ' sf ?' Where had I seen that before? As I was introduced to Sam Feldman, my eyes lit up and it came to me, 'you mastered Beatle records for Apple at Bell Sound!' His eyes lit up too, because by then, the former mastering engineer was not doing the one job he loved – cutting records – which he did throughout the sixties and into the seventies. 

Then, only a small circle of people knew who the mastering engineers were, but by the eighties, the big name houses and their 'masters' were very well known - Sterling, Masterdisk, The Mastering Lab, Kendun, Precision, Frankford-Wayne, MCA Whitney, Capitol – to name but a few. Look closely at vintage vinyl today and you can often see each engineer's 'signed copy' of their work. Bob Ludwig's "RL," George's "GP," Wally Traggott's "Wally" and the list goes on and on.

Atlantic had two mastering rooms equipped with Neumann lathes. The senior mastering engineer, George Piros, had worked with Bob Fine on Mercury's Living Presence Series. GP was the human 'groove optimization computer' in the early days of stereo. He cut records with a musical score as his guide, setting the Lines Per Inch (LPI) to the dynamics of the music. By squeezing the grooves together during the soft passages and spreading them apart during the loud passages, GP conserved valuable disc real estate, allowing him to maintain dynamics and cut louder and longer sides. 

George and Sam were both kind enough to share some tips and stories with me and it wasn't long before the lathes had me under their spell. I soon found myself parsing the Neumann manual and familiarizing myself with the language and the process of disc cutting and being asked to help witth the technical issues. 

The following year I found myself at Record Plant NYC under the technical direction of Paul Prestopino, who having previously worked under Phil Ramone at A&R. There I met Joe Brescio, another Bell Sound alum, whose Neumann Lathe was tucked away in 'closet' of a space called The Master Cutting Room. MCR was originally owned by Record Plant and had previously been home to George Marino and Greg Calbi. Joe and I became fast friends, and in addition to maintaining his system and installing a Zuma computer, I got to do vacation relief! When Record Plant NYC closed, Joe purchased MCR, relocated to a larger space and added two Sonic Solutions mastering systems. 

Fast forward to the present, local mastering engineer Greg Reierson purchased a Neumann Lathe. In addition to tapping the resources of many minds, I feel lucky to be part of the process of bringing this marvelous piece of analog technology into this century. You might recall that Greg wrote a piece about the Loudness Wars back in the February 2011 issue. Here is his story...


Like most people of my generation, I spent my youth listening to vinyl. When I started mastering in the ‘80s, most of my clients were small local bands releasing cassettes and occasionally LPs. Those formats soon gave way to CDs and suddenly the world went digital. By the time my mastering career gathered speed, the days of cutting LPs seemed all but over. Then, little by little, clients started asking for LP masters and I got the bug for vinyl all over again.

I’ve been working with tape decks and building audio electronics for over 30 years and I have a collection of vintage machines that I use on a regular basis. A Neumann lathe in the studio seemed like a perfect fit. When I finally decided to dive back in and buy a lathe, I knew there would be a lot to learn - not only about cutting a great sounding side - but also about keeping the machine running. Luckily there is a strong community of cutters all around the world. Without their help and advice, this old lathe would be one hell of an expensive rack queen. From the late, great Al Grundy who kept the cutting community going for 50 years to all of the current Lathe Trolls, I’d especially like to recognize Paul Gold, Josh Bonati, Steve Berson, Dietrich Schoenemann, Todd Mariana, Chris Muth, Scott hull, Len Horowitz, Carl Rowatti, Lewis Durham, David Hersk, Kim Gutzke and Eddie Ciletti for their contribution to keeping vinyl alive today.

Coming soon...

EMT plate reverb and Serge analog synth restorations.