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
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
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.
Ive 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, Id 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.
EMT plate reverb and Serge analog synth