When the vinyl resurgence hit the mainstream a few years back, major record labels were scrambling to meet the demand from new audiences craving music in a physical format. The only problem was that, while the music industry had engineered plenty of innovative new technology, the production of older formats such as vinyl remained largely unchanged.
Making a record still requires a lathe (a workbench-like apparatus that cuts the lacquer master plates) and a vinyl press, two devices as old as the format itself. In other words, in order to produce a record in the first decades of the 21st century, you need ancient equipment and the increasingly lost knowledge of how to operate it.
That’s where Infrasonic Sound comes in. The independent L.A. operation has been cutting records since before it was popular (again). And with vinyl sales up another 49% this year alone, business is booming.
Despite the increased demand, advances in record-making technology seem unlikely. “Think about it,“ says Pete Lyman, co-owner and head mastering engineer of Infrasonic Sound, sitting in front of his massive workstation in Echo Park. “If you’re an engineer developing a new product, do you develop a new gadget for cellphones that ten million people will buy, or do you develop a new vinyl lathe that two people are going to buy?”
Mastering music is basically like creating the mold for every copy of the final product, the record you buy. It's the mastering engineer's job to tweak levels, cut out certain frequencies, and, in essence, turn a selection of songs into an aurally cohesive unit.
Pull out a random record released within the last 10 years from your collection; odds are it was mastered by Lyman, who has been in the business since the early 2000s. From the Melvins and Off! to Vampire Weekend and Sturgill Simpson, whose Lyman-mastered album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is nominated for a Grammy, Lyman’s work has become ubiquitous in the vinyl renaissance. He not only masters music for records: he also cuts the delicate lacquer plates that serve as master records when the final product is pressed at a vinyl plant.
Maintaining technology from another time, he says, is a constant battle.
“Even though there’s a huge vinyl resurgence happening, there are very few people that cut lacquers professionally,” says Lyman, showing off one of the two lacquer cutting lathes he currently owns (due to ever-increasing demand, a third is en route).
“This one was a prototype, so it’s literally one of a kind,” Lyman explains of the machine, one of nine so-called LS-76 lathes, designed by Larry Scully. Produced in the '70s, it is, despite wear and tear, the best money can buy. When it breaks down, Lyman has to fly in a tech from out of state to fix it. ”The power supply had a fault once and it fried everything in the lathe. We flew a tech out here and he had to completely redesign the electronics. We had print circuit boards custom-built.”
The process of cutting a lacquer master on a lathe is infinitely complicated in its simplicity. Basically, music is funneled into a cutting head, which consists of two coils attached to a small rod at a 45 degree angle. The coils act like pistons, funneling the signal into a tiny synthetic sapphire styli, which then does the actual cutting into the lacquer from outside to inside, in the manner of a wood lathe.
But this description doesn’t even begin to explain the magic of the process. “That’s music right there,” says Lyman, pointing out the grooves on a newly cut lacquer plate. “Every time I do this I’m like, I can’t believe this fucking works!”
The 41-year-old audio engineer, who used to play in the experimental punk outfit Year Future, moved to L.A. in 2000 and began recording punk and indie bands in a makeshift studio in El Sereno. As the operation grew, Lyman became increasingly interested in mastering, for which he has a natural ear.
Meeting vinyl mastering legend Richard Simpson forever altered the course of his life, he says: “It literally changed my life when I saw him cut a lacquer the first time. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so a couple of days later I went back and convinced him to take me on as an apprentice.”
Today, Infrasonic Sound, which Lyman founded with his business partner Jeff Ehrenberg in 2004, has grown significantly (in 2012, the studio moved to Echo Park to accommodate the expanding operation), in part because Lyman and his team of engineers are experts in a field that was largely non-existent 15 years ago.
“The vinyl pressing plants are in the same situation as us, because the presses they use to produce vinyl records are even older than our machines. No one makes them anymore. When something goes down you have to rebuild it and fabricate completely new parts.”
“There will be more upgrades made for vinyl lathes over the next few years,” says Lyman, who hopes to computerize more of his own operation in the near future. Lacquer cutting relies heavily on that rarest of commodities, skilled manual labor. “I’ve heard rumors that there are guys in Europe working on new vinyl presses, but for now it’s a pretty delicate ecosystem. The company we order the blank lacquers from is the only company in the U.S. that produces those, and one of two on the planet. If they burn down tomorrow, people would literally not get their records.”
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Barring such a vinyl apocalypse, however, your records are in good hands. “With mastering, you take someone’s vision and you complete it. We’re the guys who make that vision come to life. My brain just works that way. I listen to a song and I feel like I can see it and what needs to be done to it, almost visibly, like an EQ spectrum. I just know where it needs to go, and it’s a lot of fun.”