A gearhead with a mean vinyl fetish, Pete Lyman spends most of his time as co-owner and principal mastering engineer at Infrasonic Mastering getting down and dirty with the company’s Scully LS-76.
For those not in the know, this badass machine is a vintage piece dating back to 1978 and one of only a handful of functioning vinyl lacquer-cutting pieces in the world. The new mastering facility, opened four months ago in Echo Park, acts as a satellite to Lyman and business partner Jeff Ehrenberg’s East L.A. recording and mastering studio,Infrasonic Sound, which has created vinyl magic for the likes of Radiohead, Beck, the Mars Volta, Best Coast, No Age, Butch Walker, Wavves, Gogol Bordello, Daniel Johnston and Jason Falkner.
Lyman describes to Linda A. Rapka on a typically hot Echo Park summer afternoon the allure of the vinyl lathe and what keeps bands — and him — coming back for more.
Describe what happens within the walls of Infrasonic.
We handle mastering for vinyl, digital and CD. After completing an audio mastering session with the band, if they’re releasing their album on vinyl, we’ll also cut the lacquer master. There are a lot of other mastering houses (in L.A.) but many have stopped cutting vinyl.
You are known for direct to vinyl mastering. That just sounds sexy.
Direct to disc mastering is something we love. It was fairly common back in the heyday of vinyl. Most bands don’t do it these days because it’s a difficult process for everyone. The results are amazing when it’s done right, but it’s a one-shot deal. You’re literally tracking, recording, mastering and cutting on master vinyl lacquer all in one shot. So as soon as the song’s over, it’s done.
How did you get your hands on the Scully lathe?
Me and my partner Jeff and a bunch of our friends are all hi-fi and audio geeks, so we’re always scouring Ebay and the Internet for esoteric pieces of gear. My buddy Thes, who’s half of hip hop group People Under the Stairs, he’s a huge gearhead, one day emailed me this link and 30 minutes later we were getting ready to have it crated and shipped out here. We already had our Neumann vinyl cutting system, but we were really excited to get a second machine up and running. We have two vinyl-cutting machines, and the Scully 76 is one of I think five in existence right now. There are only two in the United States. Ours is highly modified, we run modified electronics on it and everything. This thing is running usually eight hours a day.
What’s the appeal? Why go that route aside from being able to say “that was awesome”?
Direct to disc may be kind of a novelty thing, but it’s the purest, ultimate analog recording you can get. There’s not even any tape involved. It’s straight to lacquer. It’s such a niche thing. As for vinyl in general, getting those test pressings back and hearing the album that you possibly spent months or years agonizing over, hearing it play back on vinyl, is an amazing experience.
Who’s your clientele?
We’re doing all sorts of stuff from local bands like Future Ghost, American Royalty and Superhumanoids to high profile records for the Avett Brothers, Fool’s Gold, No Age and singles for Radiohead and Madonna.
Who have you recorded direct to vinyl?
The very first session we did was for Beck, which was crazy — the pressure was on. Justin Mendel-Johnson, who plays bass with Beck, was at the studio one day. We told him we’d been doing that, and he went, ‘Oh my god, Beck would freak out.’ So then that happened. Now that we’re in the Echo Park studio with Vintage King downstairs — it’s an appointment-only pro-audio showroom but it’s actually set up like a recording studio — we want to start having bands play down there. We literally have the whole building wired so a band can be recording downstairs and we can be cutting the master up here. The last direct to disc session we did was for Gino Robair, a percussionist who plays with Tom Waits and a bunch of other people. We got to do a pretty cool avant-garde jazz thing. We have some plans to do a few more coming up soon. Unfortunately I can’t say who the artist is but it’s gonna be pretty amazing if we pull it off. They’re one of my heroes.
What was the Beck track?
We did a bunch of tracks, about two weeks worth. Unfortunately none of it was released. I think he had some personal reasons why he didn’t want to. The material turned out amazing and he has it all. Maybe he’ll end up doing something with it one day.
What happens when a band walks through these doors?
This is the next step after a band has completed tracking and mixing their record. Before a vinyl record can be cut, the audio itself must be mastered, which is the final step in preparing a record for replication. We’re equipped to handle both audio and vinyl mastering, which makes this an easy process for a band. After mastering the audio we cut a reference acetate, which they can play back to review. Then we use the same EQ settings to cut the actual lacquer. The master lacquer is sent to the vinyl pressing plant and goes through an electroplating process where basically they create metal parts from the lacquer. They spray it with a silver solution, dunk it in an electrically charged tank filled with nickel pellets, and the next day the nickel dissolves and adheres to the silver and they pull apart an exact reverse image of the record.
The birth of a record. It sounds so sci-fi.
It’s amazing. Then they make the metal stampers out of it. It’s basically like a waffle iron.
Is direct to disc recording expensive?
You’re spending more than you would for say, a digital-only release. That’s just the nature of releasing a physical product on a sensitive medium like vinyl. In the grand scheme of things though, a lot of independent bands are creating space in their budget and it’s a totally feasible part of the process. As for direct to disc recording, it’s expensive initially when you think about the price per day because you’re paying for three or four engineers — everything’s getting done at once, But in the end, once you think about it, it’s actually a cost savings because literally when you’re done playing that song, you have a record ready to go to the plant.
What happens if a band screws up the take?
You have to do it all again, including the cost of materials. And the materials are very expensive.
Has that ever happened?
Yeah. It happens all the time. Totally. But I mean the thing is, there’s the benefit of direct to disc, obviously it is such a niche thing. It’s all in the preparation. It’s all about rehearsing and making sure you know what you’re doing. And the engineers actually rehearse what they’re doing because they have one chance to get it right.
What advice do you give bands wanting to create a vinyl record?
Whether you want to do a direct to disc session or a vinyl release, really learn about vinyl. There are a lot of limitations. Focus on the source audio you’re providing, the sequencing of your tracks and the length of your album. You may be able to have 74 minutes on a CD, but you can’t do that on a single record. If you want your 12-inch LP to sound good you should keep it 18 minutes or under per side. There’s only so much space on a lacquer. On vinyl, there’s a higher noise floor than there is on a CD; you need to cut the program at an appropriate level. Things like bass frequencies – kick drums, bass guitar and low-end material cause the groove to swing back and forth, which takes up more physical space on the lacquer. As you start to cut longer material you have to cut it quieter, you may even have to EQ some of the bass out in order to get it to fit, depending on how long it is. Another issue is you start to lose fidelity as you start to get closer to the inside of your LP. In other words, you don’t want your loudest, anthem track at the end of Side A. The velocity increases as you get toward the inside of the lacquer, and basically gravity is trying to throw the stylus out of the groove the whole time, so that translates into distortion.
How did you learn all this?
Years ago I was with a friend of mine having lunch and he said, ‘I’ve got to go get a record mastered, you want to go?’ I said yeah. I met a guy named Richard Simpson who’s been a mastering engineer for 40-plus years now, he worked for RCA in the ’60s and ’70s and mastered all the great RCA records, David Bowie, Lou Reed, everything. I saw a lacquer get cut for the first time and I was just amazed. I freaked out and thought, this is so cool! He let me get really close to the lathe and watch what was going on. Some engineers try to hide information and make sure you don’t know what they’re doing, but he was really forthcoming and was excited that I was interested in it. We said goodbye and a couple of days later I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I walked back in and was like, ‘I’ll do whatever. I’ll scrub toilets every day, I don’t care. Let me learn how to do this.’ And for the next three years every day after my normal day job I would go in and work with him. Eventually he would go on vacation and I was cutting lacquers. Now he’s one of my partners.
Why do you do direct to vinyl?
You have to do it because you love it. Direct to disc isn’t a money making venture. When we cut a direct to disc lacquer for a band, we’re making very little money. The upkeep on the lathe is extremely expensive. When a part goes bad, you don’t go down to Walmart and find it. You fabricate it, or pull out the blueprints and start soldering. It’s frightening. Our lathe actually recently went down, it had a serious problem with one of the logic cards which controls everything, it blew a bunch of integrated circuits and capacitors and it took us four days to get it fixed. In the U.S. technicians who can work on these things, you can count them on one hand. And they’re getting older. So they’re difficult to maintain.
But it certainly sounds fun.
Yeah it’s fun! As soon as you leave I’ll be cutting lacquers until midnight.