MAKING THE CUT
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch are taking an old-school approach to recording, writes Neil Shah
Folk music duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were frustrated by the quality of vinyl LPs being produced, so they have decided to cut their records themselves. “What people do nowadays is take a digital file and just run vinyl off that,” says Rawlings, a lanky musician who plays a 1935 Epiphone Olympic guitar. “In my mind, if we were going to do it, I wanted to do it the way the records I love were made — from analog tapes.”
The Nashville-based singer-songwriters, who gained fame with the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000, spent $100,000 buying their own record-cutting contraption in 2013. The cutting lathe makes the master copy of a record — the one sent to a pressing plant for mass reproduction. The couple’s first LP, a reissue of their 2011 Grammy-nominated The Harrow & the Harvest, has just been released.
Welch and Rawlings have gone to extreme lengths to solve a problem many music aficionados say is an open secret in the music industry: amid the resurgence of vinyl records in recent years, the quality of new LPs often leaves much to be desired.
Old LPs were cut from analog tapes — that’s why their sound quality is so high. But most of today’s new and reissued vinyl albums — 80 per cent or more, experts estimate — start from digital files or even lower-quality CDs. These files are often loud and harsh-sounding, optimised for ear-buds, not living rooms. So the new vinyl LP is sometimes inferior to what a consumer hears on a CD.
Michael Fremer, editor of AnalogPlanet. com and one of the world’s audio authorities, says time and money are the main factors behind the decision not to use original tapes when reissuing albums. “They have the tapes,” he says. “They could take them out and have it done right — by a good engineer. They don’t.”
As more consumers discover this disconnect, vinyl sales in the US are starting to slow. In the first half of 2015, sales of vinyl records globally had jumped 38 per cent compared with the same period the previous year, to 5.6 million units, Nielsen Music data shows. A year later, growth slowed to 12 per cent. This year, sales have risen a modest 2 per cent. It’s a vastly different story in Australia, though, with sales of vinyl spiking 70 per cent in 2015-16. ARIA’s most recent figures show sales here jumped from $8,910,937 in 2015 to $15,160,458 in 2016. It is the sixth consecutive year the industry has seen an increase in the demand for vinyl.
When labels advertise a reissued classic as mastered from the original analog tapes, the source can be more complicated. Sometimes they are a hotchpotch of digital and analog.
Rawlings says a Netherlands-based label, Music On Vinyl, used a CD to make vinyl copies of Welch’s 2003 album Soul Journey, getting a licence from Warner Music Group. Welch and Rawlings, who didn’t have rights to release the album in Britain, found out when fans saw the vinyl selling on the internet. They successfully convinced Music On Vinyl to destroy the 500 copies that had been pressed, reimbursing the firm €3300 for its costs.
Major labels say they use original analog masters when possible. Sometimes tapes are too brittle to be used for making a vinyl master. Low-quality reissues may be the result of less reputable labels that can’t afford to shell out big bucks for engineering and record-pressing, says Billy Fields, a veteran vinyl expert at Warner Music Group.
Today’s digital files can sound fantastic — especially for hip-hop and dance music. But engineers say they need to be mastered separately for vinyl to have the right sound. To meet deadlines for releasing new albums, labels can’t always cut vinyl to the absolute best audio quality, says Fields.
Another culprit for vinyl’s slowdown in the US is cost: Sheldon estimates vinyl has gone up $US4 to $US6 an album in recent years. Socalled “180-gram” or “audiophile” records, marketed as higher quality, can cost $US30 to $US40. Their heaviness makes them more stable during playing, Sheldon says, and such records might last longer, but any sound differences are “very marginal”.
As low-quality vinyl proliferates, Welch and Rawlings are taking the high road. It took five years to get their record-cutting equipment up and running. Once they bought their lathe, they found a tech to do the job. “The scientists who developed how to cut good stereo were the brightest people in our country at that time,” Rawlings says. With their trusted mastering engineer Stephen Marcussen, the team customised the lathe for Welch and Rawlings’s sparse, haunting acoustic music.
Songs are generally recorded in a studio digitally today. (In the case of Welch and Rawlings, they chose to record using analog tape.) A mastering engineer then finetunes the recorded music. Using a lathe, the music is engraved on to a lacquer, the technical term for the master copy.
A cutting lathe is a rare, arcane piece of equipment. It makes a lacquer, the original copy of a record, which is sent to a pressing plant to be duplicated. Only a few technicians still know how to fix cutting lathes. Most of them have died.
The vinyl version of The Harrow & the Harvest is “mesmerising”, says Fremer. This month the couple, which often records as simply Gillian Welch, will release a new album, Poor David’s Almanack, under the name David Rawlings, before re-releasing more old albums. Having launched a label and souped up a derelict Nashville studio years ago, they may cut and reissue albums by other artists, they say, effectively becoming a full-service, vertically integrated — if tiny — old-school music company.
Welch and Rawlings, whose careers took off as the CD era crashed into the age of iTunes, feel that putting out vinyl now brings them full circle. “It’s like an author who has only ever released an ebook,” Rawlings says.
“You see a book in print and bound, and you feel like you’ve finally done what you were aiming to do.” Amazon; Friday by Acony Records. on vinyl is available at is released on
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch