MAK­ING THE CUT

David Rawl­ings and Gil­lian Welch are tak­ing an old-school ap­proach to record­ing, writes Neil Shah

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - The Har­row & the Har­vest Poor David’s Al­manack

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

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