Interview: Mike Dixon of LatheCuts.Com
What is a lathe cut record and how are they made? I asked Mike Dixon at LatheCuts.com to answer some questions that will hopefully make things a little clearer.
First of all, please explain what a lathe cut record is and how it differs from a normal vinyl record.
A lathe cut is a record that is made one-at-a-time, in real time, as opposed to mass produced using the pressing process. It is the first step in the pressing process done over and over again. If you PRESS a record they have to:
1) Cut Master on lacquer blank ($250)
2) Make plates (molds) ($220-$300)
3) Place molds on press ($50 set up)
4) Press X number of records. ($1.50 each)
Lathe cuts are done on inexpensive polycarbonate plastic and vintage mono Semi-pro mastering machines, instead of extremely expensive lacquers and 1980’s stereo cutting lathes the size of a living room couch. They can be done in limited quantities because they do not require all of the setup of molds and expensive lacquers. They are much more experimental and DIY, where as a pressed record is a known, 100+ year old industrial process. Because of this, lathe cuts tend to be of lower audio fidelity, with shallower grooves. When they are done right, they are comparable to a cassette tape, fidelity wise. They are totally listenable and can sound pretty good, but they are not for audiophiles or people who are extremely picky. It’s a trade off, if you can sell 300+ records (a standard minimum order), you are better off pressing it, but if you can only sell 20-40 records, lathe cuts are a good option.
What got you into lathe cutting and when did you start your business?
I originally started ordering lathe cuts through Peter King in New Zealand. He was the original, and still the best, lathe cutting engineer. He’s been doing it since the 80s. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use the internet at all, so you had to call him or send him post to New Zealand and bank transfer money to him. He also was so backed up that sometimes it would take almost a year to receive my records.
So, I started looking around for my own machine to try it myself. After spending a year buying broken machines on ebay (if it says As-Is or Untested, you can bet that it really means “totally broken and nearly unrepairable”. I eventually found a guy in Seattle (I was living in Olympia, WA) that had a working unit, and bought it from him. Then I spent the next 3 years learning how to use it, the hard way. I ruined more $100 cutting needles and $12 lacquer dubs than I care to count.
Cutting records is not at all like burning cd-rs. I have so many bands contact me and say “Hey man, I want to buy a lathe and cut some records for my band, do you have one for sale?” But, it’s not that easy. It takes a LOT of money and a LOT of time to get even mediocre results. At this point I have spent far more time and money buying equipment and learning how to use it than I did on a 5 year marketing degree from a university. This has been my hobby, my passion, and my singular obsession for the last 7 years, and I feel like I am just now getting somewhat of a grasp on it. When I had a full time job I spent at least 40 hours a week at night and on the weekends cutting records and experimenting. Now that it is my full time job, I spend at least 60 working on lathe stuff.
Can you tell me a little bit about the equipment you use?
I have several different types of machines, but the main ones that I use are Presto 6Ns. They were the most common “semi-pro” machines made in the 1940s and early 50s, and were used mostly in Radio Stations. They are much easier to find/make parts for, compared to other models like Fairchild or Rek-O-Kut. I always refer to them as the Volkswagen Beetle of record cutters… they run forever and are (relatively) easy to repair. Presto 6Ns are most likely the only lathe I will ever run on a regular basis. I have owned many different ones, but I like these the best.
I actually didn’t know about this technique until a few weeks ago when I first bought a lathe cut 7”. I made a quick search and it looks like quite a few people are in the business. Are you getting a lot of orders?
There are only 4 or 5 people in the world that do this for hire, but there are probably another 20 hobbyists that dabble in it and only cut records for themselves. All of the guys that cut lathe cuts for hire know each other and share information. We all have our own little specialties and slightly different ways of doing things. And we are all very busy. There is plenty of work to go around, so it rarely gets competitive between us. This is a very time consuming process. To make 20 records with 4 minutes per side would take about 5-6 hours with audio downloading, processing, test cuts, tweaks, disc prep, side flips, labeling, packaging, mailing, etc. So, if you can only do one or two jobs in a day, it’s hard to have quick turnaround time. Most of us are backed up by a couple of months.
I can definitely see bands going with this due to the small runs you can get. Apart from that, why should people get their music on this format?
Obviously the small run is the main draw. There are very few bands anymore that can sell 300-500 records. Unless you play constantly and tour, or have a cult internet following, if you press a record, you will end up with a LOT of extra copies in your basement. I have $25,000 worth (at cost) of pressed records that I can’t sell (from my label, PIAPTK.com) sitting in my friends garage in Seattle.
Besides the cost, the low runs allow you to make very nice packaging for them: hand painted, silkscreened, letterpressed, etc. I always tell bands to treat these like Art Pieces, not like records. If you sell them like just a plain record, then people are going to wonder why they are so expensive and they don’t sound quite as good as a regular record. If you treat them as a hand-made art piece, people understand the value in them a little better.
To compare it to visual art, you could say that a pressed record is going to be similar to an Andy Warhol poster you buy for $5 at a museum gift shop. They print is flawless, but they made thousands of them on a huge industrial machine. A lathe cut would be like buying silkscreened original of that print that Warhol made himself. It will have small variations and imperfections, but it was made by a person, not a machine. And a lot of people and collectors appreciate the hand made aspect of them.
You’re currently on a record cutting tour, right? Tell me little bit about that.
I have a business called MobileVinylRecorders.com. We travel to festivals, parties, and events and cut high quality lacquer dub plates on site, in front of audiences. We have worked at Coachella, Sundance Film Festival, Pitchfork Festival, SXSW, a three week residency for Converse in LA, etc. We are currently in Paris, France for a month working for Converse Shoe Company at their VIP lounge on the canal. Because it is very expensive for us and our gear to travel, we tend to only do high-end events, and we usually use high quality (and expensive) lacquer dubs, which sound just as good as a pressed record. Companies with marketing budgets can afford them, but most bands can’t, which is why I usually sell bands plastic records, and not lacquers.
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