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VOL. 125 | NO. 104 | Friday, May 28, 2010

Music Engineers Cut Old Path With Vinyl Recordings

JOE BOONE | Special to The Daily News

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Mastering engineer Larry Nix brought Stax' record mastering lathe with him to Ardent Mastering after working for Stax Records from 1970-75.  Photo: Lance Murphey

Producing vinyl records – those albums that most people 40 and older grew up with – has rapidly become a lost art as technology has sent that format the way of the 8-track tape.

But a few local music engineers are turning back the clock by refurbishing a Neumann VMS 70 lathe – a machine that is used to cut vinyl discs – that Stax founder Jim Stewart began using in 1970.

Mastering engineer Larry Nix, owner of L. Nix Mastering Inc., and Jeff Powell and John Fry of Ardent Studios are using the lathe that was used to master vinyl recordings of many classic Stax recordings.

“We literally spent days in here replacing parts and electronics,” Nix said of refurbishing the antique equipment, which sells for about $49,000. “But now it’s in like-new condition.”

The lathe had fallen out of use because of economic pressures in the changing music industry. With the industry having long ago turned to compact discs as the preferred recording, and with people now downloading music, the market for music played on a turntable has diminished.

But vinyl has been making a comeback recently. Sales of compact discs have been slumping as MP3, Windows Media files and Apple have been claiming market share.

So while CD sales have been declining over the past decade, LP sales have been up. Many current artists are releasing their discs on vinyl and a lot of older albums are being re-pressed and re-released on vinyl – or pressed for the first time.

Soundscan, a music sales tracking service, reported a 33 percent increase in sales of vinyl LPs from 2008 to 2009, with sales soaring from 1.8 million to 2.5 million.

“I would love to see everything be more purist,” Ardent engineer Powell said.

Mastering audio for vinyl is a mechanical process, and it’s exactly the kind of process that digital media was supposed to price out of the market.

And the competitive pressure posed by digital recording and mastering were only part of the problem; distribution costs also effectively disappeared in a networked world. The lathe seemed doomed.

“I pretty much shut it down,” said Nix, who was the mastering engineer at Stax from 1970 to 1975 and has worked with prominent musicians like ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Al Green and Parliament.

Nix, who with his son, Kevin, has helped define the Memphis rap aesthetic, now maintains a separate studio within Ardent. He specializes in preparing mixed audio for its final format, be that radio, CD, television or vinyl disc.

With the lathe virtually obsolete, he made arrangements for the historic piece to go to a museum.

Powell asked him to demonstrate how it worked before it got away. When arrangements with the museum fell through, one client – Super 400 from Troy, N.Y. – lobbied hard to start using the lathe again.

“They were really, really persistent,” Nix said.

It is a daunting mechanical challenge to cut tiny grooves into hard plastic, and the margin for error is minimal given the high cost relative to digital mastering.

“If one thing goes wrong, you start over,” Powell said. “Making two or three cuts can ruin your profit margin.”

The process is also done in real time, which means the engineer must seamlessly cut not only all of the songs to disc, but the lead-in, the spaces between the songs and the loop at the end.

The groove is microscopic and must be precise, so there was a refurbishing challenge. Nix is mastering about one project per week, usually in combination with a separate digital master.

While most of the work once came from labels, Nix gets most of his business from independent producers.

The City Champs are a Memphis soul powerhouse and are gaining critical praise. Their album “Safecracker” was recorded without digital technology.

Engineer Scott Bomar, owner of Electraphonic Recording, tracked the album on a Stax-era tape machine and mastered the discs straight to vinyl.

“Watching Larry Nix master vinyl is something really special to behold,” Bomar said.

Powell sees the market for better audio and is glad to have had the opportunity to work with Nix.

“It’s a blast,” he said. “He’s (Nix) the master.”

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