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Guest Column – Confessions of a vinyl cutter by Abbey Road's Miles Showell

ColumnsPaul Stokes
Guest Column – Confessions of a vinyl cutter by Abbey Road's Miles Showell

abbeyroadmicsWith pressing plants currently running overtime getting this year's Record Store Day (18 April) releases ready, not to mention the wealth of albums now available on vinyl Abbey Road Studios' mastering engineer Miles Showell, reflects on 30 years at the cutting edge, and how records spun round again.

The vinyl revival is a phenomenon that has taken parts of the music industry by surprise. This is hardly unusual, as the death of the format has been forecast so many times over my career that I have lost count. I can even recall my father saying to me when I applied for my first job as a trainee disc-cutter 30 years ago, “Are you sure you want to be getting into this old technology given the rise of the CD?” Although I may have wobbled once or twice over my career, I never lost faith in the format as I well know that in the right hands it can be – and frequently is – a format that can win over both hi-fi fans and music lovers alike.

I was trained in the art of disc cutting at Utopia Studios in Chalk Farm, London. Following that I moved to studios in Fulham, then Chiswick, before settling at my current home: Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood. Throughout this, I have never been very far from a disc cutting lathe so the resurgence of sales of vinyl albums is a source of great happiness for me.

While it would be foolish to be inextricably linked to a single format, mastering for vinyl records gives me by far the most job satisfaction. It keeps me on my toes as there are so many more things to go wrong, it can catch fire (literally), distort, jump, be too loud or too quiet. If I really get it wrong, I could destroy the delicate cutter head which is frighteningly expensive and difficult to get re-built (a specialist job that only three people in the world can undertake). Recent vinyl projects for me include: Underworld, The Who, Above & Beyond, Biffy Clyro, Tori Amos and a forthcoming boxed set containing all the studio albums for Roxy Music.

Many of these were half-speed mastered. This is a mastering format I have spent the past 12 or so years working to re-introduce. Half-speed mastering is where the disc cutting lathe and the source are run at half the normal speed allowing the recording stylus twice as long to carve the intricate groove. This results in the highest possible quality cut with lower distortion better stereo separation and far cleaner sounding high frequencies (treble). Ultimately, if I cannot cut good sound quality into the groove in the first place then no record deck, regardless of price, can recover it.

Recently I oversaw a fabulous session where Gorgon City and Underworld each did a live set from Studio One at Abbey Road in front of 500 or so fans. I was charged with cutting a track from each band all live, direct to a vinyl disc master while the set was going on. No tape, no computer workstations, no digital delays and no hiding for the bands. It was all live and being cut exactly as it happened. There was a huge screen next to the stage showing me running the cutting lathe while they played.

At Abbey Road, we offer an Online Mastering service. This is where anyone from anywhere in the world can pay online, book a session with their engineer of choice and upload their track. We do the mastering and send it all back to them. Cutting vinyl masters is something we also offer online, but that doesn’t happen very often with online sessions. It is such a personal and tactile process that many of our clients prefer to attend the cutting session and watch it happening. I have had people stand over the lathe, watching the cutter head build up their master cut revolution by revolution. All the time there are people who want to release vinyl records, I will be not very far away offering the service of mastering for vinyl. I love it.

Finally, although a great many of the masters I cut these days are of rock albums, rock fans actually owe a huge debt to the dance music culture of the 1990s and early 2000s. In this period I spend pretty much every day cutting one dance 12 inch single after another; as at that time it was the club DJ’s format of choice. Although clubs and DJs have largely moved on from vinyl these days, there is absolutely no doubt that dance music saved the vinyl format for everyone, as it kept the best vinyl mastering houses and pressing plants busy and therefore in business. So while rock fans and dance music fans may not very often have a huge amount in common, they have this bond at least. Miles Showell @miles_showell

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