YOU CAN SAY vinyl is back; you can say vinyl never left. What's certain is that record collectors and bands alike continue to have an undying, perhaps unconditional love for the format. Having one's songs issue forth from spiraling grooves of vinyl instills pride like no other format, and while vinyl remains very old technology, it offers a warmth and humanness that many audiophiles insist is the purest method of reproducing music. Almost all anecdotal evidence suggests they're right.
Adam Gonsalves of Portland-based Telegraph Mastering (telegraphaudio.com) acquired a vinyl lathe a couple years ago, and his mastering studio is one of only two in Portland that can cut a stereo vinyl lacquer. (Sky Onion Mastering has the other; Fred and Toody Cole, meanwhile, famously own the 1954 mono lathe that originally cut the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie"—it sits in their Clackamas home, where they used it to cut their Dead Moon sides.) Lacquers are the master records that get sent to the pressing plant, and Telegraph's ability to make pro-quality stereo vinyl masters in the city limits have made it an indispensable service for bands and labels in a town where buying local has become part of the value system.
While the vinyl-mastering component of Telegraph's services is relatively new, Gonsalves has been mastering music for years. "When I was in bands as a teenager and in my early 20s," he says, "I was always the guy who was standing over the engineer's shoulder: 'What are you doing? What's that? What's going on?'" Gonsalves worked as a mix engineer before entering the music technology masters program at New York University, which is where he discovered the art and science of mastering. He fell in love with it almost immediately.
"This is the last creative step and the first technical step," he says. "It's the link between the creative process and the manufacturing process, or the distribution process and dissemination process. And I'm a creative guy and I play music, but I'm also technical in that way. It really was the perfect marriage for me."
The first incarnation of Telegraph was in Oakland, and when Gonsalves and his wife decided to move back to her hometown of Portland, Gonsalves built the one-room mastering studio in the garage next to his home in Southeast Portland. It's a small but state-of-the-art affair that he designed with acoustics being of paramount importance. Gonsalves' desk sits in the center of the room, surrounded by acoustically treated surfaces on the walls and ceiling. The lighting is low; the distractions are few. This is a room for listening.
Gonsalves spends many days entirely on his own, often only seeing others when he stops by UPS to ship his masters to the pressing plant. As far as music-biz jobs go, mastering isn't glamorous, but it is a rewarding one, requiring extreme attention to detail as well as the ability to see the broad picture. It also exposes Gonsalves to all types of music.
"The recording and mixing process can take weeks or months, whereas I can master a record in a day, or two days," he says. "That's one of the things I really like about it—the pace. Monday you can be working on a dance record, Tuesday you can be working on a metal record, Wednesday it's indie pop. I really like that, and I like shifting gears in that way. The only genre of music that I haven't done yet is opera."
The Scully lathe, on which Gonsalves makes the vinyl masters, is Telegraph's pride and joy. This particular lathe was one of roughly a dozen or so lathes that were in use around the clock at MCA Records' Los Angeles mastering facility in the 1960s. Gonsalves became aware of the machine as it was sitting dissembled in a storage facility in El Cajon. Over two years, he restored it with Len Horowitz, a former mastering engineer at MCA who'd worked on this particular machine and others like it. Under the careful tutelage of Horowitz (Gonsalves lovingly describes him as a "crotchety old taskmaster"), Gonsalves was able to learn the lathe and the lacquer-cutting process, inside and out.
"It's very, very rare to find one of these things that's not being used by somebody—because nobody makes them anymore, and nobody will. It's done," Gonsalves says. "But they're such robust machines that, as long as you haven't mistreated them, they'll last forever. It's metal on metal. All of this stuff is so well built, if you take care of it it's not going to break. It'll outlive five owners."
Gonsalves walks me through the vinyl-cutting process, as he makes lacquers for both a 7-inch single and a 12-inch album for a Greek metal band. It's a straightforward but detail-oriented process, with the ruby stylus cutting into the lacquer based on the music's vibrations. The stylus moves in a 360-degree matrix; grossly oversimplified, it cuts downward for bass frequencies, and laterally for high-end. As the record spins, tiny slivers of lacquer are kicked up by the stylus and get sucked into a vacuum; they're called "hot chips."
When Gonsalves is done, he sends the lacquers to whichever pressing plant his client is working with, where it's dropped into a huge tub of electrically charged fluid that has heavy balls of nickel in the bottom. The nickel electroplates to the lacquer, and when it's removed from the fluid, the metal version is peeled off, destroying the lacquer in the process. That metal imprint then becomes the stamper for the record's vinyl pressing.
With vinyl, the challenge becomes getting the best sound on a finite amount of space. "Vinyl is old technology," Gonsalves says. "There was no way for them to anticipate how bright records are these days. You can do anything in digital; you can make the hi-hat 60 decibels louder than anything else. With vinyl, because of the way the sound is transcribed, you can't do that. Grooves will crash into each other, and you might even smoke a cutter head—you'll break something."
It may be that necessary limitation of frequencies—a low bass frequency can cause the needle to jump, and sharp high-end frequencies get smeared and rounded—that keeps drawing listeners to the warm sound of vinyl. While it's firmly become a niche market, in the past decade vinyl has become more popular, and certainly more prestigious, than it's been since the advent of cassettes in the early '80s. With Gonsalves operating his vintage Scully lathe, Portland musicians have the option to get that last creative step of the record-making process completed close to home.