“It’s not just a transfer. It’s a whole creative process and it can make or break how a record sounds.”
Chris Mara, owner of Nashville’s Welcome to 1979, is on the phone and we are getting nerdy. We’ve skipped over his analog heavy, locally beloved recording studio and the tape-machine repair service – both wonderful operations that could keep the reptilian-audiophile portion of the Songwriter brain churning for hours – and jumped right to the real nitty gritty: Welcome to 1979’s vinyl mastering operation and the lathe that makes it all happen.
The process of cutting a vinyl master is a thing of beauty. To witness – even on, say, a grainy cellphone video posted by Nashville instrumental outfit Steelism – the cutting needle make its incisions, to see ephemeral sound turned into physical grooves is just gorgeous. It’s the miracle of birth, the triumph of science turning at 33 1/3 RPMs and spinning out the magic of music.
“Have you ever taken a distillery tour, it’s just like that. It’s like, whoever figured this out?” says Mara. “You take whiskey and you put it through charcoal and you put it in a barrel and seven years later it tastes good? Same thing with vinyl.”
The charcoal in this instance is a drool-worthy stockpile of vintage and analog gear that has us thinking about dropping the $750 a day rate – engineer included, $550 if you bring your own knob-twiddler – just to test the sonic possibilities of harmonium, the Nashville-invented Lawson Plate Reverb and those sweet MCI tape machines. There’s a reason that folks like Jason Isbell, JEFF the Brotherhood and Hannah Aldridge have recorded here – sweet gear.
Welcome to 1979 is also one of a handful of – “maybe a dozen,” says Mara – spaces in the country cutting laquers for vinyl manufacturing, and the only one with its own studio that’s within spitting distance of the famous United Record Pressing. (Don’t worry, the crew at 1979 can master for all formats, be it CD or iTunes.) It’s a unique operation, one that allows artists on micro-budgets to be involved in almost every step of their album’s production.
“We’re positioned so well with United only seven minutes away we can just go pick up a test pressing and bring it back. There’s no shipping, if we cut a record, we drive it over there. So there’s no question if it was damaged in shipping,” says Mara. “We can make decisions based on fact rather than speculation.
“It’s a manufacturing process, this isn’t just stamping out CDs, things happen. So we don’t get frustrated if something goes wrong in plating because it’s a fucking miracle if everything goes right!”
Mara’s hearty laugh underscores the complexity of the process, and the number of factors that can affect the sound of a record. It’s easy in the digital era to forget that analog sound doesn’t just magically appear in analog formats – there is a whole lot of physics and chemistry and people in between points A and B.
“The biggest challenge is talking with artists about their expectations for a format they’ve never used before. We take it on with a smile. We want to educate people,” says Mara. “Mastering engineers too, because there is a generation gap. There are people that have been working for ten, fifteen years that have never mastered for vinyl before.”
“We don’t talk down to them, we have a real nice ethic towards it because two years ago we didn’t know. We’re not jaded or bitchy kind of people. We’re like ‘yo, check it out!’”
Mara’s enthusiasm for the craft of mastering and his desire to make the best sounding records he can has paid off. After an extended period of researching lathes and then actually finding one – “they never come up for sale” – he was able to have it restored and running within weeks, with help from Nashville mastering legend Hank Williams. From there the mastering operation exploded.
“Our goal was to have one record cut and into production by the end of the year and we did 250, just through some luck and skill.”
Those numbers speak volumes about Welcome to 1979’s craftsmanship and work ethic, but it says even more about the music industry. These days budgets are slim and competition steep, every bit of quality helps. Fans expect more than ever and for musicians that want to exceed and surpass those expectations without breaking the bank, Welcome to 1979 is their best resource. It’s a thing of beauty, really.