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Unique recording event at Metropolis Studios

"Upstairs, Harry Potter like, there are hundreds of people in white suits, manufacturing pieces of lacquer and vinyl." Dave Robinson reports on a celebration of 60 years of vinyl

That was how the manager of Irish band Duke Special introduced the recording and mastering teams at a special event to celebrate 60 years of the 7-inch disc at Metropolis Studios in early March. In front of an audience of assembled media, competition winners and fans, the eight-piece performed in the Chiswick facility’s famous Studio A and attempted to record four tracks, through the SSL J Series and straight to vinyl, without a hiccough.

Duke Special – which have achieved multi-platinum status with their Songs From The Deep Forest album – chose four tracks including Why Does Anybody Love? and the first 45rpm disc, Eddy Arnold’s Texarkana Baby, originally issued by RCA in the US back in March 1949.

Following some intense rehearsal and technical checks, Studio A control room (Matt Lawrence and Nick Terry engineering/producing) synchronised with the mastering team two floors above as Duke Special played one run-through followed by one definitive performance of each song.

Crispin Murray and his team – mastering engineers Miles Showell and Noel Summerville – ensured that two Neumann cutters served up several shiny slabs of pristine vinyl history.

“It’s all analogue,” said Showell, relaxing with a beer for the first time that evening, just a few minutes after the fourth track had been committed to the platter. “We put in special tie-lines between Studio A [two floors below] and the mastering room, then tie lined between here and a second mastering room so that if one lathe fails we have a back-up copy… or if they sell millions of records, then they have an extra set of masters to worth from.”

Measuring the output of the cable, the team found a loss of a mere 0.1dB between the cutting machine and the control room, “almost like having the lathe there in the studio”, observed Showell. “So no tape machines, no digital delay, just straight from the mixing console into the lathe. There’s a limiter in the system, but unless a disaster happened in the studio – like someone knocking a mic stand over – it wouldn’t come into play.” A sudden huge transient could have damaged the cutter heads, and at five grand a pop, that’s not a risk Metropolis wished to take.

“I don’t know why this ancient technology of wavy grooves and a disc works so well, but it catches the sound of a room and a performance in a way that tape and digital can’t, even at super high resolution. I mean,” added Showell. “We have 96kHz 24-bit files recorded through Prism converters here – as good as it gets – but they just don’t have the life and the atmosphere we were hearing on the cut.” So, yes, there was a digital back-up too, but that was for a bonus track on a DVD or similar.

Between takes, Summerville, on the second lathe, could be seen checking the cut using the machine’s microscope. It all looked very medical.

“I’m checking that the groove looks clean, and the stylus has got to the end of the record in good condition; that it hasn’t picked up any muck or hit a rock in the lacquer and damaged itself. Also that there’s no groove collision which would result in a jumping record. I just check the last couple of turns; if that looks good, you can assume the previous few minutes of recording are good too.”

From Metropolis, the final discs would be going to the factory to be used as the master template to make a stamper.

“Up until the late 1940s this was how all records were made. That’s when tape really came in,” said Showell. “This method is much more seat-of-your-pants stuff. It’s a lost art – no one can make a mistake, from the guy playing triangle to the engineer in the studio. There’s no AutoTune here.”

It really is a testament to everyone involved, the band, the engineers, and the equipment. Though, of course, there was that slight hitch. “We were cutting with two lathes, as you know, and one of them didn’t fire properly first time. But we didn’t tell the studio, we just let it run, in case we missed the world’s greatest take with the first lathe.”

Would Showell and the team do it again?

“I was anticipating half an hour for each track, but the band were sensational and did it in half the time! They were absolutely awesome, really on it! So yes, we’d like to do an album! But then you’d have to do four songs on the trot and not make a mistake. That takes a real skill, from the band and everyone.

“But,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “that’s how it was done before.”