Vinyl Factory Tour: Part 2
by B. Rica on July 03 '06
(Read Part One)
AcousTech Mastering -- a joint venture between Acoustic Sounds and RTI, hence the name-- can be easily held responsible for a great deal of RTI's quality level. When famed audiophile speaker maker Wilson Audio closed their record division in 1994, Chad Kassem and Don MacInnis purchased all their equipment. RTI already had an acoustically isolated and treated mastering room, and adding a cutting lathe to the mastering process meant lacquer processing is possible within minutes after being cut, reducing common lacquer problems such as heat, bubbles and such to essentially zero. Thus, a big step forward in regards to quality control. Kevin Gray (above, in his trademark glasses, mustache and cap) and Steve Hoffman have co-produced a lot of mastering jobs for countless bands over several decades, including most every artist that has been over the Top 40 radar.
The smallish mastering room (barely 200 square feet) was packed with about 30 of us gathered in there. Therefore, taking decent pictures of the facilities proved to be a real challenge. However, we all could see all the nice gear Steve and Kevin have at their command to “make the magic happen,” and the custom speaker and room treatment system, designed and built by Kevin Gray himself.
AcousTech’s pride and joy is this Neumann VMS 70 cutting lathe, to which the final mastering signal is fed into a virgin lacquer. A microcomputer system (below) controls the cutting head for proper groove spacing, cut depth and overall performance. Cutting a perfect lacquer is an entire art in itself, and doing it right can be extremely difficult for engineers unexperienced in analog matters. Kevin Gray has written some thoughts and tips on the matter over the years, which can be found on the RTI site.
Another valuable asset at Acoustech is this vintage Studer reel-to-reel deck to transcribe original master tapes to lacquer. As a matter of fact, Steve told us it can often be a legal and logistics nightmare to try get the original master tapes from the major labels (indie labels are far easier to do business with), but truth be told, considering the level of quality standards clients like Classic Records demand, they simply can’t do with anything less. For this time, they had a couple of master tapes on the studio for us to audition - a vintage ,1950s stereo recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Fever”, and let me tell you, I never had heard Ella before being so there, so alive, and so just-right-in-front-of-you singing like only she ever could. Forget SACD or even DSD: If you want the closest thing to get into a time machine and be right there with the musicians, nothing ever matches the magic from straight reel-to-reel. The next tape was the original master of side A of Yes’s Fragile LP (a reissue seems to be in the works). You may think that 30+ year old tape is about to fall apart, but a listen to the first choruses of Roundabout, played through Acoustech’s studio system may make you wish you carried a pack of Huggies with you. You haven’t heard how deep, solemn and dramatic can the song intro be until you hear it straight from the source with pitch black background (no hiss at all!), and when all instruments break in, oh my god -- you just have Jon Anderson and company right there in front of you. It doesn’t get more real than this.
Now, do these goosebump-inducing sonics make it entirely to the reissue LPs? After listening to several Classic reissues, I have to state that they are doing perhaps the most faithful, honest analog transfers today than anywhere else, retaining as much of the original master tape’s dynamics and sound as it is possible to imprint on a vinyl groove. This system won’t make a bad master sound good though - although Kevin and Steve showed us the work nothing short of miraculous they are currently doing for the forthcoming LP release of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ new album, Stadium Arcadium. For some odd reason, RHCP has never seemed to pay much attention to the sonics of their albums, which too often feature bloated bass, massacred midrange and uber-hot, saturated volume and compression levels. Which is a pity since this band really knows its California-style funk. Hopefully Kevin Gray’s analog cutting experience and Steve Hoffman’s golden ears will turn the Stadium Arcadium LP release into a major success for the band.