Of Fathers, Mothers and Sons, or:
How does the sound get into the recordgroove?


It still exists - the little group of LP-enthusiasts who even after more than ten years after introduction of the CD adheres rigidly to vinyl. Quite righteously, says Kai Seemann of the little label Speakers Corner, who is the only one in Germany to reissue LP's with classical music. His customers appreciate the 'warm sound', 'the atmosphere' of the LP which CD will never deliver. Truth or illusion? Arnt Cobbers traces the development of an LP. "For my taste there's no need for CD's", says Willem Makkee. And when playing back the freshly cut lacquer the listener is perplexed: no cracking, no scratching nor noise. Simply perfect quality emerges from the huge loudspeakers in the little LP-cutting studio in the north of Hanover. The Dutch is one of maybe twenty people who still cut records. He is one of three at Universal's which until recently was PolyGram and stood in the tradition of the oldest record company of the world - The Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, founded in 1898 by Emil Berliner who later emigrated to America.

As Senior Tape Mastering Engineer at Universal Recording Centre Makkee cuts the Speakers Corner-LP's and all Universal-Jazz LP's, but besides is busy with CD production.

Makkee needs a lot of sure instinct and musical feeling for his work although the record's basic principle is quite simple: music, just as any other sound, is transported by sound waves. These are picked up by a microphone and converted into electromagnetic waves. Earlier they were stored analogical as non-interrupted oscillation on tape, today on a CD in digitalized form, i.e. in numerical steps. The source for the classical music LP's from Speakers Corner are solely original analogue master tapes.

At the cutting room, to put it simply, the tape is played back via two little loudspeakers whose membrane is replaced by a cutting stylus. This stylus transfers the oscillations of these loudspeaker coils which are placed at a 90° angle towards each other into the lacquer, thus cutting a groove. This procedure is inverted when playing back the final record: the stylus picks up the modulations of the groove side-walls, transforming them again into electrical waves, finally coming out of the loudspeakers. But in real life it just is not as simple as that. On its way to the cutting lathe the signal from the tape is fed to a mixing console in order to regulate the signal level and, in case of absolute need, correct the sound balance. All these items have to be worked out deliberately in advance as the acetate can only be cut in one single pass. Anything which was forgotten or misbalanced might for example lead to excessive bass, and the whole procedure has to be repeated.

The sound is now cut into the lacquer which is placed on a carrier of aluminium. This lacquer is held in place by vacuum and rotates, like a big record, on a large and absolutely plane disk, which is extremely carefully balanced and secured against any irregularities. These cutting lathes are no longer produced nowadays. Makkee's machine dates from 1980, and if a part breaks he has to hope to get it from a retired employee of the manufacturer who once bought all remaining spare parts.

First of all Makkee has to adjust the cutting head. From this the quality depends just as much as from the quality of the sapphire or the diamond he uses to cut the groove. The groove is cut in a combination of both depth and width. Looking through a microscope the excursions of the groove can be seen clearly.

One empty cut lasts about forty minutes. The louder the music and / or the more bass, the wider the groove will become, the less music will fit on the LP side. Quite clear also, the higher the record's speed, the more the soundquality will increase as there is more groovelength per second, the information doesn't have to be so clustered.

Having cut the lacquer Makkee will listen very carefully to it in order to discover mistakes. When everything is ok, he has to repeat the entire cutting process. And now he needs trust in God, as the second lacquer goes unheard inside a tinbox to the pressing plant (although he might listen to the feedback during the cutting process).

As in the last years only CD's have been pressed in Hanover, the lacquers for Speakers Corner go to 'Pallas', a company located in Diepholz, south of Bremen, one of four pressing plants in Germany.

The factory would not be able to live from the production of LP's only; here also CD is the main business, DVD maybe in the future. After a low in 1994/95 LP production is rising again. Still many customers have their music preserved on CD, LP and music-cassette. Decisive for the survival of the LP are the disk-jockeys who in the evening mix their music by themselves in the discotheque and who work with effects made by scratching which is moving the LP's to and fro, a technique which can only be done with LP's. At Pallas alone about four million LP's were produced in 1999. 15,000 pieces can be pressed in one day in Diepholz.

And now begins the curious family history of the LP, one side of the LP to be precise, where the lacquer is the 'grandfather'. It is covered with a very thin layer of silver and immersed into a galvanic bath containing a nickel-solution. Put current to it, and the nickel will deposit on the silverplate. When the nickel-layer has reached a certain thickness, the plate is taken out and the nickel-cover is removed. This 'father' who has fine banks and risings, being the 'negative' or the grandfather, again is given into a galvanic bath and now produces the 'mother', which has grooves just like the original lacquer. This is played on a turntable for control. Mother also takes a bath, thus creating a 'son' who is the definite pressing workpiece. The entire family bath takes about three hours.

Und nun beginnt die kuriose Familiengeschichte der LP, genauer gesagt einer LP-Seite, bei der die Lackfolie gleichsam als Großvater agiert. Die Folie wird zunächst dünn mit Silber beschichtet und kommt in ein Galvanikbad mit einer Nickellösung. Schickt man Strom durch das Bad, setzt sich der Nickel auf der Silberplatte ab. Wenn die Nickelschicht eine bestimmte Stärke erreicht hat, wird die Platte herausgenommen und die Nickelschicht abgezogen. Dieser "Vater", der als "Negativ" statt Rillen feine Dämme und Erhebungen zeigt, wird erneut in ein Galvanikbad gegeben und produziert nun seinerseits die "Mutter", die wie das Original wieder Rillen aufweist und zur Kontrolle erstmals abgespielt wird. Auch die "Mutter" nimmt dann ein Bad und erzeugt einen "Sohn", die eigentliche Pressmatritze. Der reine Familienbadetag dauert ungefähr drei Stunden.

Doch zwischendurch schlägt die Stunde des "Mutterstechers" Helmut Scholz. Und der freut sich über jede Speakers Corner-Platte. Schließlich sind Techno- und House-LPs sein tägliches Brot. Scholz sitzt in einer kleinen schallisolierten Box und hört mit ohrenbetäubender Lautstärke die "Mütter" auf Knackgeräusche ab. Wird er fündig, hält er den Plattenspieler an, greift zu Mikroskop und Stichel und holt aus der Rille die störenden Restpartikel heraus. Ein Job mit riesiger Verantwortung, denn wenn er die "Mutter" für die weitere Produktion freigegeben hat, lässt sich ein übersehener Fehler nicht mehr korrigieren. Rund zehn Knacker pro Seite findet er; überhört hat er in seinen vielen Berufsjahren kaum etwas, attestieren ihm die Kollegen.

Sind nun die Vorder- und Rückseitenfamilien mit ihren jeweiligen "Söhnen" komplett, nähert sich die LP ihrer Vollendung. Denn die "Söhne" bilden nun die Pressvorlage für das Vinyl, eine PVC-Mischung. Es kommt als handlicher Klumpen in eine Pressmaschine und wird dann mit einem Druck von 100 Tonnen zwischen die zwei Matritzen gepresst. Das Papieretikett wird direkt dazugepresst und das erklärt auch, warum man ein LP-Etikett nicht abziehen kann.

But in between comes the hour of 'mother carver' Helmut Scholz, and he is glad for every Speakers Corner record as Techno- and House-music are his daily bred... He sits in a small isolated box and listens to the 'mothers' at deafening volume to find cracks. If he finds one, he stops the turntable, takes microscope and needle and picks the troublesome particles out of the groove. An extremely responsible job as once he has given the 'mother' free for production there is no way back to correct a mistake which had been overlooked. He finds about ten cracks on each side, but he has rarely missed anything in all his years as his workmates attest.

Now that fore- and reverse sides are complete with their related 'sons', the LP draws near completion as the 'sons' form the pattern for the vinyl, a mixture of polyvinylchloride. The latter comes into the machine as a handy lump and is pressed by about 100 tons between the two stencils. The paper labels are put directly on the vinyl just before pressing which explains why you can't remove them.

Viel Aufwand insgesamt für eine gute Stunde Musik. Noch einmal die Frage also, ob berechtigt oder spleenig? Willem Makkee hat eine einleuchtende Antwort: Das Analogband nimmt theoretisch Frequenzen von 0 Hz bis unendlich auf, das Frequenzspektrum einer digitalen CD ist begrenzt. Für den "normalen" hörbaren Bereich macht das keinen Unterschied, doch das Ausklingen der Instrumente im Raum wird vom Analogband, und also auch von der LP, komplett wiedergegeben, während es bei der CD abgeschnitten wird und das hört man mit geschulten Ohren.

Just like Willem Makkee, Walter Kock, the Technical Director at Pallas, must hope that his machines do not break down. It is true that Pallas bought old machines in order to have spare parts in store, but some special parts Kock already had to have custom-built - there are no new pressing machines.

Also at pressing the Speakers Corner records take an exceptional position. Whilst a normal LP weighs about 120 grams, the classical-music LP's weigh around 180 grams so they won't bend. Furthermore they are made of virgin vinyl whilst the outer edge which is cut off after pressing will normally be reused. After a last sightcontrol the records cool down for about 24 hours before they are packed into the covers by industrious employees.

A lot of pain for one hour of music. So again the question, is this justified or overdone? Willem Makkee has a convincing argument: theoretically the analogue tape records frequencies from 0 Hertz to infinite whereas the frequency spectrum of a CD is limited by its nature. For the ordinary audible range this doesn't make too big a difference, but the ceasing of instruments in a room is played back completely by the analogue tape and thus from the LP whereas it is cut off on the CD - and with a trained ear this can clearly be heard. On the other hand the cutting of an LP is a mechanical process, and every mechanics has a life of its own. Sonically seen it wouldn't make sense to press those of today's recordings which were stored directly in a digital format on LP as the frequencies are already cut off.

It will remain a matter of taste how important one considers the 'atmosphere' of an old recording. And as far as that is concerned, Makkee is absolutely convinced of the authenticity of his LP's.

Two titles are produced monthly by Speakers Corner, located in Kiel, without exception reissues from the archives of the great record companies - including the original cover. Now that label-chief Kai Seemann has reissued 'all essentials' of the DECCA he now devotes himself to Jazz and classical pop music. Every LP has an edition of about 3,000 pieces, best-sellers reach far higher circulation. Distribution goes via 100 active dealers, but almost two thirds of the production are sold abroad by Speakers Corner.

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