FAQ: The Plastidisc primer on 'lathe cut records' for the uninitiated and/or curious.

I’ll attempt to answer most questions about the basics here, and the technical section will provide more information about what you’d need to know if you wanted me to make some records for you. Some of you may already know some or all of this, and a lot of it has been written about many times before, but this is my personal take on it all. Right, here we go.

Who are you?

Some records, yesterday…

I’m Ben. Obsessive record collector for 45 years, ex-DJ, musician of sorts with a few commercial releases to his name and.. er… other things. I also now make records in addition to the sounds that go on them.

What’s all this ‘lathe cut’ business then?

‘Lathe cut’ records are becoming more commonplace today for various reasons, as demand on the few remaining traditional record pressing plants increases, prices rise and resources dwindle, plus the market opens up for really limited runs of records. Even with the whole ‘vinyl is back, back, BACK’ hype of the past decade or so, many small labels and individuals find that it’s still jolly difficult to sell physical objects to people these days. Getting a pressing plant to run off less than 200-300 copies of something isn’t easy. Lathe cut records aren’t necessarily a ‘cheap’ alternative option, but you’re less likely to end up with half a pressing run sitting in boxes under the bed for 10 years.

But, ‘lathe cut‘…? Well, I didn’t come up with the term. First off, pretty much all vinyl records start off by being ‘cut’ on a ‘lathe’, with the creation of a master disc which then becomes the basis for hundreds or thousands of copies after some fairly intensive industrial processes. However, ‘lathe cut’ now seems to have become the generally accepted term for making records one at a time, cutting the groove directly into each plastic disc. Each one is therefore unique. This opens up a few interesting possibilities, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet.

What’s the difference between ‘lathe cut records’ and acetates, or dubplates?

Terminology and raw materials, really. A traditional acetate is an aluminium disc, coated with cellulose lacquer. In fact, they’re pretty much identical to the master discs which are the first stage in the record pressing process, but they were of a slightly lower grade of finish, and used to create one-offs in various stages of the recording process in major studios. They were once the only way of creating a one-off record, acetate cutting services for private individuals were commonplace from the 1950s to the 1990s, and some people still create them today when they can get hold of old blanks. A dubplate? Same thing, different name. The problem is that the cellulose surface was/is quite soft, and the results could only be played a fairly limited number of times before they literally wore thin.

An traditional acetate from my collection of oddities. Dropping the stylus onto it reveals a chapel service in Welsh. Not really the amazing unknown psychedelic band rehearsal from 1968 that everyone hopes to stumble upon with these things, but hey ho…

I make records in exactly the same fashion, but rather than into a soft acetate, the grooves are cut into a solid plastic that is more akin to the PVC used for pressed records. The upshot is that they look and feel almost identical to a pressing and, if looked after properly, will last just as long. Which brings us onto the matter of…

What do they sound like?

Right, here’s the rub. Yes, they can sound extremely good. There are some things to bear in mind, though.

Now, I’m not cutting my discs on a lovely old 1970s Neumann or Scully lathe because 1) hardly any of those exist these days, 2) they cost an absolute fortune on the rare occasions they come up for sale, and 3) even if I could find/afford one I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it. It’s a world inhabited by a very lucky few.

The more clued-up people out there may have noticed in the photos that I’m using a T560 VinylRecorder system. It’s a well proven piece of equipment, with many users across the globe. It might appear very basic, but it’s capable of creating remarkably high fidelity records. No, I wouldn’t dare to compare the results with those that can be achieved by an expert cutting engineer using high end equipment, but below here you should find a link to an audio file (wav format)….

In this file are three versions of a piece of my own music: the original mastered digital file, a version I cut myself, and a commercial pressing of it on black vinyl from 2018 – cut and manufactured by a very well known company – in that order. Both the pressed copy and the lathe cut are recorded using the same turntable and cartridge (a 50 year old Shure M75ED, should anyone care). I’ll let you make up your own minds about the differences between them, although bear in mind than comparing a digital file to *any* vinyl record is a bit of an apples/oranges scenario. What was a real surprise to me is that the commercial pressing actually played ever-so-slightly slow…

Here’s another example, 320k mp3 this time. A section of The Great Gig In The Sky from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, cut onto a 7″ at 45rpm. The source was the original 1987 CD version. I think it sounds quite nice.

One more? How about something that’s very stereo indeed? Here’s a snatch of Stereolab’s University Microfilms, again cut at 45 on a 7″. This is to show that, whilst maybe not having the same amount of width that a professional cutting set-up costing tens of thousands of [insert currency here] might be able to achieve, and certainly not compared to digital files (obviously), my records are definitely not in mono. Unless you wanted them to be, of course.

Obviously, the quality of the end product depends on many things, not least the original material supplied. With digital, you pretty much get out what you put in. With a basic process dating back over a century, and even the technologically refined form going back to the 1950s with little change since, it’s not like that. You can read more about that on the technical page. However, if you supply me with audio that doesn’t have ridiculous amounts of low or high end, isn’t dynamically compressed and brickwalled into a ‘loud’ sonic sausage, and you don’t want me to try and squash 9 minutes of cymbal crashes onto a 7″ single rotating at 33rpm, the results should be quite satisfying.

Funnily enough, I’ve been looking at the websites of other people who do this, and it’s all rather inconsistent. Some say they sound better than pressed records, some say they don’t. They then go on to list all sorts of weird reasons to back up their view. “There may be pops and crackles due to cutting debris…” Well, you’re not making the things right then, are you? “Lathe cut records sound better than pressed records because there are fewer stages in the manufacturing process…” Erm, that’s a rather broad sweep, no?

My view: You get great lathe cuts, you get shit ones. You get great pressings (occasionally), you get shit ones (all too often). I buy a lot of records, and 3 out of 5 times I’m hacked off with the product I receive. Warped discs, off centre stampings, scratches due to careless packing, and even actual faults in the original lacquer cut that somehow nobody managed to notice at the test pressing stage. Put it this way, if I was churning out stuff like that myself, I’d expect to go out of business within weeks. As it is, if a record I make isn’t up to the standard I would expect if I were buying it, it goes in the bin rather than in the post.

Right. Actually, looking around the internet, there seem to be a lot of people doing what you’re doing.

Yes, it does look like the market in lathe cut record cutting seems to have exploded recently, doesn’t it? Everyone and their cat seems to be at it. Call it bad timing on my part.

So, why would I use you?

A tricky one to answer, isn’t it? All I can say is that I’m confident that the discs I make look and sound very good, and I’m speaking as a very picky record buyer myself. Have a listen to the sound samples above, compare them to other people’s (if you can find any, that is) and make up your own mind. I should get a testemonials sort of thing going, shouldn’t I? Hmm…

Why aren’t you offering 12″ discs?

Ah! Well, I am now in a position to cut 12″ discs to the standards I demand. I will be updating the pricelist in due course, but for the moment get in touch if you’d like a quote. Prices will be dependant on running time, more than anything else.

This will hopefully change soon*, but at this moment I’m not happy with the levels of wow and flutter (layman’s term: wobbly sound) at the outer edges of a 12″. This is because the further out from the centre the cutting stylus is, the more force is needed to drag the disc around below it at a constant rate, and the good old 1210 in unmodified form just can’t manage it. So until I manage to upgrade the platter system, I’m only willing to do 7″s and 10″s.

Update, April 2020: very soon. Stay tuned.

Can I scratch using them or will they fall apart?

You can certainly use them for ‘turntablism’ work, yes. I would warn that the plastic compound the blanks are made from is possibly a little softer than the best pressings (although I have no proof either way on this, I’m not a scientist) so they might develop cue burn a bit faster if heavily used/abused. Now, I can’t say I’ve done any extensive tests in this field, as my ‘skills’ are decidedly lacking in that department, but from the little I’ve tried these discs seem to hold up very well indeed, and tons better than a styrene 45 or acetate!

Note: one thing I would say, and that nobody else seems to, is that the discs are less resistant to general abuse than a PVC record, in that careless handling is more likely to result in an audible blemish. The upshot is, you can play them as much as you like but try not to drag your fingernails across them or chuck them around the room. Unless you want a distressed sound, of course…

Can you make odd sizes and colours?

I can to an extent, but those blank discs would have to be ordered in especially. I’m more interested in making damned good sounding records that people can actually play and repeatedly enjoy than sonic novelty items, frankly, but let me know what you’re thinking of and I’ll see what I can do.

You said early on they aren’t necessarily a ‘cheap’ option. I just looked at the prices… you weren’t kidding, were you?

No, they aren’t ‘cheap’ in the way that you occasionally used to be able to buy a 7″ single in HMV for 99p, 20 years ago. But that was 20 years ago. These days you’d be lucky to be able to buy a 7″ single in HMV for £9.99. But that’s not really the point here anyway, remembering that I make each one of these individually. It’s not just a case of slapping a blank disc on, pressing a couple of buttons and waiting, then throwing it into a card mailer and *ker-ching!*

First off there’s the cost of the blank disc itself, then there’s the time spent working on the audio file to get the best results out of it, then the time spent getting everything prepped, making a test cut (maybe more than one), then the time actually making the final product. That initial prep time is the same no matter if you want one disc or 100. If you’re wanting more than one of the same thing, then obviously we can start to divide that time down per disc, hence the price getting cheaper the more I make. But then there’s still the time I spend making each subsequent record, the wear/tear on the cutting stylus and other equipment needs to be taken into account (they don’t last forever), electricity costs, the odd Pot Noodle and energy drink to stop me lapsing into unconsciousness etc. We all need to make a living, eh? How much does the average plumber charge per hour?

How quickly can you make records for me?

The video above shows me making a 7″ single for the excellent Castles In Space label. Each copy, of which there were 100, took the best part of 15 minutes to create.

So, it depends on how many you want, and how long each one is. It’s a real time process. For example: a two-sided 7″ single, with four minutes of audio per side. Obviously it’ll take eight minutes to cut the actual audio, but there’s more to it than that… preparing the blank disc, getting it up to the right temperature for cutting, engaging the lathe, checking everything, creating the runout and resetting the lathe at the end of the side, then repeating the process for the other side. Realistically, it’ll take the best part of an hour to make four of those. That’s after the time needed to assess the material, setup the equipment for it, and generally let everything ‘warm up’. There are no shortcuts. I can give more accurate estimates (??!) if you get in touch with your needs.

Note that I don’t have an automated system where you upload an audio file and your debit card details, and you just sit back and wait for the results to show up in the post. I work person to person, as every record is different and needs a different approach to manufacture. (The word ‘artisan’ really grinds my teeth, and I detest all that ‘hand crafted’ type cobblers that you see hanging on coffee shop walls in a myriad of offensive typefaces, but that is actually what I’m offering here. Yes, Mr. A. Hypocrite, at your service.)

So if you’re interested having some records made, please get in touch via email and we’ll converse. I’m quite an amiable sort of chap, honestly.

The business end of things – the cutting stylus. Yes, it is very small indeed.

Can you do labels and sleeves for me?

Labels… well yes, if you really need me to. I can supply blank labels with discs, either stuck to the records or separate on A4 sheets so you can print/rubber stamp/action paint them yourself. If you’re really stuck for printing options, and have artwork you want to use, then we can maybe sort something out (at extra cost, obviously) but they might not be as nice as a professional printing outfit could manage, or perhaps even yourself.

As for sleeves, the records come in plain inners as standard. Again, I could source plain card sleeves and the like but you’d be better off doing it yourself and getting creative with packaging. Screen printed sheets in poly bags, spray painted card, that sort of thing. It does make it all more special and desirable, at the end of the day. The days of identical injection-moulded records in identical paper sleeves are gone. You’re making your art in the music, why not extend the canvas to the physical object?

How do I get my sounds to you?

The easiest way is to upload them in digital format to a service like WeTransfer, send me the link and off we go. Get in touch beforehand though, don’t just throw files at me. WAVs or FLACs are preferable, please don’t send me scrappy 128k mp3s (or worse) as that’ll just prove unsatisfactory to everyone concerned. If you’ve got stuff on analogue tape, I can work from that to some extent (depending on the format – cassette obviously, 1/4″ half track at 7.5 or 15ips, or 1/4″ quarter track at 3.25 or 7ips) but it won’t be going through a warm dusty all-valve signal chain, I’m afraid to say. If you’ve got weirder ideas, well… I’m intrigued!

Any other questions? Get in touch…