In the week before Christmas, Americans bought more than 1.2 million vinyl albums, the most since the 1980s. And overall, 2019 was another year of double-digit growth for the venerable format, continuing a trend that started about a dozen years ago.
The so-called vinyl revival is the consumer end of a broader movement back to analog music making. Behind those records being pressed and sold for the 21st century music marketplace is an invisible world of techniques and technologies that were perfected in the 20th. Artists in roots, folk, and rock and roll are looking more and more for studios and mastering facilities that have the gear and expertise to make records with the pre-digital methods of 40 and more years ago.
Analog (capturing/transmitting audio on physical media rather than as digital ones and zeroes) is an esthetic and a philosophy that can border on the spiritual. And in modern day Music City, the analog way has something of a shrine - a studio in north Nashville that invites you back in time with its very name. It’s called Welcome To 1979.
On a Friday night late last year, the control room of Welcome To 1979 was alive with the conversation and laughter of nearly 100 guests. This was an unusual situation for a studio, which are generally private sanctuaries for music-makers doing focused work. But this is an unusual place. It feels more like a warmly-lit, 1,300 square foot living room, with couches and chairs, not to mention a massive recording console, numerous high-dollar tape decks and the lava lamps and found objects.
The gathering is a kickoff for the studio’s annual Recording Summit, a ticketed retreat for music professionals. The studio’s owner and chief engineer Chris Mara welcomed his guests with a preview of what was about to happen.
“So we’re recording a band, which I’ll announce in a minute,” he said to the hushed crowd. “We’re recording them live to a vinyl master. It’s one of the few places in the world we can do that.”
Live to a vinyl master means that the sound the musicians make will travel from microphones through a mixing console and on to a cutting needle etching a groove in a blank record in real time. Once the needle touches down, there’s no stopping and no ability to go back and fix mistakes. It’s a captured performance. And this was the only realistic way to record in the music business before magnetic tape became popular in the 1950s. It’s called a master, because the disc, once etched, can be duplicated. But that comes later.
The band, Old Crow Medicine Show plus special guest Molly Tuttle on guitar, couldn’t have been better suited for this antique mode of recording. “We are such a live band that we can easily let go of the little things that go wrong,” bass player Morgan Jahnig said following the session. Welcome To 1979 is a studio he’s enjoyed in the past as a musician and producer. “That’s what you can do here. It encourages that kind of creativity. It doesn’t feel like you’re tiptoeing around what recorded music can be. It feels like performance.
The musicians circled up in the studio’s main tracking room, which is downstairs from the second floor control room. Mara had the challenge of capturing a group in which most musicians swap instruments between songs - with the recording running. The listener to the final record will hear those pauses in real time. So each player had three microphones, set up in front of and above them. All told, there were 26 microphones channeled to Mara’s mixing board. He balanced the mics into a stereo signal, which was sent to the heart of the operation, a high precision, industrial-heavy cutting lathe presided over by the studio’s mastering engineer Maggie Luthar.
In her day-to-day work, Luthar cuts master recordings that have arrived, already mixed, as computer files. But here, the mix would be sent in real time, so they practiced. “As they were setting up and Chris was getting levels, I was listening to the audio that was being fed,” she said. She made and listened to several test recordings to figure out if everything was set right, because one limitation of this method is that you can’t play back the cut vinyl master on a record player to check it without damaging the soft vinyl. Luthar prepared for a one-shot deal. “I was like, this sounds good. There isn’t any distortion,” she said. “Then a little bit later we cut the record.”
The band did three songs - classic old-time country numbers - for Side A and three for Side B. Each “set” took about 15 minutes, and we could watch the musicians play on a video screen in the control room. On another screen, we could see Luthar tending to her precision cutting lathe. The result was two round black master lacquers with grooves etched in their shiny surfaces.
Old Crow hasn’t decided yet when or whether to release the session on a vinyl record. Were that to happen, those fragile masters would have to be prepared for duplication, and that’s where the rest of Welcome To 1979’s facility comes into play.
Mara showed me around the spacious building, which began life in 1953 as a record pressing plant. There’s a shop where the in-house company Mara Machines repairs and restores tape decks of all kinds for both studio and consumer customers. There are numerous wood-paneled rooms and hallways where recording takes place. And the most industrial feeling room is a large shop with an electro-plating facility, the critical bridge step in making vinyl LPs.
“The lacquers that Maggie cuts and that other people from around the world cut ship to us, we process them so the end result is a metal negative made from pure nickel that has ridges where there once were grooves,” Mara said. “And those get sent to pressing plants and get used as the mold if you will - pressed into hot PVC to get grooves again.”
Electroplating happens in tanks of green liquid. This big room has ten of them, connected by pipes and conduits. They share a supply of nickel sulfamate, which is carefully controlled around the clock for temperature and purity. They look like a series of industrial sinks, and in each is a master disc on one side and a basket full of marbles made of pure nickel on the other.
Mara said: “The electrical current flowing breaks down those round nickel pellets and molecular pieces of nickel travel through the green liquid trying to get to the the aluminum beneath the lacquer and they land in the grooves”
It makes a virtually perfect reverse impression, and those shiny silver plates are trimmed, prepped and sent to record pressing plants.
Old Crow’s Morgan Jahnig says the ethos of 1979 makes a link between the analog-minded musician and the analog-loving fan. “Every time I walk into this building it’s like I want to make music here. It’s not like I need to spend a month and do my record. It’s like I want to make music here,” he said. “And I think just that physical act of putting a record on a turntable and dropping the needle and making the commitment to listening to music – that’s important to me as a listener and as an artist. Because that’s the kind of thing I think about when we’re putting songs together.”
Mara said that music-making and creative spirit transcends any notion that the studio is trying to live in the past. “People ask me if I’m a luddite. No, I’m not a luddite,” he told me. “I’m a recording engineer first and foremost. And what I was taught by my mentors is that a recording engineer is someone who can record anything, anywhere, anyhow. Whatever the artist wants to do we’re going to do.” So the studio is set up to do all digital recording and mixing, or they can record on two inch tape and then mix the music on a computer, or go straight to vinyl. “And they’re going to be high quality each way. The staff, the equipment, the ethos is all set to do that.”
So over their 11 years in business, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, John Oates and many others have been welcomed to 1979. There, as in a lot of thriving record stores, record labels and home hi-fi setups, the future of the music business looks more like its past.