Above: The Off-Key Hat’s Leon Mayes with Champ. Photo by Zazie Psotta. Clockwise from centre top: a virgin lacquer, checking the levels on a spectrum analyser, Lawrie and Andy reminiscing about the good old days when people actually bought records, Lawrie cutting the track on the lathe. Photos by Theydon Bois
In order to get right back in the thick of it, this Electric Independence is literally a report from the cutting edge of contemporary electronic music. Sounds exciting, but the brutal truth is we’re in a studio in east London watching a record being mastered and then cut. This is something every lover of vinyl should witness, if only to dispel the illusion that it’s a fantastically mysterious process. It isn’t, much, but there is an element of magic involved in the transformation of a digital file into a piece of vinyl.
The studio is Curved Limited, situated just off the top end of Mare Street in Hackney. The record is by German newcomer spAceLex, two smodgy high-energy tracks called “Pretty Face” and “Happy Birthday”. The producer sent the tracks to Andy Blake of Dissident Distribution in the hope that Andy might release them, and he is. This afternoon, Andy is also overseeing the mastering of another new Dissident artist, Glasgow’s The Niallist, whose two synth-pop prowlers, “The Hots” and “Still Hots”, ooze sleaze.
In terms of releases, Dissident is enjoying a particularly fruity winter. Around Christmas, Andy put out Scottish disco thugs Den Haan’s irrepressible “Night Shift” and “Theme From Den Haan”, as well as the second single by the Off-Key Hat, a trio from Brighton and London who, in “Emergency Calling”, have made the first great record of 2009. Sung by a girl called Cassie O, it’s a surprisingly sophisticated funk jam that has a timeless, soulful quality. The other day I caught up with the Off-Key Hat’s Leon Mayes in the newly refurbished Britannia pub by Victoria Park in the plusher end of Hackney to discuss the record. Leon has two beautiful greyhounds, and we mainly talked about them instead.
Vice: Do ideas come to you when walking the dogs?
Leon Mayes: Yes, of course. Lyrics-wise, the way I do lyrics, I read piles and piles of books. All I do is read, I read everything. My girlfriend’s into bestsellers and I’ll finish them in four hours. I’m reading the Twilight series at the moment, the vampire series.
How do you read so fast?
Philosophy degree. You get trained to scan-read. Philosophy is a whole language you have to learn, and then can pick out pretty much what you need. I can scan-read pretty well.
Where do you walk the dogs?
I go from Victoria Park to Hackney Marshes then come along the canal up into Broadway Market. Two hours, every day I’m off work. You have to be calm around the dogs, so they’re relaxed, and then your mind starts playing. Once I’ve had my coffee at Climpsons on Broadway Market, my mind’s like that.
Back in the studio, the mastering engineer and owner of Curved, Lawrie Dunster, is explaining for the 6,789th time in his life the difference between analogue and digital, and why the former sounds better. “Analogue is a continuous waveform, digital is a series of steps,” he says. “It might be 44,100 steps per second, which is the standard for a CD, but there is a gap between each step. They’re so fast that you can’t hear the gaps but you can hear the difference. If you put a CD on and then play a vinyl version of the same thing, the record will sound smoother.”
Curved is one of only a handful of vinyl mastering studios remaining in the UK. The bulk of the work Lawrie takes on comes from underground dance labels like Dissident and distributors such as Glasgow’s Rubadub, and he’s constantly busy. Andy used to be one of Lawrie’s biggest customers, but his visits are less frequent, even though Dissident releases around three or four records a month.
“Dissidents are only runs of 200 one-sided 12-inches, they’re pissy little jobs,” says Andy, who would like Dissident to develop into a DJ subscription service similar to Disconet, a popular New York label in the 80s. “We do short runs, and unlike most labels we don’t have to worry about alienating our target audience. We’ll release whatever comes along: stoner rock, Italo, high-energy. It’s mainly my mates’ tracks, but this guy [spAceLex] got in touch out of the blue. Hopefully we’re tapping a rich dancey vein of weird pop music. Well, to me it’s all pop music.”
Lawrie and Andy recently teamed up to release one of Dissident’s earlier singles as Control Voltage. In the mid-90s, Lawrie produced a lot of funky and minimal techno and did pretty well out of it. He ran a label called Pounding Grooves. “Pounding Grooves sorted me right out,” he says. He and Andy worked out that, across the five labels he was involved in, Lawrie has sold a million records. He stopped producing when people stopped buying his music.
“When people are stealing your records and not buying them, it makes you not want to bother. When your sales have gone from 3,500 to 350 but everyone’s still got it, what’s the point in doing it any more? A, I’m not making any money and B, people are nicking it off me.”
By now, the spAceLex tracks have been converted from a digital file, via a cabinet of 1978 analogue compressors, into an analogue waveform. The tracks boom from the two £28,000 SCM 300 speakers. Lawrie then places a virgin lacquer—a 14-inch black aluminium disc coated in acetate—on the lathe (the machine that cuts the grooves) and, simply put, plays the track through a “cutting head” (like a needle) which cuts the grooves into the lacquer. For a much more detailed explanation, visit curvedltd.com where there’s a layman’s guide to mastering.
Done badly, mastering can flatten any record. These new records turned out well, though, and come highly recommended: Matzo & Pauli’s “We Are” EP on Cyber Dance, Mr Pauli’s “Le Crunch” on David Vunk’s Moustache label, and a wild number called “Walter Ness” by Matias Aguayo on Kompakt.
Wild Things: The $wiftest Pigeon
What is the sound of one million yuan flapping?
VICE News: Sisa: Cocaine of the Poor
A new drug called sisa is tearing its way through Athens' poor.
Wild Things: The Dog Hunter
In the close-knit world of dog hunting, Tom Varney is a legend.
Ground Zero: Syria - Snipers of Aleppo
Picking off the enemy, one by one, day by day.
VICE News: The Battle of Taksim Square
The protestors started throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and it all escalated.