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February 1, 2009

Chris Benson is 'the record cutter' — Keeping vinyl alive


Long story short: Chris Benson (above) is a master engineer who uses a restored 1966 Neumann VMS-66 record lathe to cut grooves the old-fashioned way.

Here's last week's Associated Press story about one of the last links to the way things used to be.


Louisa man makes vinyl records, keeps a tradition alive

When Vampire Weekend — the hottest indie band in the 2008 blogosphere — played two sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club last month, its merchandise table featured 12-inch vinyl LPs of their debut album.

People were buying them, and plenty of those customers were young. Teens. Kids.

It's hard to deny: Music history is repeating itself at 33 rpm.

At Chris Benson's studio in Louisa County, you can watch the real-time birth of a record. Benson is a master engineer, a trade that should have died when CDs came along in 1980. He uses a restored 1966 Neumann VMS-66 record lathe to cut grooves on blank lacquer discs.

"This machine was responsible for two Led Zeppelin albums and a Pink Floyd album," he said, referring to his exact lathe before getting more general. "This is the only way vinyl records are made."

Concerning The Cut

The basic record-making process hasn't changed much since the early 1900s. Essentially, Benson uses an electric version of the technique Thomas Edison invented for his wax cylinders in 1877. Sound vibrates the needle, the needle etches a pattern in the blank record.

Once Benson has a disc cut, it can go one of two ways. The lacquer record can be used as-is on any record player — something disc jockeys refer to as a "dub plate." If the lacquer disc is a "master," it will be sent to a record-pressing company that uses the master to make a metal mold. A mechanical press sandwiches hot vinyl between the sides of the mold, and a slew of mass-produced vinyl records are born.

Years have passed and increased sophistication has brought complexity.

Early commercial recordings were actually cut directly to the disc with the help of a megaphone, then microphones. In the 1950s, recordings were stored on magnetic tape, then played back to cut the record.

Benson's setup is a tangle of wires, meters, buttons and sliders. There are a number of intermediate steps between his computer, where this particular recording is stored, and a finished record, but it all comes to a point where a sapphire-tipped needle, thinner than a human hair, cuts the groove.

"There's no magical science to it, and you don't need anything fancy," he said. "It's really a rudimentary and crude machine."

But making it work properly takes specific mechanical knowledge, strict attention to detail and a lot of patience. A stray hair or a nearly invisible speck of dust can send the needle off track and mar a recording.

Benson might scrap three or four discs before he gets a flawless record.

Benson explained the process as he set a fresh disc on the lathe. He leaned over the stylus and dropped it into the blank record, focused on the "chip" — a minuscule thread of lacquer being removed by the needle.

"I won't ever buy an LP again," he said. "I can cut my own."

Rebirth Of The Record

Benson's nom de guerre, "The Record Cutter," is informative whether he is spinning electronic dance music or transferring sounds to vinyl. Both are passions of his, but the latter has reached obsessive levels.

Benson sees himself as a technician, an artist and an important link in the thin chain of master engineers. He is trying to keep vinyl alive.

To do so is not a matter of marketing the nearly century-old technology to modern consumers. The demand is already there.

Ask an audiophile about the benefits of vinyl and you will probably get a lot of touchy-feely woo-woo about "warmth," "richness," and "depth." Compare that to the sleek chill of an iPod and records just sound outdated and inconvenient.

But pick up an LP and try to ignore its primal connection to the music. The size, the heft, the storybook record sleeve falling open with unexpected details — all of it in service of the shiny, grooved platter within. Handle it with care, because those minute grooves are music — the actual, physical destruction caused by air molecules in motion.

Vinyl inspires respect in a way digital streams of ones and zeroes never will. The song is literally in your hands. Look close enough and you can see it.

"Vinyl is like paper. People will always use it," Benson said.

He is more concerned with who will make the records, and what tools will be available. Record lathes are no longer manufactured.

"As long as people take care of these machines, vinyl will be around. People need to learn about this."

The overall music industry has shriveled with the advent of the MP3, but vinyl sales have been booming. Big discs still account for only a fraction of sales, but their share of the market is growing. Vinyl's popularity is such that plenty of Top-10 artists will press at least a short run of vinyl for collectors, hard-core fans and DJs. For example, most of Radiohead's albums are available on vinyl.

Jack Morrison owned Blue Dog Records and Tapes on Caroline Street in downtown Fredericksburg. The store closed nearly four years ago, after an industry-wide slowdown in CD sales. There was a bright spot, however.

"We sold vinyl more and more as CD sales went down," Morrison said. "Kids were buying vinyl, too."

He devoted more space to the big discs.

"People would come in and say, 'Wow, I didn't know they still made these.'"

Morrison was not a vinyl fan at first, but he came around. He kept one of the store's LP racks; it holds his personal vinyl collection now.

"It took a lot of convincing for me," he said. "The highs can sometimes be too tinny, but it really does have the warmer sound people talk about."

He believes he could have kept the store open just selling vinyl if Fredericksburg's student population had been a little bigger.

In some larger cities, specialty stores have been able to make a profit selling music on vinyl, nary a CD on their shelves. As more artists release their albums on vinyl, the medium has gained respect among mainstream consumers.

Coming Back Around

When bands and record labels want to sell vinyl, they turn to the few obsessives who cut records.

"Those multi-million-dollar companies come to people like me," Benson said.

For now, he cuts custom records for DJs and lesser-known punk bands, but at 30, he is a toddler in the world of record-cutting. If vinyl hangs on, artists might need his skills. Regardless, he hopes to inspire the next generation of master engineers.

"Vinyl is never going to die," Benson insisted.

At some point, a master engineer like Benson was hunched over a record lathe, staring at a needle as it etched the grooves of that Vampire Weekend album. Like Benson, that person might have been working in a homemade studio. It had to start somewhere.

With vinyl, it starts and ends with sound. The vibrations in the air, frozen in time. Compared to CDs, vinyl records seem quaint, but they also seem natural — the organic extension of a voice or a guitar.

"All sound on this planet is really one sound," Benson said. "It's like ripples on a pond. It's that simple."

February 1, 2009 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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