Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part Five

Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part Five

Written by J.I. Agnew

In our previous episodes, we had a good look at the final generation of Neumann disk mastering systems: the VMS-80 for cutting lacquer master disks, and the VMS-82, intended for the DMM (direct metal mastering) process.


Neumann VMS-80 disk mastering lathe. Photo courtesy of Nick Townsend at Infrasonic Mastering, Los Angeles, California.


As we saw, Neumann had decided to depart from the tried and tested lathe design they had been using, quite successfully might I add, for no less than 50 years! Today, I will don my audio-archaeologist’s glasses and investigate what prompted the change.

Neumann introduced their first lathe in 1931. It had a very heavy design, reminiscent of proper machine tools rather than audio equipment. It was obviously inspired by Scully and Western Electric lathes of the time and to a lesser extent, Universal lathes, which were also built like machine tools.

Scully had already been around since the days predating the invention of electrical recording. Their machines were always massive and, as noted, inspired by the machine tool industry. Most other lathe manufacturers at the time (RCA, Fairchild, Presto, and others,) designed their machines to look more like the professional turntables of their era, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, most of these manufacturers were actually also making the transcription turntables used in broadcasting facilities, and their lathes were often based on their existing turntable models, with additional mechanical parts bolted on top.

Scully, Western Electric, Universal and Neumann saw no such need to conform to audio fashions and designed machines that might look out of place in an audio facility to the untrained eye. This proved to be a wise decision.

While Western Electric and Universal did not continue making lathes for very long (Universal entirely left the picture and Western Electric turned their focus on cutter heads and their associated electronics), Scully and Neumann were the most successful manufacturers of disk mastering systems in history. Their heavy-duty designs were extremely durable, and were easily upgraded and modified as needed to keep up with an evolving market, from mono to stereo, from not-so-loud to loudness wars insanity, from purely manual operation to a high degree of automation.

All the technical innovations of the VMS-80 and VMS-82 could have been implemented on the older mechanical design. The new drive motor, the new groove pitch system, the new platter, the new advancements in the microscopes, the new suspension units, even the DMM process, could all have been done without needing a new mechanical platform. So, why did Neumann decide to abandon their highly successful, proven, tried and tested machine base in 1980, in favor of a completely new design and incur the R&D costs that this move entailed?

I should begin by confiding that while the mechanical designs of the Neumann lathes worked quite well and enjoyed great success in the market, they would make any seasoned machine tool designer cringe, posing almost as an offense to the long-established traditions and good engineering practices in machine tool design. Some of these almost unthinkable design features were for good reasons, such as the use of cast aluminum for the lathe bed, which was fine for use in a record-cutting device, but would be unsuitable for use as a bed material for a metalworking lathe.

Other design aspects, such as directly bolting a steel dovetail slide onto an aluminum bed, and adding what amounts to the equivalent of the wheelie bars on an American dragster to the dovetail slide to compensate for the unbalanced mass of the suspension box and cutter head, were betraying a rather poor understanding of machine tools and the lack of experience Neumann had in this field. I shall go into further details about this when we look at the earlier Neumann lathes. Their designs still worked very well, but certainly had their weak spots, which all current owners are having to deal with, especially as these machines are not getting any younger.

Although Neumann did keep their original lathe design the same from 1931 to 1980, an interesting observation is that at some point in the 1960s, the patterns for the castings changed. Not much, but it is evident that there is an earlier and a later Neumann lathe bed casting, the later one (as used in the VMS-66 and VMS-70) being a little more squared up compared to the earlier version. I assume that this was the point when the original pattern eventually wore out too much to be used any further for producing more castings in the foundry, so a new pattern was made, possibly by a different pattern maker. It would not be possible to just use one of the cast aluminum beds as the pattern, due to shrinkage allowances in casting. Especially with aluminum, which exhibits significant thermal expansion, the pattern used for casting needs to be bigger than the final product, to allow for shrinkage of the casting as it cools down. To maintain identical dimensions, so all the other parts would still bolt on to the bed at exactly the same place as in the older castings, a new pattern would have to be made. The slight differences in shape between the old and new patterns would not affect the ability to bolt on all the usual parts, but was probably cheaper to make that way and perhaps a bit easier to set up for machining the raw casting.


Neumann VMS-70 disk mastering lathe, along with console and preview head tape machine. Courtesy of Mike Papas, XL Productions, Ashbury, Australia,


My assumption is that by the 1980s, their “MK II” lathe bed pattern had also worn out and needed to be replaced. They had a choice between making another version of the same old pattern, or entirely redesigning the machine. There would be some cost incurred either way. One reason to opt for the higher cost of a total redesign would be if they believed that the new design would be much cheaper to manufacture.

This was certainly the case with the new lathe bed design for the VMS-80 (which was carried over with no changes to the VMS-82). Its flat-slab approach was easier to manufacture and easier to assemble into a complete machine. This was also in line with developments in the machine tool industry at the time. During the first half of the 20th century, metalworking lathes were designed with almost as much attention to form as to function.


The author machining under the microscope on a 1930s Lorch lathe. Courtesy of Agnew Analog Reference Instruments.


They had beautifully curved, ornamental lathe beds that drew attention to themselves and looked aesthetically pleasing. Most of the higher-end manufacturers had their own signature machine bed design, which was instantly recognizable from a distance. One could easily tell apart a Monarch from a Schaublin, a Lorch from a Pultra, a South Bend from a Rivett, a Stark from a Mikron, a Bridgeport from a Deckel, and so on. These were all manual machines and even their handles, levers and handwheels were often distinctively shaped by each manufacturer.


Operat or in front of a Tormach CNC machine.


Then came automation and more simple, utilitarian machine tool designs. These were cheaper to manufacture and still got the job done, more or less. Eventually, CNC (computer numerical control) machines took over, enclosing the entire machine in a box with a door for operator access. It is no longer as easy to tell apart the various white boxes on the shop floor, as there are no ornamental designs, nothing I would even consider remotely aesthetically appealing. Which is why it has become common for the manufacturers to adorn the front of their box with a massive sticker of their logo. This is the main feature that helps you tell them apart. It never got to that point with disk recording lathes, but if you follow along with glass mastering machines for CD/DVD, and other optical disc format manufacturing, you will see a very similar development.

The only question for Neumann was whether the market would accept such a departure from what had, by then, become almost an industry standard, with an instantly recognizable shape. Would losing that be a disadvantage?


Inscription on the L.J. Scully LS-76 disk mastering lathe at Andrew Hamilton Mastering. Courtesy of Andrew Hamilton.


This question, fortunately for Neumann, had already been answered a few years earlier, when Lawrence Jeremiah Scully (from which the newly-formed LJ Scully company initials and logo are derived, since the long-established Scully company, also a manufacturer of tape recorders, had been sold to Dictaphone) introduced his own new approach to departing from a long-established and instantly recognizable design tradition, in 1976, with the LJ Scully LS-76, known simply as “The Lathe.”

Scully had also kept on using the same traditional lathe design for at least 50 years, but had been steadily losing ground to Neumann, whose products were seen as more “modern,” offering a higher degree of automation than the older Scully models. So, for Scully, modernizing their design at that point in time was probably good marketing. The redesign, however, was probably more of a legal necessity, following the acquisition of the Scully brand, along with all its designs. Their lathe certainly turned heads and was well received, but not as well-timed.

Larry Scully passed away shortly after its introduction and the company folded. Very few Scully LS-76 lathes were ever made and as these things go, much fewer survive to this day. It appears that there are only three of them in actual use, two in the USA (at Andrew Hamilton Mastering in Cincinnati, Ohio) and one in Europe (at THD Vinyl Mastering, run by Tor H. Degerstrøm). There is one more that is currently in pieces, awaiting restoration, but we shall leave that one for a future article.

Header image: a beautifully restored L.J. Scully LS-76 disk mastering lathe at Andrew Hamilton Mastering, Cincinnati, Ohio. Courtesy of Andrew Hamilton.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2