Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part One

Around the World in 80 Lathes, Part One

Written by J.I. Agnew

Audiophiles and record collectors often obsess about what kind of turntable or tonearm or cartridge works best for a certain record. In the process, they go to great lengths in their pursuit of historical information regarding what instruments the musicians played, what microphones were used for the recording, which studio it was recorded in, what mixing console was used, all the way down to what type of compressor and reverb plate made the signature sound of each recording. They read (and sometimes write) diatribes on VTA adjustment, debate on the sonic qualities of different brands of the same amplifier tube (whether for the home hi-fi setup that reproduces the recording, or for the guitar amplifier used in the making of it) and wonder if they can actually hear the signature sound of the Steinway on the record, even if it was never explicitly stated that a Steinway was indeed used.

Some, usually once past a certain level of affluence, even go so far as to spend millions collecting John Lennon’s guitar and Jerry Garcia’s socks, in the hope of getting a little bit closer to the process of creating the masterpieces of recorded sound we all cherish.

For many years, I have been observing a gap in this desire to collect every last bit of information (and the physical objects) related to a favorite recording:

Nobody talks about (or collects) the disk mastering lathes used in making records. I have never encountered long debates about whether this or that cutting amplifier was a better choice to drive this or that cutter head, unless among seasoned disk mastering engineers. Perhaps this is too geeky for most, but most probably it is because there is really not that much information out there regarding disk mastering and the equipment used. Most people simply have no idea what lathe was used to cut the Beatles’ albums (even if they know exactly which microphones and tape machines were employed), or what lathes Pye Records was using in the monophonic era, although they do know what a “Decca Tree” (a stereophonic microphone technique involving three microphones; left, center and right) is.

The lathe market had ended up being very small and exclusive towards the end of the game in t

Neumann VMS-70 cutting lathe at SAE Mastering. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/VACANT FEVER. Neumann VMS-70 cutting lathe at SAE Mastering. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/VACANT FEVER.

However, there was a time when every industrialized nation in the world was producing at least one type of disk recording lathe, if not several models. These were the days before the invention of magnetic tape recording in its present, accessible form, and the days prior to its widespread commercial use.

The vast majority of early sound recordings were done on a lathe, direct to disk. Also, many collectors know the story of how Sam Phillips accidentally met a young Elvis Presley, then working as a truck driver, who stopped at Phillips’ Sun Records to record a song for his mother. Yet, far fewer know that this recording was done using a Presto 6N disk recording lathe, idler driven, with a 16-inch platter.

I have had in my workshop, over the years, more Presto 6N lathes than I can count, as well as nearly every make and model of disk recording and mastering system ever made, anywhere in the world, during the entire electrical recording era. I have repaired them, modified them, tested them, learned all about their quirks and history, and have immensely enjoyed using them. I have even recorded our wedding ceremony and my father’s speech for that occasion, direct-to-disk, on a portable lathe that was used during the 1930s by the BBC internationally for recording both on location and in the studio.

Today, my dear readers, we shall together embark on a journey around the world in 80 lathes. It most probably will turn out to be considerably more than 80 lathes, but we will glance through them from the windows and magic-eye tubes of my custom vacuum tube-driven time capsule. From the humble beginnings to the disappearance of the industry and its eventual rebirth, decades later, we shall discover the lathes of the world, their inner workings, their particularities and quirks, their personalities, and their glorious designs.

These are perhaps some of the most outstanding feats of audio – or any kind of – engineering, right at the junction where the former collides with art, just at the critical velocity required to release a neutron, which travels through matter until it eventually expires.

These immensely beautiful contraptions, consisting of creatively-shaped chunks of metal, wood, resins, ceramics, precious stones, and occasionally polymers (plastics) were, already in their early primitive cavemanly beginnings, able to machine sub-micron information on rotating disks, with exceptional surface finish, back when this was unheard of in most other fields of science and industry.

Not only that, but the final product – a record – was actually rather affordable, becoming a widely available, mass manufactured, consumer medium, available in most parts of the world even before electricity got there. Yet for all its widespread availability, the technical challenges involved in the manufacturing process, the extremely low price point of the various types of disks (especially when compared to any other product with a similarly complex manufacturing process), and the sheer number of records produced, the sound quality that the medium is capable of delivering is simply astonishing.


Legendary engineer C. Robert Fine at the cutting lathe. Courtesy of Tom Fine.

As far as record cutting lathes go, their history can be split into five distinct eras, each signified by refinements and changes in the machinery and associated technology.

First came the acoustical recording era. There was no electricity involved. The platter was either powered by a hand-cranked spring-loaded system, or a weight at the end of a string, set up for a long drop. A mechanical speed governor regulated the rpm. The sound was captured by a horn with a diaphragm at the other end, which transferred the diaphragm motion to the cutting stylus through a mechanical linkage system. The information was stored on the so-called “wax” disks of the time (which were more of a metallic soap formulation than actual wax).

Then came the wax era of electrical recording. An electric motor would now power the platter, using a belt or reduction gearing. The motors of that era would spin much faster than the platter. The cutter head was now an electromechanical transducer powered by an electronic amplifier. The sound was converted to electricity by means of a microphone. Recordings were still done direct to disk.

Next was the monophonic lacquer era of electrical recording. The technology was similar to the above, but the blank disks were now made of nitrocellulose lacquer coating an aluminum disk. Hot stylus recording (where the stylus was literally heated) became popular during this time. Advancements in electric motor design resulted in the ability to direct-drive the platter with a motor that could now spin steadily at the same speed as the platter rotation.

Although first invented in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that stereophonic recording saw widespread commercial application. This development ushered in the stereophonic era of electrical recording. Wax disks were by now entirely gone and hot stylus recording was de rigueur. Automation systems of intense complexity started appearing and soon dominated the market. As the equipment became more and more complex while the market was shrinking (apart from disk mastering for vinyl record manufacturing, all other users of sound recording equipment had moved away from the disk medium in favor of tape recording and decades later, digital recording), more and more manufacturers started dropping out of the disk recording field. The market became very highly specialized and diversity of design started waning. The two remaining companies competed against each other, using very similar design concepts.

By the 1980s, only one company remained active in manufacturing disk-cutting lathes, and that company, along with one other, was the only manufacturer of cutter heads left. Direct-to-disk recording was by now a very small niche market, sustained entirely by die-hard audiophiles and renegade audio engineers on a mission.

Technologically speaking, the next noteworthy deviation from the aforementioned eras came at some point in the 1990s, when those concerned about the continued availability of vinyl records started to worry about the fact that the only way to make records was to use equipment several decades old, in various states of disrepair, with no official sources for parts and essentially having to deal with a monopoly in the supply of lacquer master disks and disk recording styli. A scene of experimenters started to appear, trying to cut records on other materials, such as polycarbonate plastic, PVC sheets, X-rays (medical X-ray film), and anything else one could imagine, using home-made styli and modified or even homemade equipment. This scene was instrumental in preserving knowledge, equipment, and parts, which later made it possible for the revival of the vinyl record to be technically viable.

From the next episode onwards, we will start our time travel, visiting the historic lathe manufacturers around the world, and their products. You will get to find out which kinds of machines were used to cut which records, and what the technical circumstances were under which recordings and records could be made in different eras. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Header image: J.I. Agnew on a Neumann lathe.

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