Writing about the history of disk recording lathes poses a major challenge. Not because there is not enough to say. Quite the opposite, in fact. There is an enormous amount of information to be conveyed, enough to fill a rather thick book, beautifully bound in leather, preferably typeset using traditional methods. I shall perhaps disclose, at this point, that I am typing all my texts, including my pieces for Copper, using manual typewriters.
Don’t get me wrong; I do appreciate the convenience of text editing on a computer and I have spent countless hours using Unix operating systems, and even writing code in the C programming language. But I just find computers horribly uninspiring when it comes to the creative pleasures in life. I would like to clarify that I am not afraid of modern technology, even though it may sound like it at times: I prefer vacuum tube electronics for audio, listen to vinyl records and even shellac gramophone records on a hand-cranked machine made well over a century ago, record music on tape and disk records, drive a car with a carbureted engine and points ignition, run a workshop full of 1950s and earlier manual machine tools, have a collection of film cameras and particularly enjoy black and white film photography, play a 1960s Magnatone guitar, have been using the same pair of leather boots for 14 years (although by now, they are starting to look rather rough, so I have recently purchased a new pair, of the same brand of course) and greatly enjoy the heat produced by a fireplace or a wood burning cast iron stove.
At the same time, as I am typing this in my office, surrounded by 1930s handcrafted furniture and period-correct cast-iron radiators (yes, we do have a central heating system), on one of my typewriters (I could perhaps go into greater depth about typewriters in a future piece); much to the relief of our editor, Frank Doris, the ink-on-paper manuscripts are then scanned and, using OCR (optical character recognition) software, are magically transformed into an editable text file (much to the dismay of my FedEx account manager, who would certainly prefer regular shipments of the original manuscripts back and forth), which is then transferred over the internet. Modern technology is great for what it is, but I will never be able to write a decent text or make a great recording while staring at a bright computer monitor. Nor do I want one in my car; the cable speedometer, driven from a little gear at the end of the transmission housing, does the trick just fine, thank you!
Which brings us to the question, which way do we start going around the world in our survey of disk-cutting lathes? Well, I used to be quite dogmatic about which side the steering wheel in a car should be on, and as a result, spent several years driving a left-hand-drive car in the UK. But then I found the right right-hand-drive car, proudly made in Luton way too long ago, and then ended up driving a right-hand-drive car in continental Europe for several more years… But I did drive from New York to California in a good old Buick, so I don’t always get it wrong! And, well, I mostly managed to keep to the right side of the road…no, I mean the left…Argh! Why is the world so complicated?
Many folks try to avoid extremes at all costs, for fear of standing out too much. Many choose the perceived safety of the “middle road.” I know you will have a hard time believing me, but I’ve never been one of them. After years of learning the hard way, I will now for once take the middle road: I won’t start on the history of the lathes of the world from the early beginnings. And I won’t start with the present either! I am going to begin somewhere in the middle; how’s that for a reasonable approach?
Interestingly, our starting point for this journey has only fairly recently been revealed to be the middle! For many long, dark years, everyone thought it was the end. In a way, it was. The end of an era.
It was in 1989, in Berlin, Germany, that the last remaining disk recording lathe manufacturer assembled the last machine of this kind to be made in a very long time. It was a Neumann VMS-82 “DMM” lathe. Direct Metal Mastering was a patented system, developed by Teldec (Telefunken-Decca) and apart from a different cutting process, also involved other aspects of manufacturing, such as a special “DMM” record profile, for which special molds had to be used in the record press. To be allowed to use the DMM name and logo, a record had to use the complete DMM process, as specified by Teldec. If one was to comply with the Teldec specification, then the record had to bear the DMM logo. This makes it too easy to identify DMM records, so, just to keep life complicated, it only worked that way for a few years, while the DMM process was still actively supported by Teldec. After that, and to this day, people ended up using whatever they could find in terms of equipment and materials, so it was difficult to keep to the original DMM spec. Upon expiry of the patents, the use of the DMM name and logo became deregulated, and anyone is now free to use (or not use) it as they see fit.
The main point of the DMM process was that the master disk was cut directly on metal (a thin copper layer deposited on top of a stainless-steel disk), instead of a soft material (such as wax or lacquer, as was the norm prior to the invention of DMM) which then had to be metallized to become electrically conductive, then pre-plated, to withstand the more intense electroplating process that would produce the stampers for the record press, and enable the mass-manufacturing of records.
This saves a few steps of galvanic processing compared to lacquer masters, which have to be silvered, plated to produce a negative “father” disk, and then the father disk has to be plated to produce a “mother” disk, which is then plated again to produce the stampers. The DMM disk was already a metal mother, so the galvanic foreplay could be conveniently cut short, skipping straight to the final steps needed to produce the stampers.
The blank DMM disks were of course also specified and sold by Teldec, as were the cutting styli, which had a proprietary shank that would not fit any other cutter head than the one developed by Teldec and Neumann for the DMM system. This was the Neumann SX-84, which in itself had a proprietary mount and would not fit any lathe other than the Neumann VMS-82.
The VMS-82 was essentially identical to the mechanical assembly of the VMS-80, an earlier Neumann lathe developed for cutting lacquer masters, with some modifications (including a new “suspension unit” that holds the cutter head, designed to hold the SX-84) to assist with cutting on copper instead of lacquer.
The VMS-80 had already been a radical departure from the usual Neumann tradition. All Neumann lathes, from the very first model up until the VMS-80 was introduced, shared the same design and basic technology. The VMS-80 was the first one to not use the traditional Neumann lathe bed, instead using a low-profile flat-slab design, strikingly similar to the change in design direction adopted by Scully a few years earlier, who also had just stopped using their traditional lathe bed and moved to a design that was more reminiscent of a consumer turntable than a machine tool. I guess it was just ’80s fashion, along with perhaps a push by the marketing department to “get rid of the old-fashioned looks.” In purely technical terms, the new lathe bed did not really offer any particular advantage over the old design.
Aesthetics aside, the other radical departure was that both the platter motor and the pitch control motor were now DC servo-motors, driven by some rather intense electronics. The VMS-80 was a direct-drive design, as were all Neumann lathes. The earlier Neumann lathes, however, used Lyrec synchronous AC motors, which locked to the powerline frequency and did not use any control electronics.
In the next episode, we will dive deeper into the technology behind this final generation of Neumann lathes.
Header image: A Neumann VMS-82 disk mastering lathe, originally designed for the DMM process, now converted to cut lacquer masters. Photo courtesy of Scott Hull, Masterdisk.