Here is the unabridged interview from my correspondence with UK based writer Dan Wilkinson about the Forest Swords’ project Ground Rhythms.
Special thanks to Andrew Ellis and Forest Swords for letting me be a part of the project.
I was wondering if you’d be able to tell me about any of that history that you’re aware of?
My knowledge of the history is very cursory, however my experiences may shed a little light. For example, the guys that make MY lathe, one of the only new models available of lathes, started as jukebox repairmen who were responsible for maintenance of the machines as well as stocking the machines with records. They grew tired of spending money on records and decided to build a machine that could bootleg the records. After 10-15 years of development, they not only produce these machines but they also produce the plastic blanks. Their amazing blanks are highly coveted but rather expensive so there is a lot of “corporate espionage”, other cutters trying to find out where the blanks are made so they can buy direct.
This alludes to the number one problem the Soviet cutters had, where to get blanks? You can cut sound waves onto any flawlessly smooth and completely flat surface of any material that has just the right softness. Too much friction would create too much drag on the stylus as it moves across the surface of the blank, any bumps or imperfections may cause the needle to jump and break which would ruin the cut and and the cutter diamond. My sense is that a lathe cutter was on the hunt for blanks and had access to X-rays. After some experimentation he/she realized that X-rays were a perfect blank.
Now you have to understand that Lathe cutters are a rare breed, a combination of engi-NERD and music lover. Someone who stares at the seismic traces that music etches with a diamond. This is alchemical shit, I think of it as Magic and I am always in awe of piezo electric’s galvanizing forces. Its the stuff of heartbeats,ear drums, and fingerprints and alludes to other secret processes of nature that we have yet to learn.
All this said, Lathe cutters are also mischief makers, so I could easily see the soviet cutters as music traffickers trying to disseminate black market Rock and Roll.
Wanna learn more about the lathe cutting community? Dive in here http://www.lathetrolls.com . This is the MOTHER forum. An amazing community that actively helps and supports one another. Post your questions on here and you’ll get all the answers.
Do you have an idea about what technique that was originally used?
It is certain the same science was used that is used today. It’s quite a simple and elegant technology. Two small speakers are capped with cones tipped with two small wires that focus the vibrations from the speakers to a diamond that is symmetrically placed. As the diamond drags across the surface of the blank it etches the vibrations of the speakers left/right up/down onto the plastic. Its that simple. Calibrating the speed, the volumes, the perfect weight of the cutter head, preparing the audio…all of this can take a lifetime to learn, guys like Detroit’s Ron Murphy are legends http://www.metafilter.com/69033/NSC-RIP-Ron-Murphy-master-vinyl-cutter
I consider myself a hack, but I have cut over 900 records in the last four years so I can make it work.
It is important to know that every record that has ever been made has started with a CUT. Someone had to create the master plate from which molds were made and then PRESSED. This is an important distinction.
Do you have an idea about the quality of the records?
In some cases I’m sure the quality was tantamount to normal records. Those old flexi-disks that came with magazines sounded pretty great to my teenage ears. As far as longevity, it depends on how good(how sharp and hard)your playback stylus was, how the x-rays held up over time, but I think it was a viable way to disseminate music.
Or the type of music that was used in the process?
I’ve only heard about this in relation to the Beatles, but that’s probably a romanticization of rock and roll and censorship in the Soviet era. I can guarantee anything was cut that could be sold in high demand. My sense was that this was as entrepreneurial as much as it was a form of underground protest and rebellion.
How exactly was it difficult to recreate the process?
For the Forest Swords project we had an extremely difficult time. I broke a 300 dollar diamond. Andrew Ellis and I learned that modern x-rays are flimsy and coated with a very sticky emulsion that undermined the cutting process at every turn. Older X-rays were thicker and more durable and much more amenable to the process. I had to adjust the weight of the cutter head and as it was we could only get what I consider a light cut. Our goal was not to get a perfect sounding X-ray record but to get a mystical object where the process and the idea created an alchemy that affected the sound. So it sounded strange, and by a master cutter’s standards horrible, but for Forest Swords it illuminated a transcendental approach to music making and, as such, it looked and sounded haunting.
What attracted you to the process in the first place?
I am always looking for mystical ways to produce sound. During the London Never Records Touch recording artist BJ Nilson and I made a record of the lathe cutting itself live by clamping a piezo disk to the machine. We then fed the sounds of the machine cutting itself back through the machine live. I think we were hoping green men would jump out of a rip in time.
Recently I collaborated with Brian House on this amazing object http://vimeo.com/65185786
and lastly I collaborate with sound artist Phillip Jeck. We perform live and I cut the performance real time feeding him the freshly cut vinyl which he works his turntable magic upon, I record and play guitar to that, the process is repeated and Phil takes on the nautilus roller coaster to some aural space deep into the music and the moment. Nice write up here http://www.audiostream.com/content/live-deconstructed-philip-jeck-and-ted-riederer-0
Do you feel that “bone music” as a format has a future?
As artists like Dario Robleto, Christian Marcalay continue their explorations with art,memory, music, and time I’m sure we will see this come up again and again. I know I will revisit.
But there is also a legion of talented designers and idea men and women who are playing with vinyl formats: Andrew Ellis of course of Samizdat(the man behind the idea of the Forest Swords X-ray record), Jack White’s Third Man Records, and Sam Wiehl who works with Forest Swords…so we will always have this play and manipulation of the format.
Has there been an even more usual format than X rays for vinyl?
There are many amazing projects like musical roads(different principle but involves friction and frequency)
and I came across a guy on Lathe trolls trying to cut sound onto glass bottles. I’m sure he’ll do it too.
a follow up e-mail…..
I don’t think I could add anymore to the history save that I’ve always heard about it in lathe cutting lore. Not sure how familiar you are with the whole record making process, I assume you know a lot after reading some of your articles, but I just want to communicate that cutting records rather than pressing has its obvious advantages as we’ll as disadvantages. While every record begins with a cut, pressing is the preferred method of mass distribution. When you cut, it is in real time, and can be incredibly time consuming. I learned this the hard way when I cut this beautiful record by Holyman as a Never Records special edition of 10. http://holyman.bandcamp.com/album/things-we-cant-untie
I had to sit there and cut 58 minutes ten times. If I got to the end of the second side and the needle jumped the whole record would have to be trashed, as opposed to the pressing plant where you can run 1000 records in a couple of hours.
Maintaining a plant is prohibitively difficult, while having a small stand alone lathe, like a Rek-0-cut or a Presto is easy. The only difficulty would be getting your hands on blanks, X-rays providing the perfect solution. I don’t want to diminish how cool the x-rays are, rather I suggest that the process was born of Soviet black market ingenuity. Any sound engineer could even build his or her own lathe or gain access to the component of a Presto 6n which can be retrofitted to mount on a turntable.
That said, cutting on a x-Ray is a wonderful expression of the ephemeral nature of cutting and sound itself.
So good luck with the article I hope I’ve been a help filling in some of the background of the process and maybe a little insight into the Soviet situation. I’m working on a Never Records in Folkstone for April, and possibly another in London in the next year so maybe you can come check out cutting in person. Bring some x-rays and we’ll cut away.
And be sure to check out the Holy Man link, every edition came with a drug bag of the spider thread off cut from the cutting process. I call it 100 percent pure groove. It’s also a great listen, think Talk-Talk’s Laughing Stock meets minimal NYC jazz with a pedal steel soloist. It was recorded in the living room of my brownstone.
X-ray cut, London, 2011.