Cut It Out
Porky, king of the cutting room
If George "Porky" Peckham cuts an acetate from your stereo master tape, you'll not only be likely to have "Porky" scratched in the run-off groove, but you'll come out with a greater understanding of the importance of The Cut. As did Jon Lewin.
"Tell me, George," I asked as I handed over the ¼ in master of our single, "why did you start scratching 'Porky Prime Cut' on records?"
George laughed; taking the 15in/s tape from its box and threading it carefully but dextrously through the complicated routing of his Studer reel-to-reel, he explained.
"That all stems from the old days, when a certain three letter company – I can't tell you who it was but it wasn't RCA or WEA – didn't like using outside cutting people like myself." He reached under the machine for a roll of leader, which he proceeded to splice in between the tracks on the tape.
"Quite often you'd find that even after the first cut had gone from me to the pressing plant, the company would try to find fault with it, just so they could recut it themselves. Which was annoying for us and the bands, as we'd worked together trying to get the sound right, adding a bit here, cleaning up a bit there... so I started scratching 'Porky' on the lacquers as a con for the pressing factories, so we'd know that the disc we got back was the one that we'd done." He looked up and grinned. "It's a signature, like."
George spooled our tape back to its beginning, and started to play the Dolby tones that preceded the music. While he adjusted the settings on his Dolby decoders to match those on the tape, I looked about the cramped and tiny office. George is obviously a man who takes his nicknames to heart, I thought, examining the walls of the cutting studio. Every square inch of available space was covered in piggy paraphernalia, from the stuffed leather toys on top of the monitor speakers, to the countless posters and postcards from appreciative bands, all of whom had adopted their own insignia to the Porky theme.
"How did you get the name, though?"
"Ah... that's a hangover," he said, smiling at his pun, "from the Sixties, when I used to be a bit of a drinking man. I was called Porky because I could balance a pint on my beer belly. But I've slimmed down a bit since then." He patted his still vaguely round stomach, and turned the Studer on. "Now, let's have a listen to this."
We played through the four songs on the tape, ears straining for any sudden peaks in noise, or frequencies that might cause problems at the pressing stage.
Before going to Porky's Cutting Room in Portland Studios, I had no idea that transferring music from studio master tape to disc was such an important business. Like most, I had laboured under the misapprehension that it was a simple mechanical procedure, rather like copying a tape, with the object being to reproduce as closely as possible the original sound. Not so, as George soon made clear. After he'd heard the songs he wound back and explained the next step.
"What we're going to do now is try to tidy it up a bit. Y'see, the biggest problem I get with tapes in general is that monitoring in recording studios is telling lies. What you hear there isn't actually what's going down on tape... they crank the speakers up so much that when you take it away and listen to it somewhere else, it often seems to have lost a lot of the life it had. It's a failing grace in a studio, getting really good speakers. Here in the Cutting Room I use these IMF Reference monitors, which give a very flat response. If anything sounds glorious on these, then you know it's a good sound, and it'll sound good on even the smallest speakers. They're not cranked up to high heaven, so they actually let you know what's happening."
We played the first song through twice, as George leant over the two banks of four band Orban EQ.
"The general situation is that the bass tends to be less positive than in the studio, so you've got to do what I call 'shuffling it around', getting rid of that looseness in the bottom areas, tightening it up. Then you check the midrange and the top end, to see if there's enough clarity, and separation. Just to get a sound-picture that will be good on 90% of record players."
As we listened through the song, George built up the sound-picture gradually, constantly dropping the EQ in and out so that we could check the difference each adjustment had made. Once we were satisfied with the tonal balance, George mentioned the subject of limiting. I flinched at this, believing it might damage the dynamics of the recording (lots of quiet bits and loud bits in this number), but he soon corrected me.
"Limiting is a very personalised thing; it gets over-emphasised, people make it 'grab' too hard. My idea is that it should be doing its job, but you don't hear it working. What it does is this: when the music's peaking a lot on the meter, you need to control that so you can stop it distorting, and get a reasonable volume level down on the record.
"If you try to cut a record too loud, y'see, it just cracks up. The limiter holds that peak back. It's a kind of sandwiching effect – you're pulling the top end back, so you can push the rest up, making it sound louder overall."
We tried using one of the two limiters, which seemed to make the backing beefier, without apparently altering the balance between the instruments.
"This is my pride and joy, this – it's an old Fairchild Valve Limiter – a lateral and vertical limiter, to boot. That means that it's controlling the shape of the groove, stopping the peaks on the record being too shallow, and that means the stylus is less likely to jump out of the groove. Valve limiters are great; what they take off they more than give back in – technical term this – balls."
We moved on to the second track on our 12in EP, following roughly the same processes for adjusting the sound, this time with the second bank of parametric EQ. I wondered how such a chatty and obviously gregarious Liverpudlian had got involved in so specialised a field as disc cutting.
"Well, back in the early Sixties I was in a band that was managed by Brian Epstein – the Fourmost – and we used to spend lots of time in the studio. Some artists get involved with all the knobs, metering and stuff, others don't want to know. I just got interested, which made getting into the technical side the obvious thing to do when I left the band."
George reached down to split open a cardboard case, and drew out a shiny black plastic disc 14in in diameter.
"This is the lacquer, on which we're going to make your record – or one side of it, anyway," he explained. Putting the lacquer down onto the turntable of the Neumann cutting lathe, he turned the machine on and continued his life story while the disc speed settled down.
"It was about '67 or '68 when I started. Apple were putting a studio together, so I thought, here's an ideal opportunity to start at the bottom, at the very ground level, and learn everything. I tried being a production engineer for a while, but I came back to cutting, 'cos I knew that here I'd found my niche in life." He turned back to the 14in lacquer (the 2in extra size is for handling the disc, as every fingerprint damages the plastic's sensitive surface) and began cleaning it with an air puffer to remove the last vestiges of dust.
"The reason I like this job so much is that you're meeting new people all the time; every hour, two hours or so you're dealing with a new group, a new artist, a different sound, and it's much easier to give your best in situations like that, rather than over long periods, like in the studio. I do an awful lot with independent guys, because I can understand the things they want – I talk in non-technical terms, so they can get across to me the sounds they'd like."
George turned on the suction pump to remove the swarf churned up by the cutting stylus, and laid the V-shaped needle on the plastic. The first grooves appeared on the shiny plastic before George started the tape; the run-in, 2in from the outside of the lacquer.
"The first record we cut was 'Hey Jude', and we did that in a cutting room with only three walls," George chuckled, "as they hadn't finished building the Apple premises yet.
"After Apple, I started up the first independent cutting room with a guy – Freddie Packham (no relation) – the Master Room. This was in the early '70s. Because I'd been a musician, and had known all the players, and because we liked working personally with the bands, lots of them came to cut their records with me. It was a social thing though, mostly – they'd call up and suggest adding an extra half hour onto the session 'Go on, George, we can have a quick pint after'."
The first song finished, George switched between EQs and advanced the linear tracking arm, creating the scroll, or division between the songs; all this, without faltering in his discourse. The second song started.
"I stayed at the Master Room for about five years, until an old mate of mine, Chas Chandler, bought this place, in Portland Place. He was bought out by Jet, and now I run it on my own, renting their premises from them. I can do the business better like that."
He turned behind him and switched the monitoring from the big speakers to his "little diddy" Realistics.
"These'll show you how it would sound on a small system, as I run these off an ordinary hi-fi amp." It sounded fine. "Most of my work these days comes from the independent companies like Rough Trade, Backs, those sort of people. I don't like dealing with the majors – they're too faceless. And as you've probably noticed, I kind of like the personal touch. There's no satisfaction in it otherwise, is there?"
Looking every inch a man content in his job, Mr Porky almost pirouetted round just in time to add the run-out groove to the first side of the record. He lifted the cutting stylus off the lacquer and switched off the lathe. The lacquer was then returned to the safety of its box, into which it was bolted with a central spindle. A second piece of virgin plastic was drawn from another box, ready for the two songs on the other side of our 12in.
The whole process of re-EQing, speeding-up one song, checking, and cutting all four songs took around 90 minutes. In that time, I found my blase attitude to the mechanics of record-cutting completely undermined, as the experience of watching the grooves – the actual music – appear on the perfectly shiny surface of the black lacquer proved really exciting. George's attitude to the music is to involve the musicians in the event as much as possible, giving those present a full description in understandable terms of exactly what is happening, which gives everybody a clear idea of why the sound is good or bad. As George pointed out, the cutting stage is the last time you can do anything to the actual music before it gets onto the record, so you'd better pay attention. My thanks to Porky for helping me understand the problems involved, as he has changed the way I listen to records. And in his own words, "You can't say fairer than that." Especially not in Liverpudlian accent.
Feature by Jon Lewin
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