Going It Alone
Mainframe's road to fame
Rod Munro explains how Mainframe multi-instrumentalists Murray Munro and John Molloy paid their dues going into the record business
In recent years going it alone in the making of records has lost much of the mystery that once surrounded the art of preserving music on vinyl. The emergence of the 'Indies' has been in some measure due to determined people refusing to accept the doctrines of the major record companies and being forced into finding ways to making records of the music they wanted. In MAINFRAME'S case the decision to make our own records was taken almost casually as part of the (then) far more important decision to do our own multi-track recording, albeit only a modest four-track system.
After toting the usual bag of cassette demos around the majors in the time-honoured manner we very soon realised that there was little future in that approach, so the attempt was made to produce a master tape of sufficiently good quality to be used in cutting a disc of our own, the reasoning being that a record would get more attention than a cassette and an album would get more attention than a single! To a limited extent this turned out to be true, but the real advantage of the approach was in what we learned along the way. I will not dwell on the hard lessons of track-bouncing, nor the wretched problems of vocal 'popping' or, indeed, any of the usual problems which large recording studios deal with by means of sophisticated equipment. Suffice to say that the disciplines learned enabled us to end up with a master tape of the correct level, equalisation and quality for taking the first step in record making, and at a mere fraction of the cost of the classic rented studio-time route. Our cash instead had been invested in hardware which has enabled us to make four albums and three singles to date. But this is where the DIY ends!
The steps in making a record are:
Recording & mastering
Master lacquer cutting
Pressing, printing and bagging
We chose the DIY recording road in the following manner, based on costs estimated from the prices quoted in the music press for good quality studio time:
|Ten songs requiring at least one and a half days each at £70 per day:||£1,050|
|Six days mixing and mastering:||£420|
|Tape costs, travelling and living:||£350|
Today, both Murray and John take fair shares of the recording chores, but the final masters are carefully 'topped and tailed' and provided with 1kHz calibration tones much appreciated by the cutting room engineers who start their part of the process with your finished tape. This is the point where one sits looking at the masterpiece of magnetic technology and must make decisions about 'Where', 'How' and 'Who' will take this product of one's labours and turn it into an accurate trench in the master lacquer.
Our experience of mastering was nil. We asked around and got as many answers as we asked questions so finally chose the studio with the middle price. Subsequently we opted for the cutting rooms which could offer computer-controlled lathes such as the Neumann VMS80. Finding that cutting rooms quote on the basis of an average time for a single or album but that lengthy re-equalisation will probably gather extra costs, we realised that our care in production of the master was paying off since we could look at costs of £30 to £50 for a single and perhaps £130 for an album lacquer.
This cash buys you only the master lacquer itself (certain cutting rooms will charge you for a taxi to take the precious box to your chosen pressing plant!) but it is worth looking at what one is getting for the money. The cutting lathe is a masterpiece of technology. Not only must it be mechanically and structurally stable to limits found only in laboratory instrumentation, but it must incorporate electronics in both signal and control areas which are state of the art. The VMS80 has to anticipate such nasties as huge bass swings which will require a great deal of groove space and, at the other end of the scale, long quiet passages where many more grooves can be safely accommodated in a given space of the disc. But even a VMS80 can scarce cope with out-of-phase bass lines! These are the real bête noir of the cutting engineer, so watch your initial recording very carefully! Your money also buys you a very skilled engineer who will go out of his way to ensure that you will get a lacquer worthy of your recording and composing efforts. He will suggest possible remedies for slight recording inconsistencies and will always take time to show you the effect of his suggestions. Do remember however that he cannot compensate for poor recording techniques. MAINFRAME'S experience of cutting room engineers has been of the best and we can point to valuable experience gained by being present at the cut! Finally, of course, one has the opportunity to take away an 'Acetate' of the wonder disc you have just brought into the world. This goodie usually costs a tenner or so but is hard to resist as a memento of the event, although it will not last for many playings. And so the master lacquer goes on its way to your Pressing Plant...
In fact, the Yellow Pages will tell you who makes records! There are quite a number of pressing plants in the UK and many more on the continent of Europe. Even the majors will press for you if you can give them a large run order, but of course the small independent label is perhaps looking for only 500 or 1,000 discs and then the choice narrows sharply. There are few companies who actually specialise in pressing small runs and a scan through the music press will soon show their ads. MAINFRAME was fortunate enough to find a pressing plant in Hayes, Middlesex, namely Damont Records Ltd, who press for the trade, encompassing all the majors and many of the 'indies'. If you can persuade Damont that you are trade and perhaps have a great future as The Next Big Thing, they will press you a thousand albums for a very reasonable price indeed.
Depending on what you have to press and on quantity you can expect to pay anything from 13p for a single up to 45p for an album excluding the printing of labels and bags. It is up to you to shop around at this stage, since a few pence on each disc can add up to a great deal of money if you should hit it big and have to reprint quickly! The pressing plant will normally look after that mysterious part of the whole operation known as 'Process'. They will hide the costs of this operation in the final price per disc, but there are some companies who will make an up-front charge for process; again you must shop around and ask if these costs are included in your quote.
Process describes the events which follow the master lacquer through to the making of the actual pressing die itself. First the master lacquer is graphite coated and plated, the plating metal to become the first pressing 'master' from which further electros will be made as required to face up the so-called stampers. These are the final hard-metal backed pressing tools which actually squeeze the hot vinyl into the familiar disc, automatically pressing the labels into the surface at the same moment. Strict quality control is maintained throughout the pressing stages but the stampers are regularly replaced throughout a long run as the surfaces become worn by the constant high pressure contact with the vinyl material. Your record is then bagged and boxed ready for its journey to the distributor who will (you hope) flood the shops with your new wonder-song.
Perhaps it hurts at first to hear of your beautiful sleeve being referred to as 'bagging' but this feeling wears off after your first visit to your pressing plant since even the big names' singles which are flying through the place get exactly the same treatment! And of course, the sleeve can be a very large part of your costs.
MAINFRAME does its own artwork, its own texts, its own cover designs and its own photography. Hence control is total over the finished product except where the actual printing is concerned, but sleeve printers in common with any other reputable printer will let you see proofs before your production run starts. Then, if you do as we do — all of it — then you have only yourself to blame if there is a booboo. These can be VERY expensive so here again the learning is very fast indeed. Costs vary from a few pence for a simple single bag in one colour up to 60 to 70 pence for a complex album cover. More in fact than a short run album itself costs, but a straightforward sleeve in good quality laminated board, printed in four colours, will cost about 12 to 16 pence each for a 5,000 run. There are however the costs of plate-making and typesetting to take into account and these can amount to some hundreds of pounds for four colour work, largely depending on the cover complexity and standards demanded.
By now you have a fairly clear idea of what your record has cost you to make: say, if you do your own recording, for 1,000 albums:
|Platemaking & typesetting:||£350|
|Pressing: (includes 'process')||£400|