The Master Room
Cutting masters is a fine art. George Peckham discusses the problems
One of the great unrecognised arts of the music industry is the cut. Producers and a few enlightened artists are prepared to travel halfway across the world to cut a master with the right cutting engineer.
Cutting studios swing in and out of fashion like dance rhythms and just a few years ago Apple cutting was the place to cut. Today Apple has gone and a new centre in London has sprung up.
The Master Room in London's Riding Horse Street has been building almost a cult-following among more aware producers in the year it's been open and it has the distinct advantage of ex-Apple cutting engineers George Peckham and Tony Bridge doing the business.
The Master Room is a highly individual and specialised operation. It was set up specifically to be the only specialised cutting studio in London by Freddie Packham, Bryan Hewson, Tony and George. The policy of specialisation has proved highly successful and George and Tony now spend an incredible number of hours per week cutting masters and high quality acetates.
Among the Master Room's recent successes has been the Wings' superb Venus And Mars.
"It was quite easy to cut really," recalls George, "But it was quite long on one side, just over 23 minutes, and the other side is around 20. A few years ago people were putting longer time on to disc, but now that we're getting a bit more level on, it has to be a bit shorter. The best playing time is around 20 minutes really."
Just a few years ago, cutting engineers were boasting that they could get 28 minutes on a side with no loss of level, but that was before engineers got cheeky, and began to question the equipment manufacturer's specifications regarding level. "A few engineers refused to accept that and so now and again a cheeky one would put more level on than he should — including me. The result was that cutting engineers found they could get more level without any more distortion than the equipment manufacturers suggested and because of the level, the optimum cutting time was reduced. The subsequent increase in sound quality was well worth the loss in playing time.
But cutting engineers can only be as good as the tapes they are supplied with. Within limits they can improve a poor quality tape, but the limits are quite narrow.
"About 50 per cent of the tapes that arrive are good, the other 50 per cent poor, needing a lot of work. The biggest single problem in cutting is dynamic range. When you limit and equalise you've got to be really careful to watch which frequencies you are adding to because if you add at the wrong frequencies it will go flying way over the top and you'll have to limit all the more and the end result is a rotten sound.
"So many new engineers have appeared on the scene who don't understand the needs of the cutting engineer. In the old days an engineer started as the-brusher-up-come-tea-boy and then he'd learn how to copy tapes doing a transfer, then he'd go to the cutting room and from there he'd go to the studio. And because he had to go through these three or four steps by the time he got to the end he'd understand the whole process."
In addition to working within the limitations of the cutting lathe, the thoughtful engineer also has to work with the producer or artist during the cutting process. "Some clients, whether they are producers or artists, have exceptionally fine ears. Ian Anderson has an excellent pair of ears for example. In that situation they hear everything you do. To get the end result you might try to clip some of the frequencies a little bit, but he'd be able to hear what you'd done and you'd have to leave it alone. Half the ability to hear is natural, the other half is attunement which is the result of long hours in the studio. You've got to have it before you can train it."
Feature by George Peckham
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