Ray Staff - Cutting Engineer
Ray Staff - Disc Cutting Engineer at Trident Studios.
"Mixing Desk" is a series that focuses on the producers and engineers behind the studio controls. This month Janet Angus gets in the groove with Ray Staff, Chief Cutting Engineer at Trident Studios, London.
Disc cutting is one of those areas of the record producing business that one tends to know very little about, or even hear very little about, mainly because the people actually involved in this process are very few in number. It's a very specialised art which, as Ray Staff, Trident Studio's Chief Cutting Engineer will tell you, is often overlooked, with the result that expensively produced masters will be ruined because the record company fails to allocate an appropriate part of their budget to the disc cut.
Ruined is, perhaps, too strong a word. But it is true to say that the more time and money you spend in the cutting room, the better the eventual sound quality of your record.
There are only a handful of cutting rooms in this country and they are manned by people who have a wealth of experience to draw on, having seen the art of disc cutting grow from extremely primitive beginnings, to the high tech business it is today. In Ray Staff's early days at Trident the operation was done on a trial and error basis, as indeed was the whole business of recording itself, and it was only when an extremely knowledgeable Sean Davis visited the studios to do a spot of maintenance, that the theories and physics of cutting were revealed to him.
Ray sort of 'fell' into the cutting trade more by luck than by careful planning. He had acquired his interest in recording at his very go-ahead East London comprehensive school where an enterprising teacher had managed to set up a radio station. All the classrooms had speakers in them and the school radio sent out broadcasts in the mornings and at lunchtime which included news, music and magazine-type programmes. They then joined forces with another London school who had a drama studio and they eventually worked on a number of very ambitious projects, including recording material for educational TV.
When Ray left school he wanted to become a TV engineer, but then, as now, studio jobs were extremely hard to come by, and he ended up getting a job as 'tea boy' at Trident. Trident studios are of the 'old school' whereby you serve a very long apprenticeship as tea boy, slowly graduating to tape-op, through assistant engineering to finally becoming a fully-fledged engineer. Ray is now a mere 32 years old, and in those early days the studio was working with people like Elton John, Santana, George Harrison and Phil Spector. It seems incredible now to look back over what is, after all a very small number of years and realise just how primitive the whole thing was.
Ray started in the cutting room under Bob Hill who was the studio manager and chief cutting engineer, and they had a desk which was built in-house. That desk is still there today, although it has had numerous additions to it over the years, as the demands made on it increased.
In the beginning it was customary to cut everything absolutely flat ie. without additional tonal equalisation and it was only gradually that the artistic element was introduced.
At this time the Americans were definitely leading the way. "The American cuts were much more interesting, the American engineers seemed to have learned a lot more quickly than we had over here, and the English engineers were learning by listening to those cuts and trying to work out how they were achieved." This was about 14 years ago and the situation has, of course, levelled out and there is not a lot to choose between the US and the English cuts. "Nowadays the UK cutting rooms are definitely on a par with the US".
"Our original cutting equipment was just bass and treble controls and nothing else! Nowadays, as you can see, we have equalisers and limiters and things, and the whole operation is generally much more sophisticated."
Cutting techniques have been affected by two specific demands: not only advances in technology both in the recording studio and the cutting room, but also by the increasing sophistication of the music itself. "For example, with electronic music there have been all sorts of problems.The early synthesisers had no character whatsoever and it was terribly difficult to make them sound interesting. It is very often possible to make or break a record at the cutting stage, and with this type of sound it was particularly difficult."
"Pure tones are very hard to cut, especially with the high frequencies. People like Dave Stewart have done so much for electronic music. He has a very wide appreciation of how to record electronic music and creates and develops a very interesting sound. As engineers and producers grow to learn what is required of the master recordings to make for a good, interesting cut, so the quality of records improves."
"It is very important for an engineer to understand what sort of things are going to cause problems in the cut. One of the most common things is an acoustic anomaly in the studio itself which has been overcompensated for in the recording with the result that it sounds dreadful when it gets to the cutting room. Certain deficiencies in the mix can be put right here in the cutting room, such as lack of brightness or attack."
So how long will an average cut take?
"An album will take around 4-6 hours depending on how much time the client can afford to spend on it. We deal with all different kinds of people who have different amounts of money to spend. Some record companies don't take a lot of trouble at this stage although they may have spent a fortune on the actual recording."
What sort of qualities are you aiming for in a cut?
"On albums the sound has to be lively and pleasurable. Singles and 12" records come into another category. They have to be designed to come over well on the radio and therefore they need an aggressive quality. We sometimes use a little box of tricks which is called the 'Ear Opener'. It is made by the BBC (MWS100) and it shows you which frequencies will be lost when it is played on the radio so you can tailor the cut precisely for its intended medium."
The problems, however, do not end here. Just because you have produced a wonderful cut doesn't necessarily mean that the pressed records in the shop will bear witness to this fact. The pressing process can often put a spanner in the works and the most common one that Ray comes up against is loss of brightness. The physical cut leaves a 'burr' at the top of the grooves which contains the high frequencies, and since the burr is actually quite sharp, it can cause a lot of damage to the presses. Therefore a compromise has to be reached. The metalwork is polished to soften the burr and if this is not done with extreme care, all may be lost! "Polishing of the metalwork takes off about 1dB of the brightness usually, but we have lost up to 8dB at times when it has been overdone."
The cutting lathe, a Neumann VMS70, is "just a glorified metalwork lathe" says Ray, but it is, nevertheless, extremely sophisticated in its simplicity. The cutting head is constantly cooled by a helium 'drip' mechanism whilst the cutting stylus is constantly heated to enable it to cut easily into the acetate. The other complex mechanism on the lathe controls the groove geometry - listening to the tape and ensuring that the grooves are never too close to cope with the sounds coming up. A regulator filters the frequencies that are too high.
The temperature has to be monitored continuously, and in a rack next to the lathe, there is a collection of circuit breakers which sense when anything is wrong and shut everything down. These have been connected up to an alarm which gives the impression that all hell has been let loose, so you can never be in any doubt as to whether it is working or not!
When a client arrives at Trident they will first go into the adjoining cutting room to prepare their tapes, where every type of machine is at their disposal. This saves time in the cutting room itself, and the facilities are tie-lined, enabling you to make real-time copies of the 'cutting ready' tape, thus avoiding generation losses. This is for record companies who intend to put out releases all over the world, and, armed with a copy of the prepared tape, it is possible to walk into any cutting room and produce the same cut.
Once inside the cutting room the tape machines and noise reduction are lined up to the tapes. The signal is then sent through the desk with its level and EQ, limiting and phasing controls. From here it goes to the disc cutting amp which gives 500W RMS up to 1 kilowatt peak in power which feeds the cutting head.
Going back to the groove geometry problem, one of Trident's more recent acquisitions has been an AMS Digital Disc Mastering Delay System. In order to control the groove geometry, the lathe has to listen off the record head of the tape machine in order to know what is about to come off the playback head, but with digital masters this isn't possible. So the AMS will delay the signal without any loss of quality to the sound, enabling the machine to work out its next move.
The cutting desk at Trident looks as if it has been cobbled together, which it is probably fair to say is more or less the case, with various bits having been added over the years. "A lot of the desk was made redundant by the AMS but we've got several things here that no other cutting room in England has got such as the EXR Aural Exciter. Also the Transdynamic Limiter which enables you to predetermine the areas and the frequencies you are going to limit." Apart from these there are simple rotary level controls; a phase controller which will filter out the bass and control the width of the stereo image. Also mounted in the desk are an Orban stereo equaliser and a Pultec valve equaliser. "We were the first place in England to build a desk which enabled you to preset the EQ."
Apart from the machines in the copy room, the tape machines are an Ampex ATR100 with interchangeable ½" head, and a Studer B62. "50% of the work we do now is on ½". That was very difficult at first. It took quite a while to get used to - the tapes had too big and too hard a sound for a single. I had to learn how to make the sound smaller and more pliable. Strangely enough non-Dolby'd masters are much more pliable than those recorded with Dolby noise reduction. Also when digital mastering started coming in - the sound is much harder to manipulate, it's not so routine. You have to think harder!"
Are there any particular problems associated with different types of music? "Well, with Pop music you just go for a bright, hard sound. With Classical music you have to restrain yourself and look for a pure, sometimes mellow type of tone. Rock 'n' Roll, Folk and Jazz are a mixture of both. Actually Church music is the hardest thing I've had to do. We seem to do quite a lot of that here. It's quite challenging. Pure tones are the hardest things to cut, and with church music, the church itself has a peculiar acoustic which gives those little treble voices a certain quality which you have to maintain and it's quite difficult sometimes. It's definitely one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
Disc cutting has always seemed to me to be an outlandishly expensive stage of record production, but this brief closer look quickly shows you why. The overheads are astronomical! The disc material itself is solid aluminium coated with acetate which is very easily scratched (obviously). There is an average wastage of 20—30% on these, making the raw materials very expensive. The cutting head is replaced two or three times a week and helium doesn't exactly come cheap, so it all mounts up quite rapidly. Add all this to the state of the art effects and machinery, as well as your engineer's time, and perhaps you aren't getting such a rough deal after all. Record companies take note.
Feature by Janet Angus
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!