Demand for vinyl albums is growing, and the pressure on manufacturers to keep up is growing with it.
Engineers with the tools and experience necessary to put music on wax are increasingly harder to find. In fact, only about 25 "disc cutters" still operate in the United States. Ron Leeper, owner of Sound Affair Mastering in Santa Ana, is one of the few left—and business is booming.
Leeper started in the music industry in 1976 as an intern at Quad Tech Studios in Los Angeles, in the Sunset Boulevard building where Amoeba Records sits today. He spent the next decade working as an engineer, tape duplicator and disc cutter at legendary studios such as Record Plant and United Western Studios in Hollywood. Leeper gravitated toward disc cutting, which was thriving at the time, early in his career.
"We'd get records done as [fast as] we could because however many you put out you got paid for," Leeper says. "When vinyl was king, we would usually get about three records out a day. That's a lot–three different artists, different types of music, six sides, in one day."
In the 1970s and early '80s, the vinyl-record-pressing industry that Leeper was a part of was dominated by major labels including Capitol, Columbia and RCA. Each label had large pressing plants and valued quantity over quality.
"Back in the '70s, when we would get test pressings or I would work on something and go get it off the shelf at the record store and play it, it was horrible. The pressing was horrible," Leeper says. "They were always cutting corners to lower the budget and lower the cost. They would 'regrind' or reuse vinyl in the manufacturing process, which doesn't make for a good-sounding record."
As the music industry changed and CDs overtook albums, Leeper left disc cutting behind and opened his own recording and mastering studio in Orange County. His résumé grew to include artists such as Slash of Guns N' Roses, Adam Ant, George "Fully" Fullwood (Bob Marley/Soul Syndicate), Delta Spirit and Bristol to Memory.
Leeper expanded into film and television projects, including work for the Los Angeles Rams and music for the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Kickboxer, which he recently remastered for a 25-year anniversary rerelease.
"In this business, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. You have to diversify and find new ways to keep working," Leeper says. "Film and television [soundtracks] kind of went away in the early '90s, and mastering was becoming more and more prominent."
While moving deeper into mastering, Leeper kept an eye on music-industry trade publications as CD sales declined and digital took over. At the time, no one knew that vinyl would make a comeback.
According to Billboard, vinyl album sales grew from 6.1 million copies in 2013 to 9.2 million in 2014, a 52 percent increase. Last year also marked the seventh straight year that more vinyl records sold than any other year since tracking began in 1991. "I know a couple of people from the vinyl industry, and they said it was just exploding, and I saw an opportunity there, so I decided to get back into lacquer disc cutting and mastering," Leeper says. "People who are pretty serious about music or about a band are asking for records because they have a physical connection with that disc. It's a psychological thing, but that's where it's going, and it's really blasted off."
Leeper spent five years on a nationwide search for the tools he needed to cut vinyl albums again. He finally found the Scully 600 in the Boston area. The original owner bought it new in 1964 and kept it in good condition for half a century.
"There's a lot of blogs and online groups for audio and vinyl disc cutting, and I put out a little want ad looking for a system," Leeper says. "The original owner used to cut records in New England, and he had to transfer his business from vinyl to CD and CD to digital. He was getting up there in age, and he wanted it out of his house."
Today, the 1,200-pound machine sits in Sound Affair's mastering suite at Blue Velvet Studios in Santa Ana. With his equipment finally in place, Leeper was able to put four decades of engineering, mastering and disc cutting back to work.
Putting music on vinyl begins with specialized mastering to make sure the sounds translate properly. The recording level, the bass and the high end must be controlled. After mastering, the Scully 600 carves grooves into the disc. First, the lathe spins the uncut lacquer disc beneath the cutter head. Then, the cutter head translates the music from the source into two channels of stereo audio, physically cutting small grooves into the disc as it rotates. Finally, the Scully's electronics work with different equalizers and a disc computer to ensure a clean cut.
"You have to look at the grooves on the disc through a microscope to make sure that none of them are crashing into one another, what's called overcuts," Leeper says. "The concept is that [the disc computer] will control it for you, but you still have to be responsible, listen to the music and try to spot potential problems."
If Leeper finds mistakes, he throws the disc out and starts the cutting process again from scratch. Once the disc is approved, he sends it to a pressing plant, which makes copies to sell. "I have a relationship with two [record-pressing] plants here in the area, and you have to have that," Leeper says. "About six months ago, I was talking with another plant in Columbus, Ohio, and they physically can't take any new clients. I tried to get something in there, and they just said no."
When CDs took over in the 1980s and '90s, manufacturers stopped building the lathes and other machinery for the vinyl-production process. The shortage of available equipment today means that artists are waiting up to six or seven months for their records to be pressed. Independent record producers are scrambling to find and restore the old infrastructure necessary for pressing new albums. "It's weird how this old equipment crops up," Leeper says. "New plants have discovered these record-pressing machines in Chicago and Mexico and South America, and they're refurbishing them all and getting them working again."
Returning to disc cutting in the midst of a vinyl resurgence was a welcome change for Leeper. Owning one of the last machines in the world that makes vinyl albums comes with a responsibility to respect and protect the process.
"With the record companies, it was all about what they could sell. Quality wasn't high on their list–they just wanted to get it into stores," Leeper says. "We really have a microscope on quality. We want these records to sound good, we want the artist or the band to be happy with them–and the fans and the listener of the record to have a really good quality recording."
Sound Affair Mastering, 2727 S. Croddy Way, Ste. G, Santa Ana, (714) 540-0063; www.soundaffairmastering.com.