The timing of my visit was perfect, I strolled into Alex DeTurk's studio at Masterdisk just as he was cutting an LP. DeTurk was moving to the music, totally engaged with the sound as the big record mastering lathe was literally cutting the groove into the disc. After the side was complete he examined the grooves with a microscope. DeTurk then said, "Vinyl is the most consumer-friendly high-resolution format around." Right, more people are buying LPs than true high-resolution 24 bit/192 kHz files, the ones that can sound better than CD-quality FLAC or Apple Lossless files. I agree with DeTurk's assertion, well-recorded old and new LPs, played on a decent turntable are capable of delivering high-resolution sound. Of course LPs are more likely to be played on a turntable at home, where the listener might actually be able to hear the difference between high- and standard-resolution recordings. Listening to high-resolution files in noisy environments like a train, car, bus, or plane is like eating gourmet food on a roller coaster. Savoring sound quality is next to impossible in those places, at home with a decent audio system you're more likely to hear the difference high resolution can make.
DeTurk refers to Masterdisk's record cutting machine, the Neumann VMS 80, as the "Ferrari of lathes." It was built in 1982, but has been rebuilt twice and has many tweaks. He invites me to look at his freshly cut grooves with the microscope, and asks me not to speak when I'm hovering directly over the master, you don't want to contaminate its pristine surfaces. He's happy with the way the groove looks, but on a bad day the grooves might take on a "streaky, rocky and jagged" appearance. When that happens he'll have to do it again and cut a fresh lacquer disc. He likes working with physical tools like the lathe, and finds the hands-on aspects of record cutting incredibly satisfying. DeTurk just bought an old analog Nagra tape recorder, and noted the difference in workflow when he's not using computers.
As we're talking, I start to see LP mastering engineers as people who literally transform sound into physical wave forms; these engineers are sculptors of sound. To be good at their job they have to be attuned to the machine and materials they're working with. The temperature, humidity, the quality of the blank lacquer discs, and the cutting stylus all potentially affect the sound of the finished product, the LP. So working in the analog "domain" requires extreme attention to detail, as the smallest errors can spell disaster.
DeTurk also masters digital formats, and acknowledges the challenges of digital music are different, but still demanding. When he is assigned a project that will be released digitally and on LP, he always tries to use the high-resolution master for the LP. DeTurk quickly added, "The vinyl's sound always destroys the peak-limited, 16-bit CD version, it kills it dead. There are very few times I like the CD better than the LP." DeTurk is a big advocate for releasing dynamically uncompressed music on digital formats like CD and downloads. He just worked with some bands that are going to do that, so he's not an anti-digital guy, but he really loves vinyl. Nowadays, most vinyl releases are cut from digital masters, DeTurk gets maybe one analog master a month and if that's not available he'll try to work with high-resolution digital masters.
DeTurk feels he's done some of his best work on Butterscotch Records releases from Graph Rabbit, Mikael Jorgensen, the Lulls and New Weather. He specifically recommended Naam's "Vow" and Savoir Adore's "Our Nature" as personal favorites. DeTurk's mastering credits also include David Bowie, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Brendan Benson, Javelin, John McLaughlin, Sting, The Walkmen, and Teen Girl Scientist Monthly releases.