Richard Houghten stands in his Los Angeles kitchen holding a small plastic Ziploc bag containing a finely threaded filament of material all wadded up inside. He's excited. "I'm thinking about packaging this with the records," he says. Inside the bag is the material his record lathe machine scoops away to create the grooves on an album. It's the physical representation of music tracks. Yes, this is cool.
I know Houghten because he's my cello-playing sister's boyfriend and I'm visiting their place. He's a guitar player, a guitar teacher and a creator of hybrid electronic and acoustic music. I had heard about the record lathe, but I didn't have a good grasp of the concept. He demonstrates it for me and I'm fascinated.
Records are almost sacred objects. I celebrated the day in childhood when my hands were finally big enough to hold a record with my thumb on the edge and my ring fingertip tucked under the hole, leaving no unsightly fingerprints or damaging scratch marks. I raided my stepdad's extensive collection of Dave Edmunds, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson albums. It set the course for my musical tastes and songwriting ever after.
A fantastical gadget
Houghten's record lathe looks like a retro-sci-fi creation, a truncated Rube Goldberg machine with a dash of steampunk aesthetic. The body is made from a Technics record player. The moving cutter head consists of two small speakers that vibrate a diamond. The diamond cuts into the plastic, scooping out a groove. This is where the record player needle rides, translating the negative space into music.
This is a very different process from pressing records, the way vinyl is mass-produced for sale. Each record made on the lathe happens in real-time. Houghten listens carefully to each track, on the lookout for audio peaks that might make the record unplayable. For example, too much volume could cause the diamond to carve a fat groove that runs into a previous groove and makes a record player's needle skip on playback.
Cutting records with this type of lathe is the opposite of mass production. "If someone wants 10 copies, I've got to cut 10 records. It's all real-time. There's no way to speed it up," Houghten says. He monitors every record. He even recorded the band L.A. Takedown live directly onto a record. The band played its songs over 20 times in a row, creating a unique set of playable collector items, each one a little different from the other.
The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls is an online forum where musicians, sound engineers and audio geeks discuss record lathes, share their knowledge and debate the merits of various record-cutting systems. I ask my sister why they call themselves "trolls" and she responds that it's because they're so deeply nerdy about their machines and the art and science of cutting records.
It takes dedication for Houghten to listen to the same music over and over again, cutting out fifty copies and paying as close attention to the last as to the first. For him, it's the culmination of a fascination. "I've been totally obsessed with being able to see sound," he says. "Even before I knew about cutting records, I had a microscope and would look at the grooves and was blown away."
Houghten bought his record lathe from a mysterious man in Germany known as Souri. One condition of purchase was flying out to Germany for a marathon in-person training session inside a shed set in a landscape of rolling hills.
"It was like a showdown. You have one training session that will last as long as you can physically take," Houghten says. "He knows everything about cutting, from the geometry of the record to the deepest bass you can put in there."
He learned how to calibrate the machine. He learned how to not break the sensitive instrument. He learned how to create records the old-fashioned way, which has now become a process of wonder in a world full of digital music files.
The record lathe isn't just about cutting vinyl. "You can be as experimental as you want. There's a guy who makes chocolate records," Houghten says. "You can cut a record into the plastic part of a compact disc. Any malleable material you can cut into. I've cut into CDs, different plastics, actual blank vinyl and lacquer."
Houghten floats seamlessly between the worlds of analog and digital music. You won't hear him proselytize about the cult of physical records. "I think digital and vinyl are both great. I don't think they're opponents of each other," he says.
The passage of time can make old-school techniques feel innovative. The record lathe falls into this realm. It won't ever replace vinyl-pressing factories or MP3s, but it has a place in the music world. Carving sound from solid discs is once again a magical pursuit.