With Wave Alchemy's most comprehensive drum sample library to date we wanted to go the extra mile to bring you a diverse selection of original drum sounds for your productions, and so we had the idea to press a selection of drum sounds to vinyl to capture that 'vinyl sound' that is so useful in today's productions. Here is an account of the pressing process written by Synth Drums developer Matt Urmenyi.
I've just finished editing over 600 specially selected drum samples, from a 12" Dub-plate for Wave Alchemy's forthcoming Synth Drums Sample Library. The plan with this new Library is to cover all bases in terms of sonic flavour. As well as the hardware processed sounds, we're also including the original samples as they were recorded raw, straight-from-the-synth and samples bounced through special processes to add character, tone, warmth and punch, using Reel-to-Reel 1/4 inch Tape and Vinyl.
The last time I was at a record pressing plant was in 1995. In the years since, the audio industry has gone through a massive change, with the digital revolution now in full force. The decline in the use of vinyl has meant that many of the larger pressing plants have now vanished and instead, smaller boutique vinyl mastering studios have taken their place. The Carvery
in Hackney is an example of this - a hybrid set-up incorporating modern digital hardware, software and vintage analogue machines. One such machine is the centrepiece of the studio, a classic Neumann VMS 70 vinyl mastering lathe. This actual unit was originally in the Motown Studios in the 1970s, later bought by Sony and eventually snapped up by this studio. Lucky them!
After loading up the audio track of synthesized drums into Pro-tools, Frank Merritt (Mastering Engineer and vinyl specialist) and I discussed the best way of recording them to acetate. We settled on two sides, one 'clean' 45rpm and one 'saturated' 33rpm version of the track, to give us maximum sampling and tone options. I asked Frank what advantages vinyl has over digital as a recording medium:-
"You get a natural compression to the material [acetate] because it's effectively like a liquid, so as the sound hits the plate, it dissipates into it. As the play-back stylus reads it, it's going to not only have sounds from that groove, it's also going to have sound from the previous groove interleaved into it at certain levels so you're always going to get a little bit of post- and pre-echo. It may not necessarily be audible, but it will give a richness and a certain thump. Also the fact that it's going to be played back by a non-linear stylus means, more often than not, the left or the right hand side is stronger than the other, so you get a funny relationship with what was a mono signal - it ends up becoming kind of stereo-fied... From a sonics point of view vinyl has dynamics, it has personality... To a certain extent I think that vinyl gives a more natural sound because it is a natural sound. It is a physical, electronic reaction."
Frank started the Lathe and recorded a test cut from a couple of minutes of the drum audio. The original clean, polished drums were now sounding more 'textured' after being cut to vinyl. Our kicks went from thump to whump and some had a subtle saturation. The high frequency sounds were now softer in character, the transients were reduced and any harshness had turned into a nice distortion.
In the source audio for the vinyl recording we had intensified the high frequencies on some sounds and these generated interesting effects when cut to acetate - just the ticket for the more experimental EDM producer. We went ahead with the final pressing for the 33 side, hitting the vinyl as hard as the audio would allow. The nature of the sounds being recorded put unusual stresses on the cutting head and it was this stress that really brought out the saturation and distortion in the recording. Next we cut the 45 side, but we didn't play it back. This was the 'clean side' and acetate being what it is, degrades after a few plays.
The first play on the 45 side would actually be the first recording pass from the vinyl back into digital audio, to ensure maximum quality. The 33 side on the other hand was made for us to abuse. Degradation of acetate recordings can be a very good thing and our plan was to make a recording pass of the 33 side and then play it five more times to degrade it and make another recording pass... and so on, with a selection of styli for different effects: sometimes it's not simply about recording at the highest quality, a fact demonstrated with the Minimoog kick drums, which I found sounded best on the recording pass made using a 'worn-in' Stanton DJ stylus from the 1990s, which made these crushing kicks sound even heavier!
Steve Heath of Wave Alchemy was given the unenviable task of sampling the record. Sometimes the nitty-gritty of a massive project like this can really be a challenge! He gave me back eight audio files of the recording made using different styli on different sides of the record at different levels of degradation: a process that took over fifty plays to accomplish. Then it was my task to audition each individual sound within those eight audio tracks, selecting only the very best hits and trimming them by hand. The selected hits range in texture from the 'clean' samples to the totally broken-up. I mostly went for 'maximum character' which means that these hits are full of pleasing vinyl noise and tone.
It's this level of detail and dedication that has been a hallmark of the entire project - everything has been done on a sound-by-sound basis, crafted by hand. We feel that this attention to detail will translate into a unique, creative and useful addition to any electronic music producer's toolkit.
Written by Matt Urmenyi for Wave Alchemy