Feature: Recording direct to disc at AIR Studios

There can’t be many producers out there who would attempt to record a swing band direct to disc any more, but Mike Valentine is one of them. Adam Savage went down to AIR Studios to see this demanding process in action.

It’s not hard to see why direct-to-disc has become an increasingly rare method of recording since its peak in the first half of the 20th century. There is virtually no room for error – any mistakes from the musicians or engineers can ruin a session instantly; finding a group of players willing to play under the stress of these conditions is not easy; and there are few places left with the infrastructure in place to host such an activity.

London’s AIR Studios, however, is one of them. But even with all the necessary kit to hand, a successful direct-to-disc project requires the right people to be involved too.

Producer Mike Valentine had reasons to be confident of a disaster-free day – despite all the potential pitfalls – when he walked through the doors of the Hampstead-based facility in late May to record the acclaimed Sid Lawrence Orchestra – now led by Chris Dean – direct to disc, though. And that’s because he’d done it all before 12 months earlier.

“I had recorded a group in Venice [the Interpreti Veneziani] for their own record label in a little monastery there, and made two CDs with them. I then asked them to come to London and we recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but we did it as a direct cut – a live recording from the outputs of the desk, through the tie lines up to the second floor at AIR Studios, in effect straight onto lathe, and trying to be a bit of a weird purist, I wanted to have as little as possible in terms of compression and digital toys to keep the signal as pure as possible from the mics to the cutting head,” says Valentine.

“And the thing is, when we listened back, there seemed to be a genuine live quality to the sound, and I thought ‘we’ve hit on something here’.’”

It turned out to be more than just a personal project for self-confessed “hi-fi nutcase” Valentine, who funded it all himself, as thousands of copies of the album were sold all over the world, which isn’t bad for a piece of vinyl-purist ?classical music.

Due to its success both technologically and commercially, Valentine was soon afterwards eyeing up his next move – another direct cut. All that was needed was a choice of genre.

“I thought ‘what are we going to next? How about some big band swing jazz?’” recalls Valentine. “I then listened to quite a few big bands, went to various concerts and came across the Sid Lawrence Orchestra. As a kid working at the BBC as a sound guy in the ‘70s I remember putting mics in front of Chris [Dean] when he was a trombone player.”

The decision to pick these musicians came down to a lot more than just raw ability – the pressure of having to play in an environment where so much can go wrong isn’t for everyone, but Dean’s group were up for the challenge.

“When you put those musicians in front of a mic and record them live there are never any fluffs and that’s what we were looking for – people who are used to live performances,” explains Valentine.

“I was nervous from a professional point of view what they would think of the idea and the session, and they were nervous because there were playing live, but I think it gave them that extra bit of edge in their performance.

Mike Valentine in discussion with the Sid Lawrence Orchestra

“At the end of the day we want the listeners to think that the musicians are playing for them. I suppose ultimately what the composer had in mind was to have the music played so it would go straight into the listener’s mind, so if we can take some of the links out then I think that’s a great thing.”

“Yes there was going to be the odd hiccup and missed note, but so what? At the end of the day I turned around and looked at the industry professionals who joined us and there were big smiles. These are people who have seen it and done it.”

As well as sticking with the tried-and-tested location – AIR’s Studio 1 was selected instead of the much more spacious Lyndhurst Hall due to its tighter sound – Valentine was also able to reunite with the engineering crew from last year, which included mastering maestro John Webber and mixing specialist Jake Jackson. They opted to maintain a remarkably straightforward gear arrangement too.

“He [Jackson] gets the balance very quickly, and I love the old Neve desk here – the engineers have really treated it with respect and it offers a beautiful sound. We did end up using 22 mics but very simply – on the drums two overheads, one kick; on the piano two mics and single mics in front of the remaining musicians.
“And so we managed to get a relatively straightforward mix – nice wide stereo, very dynamic – straight upstairs to John, who had the technical problem of getting the four tracks per side without the needle flying out the groove.”

Master At Work

So how would Webber describe his role and responsibilities for this particular task? Best to let the man himself do the explaining: “I don’t affect what goes on down here [the control room]; Jake and Mike make all the recording decisions. I approach it like any other mastering scenario,” states Webber. “It’s my job to translate their sound upstairs, respect and complement their decisions in terms of balance, stereo, level etc, and transfer that onto the disc in the best way possible.”

Talking of “other mastering scenarios”, what does Webber consider to be the main difficulties working with vinyl compared to more modern mediums?

“Vinyl has its limitations including the space you can fit onto a side, the amount of stereo you can cut without jumps and inner diameter, high frequency ?distortion,” he continues. “Cutting a record groove is a bit like alchemy I suppose and it shouldn’t really work. You’re just sending voltages into two coils pushing down on a bit of sapphire, cutting into what is effectively paint! It’s amazing how it can sound so great.”

This may have been their second time doing it, but Webber found their latest direct-to-disc trickier than with the Interpreti Veneziani.

“It was a lot harder to cut this time even though the sides were shorter. My main challenges were the strong vertical signals and avoiding groove crashes while achieving a respectable cutting level,” he says. “Grooves crashing into each other can cause various issues on playback including skipping and increased noise.”

The cutting room at AIR Studios

And, of course, with there being so many things that could go wrong, preparation was key for Webber.

“When we were rehearsing I did various test cuts, some on the inside diameter to see how it would sound on that part of the record [in terms of inner diameter distortion],” he comments. “I started by cutting a loud section, all guns blazing; this helps me establish a peak cutting level, depth of cut and equalizer settings.

“At one point I had filters switched in upstairs and decided I was going to boost the bass by about 1.5dB with a shelving EQ and I boosted around 2k as I felt bringing the mid forward a touch would translate well onto the medium.”

Pure And Simple

It’s also worth noting the lack of contemporary audio gadgetry, which Webber feels would’ve gone completely against what they were trying to achieve had they been implemented.

“Part of the direct to disc ethos is to make the recording/mastering path as pure as possible, so switching in more electronics seemed a little counterproductive,” he explains. “In terms of the mastering stage the only additional electronics before the cutting amps was our elliptical equalizer.”

Valentine adds: “Yes, you can prove with an oscilloscope and all the latest testing gear that there’s more distortion [doing it this way] or it’s not a perfectly flat frequency response, but bollocks to that You show me where the lever is for the smile factor.”

Although the team is not the first to consider doing something like this at the studio, Webber reiterates that the primary reason why so few would attempt it is the high possibility of disaster. However, for this engineer the hazards only add to the appeal.

“There have been occasions where people tried to get direct-to-disc projects off the ground at AIR and it hasn’t happened for one reason or another; you’ve probably got to be a bit mad to do it. Say there was a problem with the cut that I hadn’t noticed – I can’t visually check the entire lacquer after each take, it’ll take forever,” he says.
“So if I miss one thing, or there’s a problem with shipping or the metalwork processing at the plant, then it would all be for nothing.

“There are no recuts with direct to disc recording; it’s about as much pressure and excitement a mastering engineer can have in my opinion.”