Live at the Lab: Gem Trails "Adobada" Lathe Cut EP
Trevor Peterson arrived with a guitar and a bevy of pedals and samplers. With the help of adaptable computer music softwares like Ableton and Logic and popular hardware like the Roland SP-404SX or the Akai APC40, the combinations of technologies passing through the Lab morphs constantly. Some acts will use an APC plus a drum pad (Skeleton Zoo), others a processed vocal through a Korg Kaoscillator backed by analog synthesizers and live drums (Our Future), or in the case of Peterson and his project Gem Trails, an effected guitar combined with a couple samplers.
Peterson requested that I mike the guitar amp so it blend in with his Roland SP-404SX. Normally, I’m hesitant to mike any guitar amp in our small room, but once we got the amp at a low enough volume so it blended in smoothly with his electronics, Peterson burst through the mix gently with awkward but ambient guitar flourishes supplemented with body and punctuation.
During his set, Peterson mentioned nothing about an EP. It was his “Adobada” EP release party. Upon request, he responded, “Well, I actually only have one left.”
“How much are they?”
The high price for the 7" was a bit unsettling.
“There’s a reason for it,” he added. “These are lathe cuts and only 20 were made.”
“A lathe cut. What’s that?”
“It’s this plastic square with a record pressed in. Just check it out.”
I pulled one out: a flat plastic square with a bunch of circles pressed in the middle. I could eat dinner on this.
I grabbed the last one.
When played back at home, the lathe lacked depth in the soundstage and the recording sounded thin when compared to the bandcamp version. It was still fun to listen to. Playback was scratchy, giving it a forlorn sound, which reminded me of cassette. Watching its’ square shape revolve was enjoyably confusing. The fact that it was clear made it even more befuddling.
Playback initiation required precision. The first time I dropped the needle, I missed the first ridges of the circle inlay entirely, and the needle skipped backwards towards the record mat. Second time around, I tried something lazy and let the record start with the needle in place.
On side B, I nailed the needle drop, and within seconds, a construction siren was surrounded by smokestack clouds of sound that croaked, pulsed, and echoed. Bubbling synths and ethereal guitar strums evoked images of buildings sprouting from earth terrain encroached with towering forests, a mix of the organic and industrial, hazy but dream-filled.
To get more info on this weird lathe thing, I interviewed Adam Baumeister at Meep Records, the guy who pressed the Gem Trails’ EP.
Bitran: What sparked your interest in lathe cutting?
Baumeister: I’ve been a record collector a long time, and I would come across a few lathes or see some on eBay. I remember this great noise band Wolf Eyes selling some years ago. Making a record is an expensive and elusive process that you can’t do yourself like burning a CD or dubbing a tape at home.
A friend of mine bought an old Wilcox-Gay lathe and was trying to fix it up. He turned me on to a forum called Lathe Trolls where I spent many hours reading and geeking out. To a music fan, making records at home is an intoxicating idea.
Bitran: What material are your lathes pressing on?
Baumeister: Polycarbonate. Acrylic is a little too hard and acetate blanks are pricey. I have a Presto K-8 Recording Lathe with a modified cutting head by Bruce Sterling. From what I know of the guy, he was kind of a legendary record cutter and fixer of recording lathes.
Bitran: Describe your process a little bit more for me.
Baumeister: Most people call what I do embossing, but that’s not quite right. Embossing would be pressing up from beneath or inside the plastic. What I’m really doing is impressing grooves. The common use for these recording lathes is to cut grooves into acetate or whatever material, but I learned a trick from Peter King in New Zealand that if you put the cutting stylus in the cutter backwards and tilt the head to get the right angle you can impress the grooves into plastic. By doing this, you get way more use and time from your stylus, and it sounds just as good as cutting.
I’ve heard you can do about 100 cuts with a good stylus before the loss of fidelity. With impressing, I’ve done several hundred cuts on a single stylus.
Here’s a little breakdown of how I make a record:
- Get a sheet of polycarbonate from your local plastic dealer, and cut it down into 7"x7" squares.
- Drill center holes.
- Rub a little turtle wax on the square of the polycarbonate to lubricate the surface and reduce friction.
- EQ and master the song to Mono.
- Play the song from CD to the Lathe
Bitran: Do you press on anything else other than polycarbonates?
Baumeister: Not yet. We’ll see. I just started making records on a flexi-disc type of material that can be cut into circles. People like their records round.
Most of Baumeister’s projects are one offs ranging from ten to twenty copies. Orders are placed from all over the world via his eBay store.
Baumeister recently pressed twenty copies for label Patient Sounds International where Side A was ten locked grooves and side B was a different full-length song for each pressing. “Doing that many locked grooves was a little intense,” says Baumeister. Each of the twenty pressings had a different set of locked grooves. The record plays short samples of ambient music then gets stuck in the groove, which repeats the same section until you knock the needle over to play the next groove.
Bitran: Are you familiar with Stereophile?
Baumeister: Just been checking it out. I like it.