Test prints, test pressings, hisses and fuzz; bringing your music to vinyl can be a daunting task. With The Onion out today, Lail Arad takes us through the wax-and-wanes of pressing her first vinyl record.
Words: Lail Arad
“You never touch the surface,” my father told me. “You pick it up by the rim.” I remember very clearly: it was The 5000 Spirits or Layers of The Onion by The Incredible String Band; my first lesson in vinyl, aged 8. That very LP is now in my possession, along with much of my parent’s collection – on ‘indefinite loan’. ‘First Girl I Loved’ on Side 2 is particularly scratched from years of repeated play. It’s possible that my forthcoming album The Onion was titled with a nod to the ISB. It’s definite that this early relationship with the 12″ adds to the excitement around my first vinyl release.
When The Vinyl Factory proposed releasing a limited edition of my new album, I thought: Well hey, this makes perfect sense, I grew up with vinyl, I’m an old hand. Turns out I was a layman. A real novice. A vinyl virgin.
Let’s skip the part when the graphic designer asked for a test print of the sleeve and I ran all the way to Soho with the results, freaking out that the black ink wasn’t black enough and the card was too floppy. It’s just a mock-up to check the trimming…
Let’s also skip the part where I hand-signed all 500 inner sleeves with a different song lyric on each and my mind got so frazzled that I lost the ability to count. (If two people on two sides of the earth both find themselves with copy 374 please forgive me?)
Let’s skip to the part where the needle starts skipping. The phonograph itself. The polyvinyl chloride.
When I received the test pressings (after emailing to ask what I was supposed to do with them… and then being too scared to pick one up for most of the day), I turned the lights down, sat on a cushion in the middle of the carpet and closed my eyes to listen. (This is not my usual behaviour, as much as I’d love to pretend it is). My initial elation distracted me through the opening tracks… this sounds so amazing! My songs are on vinyl! It was when I got to the 3rd or 4th track that I started getting nervous. What’s that fuzz? I’m pretty sure the digital version doesn’t sound like this… Did anyone else hear that? Something ain’t right.
Turns out two things weren’t right: my record player and my ears. Had I really never listened closely to anyone else’s music in all these years? Never noticed all those hisses? I needed a pair of speakers and a pair of ears I could trust. I spared The Vinyl Factory my naive concern (see above sleeve trimming incident) and wrote to Gareth Jones, producer extraordinaire, who I was lucky enough to do much of the demoing for this album, before it knew what album it was going to be. It was a beautifully closing circle to be back at his Strongrooms studio, record in hand. And of course it sounded good…
GJ: These great speakers would show up any problems. LA: What about that line just there, my survival skills? GJ: Well S’s are always tricky on vinyl… you’ll notice it on other records now. LA: But wait, this song is a little crunchier right? Am I imagining that? GJ: Inner groove distortion. The closer you get to the centre the harder it is to get good sound – it’s great that both sides of your record end with a quiet track. LA: Beginners luck… Did you just turn the volume up? Why is Side 2 louder? GJ: It has one less song… The shorter the side, the louder the mastering can be, because the grooves can be wider. LA: How many questions before you kick me out?
Who knew it was all so physical! But that, I suddenly realised, is exactly the point. So now that I’ve been reassured I can go back to loving every snap, crackle and pop… and I might also invest in a new stylus.