i’ve been pressin’ on the railroad...

***disclaimer

Record pressing and mastering experiences vary from job to job and person to person; for instance, I know Self Abuse has had no problems at all with URP, while other people have told me horror stories about Bill Smith, with whom I’ve had no problems. In other words, this is one experience I had, not the alpha and omega. In fact, I’ve recently had success working with URP.

***

The Saga of My Seven Inches (extracted from a letter to a friend)

Back in October [1993] I got the idea into my head that I was going to put out a 7" single. The idea of doing all the legwork, coming up with a packaging arrangement that I liked, and trying to get as much information about the record pressing process grew on me, and my notion soon gelled into definite commitment. I made a few calls to friends already involved with recording and obtained some numbers for pressing, mastering, and processing; I called those places, got addresses and price quotes; I fooled around with the four track. By the end of November I had written a few checks here, placed a money order there, and Aardvark Mastering in Colorado was ready to make a lacquer from my master then send it off to United Record Pressing (URP) in Tennessee. I was rolling, and the single, Paul (at Aardvark) said, would probably be to me by mid-December. Great, I thought, just in time for my master plan of releasing it for the new year.

This was to be the beginning of many such delusions.

The 15th of December rolled around, and I began to get curious; I hadn't received any test pressings from URP, yet my check for the mastering had gone through. So I call URP and talk to a woman with (surprise) a heavy Southern accent. I tell her I had metal plates sent from Ingram to them--the lacquer was sent to Ingram from Aardvark--and I wanted to know how things were going.

“Can you give me the job number for your order?”

“Yeah,” I say, “Vertonen A-1 and Vertonen B-1.”

She puts me on hold then come back. “I’m sorry, we don’t have any metal masters with that information on them. Why don’t you call back the guy who mastered the recording to make sure your job number is what you say it is?”

I hang up and call Paul; he's not in. I call back URP.

“Look, I hate to bug you, but could you just check under ‘V’ to see if you have any metal masters which start with the letter ‘V’ and look anything like ‘V-E-R-T-O-N-E-N’ and were sent from Aardvark mastering in Colorado?”

"Sure, but it'll take a while."

"Fine."

After four minutes and 22 seconds she returns. "Well, the only thing we got here says 'V-E-R-T-U-H-E-R.'"

It has to be mine; obviously, someone along the line didn't have legible handwriting. But I need to confirm. "Okay; is side one 15 lock grooves?"

"Uhh... yeah, looks like that."

"That's mine. Press it up."

In mid-January I received the test pressing, and there were some irritations. The slighter of the two fuck-ups was that when the lock groove locks, you usually get a click. However, some of the loops I recorded were single pitch loops, so when the groove locked there was a fuzzy pitch shift. Not heinous, but somewhat annoying nonetheless. There was nothing I could do about it anyway, since apparently that's just the nature of the beast of lock grooves.

The major faux pas was my mistake. The entire B-side, a six minute noise construction, was mixed way wrong. Instead of doing the intelligent thing and closely reading the mixdown section which came in the Tascam booklet, I mixed the final product over the speakers of my stereo instead of over the headphones plugged directly to the Tascam. As I was performing my feat of ineptitude, I decided the mix was too bassy. I cut the bass until I was happy, recorded it on a master tape, then sent the finished product off to Aardvark with a check.

Now if I had a quarter brain, I would have first of all remembered to mix over the headphones. But, if I had half a brain, I would have remembered I have this feature on my stereo called "loudness," which is essentially a bass boost. Moreover, if that half of a brain had been functioning at even 1/18 capacity, I would have realized I always have this "loudness" feature on, and thus I was accustomed to it. The long and short of this botch is that side B of the test pressing sounds extremely tinny and flat as a dime. And, lo and behold, when I played back the master tape without the loudness feature on, it sounded just as shitty as the finished product, surprise surprise. So I cancelled the run by saying "no" to the test pressing. My only choices now were to cancel the entire record idea or redo the B-side entirely, from scratch.  Irritated at my stupidity, I realize March would probably be the release date; the idea of a New Year's day release was just an illusion. Suffering a reinforced lack of confidence, I decided to cut back the pressing from 500 to 300.

I also decided I wanted a more immediate response time since there was now a nice delay, so I decided to record a new B-side, truck on over to a local studio up in Pawtucket with my Tascam, mix it to DAT, then send that out to URP and have them do the mastering. This, of course, cost more money, but I took care of business, wrote the check, got the DAT, sent it to URP, then waited.

I received new test pressings in under a week; I was impressed by their speed. The test sounded hunky dory, so I called URP (and discovered Debbie was the name of the woman I'd been talking to) and said, "press 'em up."

About a week later I returned to my place at 10 AM to discover a UPS notice saying delivery was attempted but I wasn't there. Of course I was antsy, so I called UPS to see what I could do about getting my goods. Of course, I get the gum cracking, "I'd rather be smoking crack than doing this job but I need this job so I can afford crack" UPS assistant, which is particularly disheartening because I really dig and respect UPS.

"Yeah, I just missed a delivery and wanted to know if I could go pick up my stuff later at the UPS terminal." (off scenic route 95.)

"Well, they won't attempt another delivery today," the lady says in a half-nod.

Her misperception of what I perceived to be a simple question irks me.

"I didn't ask if they would make another delivery, I asked whether I could go to the UPS loading dock and pick up my package later."

"Well, we have trucks driving at all hours, so I don't know when the driver with your package would be getting back in..."

"But your trucks have a last run, right? I mean, they all come in at a certain last-call time, right?"

"Well, we have trucks running at all hours..."

"You don't have trucks running to midnight, do you?"

"Well, no..."

"So what time do the trucks come in at?"

"Between six and seven."

"So, if I drove out to the dropoff point between six and seven and waited, I could get my package."

"I suppose, but..."

I thank her curtly then got my crap together; I needed to get gas and something to eat before I drove out to my internship. But before I left the apt I took the UPS delivery slip just in case I intercepted the driver, which has actually happened on two previous occasions. I barely cruise out of the gas station when I spy with my little eye the beauty that is the brown UPS truck. I pull into a sidestreet then rush the UPS guy. He's got the goods, I get the goods, get into my van, and split for my internship.

When I got home several hour later, I began assembling my 7" packages, stuffing vinyl into jackets. After I packed about 150, the tinges of being a proud papa came over me and I decided to play consumer. (Pretty presumptuous of me to assume these will ever sell anyway, but what the heck, I'm allowed a delusion of grandeur now and then...) So I opened up the package, looked at the booklet, played each lock groove for 10 seconds, then flipped the vinyl and played the song side. I was grooving along (no tinny sound, no flat recording, and I liked the new piece better anyway) when I heard it.

Skritch.

Now I know that even with new records you sometimes have a pop or a click; that's the nature of the beast. I lifted the needle and decided to play it again. Skritch. This was no pop, this was a bonafied skritch. I took the vinyl off the turntable, got a flashlight, and searched the record. The culprit was a 1/4" section of one of the grooves, cut deeper than the rest of the grooves. The scratch was barely perceptible at a glance—maybe a quarter of a millimeter deep—but upon closer inspection at an angle it was glaringly visible. Not to mention that the needle picked it out so deftly, a half second of skritch.

Goddammit, I thought, then checked another single. Same scratch. I repeated the process until I could stand it no more; I had $90.90 worth of scratched singles. I checked the test pressing, and dammit, it was actually on that too! Once again, I was my biggest problem. Either I hadn't listened close enough or I wasn't thinking or troubling myself to care that when URP said, "This [test pressing] is exactly how your records will sound" they meant everything, including that which sounded like a surface, post pressing glitch.

Although I was irritated enough with myself for throwing money into what was becoming a money pit, I knew I would hate myself even more if I just said, "fuck it, no big deal, one little half-second glitch in a 6:34 piece." Plus, the glitch just had to be at the quietest part of the piece.

Of course, by the time I figure all this out, it was 7:30 PM on Friday, so I'd have to wait until Monday to talk to URP, which I did. Debbie transferred me to the head honcho, a gentleman named Ozell Simpkins whose accent, combined with (I later learned) a throat condition, made him nearly impossible for me to understand. The basic thing was, he'd get back to me Tuesday. Tuesday there was no call by 4 PM (3 their time) so I called. Debbie was about to transfer me to Ozell but I told her I couldn't understand a damn thing he said, so could she find out what was up and pass it on to me? After a minute, she told me they couldn't find anything on the mother stamper, so they'd replate the father master, make a new mother and stamper, then send me a test pressing. Fine, I said, but what if the scratch is still there? Then, she said, we'd have to go back to re-mastering. Trying to find the bright side, I console myself with the fact that this was my very first attempt and almost everything went wrong, so I'd be wary and smarter in the future for it. The consolation lasted maybe 10 minutes.

On 3/25 I received a new test pressing which was clear as a bell and clean as a whistle. I immediately called URP and say it sounds wonderful, press it up, and how much was I going to owe them for my grand scale fuck up? I have already calculated it at about $178.90. ($90.90 for the vinyl, $38 for re-plating, $50 to run more labels for the inside of the record.) But Debbie says Ozell was so impressed by my honesty (that I didn't try to pin the fuck up on them, I suppose) that he was going to give me a discount and she'd call and leave a message when she heard from him. Okay, I thought, that's cool. It turns out they print a minimum of 1,000 labels, so I was okay on that count; plus Ozell was giving me the plating for free, and I had $11 credit, so all I was being charged for in the end was shipping and the vinyl, which turned out to be $89 instead of $179. Great.

So one and a half weeks later I get my next batch of 300 records (this time the UPS guy didn't even wait for me to sign the receipt; he was probably afraid I'd chase him all the way down Hope street if he left a note...) and get ready to go through the assembly process again. I finish taking the remaining shit singles out of the packages and decide that I better check the new records so if there is any trauma it won't strike me like a red hot poker and force me to go through the entire unpacking process again. So I slap one of my new loves on the turntable and there is no skritch. Instead, there are about 15 skritches, which last anywhere from one to three seconds a shot and are peppered throughout the record. Moreover, some of the skritches pan from left to right over the speakers, something which was beyond my comprehension. I slap on a few more records and the same problem is there. I am fuming. I get out the stopwatch and time the location and duration of every one of the annoyances. Then to confirm I'm not insane and a total fuckhead I listen to the test pressing and the skritches are not on it. This, I know, is not my fault. I call URP and explain my new predicament to Debbie, who says send a test pressing and a finished copy back to them so they can assess and try to fix the problem. I was now the owner of 600 useless pieces of vinyl and irked; I didn't send back the test and finished recording for a few days.

A week passed and I hadn't heard anything from URP, but I did call K-disc in California to ask about different mastering and pressing recommendations because I'm pissed. The guy at K-disc reveals unto me the knowledge I feared; from his experience with clients, URP weren't that great.

Then he asked why I went there.

"I was recommended to them by a friends who said they were the cheapest, and besides, the guy who mastered my lock grooves..." (Obvious lesson #1; you really do get what you pay for in terms of quality.)

"Is that some guy in Colorado?"

"Yeah, Aardvark."

"I don't trust him either, we've had a lot of problems with his stuff."

And the conversation went basically downhill from there, although I did learn a lot of terminology. Of course, even after my enlightenment, I still felt jaded, wondering if I was just being played for a sucker because of my lack of knowledge and the guy I was talking to was just playing up my irritation to get me to get my mastering done at K-disc...

After some explanation of problems which can occur in the pressing process, as well as pitfalls of various other stages of plating, processing, and pressing, he asks, "Where did you get the record plated at?"

"Ingram."

He exhales and "uh-huh"'s, which really seemed to say, "I knew it." Do you know where Ingram is, he asks.

"No."

"It's right next door to and owned by URP."

I sigh, frustrated.

"You know what I'd recommend is getting your recording butt the hell out of Tennessee. We're starting to charge customers an extra $50 if they want their record pressed by URP because it's such a hassle. They almost never listen to the test pressing. I'll tell you straight up that we cost more, and places out here (CA) cost more, but you'd be saving yourself some money and a lot of time if you spent the extra money early on."

I kick myself viciously and with a newfound self-hatred.

April 26: I call back URP after getting a variety of catalogues from CA mastering, plating, and pressing places. This time I talk straight to Ozell.

"Well, we listened to the record and we can't hear any difference."

"How can't you? I marked the times where the noises occur and I can hear them."

"Well, we use audiophile recording equipment here—are you sure you're turntables are good?"

"I played it on three different turntables, two very high quality, and I can still hear it."

The conversation went on for another three minutes, a basic "does/ does not" argument punctuated with irate silence from both parties. Finally I give up; I cave in and say fuck it. What could I do? he's convinced they're not there, I fucking know they are, so what do I do, sue them for $89? "Fine, send me the mother and the stampers."

"Okay, I'll send it out 2 day UPS."

And thus my tie was severed with URP.

Two days later I receive the metal mother and the stampers. These items stay in my hands for only 30 minutes, for I ship them out the same day to Bill Smith records in El Segundo, CA. I call them and explain what the problem is and they tell me they'll try to use the stampers I sent, and if it still sounds shitty we'll try to make a new stamper from the mother. So I send the stuff from URP with a copy of the shitty test pressing, the letter I sent to URP, an explanation of what was wrong, and a check for $170.

A week and a half later I receive a test pressing from them, and it still sounds like shit. I call them and say so. He says okay, we'll try to make a new stamper from the mother. on the 23rd of May I received a new test pressing and it sounded good, except he only pressed one side of the 7"; the lock grooves weren't there. So I called and asked if he only ran the flawed side, and he said, "Oops, I didn't think there was anything on that side."

"But you still have the stamper, right?"

"Let me check."

So that would be all I needed, for him to have lost the A-side. He comes back to the phone and says no problem, he has it, he'll press it up and send 'em out.

The bill thus far runs as follows:

URP- $395.58, which includes the $110 for remastering the b-side (which would have been avoided if I'd done it right the first time)

Aardvark Mastering; $168.45 for mastering the a and b sides the first time around, the b-side which was a total waste

Celebration sounds $102.72 for remixing the new b side on DAT and an hour of studio time

Bill Smith records; $248.97 (300 singles, test pressing, labels, new stamper, shipping)

Bags unlimited- $15.75 for 500 plastic sleeves

Kinko's $26 for 600 copies of the jacket; the first 300 were a waste because they were too light. once again, I am an idiot because I assumed that when I got a copy it would look as much like the original as possible, I didn't think to ask for a "test" copy. I am a fool to assume that when I ask someone grovelling for minimum wage while trying to stumble along with their lame ass rock and roll band to give me an exact copy of what I want that they are capable of executing such a task.

We can, however, subtract $100 for the copying of the booklet (300 sets of 2 double sided sheets of paper) which I did on the sly at my old place of employment (not my internship) and depleted their toner and paper supply markedly in a two week period back in November of 1993. so the cost comes to an illustrious $857.47, which breaks down to $2.86 spent on each record. I planned to sell the singles for $2.50, which, if I sold all of them, would give me -$107.47 If I sold them all for $3, I'd make a profit of about $42.63. So, to break even I need to sell 286 records, which is not only highly unlikely due to the nature of the music, but if I intend to give away 20 to friends or for review, plus 40 to three or four distributors, well, it ain't gonna happen. The fun part is where I figure how much it would have cost if I'd done it properly;

studio time- $50

mastering- $150

plating- $109

pressing $135

labels- $50

photocopying- $85

$579

Ain't life grand? but you know, I'm already planning the next single, fueled with the concept that I know I was burned once and am, although financially not recovered, wiser for it; it cost a lot, but I learned enough that I feel ready to take it on again.

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