Abbey Road Mastering Engineer Miles Showell Comments on Apollo/Transco Disaster

On Thursday morning (February 6), the Banning, CA building housing Apollo/Transco Masters’ factory and storage space burned. By far the biggest of the world’s two lacquer master disc manufacturers, most of the world’s vinyl mastering facilities (especially smaller ones) relied upon Apollo/Transco blanks, as well as their cutting styli for Westrex cutting heads. Ruled a total loss, 82 firefighters battled the blaze’s toxic fumes; thankfully, there were no injuries (Banning is located in the Southern California desert, approximately 2.5 hours away from Los Angeles).

On their website, Apollo said, “We are uncertain of our future at this point and are evaluating options as we try to work through this difficult time.” Japan’s MDC, now the world’s only remaining lacquer disc factory, told anxious potential customers that due to its low capacity it can’t and won’t accept new customers. European pressing plants and select mastering facilities have DMM-compatible (DMM, or Direct Metal Mastering, allows engineers to cut directly into metal plates rather than onto the disc’s lacquer coating) lathes, although with few exceptions DMM cuts don’t sound as engaging as lacquer masterings. American facilities will have a particularly hard time: only a handful of studios use MDC, and in its short heyday DMM technology saw far greater popularity in Europe.

Because of the now-diminishing lacquer supply, for artists and labels vinyl cutting costs will rise; when that inevitably happens, said costs will reach consumers. Potential higher prices, longer delays, and more common cancelations could, in the worst possible case, crash the vinyl market’s momentum. It’s always possible that new technology could soon be developed to meet and/or replace lacquer demand, but that could take more time than what the industry can afford.

Upon hearing the news, with a few questions about the projected impact of this catastrophe I frantically emailed Abbey Road Studios 1/2 speed mastering engineer Miles Showell. Formerly at Utopia and Metropolis (among others), during his time in Abbey Road’s Room 30 Showell has worked on reissues by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Brian Eno, the Police, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others. At 1:30 AM London time, he quickly and kindly responded. Here is the brief interview, edited for clarity:

Malachi Lui: Since with the current supply of Apollo/Transco lacquers there are some recent issues [most notably, a higher noise floor and mysterious “whooshing” sounds], how long do you predict the supply will last once the defective ones are tossed?

Miles Showell: This all depends if Apollo/Transco had any stock elsewhere. I visited the plant in Banning, California in 2017 and 2018. At the time they discussed a plan with their European distributor to keep in a different location 6 months’ worth of stock. However, I have no idea if this plan was ever actioned. As you probably know, 6 months of lacquer stock represents a serious capital outlay.

ML: As Japan’s MDC isn’t big enough to feed the lacquer demand, do you see a) costs in lacquer cutting drastically spiking, and b) DMM cuts becoming more prominent again?

MS: As their market share in Europe is pretty big (some estimates have them at 80% over here), MDC has recently ramped up their production. My guess is they will struggle to keep up with demand in the short term and there will be supply rationing for a while at least. [As mentioned earlier, MDC can’t and won’t accept new customers.] Ideally we need a European manufacturer of lacquers.

ML: The DMM technology left from the 80s isn’t necessarily the most developed because of its landing at the end of the vinyl era. If we have to go back to DMM, do you see the technology being further improved or staying static? Are cutting studios going to invest in adopting DMM now or keep lacquer cuts going as supply diminishes?

MS: I highly doubt there will be any serious development in DMM. All the Neumann engineers who designed and knew about this stuff are dead. All of them. They did not write everything down which will probably make reverse engineering DMM technology prohibitively expensive. Spare parts to convert VMS 80 lathes into DMM-capable VMS 82 lathes are unavailable, and even someone clever like Flo Kaufmann probably couldn’t design and make the parts needed in the short time frame required (although his equipment is very good - exemplary engineering actually - and his heart is totally in the right place). Even if the parts were available, this still leaves everyone with a Scully or a Neumann VMS 70 (or earlier Neumann) unable to cut as these old lathes cannot be converted to DMM. The major pressing plants in Europe all have several DMM lathes so they will keep things going I guess, but the sound might not be to everyone’s taste.

ML: Do you foresee this as having a drastic effect on the general market, ie. fewer vinyl releases, further delays and release cancellations, etc?

MS: Very possibly. No one knows. Abbey Road always keeps a good stock of lacquers and we will hopefully soon get some more. I expect there will be shortages in the short to medium term. Another problem is the cutting styli. Apollo/Transco made these too. There is an excellent Japanese source for styli for Neumann heads (which I have used for years as they are easily the best) but as far as I know, no one else makes the recording styli for Westrex heads.

We greatly appreciate Miles’ replies and if necessary, AnalogPlanet will continue to provide updates about the Apollo/Transco fire.

Firemen work to douse the Apollo/Transco fire. (Photos: Robert Bauer-ribsfitmedia)

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music lover, record collector, and opinionated sneaker enthusiast. He feels that currently, the SATURATION I II III CD box is a bit overpriced. Follow him on twitter: @MalachiLui.)

COMMENTS
ArcAudio's picture

The Abbey Road guy did not all sound that overly concerned.

Happy Will's picture

linked to Abbey Road being in Europe (just!) - I read the comment as circa 80% of lacquers used in Europe come from MDC in Japan - so it could be a different story for Kevin Gray or Ryan Smith and other US based cutting? Or did I read it wrong?

MalachiLui's picture

info has circulated recently (and been confirmed to analogplanet by a close source) that kevin gray uses mdc lacquers. i don't know what sterling uses. but most american cutting studios use(d) apollo/transco.

Michael Fremer's picture
When I visited ERC, GZ Media, Emil Berliner, Record Industry, Abbey Road, Optimal and others it was almost all Apollo/Transco boxes. So unless they had MDC lacquers in Apollo boxes.....I’m not here to dispute Mr. Showell, but rather to have this clarified. From what I’ve learned, MDC is very small and provides for a tiny fraction of the industry. Plus Kevin Gray switched to MDC some time ago!
MalachiLui's picture

IS WHAT MILES SAID IN THE INTERVIEW!

Michael Fremer's picture
What Miles says there is somewhat ambiguous. I took it to mean “since Apollo/Transco had an 80% share in Europe, MDC would be ramping up production. Let’s get clarification!
ChrisM's picture

Pallas uses also Apollo/Transco lacquers ...

sidneyclairemeyer's picture

Emil Berliner Studios have been using MDC lacquers only for at least 3 years. I've been wondering about which ones pressing plant was using which lacquers

Bskeane's picture

I hope this doesn't mean I will be forced to buy one of those machines that spins those little silver discs I have been using as a coaster for my coffee.

fishbone35's picture

If the loss of most of the world's lacquers signals the death knell of the vinyl resurgence, let's hope the industry will take notice and at least produce SACDs rather than only redbook CDs.

MalachiLui's picture
MalachiLui's picture

...considering the lack of current, high-quality, affordable SACD/DSD-compatible technology. what i'd REALLY like to see tho is a (relatively) affordable open reel tape resurgence, or at least new high-end cassette decks and metal dolby c cassettes.

PeterPani's picture

All the technology was out there already years ago...

Ortofan's picture

... granting licenses for their noise reduction system(s) used in cassettes.
http://www.tapeheads.net/showthread.php?t=62155

Perhaps you could contact Dolby to confirm that info and, if true, inquire if there is any likelihood of them reversing that decision.

As far as high quality decks is concerned, Nakamichi is gone.
TEAC/Tascam now only makes a rather lo-fi unit.
Maybe you could also ask the likes of Denon, Marantz, Onkyo/Pioneer, Sony, Technics or Yamaha if there's any possibility that they would put a cassette deck (back) into production?

While you're at it, ask Maxell if they would ever again make Type IV metal (or even Type II) cassette tapes.

"Relatively affordable" open reel tape is likely to be even more of a pipedream. The price of the least expensive TEAC machine last available around 1990 would equate to about $2,500 today. For a Revox, that figure would be closer to $6,000. Is that what you would consider to be "relatively affordable"?

Anton D's picture

They were the bomb.

I would prefer SACD to make a resurgence...not likely to get what I want, though.

Vinyl On Tubes's picture

Sony still makes them and Best Buy has them all day long. And there are plenty of Sony Blu-Ray players that are only used to stream Netflix.

ArcAudio's picture

So during the "Lacquer drought" will cutting engineers be more prone to pass thru questionable quality that may have otherwise been thrown out? Maybe not the audiophile guys (Grundman, etc)but the staffers at major labels. Just a thought

cdlp4578's picture
cdlp4578's picture

The well-known masterers will probably not see a huge effect, but the "no-name" ones doing stuff for outfits like Wax Time, Elemental, etc. will have to push price increases through which may knock out those price-sensitive labels and the mastering shops they use. I'd suspect a lot of major labels would secretly be happy to get out of the CD-and-vinyl market. We're probably going to see the end of 2-3,000 copy runs - if the label (major or minor) estimates less than 5K copies will sell, they won't do a vinyl issue, and the 45 RPM issues will probably be the first to see a big drop.

I'm curious to see if the price increases we'll see affect the larger table manufacturers. Maybe Kassem, Davis, Lichtenegger, and Gandy put their heads together and contact some Apollo employees to see what can be done. I'm assuming this was a small part of Apollo's business and would probably be the last product they would try to get back on line, if they are even able to get their other products back into production.

ArcAudio's picture

I hate the fact some good record stores carry that crap. Half Price Books gets a huge influx every month. I wish more high profile "vinyl" people would rip those editions more than they do. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the records were sourced from iTunes downloads.

ChrisM's picture

... Speaker Corners, Sam Records and others no regrets also ?

ArcAudio's picture

I do not know much about SAM, however, SC is an audiophile label that uses legit sources (usually European analog master tapes). To compare Waxtime to SC shows ignorance.

ChrisM's picture

"To compare Waxtime to SC shows ignorance."

I salute your humbleness.

ArcAudio's picture

I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning...I'm more snarky today than normal...please accept my apologies. I did not mean to be so abrupt.

ChrisM's picture

Accepted !
About Speakers Corner apparently they use exclusively Appolo/Transco lacquers :
https://pure-analogue.com/the-lacquer-disc
So this fire is a real disaster for all those who love good pressings on the both sides of the Atlantic.

ChrisM's picture

Mostly than "exclusively"

ArcAudio's picture

One good thing is that the Audiophile companies may be more picky about what they release. I think we can do without another round of remasterings for many Miles Davis, Brubeck, Elvis, etc. This may also give the audiophile labels a chance (if they can secure the rights again) to repress some long out of print audiophile titles assuming the stampers still exist.

Michael Fremer's picture
You must pay closer attention to this site. All AAA jazz reissues, brilliant packaging.
cdlp4578's picture

My point about the supply chain seemed to go over your head. The low-end, high volume stuff keeps the early stages of any supply chain afloat more than the high-end, low volume stuff does. It may not affect bigger fish like AP and MFSL, but Speaker's Corner or the Blue Note Tone Poet series could (hypothetically) be casualties when lacquer supplies get tight.

ArcAudio's picture

I don’t think your point went over anyone’s.

Happy Will's picture

Some of Speakers Corner Records and the Tone Poet series are cut by Kevin Gray - and I think an earlier post says he uses MDC.

Sad days and confusion and uniformed speculation.....

fishbone35's picture

I agree with ArcAudio about Waxtime. Quality is pretty bad. I have "Dinah [Washington] Jams" on Waxtime and the back cover is imprinted "DMM." So which is it that makes for bad sound, the source, the DMM mastering or both?

ArcAudio's picture

I agree. The problem with those off brand releases are not so much the pressings, but the actual source material. I've read the majority comes from CONSUMER digital sources like CD's.

MalachiLui's picture

use gz dmm in-house cuts, so unfortunately they'll be fine. there's no reason to like those guys when for a few dollars more you can get legit reissue product that's better, and for $10-60 more, can get a properly done aaa reissue of said material.

ArcAudio's picture

It's really sad for new vinyl listeners thinking they are getting a legit copy of Kind of Blue. Sure, most get played on a Crosley TT, however, it can be confusing to people new to the format and music.

Mendo's picture

I would be curious to his Michael's latest musings on DMM. Sometime ago (ten years?) he said they were better than he remembered. Maybe his Continuum helped realize what he thought was a fault in DMM was really his playback chain. Anyway, I have a 45 rpm reissue of Bjork's Debut that was DMM cut and it is absolutely stunning. I wonder if this somehow might be serendipitous for vinyl reissue quality. Are lacquers just too soft with undo steps involved with plating and what not?

Rashers's picture

process must get through a staggering number of lacquers - I presume that this program will stop for a while. Perhaps the record companies will go back and look for original metal parts (analogue sourced) for their future re-issues. If I was a music dictator, I would save the new laquers for new bands/musicians and, with the exception of MF, SC, AP, MM, PP etc (audiophile labels) - force Universal, in particular, to use the original metal work for their reissues. The whole thing is a bloody disaster for young bands, record store day etc.

cundare's picture

>>Rashers: Mobile Fidelity's process must get through a staggering number of lacquers - I presume that this program will stop for a while.

Why would this be the case? The 1Steps are not sold in perpetuity and each title is the result of pressing from only a single "one-step" stamper (I realize that some of the more popular titles are produced from more than one run, but you get the idea). Mike, is Rashers correct?

Rashers's picture

I assume that for every stamper a single lacquer must be made - there is no father-mother process. So, for a run of 5000, assuming that each stamper presses 500 (this may be an underestimate - but for $125 I hope not) - then 10x4 acetates (4 sides) = 40 acetates and each acetate must be independently mastered (hence the high price and the potential for each series of pressings to be different). If a father/mother is made - the number of stampers developed are theoretically unlimited.

cundare's picture

Rashers, thanks for the reply. That's not exactly how I remember the process being described the first time I read about it in detail a few years ago, but then again, that was a few years ago. I could certainly be confused. It hadn't occurred to me that 40 acetates would each have to be mastered for each title.
But it's an interesting question. Given the differences in process -- and the differences in desired output quality -- does a 3500-4000-unit OneStep release require more or less vinyl than, say, a typical Sony (or even MoFi) release that uses a more conventional manufacturing procedure?
Mikey, can you enlighten?
D

gbougard's picture

Even before this tragic accident, I was pondering whether to continue releasing music on vinyl. The aggravation and the price are way too much for the minute quantities I sell.
People here are talking up SACD's, how about CD's, good old plain CD's

Michael Fremer's picture
Vinyl isn't for everyone but this fire is not going to stop it from growing.
Catcher10's picture

Now maybe TT will drop in price, it was/is getting ridiculous at the prices mfg are asking for.
I do see labels probably being super picky about reissues, as was mentioned here or another forum...Maybe the end of the Beatles reissues, thank God! LOL

joerand's picture

I've always been a big fan of my DMMs from the mid/late-80s. Suzanne Vega, John Mellencamp, Robbie Robertson to name a few. No pre-echo and an overall tight, fast sonic signature. Wonderful shine/sparkle to strings. Listening to those DMMs I feel that just when the vinyl industry had reached its sound quality epitome they were replaced by CDs and DMM vinyl died (at least US releases). I'd love to see a DMM resurgence, but based on the info above, those masterers have passed and unfortunately taken the technical knowledge with them. I guess the industry saw no need at the time to create a DMM legacy knowledge base.

As far as the lacquer quandary this fire has caused, might be a good time for the vinyl industry to re-evaluate where its at. Many of today's 180-g slabs are nothing special and in general employ such overly compressed bass the sonic is more like sitting in a movie theater surrounded by 20 subwoofers than listening to quality 2.0 hifi. So overly compressed that a 10-song album has to be inexplicably spread over 2 thick LPs (maybe to keep the needle in the groove)? As if I have the shelf space for these monstrosities. I'd take any 120 to 140-g original/early pressing from the 70s over its 21st century vinyl reissue. Those early issue CCR Fantasy LPs are so thin they literally ripple between your hands if you shake them, but the SQ is fantastic, bass is so tight.

Maybe a slow down in current vinyl output will result in a greater appreciation and valuation of those 40 to 50-year-old pressings that were deftly pounded out in the tens of millions by the truly talented masterers of yesteryear. Let's face it, a portion of modern vinyl buyers are in it for trendy purposes and have little real perspective on SQ.

Footnote: off the top of my head, examples of modern LPs with overly compressed bass: Jackson Browne's "Standing In The Breach", David Gilmour's "Rattle That Lock", Paul Simon's "Stranger To Stranger", Paul McCartney's "New".
Examples of well-mastered, tonally-balanced modern releases: Mudcrutch's first LP, Neil Young's "Official Release Series Discs 5-8" and "Psychedelic Pill", Nirvana's "Nevermind" (BG mastered Pallas pressing from 2013), Sam Cooke's "Portrait Of A Legend" 2003.

sparkydog1725's picture

No mention of digital downloads, I see. I guess only vinyls can give that warm, tubey goodness to a Mudcrutch album.

Tom L's picture

I would be interested in Michael's opinion of this Rolling Stone article about the Apollo fire and the possible response from the vinyl industry.

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/vinyl-industry-apollo-mast...

ANALOGFOREVER's picture

Have you heard his Police "Ghost in the Machine" reissue?

What a complete waste of time and money.

Guy couldn't buy a clue. The original blows it away.

Leave it to digital mastering to strip mine everything great from music.

This record is the epitome of failure and makes you realize the recording industry has failed so bad it's hard to put into words.

If you think I'm lying buy a first press of "Sycronicities"

mtemur's picture

it can be a good opportunity for HD Vinyl since it does not need lacquer discs. additionally I guess and hope it will give better results for digital recordings compared to regular lacquer-used lathes but it may not be the best option for analog recordings.

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