Who's Cutting Those Lacquers? Part 1

Note: due to current website technical limitations, accompanying photos can be found in the “gallery” section, accessible near the bottom of the home page.

Last fall, I was invited to visit the Hornslet speaker cabinet manufacturing facility in Denmark. The company builds high-tech boxes for Audio Physic, Linn, Dali, Naim, Aerial Acoustics and a number of other companies. Take a look at a map and you’ll see that Denmark is but a short distance from both Hamburg and Hanover, Germany, home of the big Universal Music tape vault and the Emil Berliner studio. I’ll be in the neighborhood, I figured, so why not swing by on my way to Denmark?

I’d made contact with Gunther Buskies, senior product manager in charge of vinyl reissues at Universal, who worked out of Hamburg, and he offered to drive me to Hanover so I could visit the facility and talk with veteran LP mastering engineer Willem Makkee. Makkee cuts the Universal LP reissues as well as the Warner Music (Europe) series, and most of the Speakers Corner vinyl.

Much confusion, speculation and false conjecture surrounds these European vinyl reissues—created in part by a sloppily produced, mediocre sounding mid-nineties Warners vinyl titles (Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, etc.) and especially by the flood of vinyl from Simply Vinyl, a label that seems to pay more attention to the packaging and pressing than to the quality of the source material. Some of the Simply Vinyl reissues sound quite fine (particularly the EMI owned titles mastered at Abbey Road, including the Nick Drake and Free albums), and some sound like sonic road kill—as if the source was a commercial CD, which it very well may have been!

When I contacted a Simply Vinyl spokesperson to find out about sources, I was told that the company was not an “audiophile” label, and that it was more interested in keeping vinyl alive than it was concerned about sound quality. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he told me, “Our research shows that our buyers don’t really care about sound quality and that only a few percent call themselves ‘audiophiles.”

I wondered how he would know anything about who buys the records. I’ve seen them sold in record stores and on line. Was a Simply Vinyl employee standing there asking why the person bought one of their titles? Of course not! And by not listing the source, he was not going to get audiophile buyers, and so the whole exercise was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I suggested, “Perhaps if you listed the source of each release, you’d get more audiophile buyers.”

I made an offer, “If you give me a list of a dozen titles sourced from the original analog master tape, I will alert the people who read my column in Stereophile (this was before musicangle.com) and perhaps more audiophiles will buy Simply Vinyl releases. If there’s a spike in sales of those titles, you can feed me some more.” He thought that was a good idea and promised to get back to me with a list. As I expected, he never did.

So confusion reigns about Simply Vinyl titles, and from letters and emails I’ve received from audiophiles around the world, that has tainted everything coming from Europe. I thought a trip to the source of much of the mastering might help clarify things.

Late last October, I flew to Hamburg, where I stayed with Jorge Kessler, another vinyl enthusiast, whose A.R.S. Music Service has reissued an eclectic mix of vinyl in Germany, some of which has found its way to The United States. The next day I met up with Mr. Buskies, who drove me to Hanover to meet Willem Makkee.

While New Jersey based Thomas Edison invented the gramophone, which utilized wax cylinders, it was Emile Berliner in Hanover Germany, who revolutionized music playback by innovating flat discs, which could easily and inexpensively be mass produced. Berliner also created the famous “His Master’s Voice” dog and gramophone logo popularized in America by RCA Victor.

When I met Mr. Buskies in his office in Hamburg, he handed me a small stack of new vinyl from both Warner Music and Universal, the production of which he’d overseen, including Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard and Randy Newman’s 12 Songs.

During the drive from Hamburg to Hanover, I spoke with Mr. Buskies about his work specifically, and the vinyl market in general. Unfortunately, road noise intruded upon some of the conversation and major segments of the discussion were indecipherable, but enough was audible for me to be able to present this much to you. Please consider that Mr. Buskies’s native language is German. In the interest of readability, I have taken the liberty of occasionally modifying his syntax.

MF: Where was the original tape of Clapton’s 461 Ocean Avenue residing?

GB: The RSO tapes, most of the original master tapes, were in Germany. The Bee Gees multitrack tapes—most of them—are in Germany, which really surprised me.

MF: So you could do the first Bee Gee’s album?

GB: I’m not sure they’re all there, but most RSO tapes are there.

MF: The early Polydor…Philips ended up buying that?

GB: They are owned by Deutsche Gramophone, which is part of Universal. To be honest, the original master tapes cannot come out of any archives, so we are getting direct analog copies.

MF: And that’s fine because 99 percent of the records that audiophiles think are the greatest records in the world, are not cut from the original master tape. They’re cut from production copies and they still sounded great.

GB: I do understand that people who are responsible are not going to give up original master tapes and ship them to Germany because they are worth millions of dollars.

MF: So you did Tommy for example…

GB: No, we didn’t do that…Simply Vinyl did that.

MF: And who knows what they used? It’s outrageous. They are screwing up the market. I have no use for them, but the EMI issues they do, like the Nick Drakes (which have since changed hands) are cut from analog masters from what I understand. They cut them at Abbey Road, which makes it convenient to go into the vault and get the tape and cut from it. It’s easier to do that than make a copy.

GB: (inaudible)

MF: Nick Drake is on Island.

GB: Yes but that’s owned by Universal now. We did a Nick Drake also.

MF: And Ryko did them a few years ago!

GB: Yes the catalogues are changing hands all the time. Island had been with BMG for some time…

MF: My understanding is that those tapes are in the EMI vaults, but I could be wrong….

GB: We did one Nick Drake, Pink Moon on vinyl but we had to withdraw it due to some UK executive who didn’t want us to do it because the Nick Drake estate wants to reissue the box set Time of No Reply for vinyl and for CD, and it’s very embarrassing that Simply Vinyl still has the Nick Drake available.

MF: All of this intrigue and shenanigans…it’s not that big a market! And where are these records coming from here pressed?

GB: The Universal records are pressed at Pallas..

MF: That’s a great place.

GB: The Warner Brothers are pressed at Optimal Media Productions.

MF: And where’s that?

GB: In the eastern part of Germany.

MF: How’s the quality compared to Palais?

GB: I was disappointed that I could not convince Warners to work with Palais, but so far the first results are quite good. The Doors Morrison Hoteland Randy Newman 12 Songs were pressed there.

MF: And the copies of the master tapes came from Warner Brothers in California?

GB: From (inaudible), actually. (Sorry I missed that one!—MF)

MF: And they make a copy of the master tape, which is fine. And are these licensed for worldwide distribution?

GB: I’m not sure actually but everyone knows we are selling them worldwide.

MF: And how are they selling?

GB: So far, depending on the title, between 1000 and 7000 copies.

MF: Well that’s not bad considering the no one really knows about them. People are afraid to buy them. They’re skeptical when then read “from the original tapes” because they know sometimes they’re not.

GB: Well we use analog tapes, but I know some people think we’re processing from CDs.

MF: Well people make these charges on the Internete without even getting the facts.

GB: Well let me say that some reissues not recorded analog have not been reissued from analog tape.

MF: Well that makes sense sometimes since transferring to analog can soften up hard digital sound. Who is choosing the titles?

GB: With the Warners reissues it’s limited to items in the new catalog system, so it’s a limited pool for now. Sometimes we can do something, but we can’t get the master tapes. We wanted to do Captain Beefheart Trout Mask Replica but we couldn’t get a copy of the master tape.

MF: Why not?

GB: I think they want to do it themselves.

MF: Have you heard the first series of Warners America Rhino vinyl (Yes, Grateful Dead, The Band etc.)? Terrible! If you don’t do it right, people will not buy it.