By Ken Sharp
As sales of compact discs continue to fall and the streaming/download world becomes omnipresent, vinyl has been slowly making a huge comeback. Toledo, Ohio based company, Little Elephant Lathe Cuts, an operation headed by Rob Courtney, services the fledgling artist/group/songwriter who longs to preserve their music on vinyl. A big hurdle for most venturing into the vinyl pressing world is the expense, which normally requires a 250 minimum and that can become very pricey for those with a much smaller fan base. Not anymore. From one vinyl album to multiple copies, Little Elephant Lathe Cuts offers the ability to do very small runs of high quality vinyl for their prospective projects.
Goldmine spoke to Rob Courtney who discussed the reemergence of vinyl and walked us through his company’s process of getting a vinyl pressed and into your hands.
Goldmine: Characterize the appeal of vinyl in a streaming/download world.
Rob Courtney: Personally, I think vinyl made a comeback because the physical world of music completely disappeared with the digital age. I feel like people missed the artwork, and having something tangible to buy. When you are left with nothing tangible, you feel like you are missing something. So going back to the best physical medium for of music was only natural, when given the choice.
GM: What was the impetus toward creating your own vinyl pressing company?
RC: It actually started as an idea to help monetize a YouTube channel that I own with a couple other business partners, where we record bands live in a home studio. The channel has about 30,000 subscribers, which is a decent little following, but still nowhere close to what is needed to make good money from ads. A few years ago, we started asking ourselves, "man... what if we could sell of these live sessions on vinyl? Is there a way we can do that?" - The building began, and two years later, we had a lathe ready for testing! After a few months of releasing our sessions on vinyl, I then opened up Little Elephant Lathe Cuts, which offered the lathe up to anyone wanting to make custom records. The ball started rolling then, and hasn't stopped since.
GM: Explain the difference between a lathe cut vs. a pressed record?
RC: Actually, every record starts as a lathe cut. The record is cut on a lathe machine, where the music is put into a cutterhead, and a needle then physically cuts the grooves into the record. However, with a pressed record, this step is only done once, because after the master is cut, they make a metal stamp out of it, so it can be copied thousands of times. With lathe cuts, we simply just do the first step over and over again, rather than making a metal master.
GM: Some vinyl companies offer small vinyl pressings runs as lathe cuts but those routinely suffer from low-fi sound. By contrast, your company delivers high quality vinyl lathe cut pressings. How have you managed to offer a much higher quality sonic vinyl pressing using a lathe cut process?
RC: There are three major differences between Little Elepahnt Lathe Cuts, and the typical lathe cut company.
We use a feedback cutterhead meaning we cut our records with a "feedback" cutterhead, rather than a "dynamic" cutterhead. Feedback heads are much more sought after in the vinyl cutting industry, and are the only option if you want true quality sounding grooves. Feedback cutterheads control the resonant frequencies of the head and allow for louder cuts, less distortion, and a much flatter frequency response. You must have a feedback cutterhead in order to have professional results.
We offer CUT records, not EMBOSSED records. Most custom record cutting companies only offer records that are embossed. In other words, the grooves are pushed into the record, rather than cut out. The fidelity on an embossed record is much less than the quality on a cut record. The music on an embossed record is considerably lower in volume, noisier, and has a hollow sound. If you want the music on the record to sound good, the grooves must be cut out.
Lastly, Little Elephant records are cut in stereo. A lot of lathe cut records out there are cut in mono. This is because the equipment they are using is outdated, and easier to acquire. Obviously, this is a major factor of the music listening experience.
GM: In a world where consumers have multiple options, why should artists/groups/singer-songwriters use Little Elephant?
RC: I truly believe that I offer some of the best lathe cuts on the market. I try my absolute best to only offer the best product I can. Plus, I currently play in 4 different bands, and have played music my entire life. Even though this is probably not a super unique quality to a lathe cutter, I do understand that your music is your life, and truly one of the most important things. Getting the best possible result is extremely important, and I take it very seriously.
GM: As a one man operation, explain the process of creating a vinyl record, from receiving music files to completion of a record with sleeve.
RC: Without getting too complicated, after receiving the files, I first run the audio through my cutter head, and listen back, to make sure everything sounds good. If it doesn't, I make adjustments as needed. Once everything is good to go, I just start cutting the records. Every record is cut in real time. So however long the record actually is, is how long it takes to make just 1 copy. After a record is finished, I just re-load the lathe, and start cutting the next one. It can be very time consuming, but I don't mind working the long hours. As long as everything is going smoothly, it can actually be a very fun job. The sleeves are pretty simple. I have the artist design the sleeve on a template, and then I simply just load the jackets into my high quality inkjet printer. Every jacket is printed flat, and unglued. So after I finish printing, I simply just glue the flaps, and assemble.
GM: There is a major backlog with vinyl pressing companies, some citing six months or more for production. How has Little Elephant be able to expedite the process?
RC: Simply put, I just do much, MUCH smaller runs. I do as little as one record even. So even though it takes longer to make each record, I am only making a fraction of the runs pressing plants make. When I make 20 records, they make 300...
GM: As the proprietor of a small vinyl pressing company, you've had to master a huge learning curve. Can you identify the most challenging aspects of production?
RC: Probably the most challenging thing is maintaining the lathe, and making sure there are no problems with it, as well as identifying problems before they happen. There are so many things all working at once on the lathe. It is just a like a car. You have to keep everything running smoothly over time. Honestly, the only way to learn everything, is to practice....then practice more...and then even more. I am still learning every day.
GM: As a vinyl collector, what's your most prized vinyl in your collection?
RC: Hanalei / Sundowner – Hounds Of Love / Inside The Bones - It's a 7 inch split from 2 of my favorite artists. When I bought it, I bought the very last copy, which always made me pretty pumped.
GM: Is there a Holy Grail vinyl you'd like to obtain?
RC: Technically, it is impossible to obtain, but the Golden record on the Voyager Spacecraft. I have been a space nerd for the past decade or so, and that record, to me, is the most important record of all time.
To see a sample of Little Elephant's work, enter to win the Ken Sharp/Little Elephant Lathe Cuts Contest. Author, singer-songwriter Ken Sharp cut his latest record, Beauty in the Backseat, at Little Elephant. Now you can win a copy of the vinyl record by entering below.
To win Ken Sharp's Beauty in the Backseat, all you have to do is put your email and address in the boxes below by June 30, 11:59 p.m. You will immediately be entered in the Giveaway and as a bonus you will receive our informative eNewsletter from Goldmine (collecting news/tips and exclusive articles and interviews with your favorite classic artists). We will randomly draw a winner from the entrants. Little Elephant has supplied us with one copy of the vinyl record to give away.