Talk to Welcome to 1979 founder and engineer/producer Chris Mara, and you’ll be at least momentarily convinced (or reminded) that everything was better before the clock struck 1980.
Mara has built a successful recording studio business, and spin-off educational and tape machine businesses on the principles of audio as understood before the dawn of the DAW. But he’s really more down-to-earth analog lover than luddite; Welcome to 1979 happily runs Pro Tools, no problem, but has also recently extended its analog pedigree with the purchase of a Neumann VMS-70 vinyl cutting lathe.
Vinyl is certainly on-mission for the 1979 motif – some might even expect that the studio had a lathe. But when asked about his motivation for adding it now, and for recently partnering with mastering engineer Tommy Wiggins (Cory Chisel, the Howlin’ Brothers) to offer mastering under the Welcome to 1979 umbrella as well, Mara expounded on his vision:
“There was a great studio in Nashville throughout the 70s called Woodland [now privately owned by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings], and they had tracking rooms, and mastering rooms and a couple of lacquer cutting rooms, and each room had an expert in it, doing their thing. I love the idea of having all these experts working on their respective crafts under one roof. Also, I want to make the process – which can be lengthy, to get an album recorded and pressed – easier for bands and small labels. So they can call one entity, and we can walk them through all the parts.
“Plus, I want to be able to mix a record, and then go downstairs and cut the lacquer. That’s just a bucket-list thing for me.”
Cutting lacquers is not only a logical extension of his business, it’s also a practical one. With a major vinyl pressing plant in town (United) and only one other lacquer cutting facility on Mara’s radar, the demand is there and showing no signs of letting up.
“I think about 80 percent of what gets recorded at 1979 gets released on vinyl,” Mara notes. “That’s a rough estimate, but I’d also say it’s conservative, because it comes up in every conversation, whether or not the client actually ends up pressing vinyl.
“Up to now, we’ve been shipping masters off to other cutters, and having generally good, but varied results,” Mara continues. “And a big part of our current mastering business is quality control throughout the vinyl process – we listen to the test pressings with you and for you, and if there’s an issue, we find out where it is and how to take care of it.”
Cutting A Record, 1979 Style
The new vinyl side of 1979 carries over some of the best of what Mara’s brand has come to represent. First off, some of the staff engineers will train on lacquer cutting, including Mara himself. And, like his “Tape Camps” and “Fly on the Wall” educational sessions, the process will be inclusive and to some extent – demystifying.
“A lot of the lathes we’ve seen have been squirreled away in some back room,” says Mara. “Our room is comfortable – there’s a couch, and we welcome clients, mixers and mastering engineers to come and be a part of it.”
Also, the service will employ some of the analog recording capabilities of the larger studio, which is equipped with several MCI tape machines and multiple formats.
“Most of the people I know that do this are cutting lacquers from a digital source – almost always. So one thing we’re offering that others aren’t is that we’ll take your digital file, and record it onto tape and cut from that tape. So you don’t have to mix to tape, we can do that for you – and we’ll couple that with the lacquer cutting.”
This all feeds into the overall business, of course – the studio business, and the bigger picture ‘analog’ business in which Mara is an active player on a few levels now.
“The problem, I’ve found, with having a large (analog) tracking facility is that with a lot of projects, if they don’t get started at my studio, they’re probably not going to come to my studio. We’ve gotten some more mixing projects more recently, but lots of people are mixing on their own.
“I see this as providing more entry points to Welcome to 1979 – now we can track, mix, master and cut your vinyl, any or all of the above. And the lacquer cutting…that’s not something you can do at home.”