Austin Signal Cuts to the Chase

It’s no secret that record pressing plants are heavily backlogged these days. Aiming to help out bands and simply learn something new, Texas-based Austin Signal recording studio has started offering lathe-cut vinyl services—essentially hand-cutting records one-by-one. Intrigued, we sat down with studio owner Jon Neiss to learn more and discovered that’s only part of what makes his studio unique.
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It’s no secret that record pressing plants are heavily backlogged these days. Aiming to help out bands and simply learn something new, Texas-based Austin Signal recording studio has started offering lathe-cut vinyl services—essentially hand-cutting records, one-by-one. Intrigued, we sat down with studio owner Jon Neiss to learn more and discovered that’s only part of what makes his studio unique.

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Could you share a little about Austin Signal and how it got started?

Austin Signal was opened during the summer of 2012; the studio was designed by Greg Klinginsmith, and was built from the ground up as a recording studio. People love the way it sounds; the main cutting room, the booths, and the control room all sound really, really good.

Philosophically, I never focused on vintage gear, but stuff that just sounds good. The centerpiece of the studio is a 32-channel Custom 75 console. It’s serial #1—the first production console they built. It was manufactured in Byron Bay, Australia, but the company has since been purchased by Burbank Audio Systems in Los Angeles and all new desks are built there. It’s a very unusual board; it has multiple signal path options that allow you to utilize two mix busses (one voltage summing, one current summing), and incorporate transformers on a channel-by-channel basis. The individual channels are very faithful 1081 clones. We also employ quite a bit of Oliver Archut’s handiwork here. We have Lucas CS1 and CS4 mic’s, a pair of KM69s, a Blackspde UM17r and V78 pres. I love pretty much anything that Oliver put his hands on, and like a lot of other folks, I miss him a lot.

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While everyone’s heard about the return of Vinyl at this point, lathe-cut disks are still comparatively underground. How long have you offered cutting, and how did you get into that?

As a kid, I lived near an amusement part that we frequented during the summer. There was a vinyl record cutting booth there, which I assume was similar (or the same) to the ones that Third Man have restored and offer at their facility. We never actually got it to work, or maybe we couldn’t afford to make it work—I can’t really remember. But I was completely intrigued by it. In the mid 70’s and early 80’s when I was playing in bands, I began fooling around with recording, starting with a little Revox recorder, and eventually with the TASCAM 1/4” and 1/2” multitrack stuff. But I never did get anything onto vinyl. After yet another band broke up, I quit playing music altogether, sold all my gear and built a career in the tech industry. Twenty-plus years later, I moved to Austin for a tech job, and was completely energized by the music scene here. I began learning about digital recording in my spare time, built a little home studio, built another one in a garage, then built Austin Signal.

As the vinyl format began to re-emerge, I began to dig around looking for cutting gear, thinking that if nothing else, it would be fun to go back in time just for nostalgia’s sake. There was a lot of older kit out there, but I wasn’t really up for the potential expense of maintaining antiquated, hard-to-repair equipment, particularly cutter heads. I finally ran across Ulrich Sourisseau and the Vinyl Recorder, spent close to a year investigating and talking to people, then made a trip to Germany to get some hands-on experience with it. My interest was, and is, short-run direct-to-vinyl—not cutting acetates, although people definitely do cut acetates with these lathes.

I finally ordered one, had it delivered and pretty much closed the studio down for six months to cut. Learning is an expensive proposition, as you burn through disks and diamond cutting styli as you learn—neither of which are cheap. After hundreds of sides cut and developing a few EQ curves that worked with the cutter, I felt pretty good about delivering a quality product. They sound very, very good—in some cases better than the stuff that’s coming out of the pressing houses—and people really do love the sound. The largest runs I’ve accepted thus far in single orders are 40 LPs—that’s a lot of time singularly cutting the same record! I’m now in the process of ordering more lathes to increase capacity.

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The Holiday Mountain project looks like it was tiring but a lot of fun. How did that come about?

Holiday Mountain had recorded at the studio previously, and we all had a great experience. They have become one of my favorite Austin bands; they’re great people to be around, they’re great musicians, and they’re a force-of-nature as a live band. I had heard that they had new material they wanted to record, along with a slightly different aesthetic. Maybe some trap influence, more rap, different song structures, etc. I knew that the songs weren’t finished in any way, but they had the basics in hand and wanted to explore in the studio a bit. Alex Peterson has become the staff engineer here, and he is a very talented guy, with lots of experience with the sound that Holiday Mountain is looking for. And, I wanted to create a promo video for the cutter, so I approached them about doing a single-song session that ended in cutting a single to vinyl.

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The surprising thing the video brings across, given the time constraints, is that this was a full-fledged production, not just “pick the best of a few live-in-the-studio takes, now let’s cut some vinyl.” Were there any concerns about keeping to a schedule to fit everything into one day?

It was just what you see there on the video. They showed up at noon, we finished cutting the vinyl at 11pm. We did have to focus on staying on track at times; fortunately, they are very, very good at what they do. They can really play, they’re technically very astute, and Laura is an amazing singer. The arranging portion could have gone on for a while, but we all agreed pretty quickly as to which sections went where, and how the whole thing would be sequenced. Bradley’s rap section was a blast, because no one in the band or Alex or I had heard it before. Bradley had obviously rehearsed it because the phrasing and dynamics (which are very entertaining!) he did very quickly. Lastly, Alex and the band’s abilities to communicate and find sounds was very effective. I’m more of an Americana guy—I wouldn’t know where to start with Ableton, for instance—but Alex nailed it. It was great fun for me to be a part of.

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What’s the reaction been like since the project was completed?

We released the video…and we get 5-10 inquiries per week now for vinyl cutting. As I mentioned before, I’m now in the process of ordering more equipment and if things go as planned, we will dramatically increase our ability to deliver more product later this year. Alex has begun to cut, and I’d love to keep a couple more engineers busy with this as time goes on. I’ve also focused a lot on packaging—so much of the vinyl experience, in addition to how it sounds, is how it looks and feels. Our picture disks are the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked out a nice arrangement with a small printer here in town that prints the images for color jackets and center labels that look fantastic. So the artist gets a great sounding, heavy, 180g disk in black, clear or picture disk; a classic tip-on style, two-sided color jacket; and full-color center labels, all in sealed poly—the whole deal. For younger artists that have never heard their work on vinyl, it’s a surreal experience to open the package up and put on the record; it’s a fun thing to watch.

We’re also working with a couple artists on what we call ‘Snowflake Cuts’—as in, no two are alike. Since each disk is cut in real time, individually, we can actually put individual audio on each disk. So if an artist wants to create 25 absolutely unique records for fundraising purposes, we can do that. Single-sided, one-song picture disks - each with a different image, and a uniquely recorded song. Pretty cool.