Paul Gold And The Legacy Of The Lathe Kept Alive In Greenpoint
Vinyl might be making a comeback, but Greenpoint audio mastering legend Paul Gold never left it behind. At Salt Mastering (61 Greenpoint Ave.) in the Pencil Factory, he’s spent the last 10 1/2 years mastering for such acts as Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, and LCD Soundsystem.
I recently set aside some time to garner stories from Paul about his history in the business, and maybe get a few technique pointers along the way. Arriving at his place of business, I pried open his door on the fourth floor, and he shouted from the other room to come in.
Paul is a bit of a mad scientist. His hair bounces around as he moves about in his studio, and his large frame glasses are actually of his era, and not worn ironically. We sit in a relatively small unit, the front half filled with tools and scraps of audio gear, while the main mastering room is surrounded by large gear that looks like something out of those black-and-white Twilight Zone episodes on time travel from the 1950’s.
Before I get to the interview, here’s some background on recent peaks and valleys in the world of analog mastering and recording. Those familiar with the story can skip ahead to the questions below.
Before vinyl came back into vogue at the start of this millennium, music labels were abandoning their traditional focus on quality analog mastering. On the flip side, the sudden availability of cheap bulk CD services allowed DIY bands an outlet for disseminating their work, and control in how it sounded. DIY bands themselves, not labels, had control over the audio sampling and EQ.
But even while mass consumer and production focus was away from analog recording, still glimmering from decades past were the slow embers of desire, cultivation, and loyalty in the analogue world.
Maybe only few could have foreseen vinyl to come back around as they are now, with sales for vinyl breaking the previous sales record high from 1988 just this year. For Paul Gold, it was the love of analog that kept him plugging away at it. His path to the revival of vinyl was guided by uncertainty and love of craft, with a little luck.
GP: Paul, let’s go back to the start, when you moved to NYC from Buffalo, what was on your mind?
Paul: Well, I knew I wanted to be an engineer in high school, I grew up in Buffalo and got into NYU, while I was at NYU I started working at various studios around town. I knew I needed to have a steady job and I worked at a studio that made karaoke backing tracks, but we were trying to do exact sound-a-likes.
So for instance it wasn’t MIDI, often we hired the same session musicians that played on the originals.
It was in the early 90’s in New York, so a lot of the guys that played on the records in the 70’s were still around, you know, the SNL horn section for instance from that era, was also sort of the go to horn section for New York. So those guys played on a lot of the records too. Half the time we’d do a New York disco record or something and it would be all the same guys that played on the original practically.
So it was really good ear training–it wasn’t exactly “music” because it was karaoke, but from a technical stand point it was really excellent training. So for instance we’d ask each other, “Ok we have this infamous drum kit sound, how do we get it to sound like this record vs that record?”
GP: That’s incredible training! Much more of a process!
Paul: Yeah, we had to think what constitutes as a sound and a mix? It was really good training. While I was there they got an outside guy to come in and master the tracks, in other words assemble all the mixes, level them out, and then put them together on a 16’30 tape, and that would get sent to Japan and they’d marry it with a video over there. Eventually I took over for the mastering engineer and I sort of took over that gig. I really liked it, and never really liked recording as much, you could say I gravitated towards mastering early on. I’ve also done a lot of club work, in the 90’s I worked at Palladium night club, then I worked at South Paw which was a club in Park Slope. I was one of the two engineers that opened that club, working there for 3-4 years. I also worked at a place on Houston and Broadway called Gonzales y Gonzales mixing live salsa bands four nights a week. All along building the clientele on the mastering end, but at one point, I realized I needed to develop my own services. I couldn’t really rely on where I was in order to continue, so that’s when I wracked my brain and decided to buy a Lathe to start cutting Lacquers. I only had so much money, but luckily the prices for them weren’t anywhere near what they go for now.
GP: Tell us more about the Lathe.
Paul: There’s no more complicated machine in audio than a Lathe, with the mechanical and the electronics and interface, they’re a pretty unique machine. At that time I was trying to get into the dance crave of the early 90’s, but all that work was going to other people. People weren’t appreciating vinyl just yet, but luckily the rock world is there, many more people are coming around as well in the last 10 years, but I loved the process. I love cutting lacquers from start to finish, I’m just happy with them, they’re a technical challenge.
I certainly didn’t know there would be a resurgence of some sort when I started, I just loved the machine and was lucky to receive the business. Even the price of a Lathe has quadrupled in the last 5 years, many studios were opting for mastering CD’s mind you, they used to be around $30,000 and now they’re about close to $100,000.
I know them completely now, I can take a junker (if you can find them) and fix it up. I spent ten years with a mentor of mine, Albert Grundy, who imported the first Lathe in 1957. Sadly he died about three years ago and was sort of one of basically three people in the world left who knew them inside and out. I inherited all his technical documents for this machine so I have the complete library from the distributor who sold the machines originally. The technical literature was as important as the machine, because the machine is extremely complicated and you can’t fix the machine if you don’t have the literature. It’s sort of my historical imperative at this point to keep their legacy alive.
GP: I see other machines here, can you tell us about them?
Paul: Well, over the years what I’ve wanted to do was to cut all analogue, meaning from directly open reel-tape to the vinyl machine, without passing through anything digital. The way that most things are cut today are from files, wav files, et cetera. I’ve spent about ten years building a console that would allow me to do that. So basically when I came here I started soldering up a storm! In 2014 I installed it here, but I honestly don’t think there are tons of spaces that allow straight from reel to vinyl anymore. When it’s 100% done it’ll be a pretty elaborate setup.
Technically speaking it’s a type of A > B console. A record is a single groove from a single spiral, from the outside to the inside. So you can’t stop the recording once you’ve started because you can’t meet up with the spiral again, so if you’re recording from tape to lacquer, it has to be done in one shot—it can’t be stopped. If you want to have different processing in the mastering phase for this, like EQ and compression, etc. for individual tracks, you have to have a console that is divided in half—so you can play the first song in the settings you want and switch over when the second song starts. You flip-flop all the way until it’s pressed. These were much more common in the heyday of vinyl pressing and mine is almost finished. I’m going to continue finishing my machine this fall, after ten years of beating my head on it basically! Almost everyone I know asks sarcastically, “Is it done yet?” knowing full well it’s not, but most people are surprised i’ve gotten this far, most people start big projects and never finish but I sat hunched over on it for a decade.
GP: (I chimed in, it’s a marathon not a sprint!)
Paul: Right, It’s done when it’s done. I’ve put an incredible amount of money into it, money i’ll probably never make off of it, but it’s really for the love and unique quality it provides. Again, I really enjoy the process. I also have some circuit designs in the works for a phono pre-amp that I’m designing to work with a lathe. It’s going to be the quietest remote for it available. I’m making custom ones for people that want them, making them one at a time. The market is really limited for this, but I’d be happy to sell even five a year.
GP: (Paul mentioned off-record he’s working on things that are in development he can’t talk about, but joked they are more niche projects that won’t sell well. He did mention that this business is subjective, so he tries to look at things from the client’s perspective and not squeeze pennies or do what’s expedient.)
GP: So you finally made it Greenpoint after working various sound jobs. How was that experience for you?
Paul: My first studio was in Sunset Park—it was at an old record pressing plant. Eventually it was time to start my own place and my friends at The Pencil Factory here in Greenpoint would invite me over. It seemed like a nice place, and I had little money at that point. There was a 200-square-foot space that opened so I scrapped enough money to make the move; this was in 2005? So I’ve been here for about 10-and-a-half years. I stayed in one unit for the first two years and eventually moved up to the fourth floor. Greenpoint has been really good to me actually, you know, I’m still here and working everyday. It’s very convenient for a lot of musicians. I live in the neighborhood too, I really never leave! It’s almost like a different neighborhood during the week—it’s the people that live here, then boom, on the weekends it’s like who are these kids? [Laughs] But our crowd here is a bit older, I see the same faces all of the time. It would be hard to move it out of this neighborhood for me. Hopefully all that stuff going up on the water doesn’t affect me here too much.
GP: As I thanked Paul for the interview, he gleefully showed off some of the machines he’s built and the infamous Lathe as he posed for a photo. For those that didn’t know the history and legacy Paul Gold proudly carries with him, you can visit him anytime in his “workshop.” If you’re a musician looking for the human element in your next project, from all the way from the mastering phase to the fresh lacquer cut of your vinyls, look no further than Salt Mastering, situated on the fourth floor of the historical Pencil Factory building in Greenpoint. As many New York moments go, it seems the only way to combat their evanescence is to celebrate them while they’re there.
Salt Mastering, Paul Gold | 61 Greenpoint Ave., 4th Floor