I was waiting outside Kapelvej 44, in the heart of Nørrebro, in Copenhagen on an exceptionally hot summer day, super excited as I was to finally visit the only lacquer cutting studio in Denmark for an extended chat about the record cutting craft, mastering for vinyl and to learn about the story behind Kommunal Dubplate Service. The cutting engineer Hari Shankar Kishore is a very busy man and it took us a little while to find the convenient time for my visit. Nevertheless, every day was worth waiting.
It’s no secret, Hari is a legend in the Danish music scene for his uncompromising experimental approach to music, his nerdy, eager-to-learn personality and several well known musical projects such as DJ Hvad, Albertslund Terror Corps and the record label Syg Nok, to name a few.
During my two visits at the cutting studio, I recorded over one hour of interview, that required very little editing. Because all of it was so relevant and insightful, thanks to Hari. We touched on many critical and super interesting topics, and we hope it will get you as much informed and inspired as it did us, RPM Records team.
For those who are less familiar, lacquer cutting constitutes the first step in the vinyl manufacturing process. It’s an incredibly delicate process, where music is being carved on a soft lacquer coated metal disk using a heated stylus. Following the industry standards, an engineer cuts one lacquer disc per record side and sends it to electroplating facilities, where lacquer discs are then processed and transformed to metal stampers for the record pressing on hard plastic, also known as PVC.
Hari Kishore is the sole record cutting engineer in Denmark.
So, Hari, what about these vinyl records? How long have you been interested, how did you come to vinyl records and cutting and all that?
I started to be interested in vinyl records from a very young age. Actually, I think I was like 5 years old when I started kind of scratching and stuff. Because basically, when my father moved to Denmark from India, he bought around 1000 vinyl records from a record store that closed down on Nørrebrogade before I was born. Just to sell, you know. He got 1000 records for 1000 kroner or something. So he went around selling those records and other items. When I was born, there were still a lot of records left. So I started digging in them and I became very interested in manipulating time with records and mixing records, and started producing music from a very young age. I also started using records in my music production – sampling or mixing and doing turntablism a lot.
I started producing my own tracks when I was 16 years old or something. And I had a big dream just to make my own record, so I started going to studios. At that time there was a studio in Copenhagen called Precious Vinyl. There worked a guy, his name was Andreas. He had an instant dub cutter and he was the only one cutting dub-plates at that time. I think it was 2003. He was cutting acetates on a Kingston Dub Cutter. By the way, I also went to other different studios to cut masters or dub-plates with my own tunes. So when I went to the real cutting studio and saw that ritual of manifesting the sound, I became very interested in it. And at some point, I was coming to the culture house on Blågårds Plads to play music quite often. I had a good connection with the house and I still do. I suggested that we should make a community dub-plate studio. So we got to do that with a bit of funding to start it up. We bought Andreas’ small instant lathe cutter. At that time it was slightly broken and we got some money to fix it. It was running for like 7 years or something.
Which year are we talking?
That’s like 12 years ago. And then it just started out, learning to cut and all that. Back then, I was cutting a lot on plastic, PVC lathe cuts and some master cuts for 7 inches only. It’s because the cutter was a very small one, not the same size as Skully. It was running on a regular Technics turntable. And it was limited to only 12 inch discs. As you perhaps know, cutting a 12 inch master disc requires a 14 inch lacquer or master plate and we could not do that on the Kingston Dub Cutter. After some years, I transported that lathe to Cairo, Egypt, and established a Cairo Dubplate Service and studio. It is called 100 copies and it’s still there. When I found Skully for sale, and it’s a very rare occasion, I thought – OK this is my chance to start the full master production. We are talking about 2015 or something.
So, I bought this Skully from Man Made Mastering in Berlin. It’s a lathe from the 70s, but has been modified with a new cutter head and variable pitch computer. Skully traveled all the way from New York to Florida, to Canada and Berlin before it found its home in Copenhagen. A bunch of well known records were cut on this Skully, including names like Richie Hawtin and Kool and The Gang.
Can you explain why it requires 14 inch lacquer disc for a 12 inch vinyl record?
It’s because the lacquer disc needs to be processed and stamper production needs something to grip on, to hold on, so the extra 2 inches are for the handles, for the grip. When I was limited to 12 inch discs, I was thinking how can I make these handles on the record afterwards, I was into a lot of ideas.
However, there is this big story. There were only two companies in the world producing lacquers and now there is only one. Because the big company that sold lacquer discs to maybe 70 or 80 percent of all cutting studios burned down. The old factory had been there since 1936. It’s called Apollo, there was a big fire there. It happened in the beginning of the year and it caused a huge problem for the whole lacquer business.
Is there a problem getting lacquer discs right now?
Now there is only one company selling lacquer discs and it’s MDC in Japan. In the beginning it was very hard because its a small company. I heard it’s one man’s company, I am not sure. And there was a big waiting list. For some months I could not get any, but now I have boxes of MDC lacquers. And it’s less of a problem now, but who knows. It’s kind of a fragile business as there is only one company in the world doing that. Let’s say MDC have a problem, we will all have a problem. These days I have enough lacquers. I am glad and I think I can get new ones when I need them again.
Do you remember when we played at the party on the NYE, you were mixing on 4 turntables. Were you mixing lacquer cuts then?
Yeah, I think so, yeah.
How many times can you play the lacquer disc before it degrades in quality?
You can use them a lot of times. Some of them are around 10 years old and they still sound OK. There are a lot of things on the Internet saying that you can only play lacquers 10 times and this is actually not true. The thing with lacquer discs is that, yes, they are a bit more fragile than plastic. But it also depends on the needle you use for the playback. In Denmark we use a lot of Ortofon needles because it’s a Danish company and it is very widely used, especially among DJs. But Ortofon’s Scratch or DJ needles are actually very hard and their tear up lacquer records easily. But if you play lacquers with a softer needle, for instance Shure M44 needle or Grado needle, these are my favorites, with these you can play lacquer hundreds of times. And of course you are getting slight artifacts after 100 plays, but it is just a small wear if you play with a soft needle. For example, I like locked grooves a lot. The locked groove is a circle and every rotation is one play. While playing that, you can really hear how the record is degrading. However, with a soft needle I can play a locked groove for 20min and it’s still fine.
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That is very interesting. How do you cut a locked groove?
To cut a locked groove is a very manual thing. Normally, a record is a spiral that goes inwards and a cutting head is locked to the lathe that moves inside. When you cut a locked groove you don’t want it to move, you want it to stay still. So basically, I just keep a lathe in kind of a hold mode and dip the needle for one rotation only, then I lift it up. It is very manual.
Do you cut a lot of locked grooves?
Yes, a lot. Actually, just yesterday I cut a locked groove, a techno tool for a Danish artist here. I do cut a lot of locked grooves for my own production, many many locked grooves, its mainly what I do for my own records.
How did you learn the record cutting craft? Did you watch other people or experimented yourself? Or?
It was both. I started out watching other people and then experimenting myself a lot. I did not have anybody here that could teach me, so it was really learning by doing mostly. However, I learned the rough stuff from previous lathe owners and other cutting engineers, reading about the subjects and so on. Nevertheless, the main routine was always about cutting and practicing.
Let’s talk a little bit about Kommunal Dubplate Service. Who are you working with primarily, who are your clients?
It’s a very wide spectrum of labels and artists. Mostly small independent labels, but we also have some bigger labels ordering cuttings. However, the majority are independent labels and independent artists from a very wide musical spectrum. I mean, nowadays I don’t even have a dominant genre, it’s really everything from slow experimental music, folk music, techno music, hip-hop, classical and so forth.
“It is also a very therapeutic process for many artists to come up here. When people come up here to cut, they are closing the project, manifesting an end of the project. And it can be kind of a therapeutic session for artists’ work, I believe”.
Do you like that or would you prefer to work in the narrower musical field??
No, I really enjoy that it’s not the same coming up here every day! I am really glad that I can be surprised by clients’ music and I like a lot of it as well. It’s very interesting to hear what people are burning for, and to have artists present in the process is also very nice. They can take some decisions in the process that affects the sound and it becomes a very personal process. It is also a very therapeutic process for many artists to come up here. When people come up here to cut, they are closing the project, manifesting an end of the project. And it can be kind of therapeutic session for artists’ work, I believe. And that is very interesting for me to work with.
Are your clients primarily local or do you have international clients too?
Mostly local clients, but I have few international clients as well. I also have a lot of international local clients, that are local but international still.
How many people work at Kommunal Dublate Service?
Kommunal Dubplate Service is a part of Støberiet, but I am the only one running it, basically from my personal investments. In other words, I am the only investor here for the equipment that is running now. But we are part of Støberiet, which is a community center in Nørrebro. So they provide housing for me, and we are part of this building where we have a community kitchen, there are dance classes and there are other studios in the building. So we are part of the community here, however, I am running it alone.
How do you see Kommunal Dubplate Service in the future? Let’s say 5-10 years from now.
5-10 years from now I see that we are still cutting. OK, I will tell you. We are cutting on a machine that is from the late 60s, but it has been modified with slightly modern upgrades, so I can cut a bit louder and all that. But at the end of the day, this is a very old craft and I just want to keep doing that. I mean, the studio equipment always gets refined. The mastering equipment is getting better every year, sometimes the monitors are getting better.You know, the equipment is getting better, with small upgrades every year, and I just want to continue doing this very old craft in the old manner. Hopefully in 5 years I can send lacquers to you guys or another lab in the city that produces stampers, and we can do an entire production in Denmark, so we will have less shipping, faster production, better quality, and all that.
I know you also do mastering over here. Do you see the difference between mastering and cutting jobs versus only cutting? What is your preference?
Would you say that cutting a record is a part of the mastering process?
Yes it is, it’s super much. Cutting a master record is totally a part of the mastering process, I would say. You know, there is a pre-mastering, there is also a digital mastering, and there is pre-vinyl mastering, but actually, vinyl mastering is also cutting the master plate, because that plate shapes the sound in some way when you cut a record.
“High frequencies are also something to be aware, or be alert of. If you have 15khz sound, the needle moves left-to-right 15000 times per second. It is moving very, very fast and may basically burn down the equipment, as it gets very hot”.
What are the essential things for you, as a cutting engineer, to prepare an audio file for the lacquer cut?
The essential thing is to ensure that bass and sub-bass is in mono. Everything below 150Hz must be totally in the middle. That is the most fundamental thing. Because if you have stereo bass, the groove will basically be cut outside of the lacquer surface and also the bass will get cut out-of-phase, so you would have a skipping record. Hmm. That is the most essential thing to take care of. And then volumes are very important. There are also other frequencies, like high frequencies. High frequencies are also something to be aware or be alert of. If you have 15khz sound, the needle moves left-to-right 15000 times per second. It is moving very, very fast and may basically burn down the equipment, as it gets very hot. Although, I have some modification for cooling down with Helium. High frequencies can also cause distortion in the inner circle of the record. It’s called inner groove distortion and those frequencies must definitely be under certain control before the cutting.
Would you agree that back in the day people used to mix music with awareness of the vinyl medium limitations that we have just spoken about? Primarily because it was the only format. Do you think that has been changing nowadays when people are not so used to the vinyl format?
Yeah, yeah. And also instruments that people use today are much more sonically wider and, you know, modern music just has more frequencies. That is just a fact. It can translate nicely on a record, but sometimes it can also be difficult. A good example would be the modern hip-hop that has very fast hi-hats and we did not hear these types of hi-hat sounds before. Let’s say in 1995 or 1998 or before Pro-Tools became the mainstream production equipment. Nevertheless, those very “Trappy” hi-hat sounds can also be translated to a vinyl format, but sometimes it takes more time for testing to get those sitting right in the mix. Because cutting very fast hi-hats is something that pushes the cutter head to work very hard. You know, sometimes these modern production techniques are definitely pushing old vintage equipment to the limits. Ha ha! But it can be very interesting as well.
“When uploading music to Soundcloud, people often just want their music to play as loud as possible. But for lacquer it’s a bit different”.
Do you have some recommendations for artists about preparation of audio files for the lacquer cutting?
Yeah, sure. Leave more dynamics. It’s kind of the same as when you give your file for mastering, you need to leave some dynamics. When uploading music to Soundcloud, people often just want their music to play as loud as possible. But for lacquer it’s a bit different. If you have a limited, super loud track, I will have to cut it at lower volumes. If it has very little dynamics and it’s pushed very hard, I must cut at lower volumes. It’s because of distortion or if it will sound nasty or something. And I think that a certain degree of dynamics is good for a record, you know. However, it is also possible to cut loud stuff. I would just recommend to make it sound as good as possible and definitely to be aware of over compression and similar issues. And always try to keep the bass in mono phase, but usually every cutting engineer will make sure of that.
So let’s say I record my music with a stereo reverb on the bass, is it something I should never do?
No, just keep it, keep doing your sound and don’t think too much about that, the mastering engineer will take care of it. In other words, it is possible to take care of it afterwards. It is OK to have reverb on the bass or stereo panning, echoes on the kicks and stuff because I can tune it and fix it afterwards. Just keep your ears on production and make it sound as you want it to sound and then I will try to translate it to vinyl as nicely as possible. And most mastering engineers will do that.
Does assumed listening environment guide your cutting decisions? Would that be a hi-fi listening environment or a record that will be banged in a club. Do these assumptions influence your decisions in any way when cutting?
I would say yes and no. Because if the record lasts over 20 minutes per side, then it is usually not a classic club record. And the length already suggests that. Well, you can still play it in a club, it depends what kind of club it is, I would say. Ha ha! But let’s say the classic club music, the loud electronic music, like most techno, drum & bass and such. In those genres people mostly produce records that are under 14 minutes per side. That is called a maxi 12 inch single. That format is made for loud playing, because the longer record you have, the lower volume will be. And that usually depends, I am always just keen to cut as loud as possible as it still sounds good and not too distorted or something. So the length of a record is usually determining if this is a classic club record or more like hi-fi listening LP.
Is music genre guiding your cutting decisions in any way?
Hmm, there are certain things, for example if the record is very long, I use different methods. For example if I have over 20 minutes per side, like ambient or classical music with a lot of silent parts and a lot of dynamics or just in general a long record, I need to do more testing sometimes. It takes a bit longer to cut a long record, because it needs more diameter tests and just in general it needs to be tested more. There is more that could potentially go wrong on a long or very dynamic record with silent parts or very heavy bass or super loud high frequencies. So it is more about the frequencies and the times, than the actual genre . And it is much easier to cut a techno track, that is noisy for 10 minutes and then it stops. It is so much easier to cut. This type of records I can cut with deeper grooves and more space between the grooves. There are other settings for that. And on some records you may want deeper grooves because it is very loud, heavy club music. On the contrary, longer records require more narrow grooves.
Would you say that you have a signature sound or do you approach music objectively and try to make it sound as good as possible from what it is?
Hmm. I think there must be some sort of signature sound because of equipment. For instance, my cutter head has some sort of particular sound that is different from others and all this equipment has some personality to it. As well as my personal decisions, individual hearing qualities and, of course, human choices that differ from person to person, so there must be some signature sound to it.
Who is your master or guru as a cutting engineer? Do you have somebody that you really like or you have been learning from?
I have been going to different kinds of studios, like Transition in London. I did cut some plates there in the past. Jason, who runs the company is a very good cutting engineer. And seeing him cut was definitely an inspiration for my own work. As well as Tim Xavier, who runs Man Made Mastering in Berlin. I bought my Skully from him. He is also a great help for me, because he had been running this lathe for 15 years before me, so I usually ask him for tips if I run into an issue. It is very good that I can talk to him, he is a very skilled cutting engineer.
“If I have over 12-15 minutes I will usually cut on 33 RPM. Yet again, that depends on the music and the frequencies. Because if you have very loud or low frequency sounds, it feels more on a record.”
Can you talk a little bit about 33 & 45 RPM. What’s the difference and what are your recommendations?
OK so, on paper, 45 RPM is more high fidelity than 33 RPM because it runs more rounds per minute. But. Actually it is not always what sounds better. It really depends on the program material, in other words – it depends on the music. I had clients that come up here to cut a record and they want it to sound as good as possible while cutting on 45 RPM. Sometimes I advice them to try to cut on 33 RPM as well. When we cut on 33 RPM, we all agree that the latter sounds better, because it has a deeper tone as it runs deeper and slower. But for some projects 45 RPM is very good, because it is just very accurate in another way. It really depends on the material. 33 RPM can carry longer playing times and definitely the first thing that guides my decision is the length of a record. If I have over 12-15 minutes I will usually cut on 33 RPM. Yet again, that depends on the music and the frequencies. Because if you have very loud or low frequency sounds, it feels more on a record. So it is difficult to say how much time it can be on a record. It can be up to 40 minutes of silence on the record and there can only be 10 minutes of super loud music. So for some projects I really prefer the sound of 33 RPM, because you can hear the vinyl format more, but for other projects 45 RPM may sound better.
What kind of testings do you need to do for learning about how much space it will take on a record?
Basically, what I do is called the diameter test. I run the sound through equipment, without dipping the needle to the lacquer. Just to see how far the cutting head can go. I have a modification for Skully and its called the Variable Pitch Computer. Variable Pitch Computer gets the signal from the sound source a half rotation before it hits the cutter head. And then the device is basically telling how fast to move the cutter head inwards. So when you are cutting very silent sound, it’s moving very slow and the moment when it becomes heavy, especially with bass on it, it starts moving faster. And it requires more distance between the grooves. I have to run an entire material through it, especially with longer recordings, and that is called the diameter test.
Let’s talk a little bit about the song sequencing on a record. What are your recommendations?
OK, so as a given imperfection, all records sound better from the beginning and become more inaccurate while moving inwards. Because the further the needle moves inwards the record, the slower the record is moving. In the outside you have a bigger circle, so that circle needs to move faster to get through one rotation, and the rotation is the same time at every point of the record. But the inner circles have less room for the fidelity. If you can choose and arrange your tracks in any order, try to sequence highest fidelity tracks on the outside, because you have more space for them to sound good. And perhaps, sequence more minimal tracks for the inside of the record. But sometimes there are other things that matter, maybe there is a story-telling between tracks and it starts with a minimal track and ends up with a huge track. Then usually I have this problem. If you can choose, keep your bigger compositions with many layers on the outside groove, because there’s just more room for that. On the contrary, there will always be more distortion and less fidelity further you move inside the record. And perhaps that is one of the reasons why some records are cut inside-out.
Did you have any issues like that and had to advise an artist to change sequencing of tracks?
Yeah, it happened. Because inner circles are the most problematic on a record. I always do test cutting in the studio with artists present and then we hear how it translates on lacquer. Some things always happen in the translation, especially in the inner grooves. So I cut inner groove tests also, just to know exactly how it translates in there. And some people are getting surprised, then we say -let’s switch the tracks- for example. Because this or that track is easier to translate in the outer groove than the inner groove. And it can be solved that way.
Let’s talk a little bit about mastering. Do you practice analogue or digital mastering?
I do both simultaneously while using a hybrid of analogue and digital equipment. Because digital is good for some things that analogue can’t do, and analogue is good for other things that digital can’t do. For this particular reason I really enjoy the hybrid technique. For example, digital plugins are super surgical, you know, really sharp, have super narrow Q points on EQ. I also do low frequency adjustments digitally. And that is great digitally. But for example, compression or wider, broader equalizing I do with an analogue equipment. I also have few clients that are pure analogue, they bring the master tape and want to keep the entire process analogue. That is also possible, it’s all about the clients. But usually, as a default, I use hybrid for mastering while taking the best from both worlds. It works very good together.
What particular mixing and mastering decisions may cause you trouble in cutting a perfect record?
Too heavy compression and limiting is very difficult to correct in the mastering process, and the pursuit for digital loudness will sometimes give you lower playback volumes and more unwanted distortion on a record.
Endless thanks to you Hari for such an informative conversation!