Meet the Vinyl Maker Who Cut Every Arkells Holiday 7-Inch by Hand
Due to pressing plant delays, Robyn Raymond created each of the 500 records in realtime at her lathe
In November, the Hamilton outfit launched a limited edition, signed 7-inch record featuring two holiday originals, 2020's "Pub Crawl" and this year's "The Last Christmas (We Ever Spend Apart)," as a gift to their fervent fans. This led one inquiring mind to ask the band, how is it that a smaller record with one song per side is priced higher than an autographed 12-inch LP of their 2021 album Blink Once?
Plz read❤️— ARKELLS (@arkellsmusic) November 4, 2021
All 7" were signed by the band and hand cut by our friend Robyn Raymond. This undertaking took her hundreds of hours. Only 500 of this pressing will exist. A nice find for vinyl collectors! https://t.co/gWS6FoXvpR pic.twitter.com/BNyeLNOkJv
Arkells explained that they found a seasonal saviour in fellow Canadian Robyn Raymond, who made all 500 of the band's holiday 7-inch records by hand via the process of lathe cutting. Due to skipping the plating and pressing steps, lathe cutting records remains a popular avenue for artists looking to get their music on wax without big label budgets or the constraints of minimum and maximum orders. Of course, a 500-unit order is hardly considered "short-run," making Raymond's handmade records nothing less than a Christmas miracle in the midst of production capacity crisis.
"Usually, because of the price point [of] lathe cuts, I don't entertain anything over 100 or 150. Historically, that's kind of a pressing plant number," Raymond tells Exclaim! "There's always a little bit of an education about what my records are about, how they work and how I work, versus pressing plants and their quotes. Now that the plants are not able to deliver until 2022 or 2023 depending on the project, the work is now trickling down from major labels who are like, 'We need to circumvent the plant and figure out a different way to get products out.'"
Raymond is Canada's only female record cutter, and she tells Exclaim! these 500 holiday singles mark her biggest batch of lathe labour to date. In addition to her company, Red Spade Records, she is a lathe cut engineer at Toronto's Lacquer Channel Mastering, the storied facility Arkells had approached to see about avoiding the worldwide pressing plant logjam. According to Raymond, discussions with the band first began in July, before she spent 20 consecutive days in October cutting each record, for them to be delivered to the band's Montreal-based distributor days ahead of their early November announcement.
She says of the process, "It's 12 minutes a record — cut it, prep it, put the labels on, put it in a sleeve, put it in the jacket, put the jacket in a poly bag. I think my most efficient day was finishing 35 to 38 units."
Arkells frontman Max Kerman shares in a statement that "Robyn's skill and love of the craft made an impossible timeline possible." Raymond explains that over those 20 days of work, that skill and love involved standing at her lathe and listening intently to the songs in real time as she used a cutting stylus to etch microgrooves into each side of the disc. She first made a test cut of the record — not unlike a test pressing — to ensure aural and physical accuracy in analog form against the digital master recording, first cutting a lead-in groove, the song itself, a lead-out groove, and a locked groove at the end of the side. Should it pass her standards, Raymond then etched A- and B-side markers in the untouched deadwax, before adding her personal "R2" signature.
"My ears fatigue a lot faster than my body does, because it's a lot of critical listening for an extended amount of time," Raymond notes, detailing how she watches the lathe's cutting stylus react to the dynamics of the recording, and remains mindful of how wide and deep the grooves are cut. "Sometimes there are subtle distortions, or things can happen with the stylus where it chips or is dull, so then the treble might not be as sharp or something else might start to sound off. You want to make sure everything sounds as good as possible for as many copies as you can out of those parameters."
In conversation with Exclaim!, Raymond speaks of music, vinyl and the world of record-making with the warmth and detail listeners of her chosen format have come to extol. Previous projects include cutting 125 7-inches of a City and Colour live performance for Dine Alone Records, 10 LPs for Prada that were auctioned by Sotheby's for the Italian fashion house's Fall/Winter 2020 show, and both standard and deluxe edition LPs of Toronto-based Witch Prophet's Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted DNA Activation. From one-off home recording anniversary gifts, to X-ray records made using radiographic film, there is little that Raymond is unwilling to cut.
A native of Calgary, Raymond's love of records began in childhood, rifling through the sizeable collections of her parents and grandparents. Whether "screaming at the top of my lungs" in tandem with Richard Wagner operas, or being soothed by Merry Clayton's vocal performance on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," this connection to music led to her fronting Calgary outfit 40 Gun Flagship, working for Canadian festival and concert promoter Union Events, and amassing a record collection of her own. Raymond would change careers and work with Canada's Olympic bobsled, hockey and skeleton teams, only to return to the music industry in 2017, with her interest in vinyl records and manufacturing top of mind. Learning as much as she could about the physical form — through conversations with Cory Giordano, founder of Inner Ocean Records, the minds behind the now-defunct Calgary pressing plant Canada Boy Vinyl, and Tucson, AZ-based lathe artist Michael Dixon at the inaugural Making Vinyl conference in Detroit, MI — led Raymond to land on a Vinyl Recorder T560 lathe as her entry into the cutting community.
To get in the groove with a T650 lathe, Raymond reached out to German engineer and inventor Ulrich Sourisseau, who requires all buyers travel to rural Germany for a crash-course in record-making and Vinyl Recorder operation under his tutelage. As a woman in a historically male-dominated field, Raymond recalls of her early 2018 trip with a laugh, "He picked me up at the train station, and said, 'But you're a girl.' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'Girls don't do this.' I replied, 'Well, I do now!'" From there, Raymond hunkered down for a 16-hour session in Sourisseau's barn-turned-workshop with fellow cutters from the US and France, learning the ins and outs of T560 lathe operation. "I had no mastering experience, other than being a part of the mastering sessions for my own records, up to that point," Raymond admits, "At the end, Sourisseau told me, 'You're going to make great records.' We packed [the T560] up, I went back to Canada, and then six weeks later this 115-kilogram crate showed up on my doorstep."
Raymond made her Calgary basement the home base from which to leap headstrong into record cutting "craziness," now recalling the early days of "trying to put [the T560] back together, talking to people on the internet a lot, trying to find other pieces, getting correct amperes and blowing fuses, cutting records too quietly, and cutting records that only had five minutes of space on them."
"I took the lid off the crate, saw the lathe in 100 pieces, and I sat on my steps and I cried," she remembers. "I was like, 'What are you doing? You don't know how to put this thing together. You might be in over your head,' which is a crippling conversation to have with yourself." The tables turned for Raymond upon being convinced to return to the second annual Making Vinyl conference in November 2018. Aine Guiney, marketing and sales manager at Toronto's Microforum Services Group, introduced her to the Canadian contingent at the Detroit event that year, which included Lacquer Channel's owner and senior mastering engineer Noah Mintz, and chief cutting engineer Kevin Park. It was Park that took interest in Raymond's aims with the T560, and who offered a familiar industry refrain: "Move to Toronto."
Raymond has been at Lacquer Channel since July 2019, and being approached by one of Canada's biggest bands for a 500-unit project gives a glimpse of how bogged down the world's vinyl manufacturing infrastructure is at present. In illustrating the global crisis — beyond simply blaming Adele or ragging on Record Store Day exclusives — Raymond points to how pressing plants on both sides of the border have been impacted by the February 2020 fire at Apollo Masters in Banning, CA, one of only two facilities on Earth that produces the lacquer discs needed to make master plates for pressing records.
"They also did styli for lathes as well. They were kind of an easy access point for new cutters," she shares. "There's still a logjam between access to lacquers, the ability to cut lacquers, how many people have lathes, [and] how many mastering engineers are available. And there's only so many plating facilities as well."
In addition to supply chain delays affecting other record making resources, like PVC pellets or wood for paper jackets and sleeves, Raymond also reminds that COVID-19 has impacted the human side of the operation, from pressing plant workers to postal carriers delivering their wares. She says, "You have a global hunger for this physical format now that people are in their homes, able to interact with their record collection a little bit more, and we have the ability to order a record one day and get it the next. There are people logjams, infrastructure logjams, and material logjams all in confluence, jamming up the industry."
All the while, Raymond continues to cut and collect with the mindset of making vinyl more accessible, carving space for listeners of all levels in hopes of making this personal and professional pursuit a little less patriarchal. Her Red Spade Records will soon call Toronto's Donlands Theatre home in early 2022, and when not at the lathe, she co-hosts a podcast for Women in Vinyl, an American website seeking to empower female, non-binary, racialized and LGBTQ+ members of the industry.
"I feel like records are for everyone, and it doesn't really matter what you're listening to them on," she says, sharing how she's found the world of audiophilia to be "very exclusionary and misogynistic at times." She adds, "There's no reason for anyone to talk down on you because you have a budget record player. I still have my mom's Dual 506 [turntable] from 1967, and I've never changed the cartridge on it! But I also have a [Technics 1200] with an Ortofon Blue — I can hang, but, really? Is this the hill you want to die on? Life's too short, just love the record."
Looking to the future of record-making beyond the current vinyl crisis, Raymond speaks to her place in a global community of lathe cutters, eager to carry forward the institutional knowledge of industry veterans regardless of infrastructure. She shares that she's recently been in touch with Sourisseau to ensure he's in good health, concerned for a time where the inventor may not be able to field questions about the machinery with which she has made her livelihood.
Raymond also sees the importance of lending her cutting skills to cultural preservation beyond music manufacturing. Invoking Jeremy Dutcher's 2018 album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, on which the "genius" composer incorporated wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqiyik people singing traditional songs, she expresses interest in archiving Indigenous language and information, praising the physical in an increasingly digital world.
She asks, "How can I use this very specific knowledge that I have, that my privilege has allowed me to fully embrace and run with? How can I use that to help other people that don't have access to this? It's not just record-specific intelligence, education and knowledge that we need to worry about losing. It's all of these things, and we have the ability to put them in a physical format that can be literally handed down to someone."
Before going off the record, Raymond notes, "'Record' is Latin for 'by heart,' because information was often memorized rather than written down. We learn 'by heart' because the organ was seen as the seed of all intelligence."