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May 27, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST
Scott Walus stops in the kitchen on his way to the basement and takes out a small wooden box. The lid opens, revealing what looks like a turntable and needle. When he is finished with his latest record, a venture with local garage act Monte Carlos, that small box will cut grooves into a wax cylinder and create a mold from which vinyl copies of the record will be pressed.
Walus, sporting a black New York Dolls hoodie and a nose ring, is the founder of Cavetone Records, a vinyl-only label based in Columbia. Last year, Walus produced singles by local acts Pat Boone’s Farm, in which he also plays guitar, and Monte Carlos. He’s currently working with a Chicago band called Blackbelts. Walus records in his basement, but cables, instruments and reels of tape often spill into the living room and kitchen.
Cavetone Records is analog-only, meaning the songs are recorded and edited using tape and never fed through a computer. Walus waves at an old Byrds record spinning on his turntable. “Listening to these records right now, the cool thing about it is that the sound waves that are on there are the exact same sound waves that were recorded in the studio,” he says while sitting in a basement crammed with vintage amplifiers, consoles and microphones. “They’ve never been sampled or altered.”
Walus finds himself in the growing company of vinyl enthusiasts. Last year, the Recording Industry Association of America reported that vinyl sales in 2007 were up 37 percent from 2006, but compact disc sales were down 18 percent. By the end of 2008, sales of vinyl, which totaled $57 million, were at their highest since 1990. The industry is catching on, and labels such as Sub Pop now issue codes for mp3 downloads with each vinyl record, completely bypassing the compact disc.
But in a world of digital downloads, vinyl is still the preserve of audiophiles and devout fans. Lou Never, bassist and lead vocalist for Monte Carlos, believes there is a rich niche market that goes with his band’s 1960s garage sound. “With vinyl, we felt it would be easier to sell records than CDs, and it’s turned out to be the case,” he says.
Brandon Kramer, co-owner of Happy Time Media, a local record store that specializes in used vinyl, thinks analog’s appeal lies beyond a retro fad. It is a better technology for listening to music. “Digital only includes sound frequencies that are audible to the human ear,” he says. “And just because the human ear doesn’t hear something doesn’t mean that it’s not perceived, that it’s not there.”
Never has a simpler way of saying it: “Analog is an entire sound.”
For Walus, analog is more than a format. It is a process rooted in an era of session musicians who had to finish a song in one or two takes to keep the tape from wearing out. “You can’t go back, you can’t go ‘Oh, oh, oh, I messed up the bridge, can we go back and cut the tape?’” he says. His studio is set up for the whole band to play and record live together – the same way the Byrds record he has been spinning was recorded in the 1960s.
As far as effects go, Walus doesn’t use software or auto-tune; his equipment is more primitive but way more fun and requires ingenuity to build and experimentation to work properly. For example, an old telephone receiver with a battery duct-taped to the handle creates an eerie vocal sound. He acknowledges the convenience of the digital format but believes that it can lead to an obsession with perfection that amounts to glorified cutting-and-pasting. “They are ‘perfect’ sounds, they sound like what a kick drum should be, but the problem with it is that music isn’t perfect,” he says. “You just miss the human touch.”