📜 Feature Direct-to-disc recordings, explained

Feature article
In some of my posts, I have mentioned direct-to-disc recordings. Just like the article I wrote on half-speed mastered LPs, this one will help define what direct-to-disc recordings are, and their benefits and drawbacks.

1638303080655.pngPicture a gramophone. Only, turn the process around. The horn collects the sound and moves a steel needle on the end of it. The needle is placed onto a flat wax disc, moved across the surface, and a groove is cut in a long spiral across the disc. This is how our earliest records were cut. If you ever see reference to "acoustic 78s," this refers to the recording method where a performer or orchestra played into a horn, which cut the grooves directly to the wax disc. These, in essence, were direct-to-disc recordings. The studios did not use wire or tape to record the performances beforehand.

As technology changed and recording equipment became popular, the recording sequence changed to where a performance would be recorded on tape, then cut to a disc on a cutting lathe. If you see reference to "electronic 78s," that is the era when 78 RPM records were being cut from tape as opposed to acoustically cut. (For collectors and owners of gramophones, they know that they may only play acoustic 78s on their players, as the playback mechanism cannot handle the increased demands of electrically-produced 78s.)

1638304468704.pngFast forward to the mid to late 70s. Audiophiles were often fed up with varying pressing quality of mass market records. From dulled sound to excessive noise, the records were of passable quality and seemingly getting worse by the year. Not only that, playback equipment was improving continuously, and listeners were anxious for better recordings. There had to be an answer.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, once a purveyor of high fidelity sound effect and train recordings, licensed three popular titles from MCA Records and cut them to vinyl at half speed (halving both the speed of the tape and the cutting lathe), improving headroom and transients due to the lowered demands on the cutting head. The records then were pressed on what they called virgin vinyl--no recycled content. And in Mobile Fidelity's case, the vinyl was stiffer and cleaner than mass market records, and the result was a lowered background noise.

Another very popular, but short-lived, phenomenon was direct-to-disc records. While they were cut on similar vinyl, production of the records differed from standard techniques. Bypassing tape entirely, the session was recorded straight from the mixing console to the cutting lathe.

The sound of these discs would range from very good to amazing. Free of any compression, many of the transients clipped off in taping would be preserved on disc, as would dynamic range. For sound quality, they were a win/win proposition. And due to having only one lacquer disc to produce stampers from, the editions of direct-to-disc records were limited. At some sessions, a 30-inch-per-second tape machine would run simultaneously, which is how some of these titles were able to be reissued on CD years later.

There were minor drawbacks to direct-to-disc recordings, however. Nothing really detracted from the end user's listening experience, but the drawbacks were found on the production and performing end.

1638304246749.pngDue to the nature of direct-to-disc recording, the performers had to cut an entire side of a record all at once, in real time. As listeners, we notice this by the lengthy timing between tracks--it is several seconds longer than we are used to. But for the performers, it could be harrowing. If someone flubbed the last note of the last tune on the side, the entire lacquer master would need to be scrapped and a new one started.

This put pressure on the musicians as well. Because they knew that their mistakes could not be edited out, many of them gave stiff, safe performances, sticking to the tried and true without taking any chances. As a result, the performances on some of the releases could sound a bit uninspired or lacking energy. Especially in larger bands, nobody wanted to be that person who caused an expensive lacquer master to be scrapped, and also not be the reason the band had to perform the entire side again.

Back when direct-to-disc was all the rage, there were a handful of labels that specialized in it, and major record labels did not get involved. (Unlike half-speed mastering, which some labels like Columbia, MCA, A&M and others dabbled in with mixed results.) The big names of the day were Sheffield Labs, Realtime Records, Nautilus, Reference Recordings, and a few others. Most of their releases became instant collectibles and remain valuable to this day. Luckily, some have been preserved on tape as well, and there are CD reissues of these titles available.

Have you ever heard or owned any direct-to-disc records? Let us know in the comments below.
 

Harry

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Yes. We do have one of those. Back in Mrs. Harry's folkie days on the 70s, our radio station played a lot of what's considered folk.

One album that had about four tracks in rotation, a standard recording by Steve Gillette. She liked it a lot and of course it was out of print. We searched record stores to no avail. But we did find a direct-to-disc album by Steve Gillette. I haven't played it in years. It's still in Mrs. Harry's collection of records.

I remember our corporate programmer being very interested in the album. Might make a nice needledrop.

Oh yeah, we later found that first album on CD.
 

Harry

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On Discogs, it looks like the CD of his self-titled album is going for more than the Direct disc.
Maybe about the same.
 

Bobberman

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Albeit in Digital format Mannheim Steamroller Keyboardist Jackson Berkey recorded his first two solo piano classical albums "Sunken Cathedral" And "Ballade" ( I have the Ballade album in full and a few songs from Sunken Cathedral on comps) they were originally recorded direct to disc and on The American Gramophone Label which was known for their audiophile treatment of all their vinyl releases pressed on Virgin vinyl although almost all my AG releases are on CD and Digital I do own one Vinyl ( plus needledrop CD) by Drummer Ric Swanson titled "Urban Surrender" from 1985.
 

JOv2

Well-Known Member
Free of any compression, many of the transients clipped off in taping would be preserved on disc, as would dynamic range. For sound quality, they were a win/win proposition
I recall a "high school stereophile" friend having such an LP -- a classical record that he reported exhibited such a dynamic cut that at one point it knocked his stylus out of the groove!
 

Rudy

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I recall a "high school stereophile" friend having such an LP -- a classical record that he reported exhibited such a dynamic cut that at one point it knocked his stylus out of the groove!
That was probably an LP cut from a digital recording, not direct-to-disc--Telarc had the infamous recording of the 1812 Overture with live cannons, and that one was (and still is) legendary for launching the stylus from the groove...and launching woofers into the stratosphere.

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I only have it on SACD, but since it was also an early digital release on CD, it was a disc known to stress (or blow the fuses in) power amplifiers and blow woofers. I believe it's the release that put Telarc on the map, as they were a relatively new label at the time. It's not a recording to turn up the first time you listen to it! 😁

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Rudy

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The "torture test". This setup still loses the music slightly, but the stylus hangs on for dear life and still stays with the same groove. This record was cut by the legendary Stan Ricker.

And I'm fairly certain that Tchaikovsky scored the piece originally with cannons! When we played it, our conductor kept having to tell the bass drum players to hit them harder.

 

Murray

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I only have it on SACD, but since it was also an early digital release on CD, it was a disc known to stress (or blow the fuses in) power amplifiers and blow woofers. I believe it's the release that put Telarc on the map, as they were a relatively new label at the time. It's not a recording to turn up the first time you listen to it! 😁

View attachment 7144
I'd be more concerned about blowing an eardrum! There should be a label on there, advising headphone users to proceed with caution!
 

Rudy

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I don't think headphones would handle it well--they would just clip vs. being loud. Possible to blow the drivers if there is too much power from a headphone amplifier, though. Any phone, portable player, etc., doesn't have the headroom to play it properly. Having said that, I've never listened to it through headphones... 😁
 

GDBY2LV

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It was the Telarc 1812 Overture. It knocked the stylus right out of the grooves during the canon fire on the turntable at work, and at home. I have the Telarc Grand Canyon Suite on cd. It comes with an audio warning too, during the real thunderstorm playback. It’s pretty amazing.
 

Harry

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One of my earliest CD purchases was a Telarc disc with Shubert's Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven's Symphony № 8 in F by Christoph Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra. It had one of those "don't turn your system up too loud" warnings as well. It was probably THE reason I bought it!

But that 1812 record is fun!

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Rudy

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Telarc used the Soundstream digital system when recording, and it operated at 16-bit, 50kHz. Since it was not a direct multiple of 44.1kHz used in CD, or 48kHz used in modern professional studios (which operate at 24-bit/96kHz minimum today), the only logical way to do a higher resolution version was convert it to analog and then convert it to DSD for the SACD. It could have been resampled, but that would have led to a worse sound.

I own a few Telarcs, my favorite being the Holst Planets with the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Andre Previn. It really doesn't matter which title we own, though--they all sound really good! Jack Renner was a top engineer back in the day.
 

Mike Blakesley

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I remember listening to one of those direct-to-disk records back in the day, and being stunned at the absolute quiet background. At first I thought the speakers weren't working!

My favorite sound effects story is, I had a CD that had a jet plane taking off. We had some big new speakers at the store, so I put that CD on and cranked it up, Several people in other parts of the store went to out the front door to look, thinking some huge plane was flying overhead.
 

Rudy

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It's not the best sample (being YouTube, and data-compressed), but this type of "live" sound is what DtD records were known for. The drums, especially, are uncompressed, something we are not used to. (Drum kits are nearly always run through some compression to even out their level during recording.) This recording is more like you would hear in a live performance.


Notable about some of these recordings is that the musicians were well-known. On Grusin's record, for instance, Ron Carter, Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason and Larry Bunker make up the quartet. Same with John Klemmer's Straight from the Heart that I purchased recently. The Grusin album above was on Sheffield Labs, a label whose releases were among those that became rare and valuable as years went on. Every audio store played the following two records incessantly as demos. The Sheffield Drum Record was nothing but a recording of a drum kit, about 6-7 minutes per side, one with Ron Tutt, the other with Jim Keltner. Very dynamic, and cut hot to the lacquer. The Sheffield Track Record was similar, but was instrumental jazz/rock that had a lot of dynamics. They were both records listened to for the sound quality, not so much the music. (It's not that the music was bad, but it also wasn't designed to be all that memorable either.)

BTW, the CD version of Grusin's album has three bonus tracks. Sheffield used to run a tape recorder simultaneously, and obviously the band had "scrapped" one of the sides, as the tunes were still recorded but were not released on the record. (Same tunes, but different performances.)

I remember listening to one of those direct-to-disk records back in the day, and being stunned at the absolute quiet background. At first I thought the speakers weren't working!
The spookiest record I've ever heard was a dbx-encoded LP. Even when you turned the volume up all the way, the background was silent. It predated what we'd hear on CDs just a few years later.

I have a few 180 gram records from recent years that are also nearly silent--my pressing of Van Morrison's Moondance is startling. In years past, I used to have a feel for how loud a record was by setting my volume based on the faint noise of the lead-in groove. Well, the moment this one started playing, it scared yesterday's lunch out of me! A perfect pressing if I ever heard one. This was one of the Warner pressings from a dozen or more years ago, and I believe they were pressed at RTI.
 

Bobberman

Well-Known Member
It's not the best sample (being YouTube, and data-compressed), but this type of "live" sound is what DtD records were known for. The drums, especially, are uncompressed, something we are not used to. (Drum kits are nearly always run through some compression to even out their level during recording.) This recording is more like you would hear in a live performance.


Notable about some of these recordings is that the musicians were well-known. On Grusin's record, for instance, Ron Carter, Lee Ritenour, Harvey Mason and Larry Bunker make up the quartet. Same with John Klemmer's Straight from the Heart that I purchased recently. The Grusin album above was on Sheffield Labs, a label whose releases were among those that became rare and valuable as years went on. Every audio store played the following two records incessantly as demos. The Sheffield Drum Record was nothing but a recording of a drum kit, about 6-7 minutes per side, one with Ron Tutt, the other with Jim Keltner. Very dynamic, and cut hot to the lacquer. The Sheffield Track Record was similar, but was instrumental jazz/rock that had a lot of dynamics. They were both records listened to for the sound quality, not so much the music. (It's not that the music was bad, but it also wasn't designed to be all that memorable either.)

BTW, the CD version of Grusin's album has three bonus tracks. Sheffield used to run a tape recorder simultaneously, and obviously the band had "scrapped" one of the sides, as the tunes were still recorded but were not released on the record. (Same tunes, but different performances.)
I Love this album and with this audiophile approach its interesting that Grusin and Rosen would be shortly Making Digital recordings with their GRP label
 

Electroliner

Active Member
I have the early Kunzel 1812 Telarc CD. Showing off the dynamic rage of that recording was really a lot of fun back then.

I also have a Direct to Disc promo 12” single for Supertramps ”Cannonball” from Brother Where You Bound.….
 
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