What Makes The Sound of Vinyl Special? Q&A with Henry Rollins, Don Was and Ron McMaster

What Makes The Sound of Vinyl Special? Q&A with Henry Rollins, Don Was and Ron McMaster

As vinyl continues the comeback of the century, seasoned collectors and newbies alike will be enthralled by a new vinyl destination dubbed “The Sound of Vinyl,” teeming with over 20,000 vinyl releases spanning a myriad of genres including Classic Rock, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and Folk, Pop, Soul/R&B, Classical, Hip Hop & Rap, Dance & Electronica, Alternative, Reggae, Metal, Soundtracks and more.

On SOV’s multichannel e-commerce platform, vinyl is made available direct to consumers through their online store and direct messaging. Here’s how it works. Consumers create an account, log onto the site and are presented with a series of albums and asked to rate them–“like,” ‘dislike” or “skip.” This process helps create a unique musical profile. Then, given a consumer’s personal taste, based on both a computer algorithm and input from various curators numbering music luminaries and industry heavyweights, consumers will receive a daily text message with a vinyl recommendation or special offer geared to their own unique musical likes. These require either a simple “yes” or “no” response; a “yes” turns into an automatic purchase and that vinyl is shipped post-haste to the consumer.

We spoke with three key members of “The Sound Of Vinyl” team, former Black Flag and the Rollins Band vocalist/author/speaker Henry Rollins, producer/artist Don Was and renowned mastering engineer Ron McMaster about vinyl’s resurgence and the promise of the Sound of Vinyl.

Henry Rollins Sound of Vinyl
Brandon Chase

Henry Rollins

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk vinyl as a communal hobby.

Henry Rollins: There is a community experience, a true human connection one person has or a group of people in a room has with a record playing, as compared to a CD playing. Music is playing in both instances, but there’s something about the disc spinning and that someone has to put it on and someone has to flip it over; someone is gonna have to do things instead of pressing Play. One is convenient and with the other one you have to do stuff. However, the sound of vinyl and the warmth that not only comes from the speakers but that it inspires among people when the music is on, somehow manages to enhance human interaction.

It makes rooms better. It makes time pass better. It borders on magic.

The differences between digital and analog are technical and easy to understand on that level. But  on the deeper level, there’s a true human connection one makes with music when playback is coming from vinyl that almost escapes description because it’s so deep and at times so intensely personal.

Put it this way; believe or not, I’m not the most outgoing person. I leave people alone, but if I see someone with a Ramones shirt on, I reckon I can walk right over and go, “Ramones, man!” That guy can’t argue with me, we’re Ramones fans! We’ve got this thing in common that we don’t even have to say anything, man. You can walk by that person and look at him and give him a nod like, “alright!” and we’re good. It’s a wonderful club to be a part of because you realize you have allies all over the world. It’s a groovy rock and roll pass. If that guy likes Houses of the Holy and you do, man, no fights are gonna happen even if you disagree on everything; you’ve got that and it eclipses everything else.

As a curator with The Sound of Vinyl, what is your role?

Henry Rollins: Several weeks ago I was here in the Capitol Records studios listening to the stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper by Giles Martin (click here to read Rock Cellar’s interview with Giles Martin about that). I ran into Jason Feinberg and he said, “Here’s what I’m doing with the Sound of Vinyl website. You’re a vinyl lover. We’re making a website where there’s access to vinyl, good re-pressings and audiophile pressings. But that’s gonna be a fraction of it. We’re looking for interesting content. Interviews with interesting people about their top 10 records of all time or how they got into music or if they’re a producer or if they’re a guy in a band.”

I said, “Okay,” he said, “We need someone to bring ‘em in, interview them and make it work.” He and I went back and forth over emails and I came over to Capitol Records for a meeting and we talked for hours and we kept landing on the same page. So we started lining up people to interview. Eventually the Sound of Vinyl website becomes information rich. We’ll come up with a specific day where we’re gonna add new stuff, new releases, new interviews. You get on the mailing list and it’ll show up on your phone or on the site and there we’ll have an interview with Don Was, for example.

You’re also given a voice as a key curator.

Henry Rollins: Yeah, I’m one of many voices. But I’m helping to gather content. We want to make the site super information rich where we’ll help educate somebody who’s getting turned onto vinyl, not an old veteran like you or me. It’ll be a place where people can learn about mastering or what it means to cut a lacquer. It’s a place where they can learn how records are made and this will help them appreciate the records more. They can be inspired by people of all different aspects of the music industry, like mastering engineer Ron McMaster talking about how to cut a record and how to keep a band from screwing their record up by kicking them out of the studio so he can make a better-sounding record for them. The more understanding of how the sausage is made is important; I don’t think that’s a gross-out. I think it makes everything far more interesting; there’s not one aspect of this that isn’t interesting.

So that’s what we’re looking to do, to educate these people. I want vinyl fanatics, I want vinyl addicts. I want people who are unable to live without a new record every other day ‘cause I don’t think there is such a thing as too many records. If there is I’d like to be the person to find out what’s too many records because I have a lot.

How many records do you think you have?

Henry Rollins: That’s a good question. I don’t know…Several feet.

Are you still buying records on a regular basis?

Henry Rollins: You’re not gonna believe this but it’s true. I buy one to three records every day. I buy a lot of them online. I go every Friday to Amoeba Records and I buy half a Trader Joe’s bag of new records and I’m buying them online, I’m on eBay buying a rare version of a record I have ten versions of already, maybe I’m buying a reissue or a record that I’ve never heard of for a rare pressing of a record that I’ve been listening to for 40 years. There’s always something coming in, cassette, lathes, test pressings, 7 inch, 10 inch, 12 inch.

What’s the first vinyl album you ever bought with your own money?

Henry Rollins: With my Washington Star newspaper delivery boy money, I bought the double cassette of Grand Funk Railroad Live just ‘cause it looked cool. I remember they took it out of the glass counter so you can’t steal it and sold it to me for like four dollars.

What’s the vinyl album you wore out more than any other in your formative years?

Henry Rollins: It sounds like I’m trying to impress you, but it’s because my mom had them and I took them to my room. Initially it was Beatles records.

My mom said, “Here, you’re a young person, have a Beatles record, now go to your room.”

So I played them until I destroyed them. I wasn’t that friendly to my records. So with the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, I played the A side, the vocal side, much more than the B side where the music was scary.  Abbey Road was just a perfect record, then and now. You listen to it now and I realize that at age seven I had good taste. So that was the initial burst. But when I started getting into more of my mom’s, I listened to things like “Hot Buttered Soul” by Isaac Hayes. I was in 5th grade and I just dug it.  Joplin In Concert, the two LP set, belonged to my mom and I’d listen to it. My mom knew what I did to records so she said, “Keep it, I’ll buy another, they’re cheap! So anytime I liked one of my mom’s records and go, “I like this record,” she’d go, “it’s yours, it’s yours!” We’d go to the record store up to two nights a week. We were always buying records. So I’m kind of like my mom. My mom bought the Shaft soundtrack, the double LP by Isaac Hayes, and the theme song of course is very powerful but the rest of that record is exquisite. I also liked the Hair soundtrack ‘cause these were my mom’s records. This was before I was going to the record store to say, “I want that!”

What vinyl record would we be surprised is a part of your collection?

Henry Rollins: Boston. I loved those records; what a great guitar tone Tom Scholz had. The Best Of Kansas is a great record. A lot of Steve Miller records; this is my youth, FM radio. I don’t really have any thing that I think is a guilty pleasure; if I put it on and you don’t like it, leave. Maybe something that will surprise people is Nena’s “99 Luftballons.” I bought that record in 1984. I liked Cyndi Lauper in the ‘80s. Madonna’s Like A Virgin is a perfect album. I listen to it quite often: it’s a great record. I had it on cassette in the ‘80s.

So there’s a lot of mainstream-ish stuff in my collection but it’s just so well done.

Sometimes a big record is big for a good reason.

So I have a bit of that and the rest of it probably wouldn’t surprise you but maybe it would surprise you how eclectic some of the jazz stuff is or how avant-garde some of the avant-garde stuff is.

What’s the best vinyl bargain you ever pulled off?

Henry Rollins: Here’s a record that I didn’t pay too much money for and walked out of a record store not believing I had this in my hot little hands. I got turned onto the great R&B group, The Treniers, on a Best Of collection. I was in Colorado at Wax Tracks and the band must have pulled into town years earlier. But in the bins there was a fully signed LP of The Treniers and I was like “Man, this is so cool” and it was only $4.99. The store didn’t know what to do with it. I thought the guy behind the counter would look down and go, “Woah, woah, woah, no, no , no…” So I just tried to be really low key and I tried to engage him, not looking at the record. I kind of kept his eyes on me. “Ok, here’s the money.” I put the record in the bag and got it out of the store and went, “YES!” It’s one my rare finds.

A lot of my “I can’t believe I got this record” was one amazing fell swoop at Bleecker Bob’s in 1979 or ’80. I was in New York to see Sham 69 at Hurrah’s. Me and my friends from Washington D.C. went into Bleecker Bob’s, which was a legendary store, and we had our little want lists. Every record that I asked for, not only did Bob have but he was kind of insulted I dare ask him if he had it, not assuming he did have it. He was a tough character but had a heart of gold once you made friends with him and we became pals later. But my first encounter with him was pretty intense. I said, “Do you have the first single by The Misfits with “She” and “Cough/Cool?”

I’d only read about that in a listing. He gave me a look, like “who are you talking to?” and he threw it at me. My terrified friends also wanted one and he threw them at us. I just named three or four hyper rare, even back then, seven-inches, and he had them all for $2.99 and they’re all worth a bloody fortune now, several hundred up to thousands of dollars. That day I got $14 or $15 worth of records, which is now worth a solid five thousand dollars. At the time, I was like, “Wow, I just checked off five things on my want list!” A few years later when I saw how rare those records were and the fact that he had them, too bad I didn’t go back up to New York the next week and keep asking him for stuff. That was a magic record store experience.

As an artist, do you recall when you had your first copy of your own vinyl in your hands?

Henry Rollins: The first record that I made was a seven-inch. It was my little band in Washington D.C. called SOA, which stood for State of Alert, and it was the No Policy EP Dischord 2. Before we put the record to press, with my magic markers that I still had from high school, I wanted colored vinyl and I actually drew the green vinyl and the red label. I still have the yellow legal pad with that drawing. I came up with what I thought would be a logo. It sucked, but I had the color scheme.

So the great day came when my record came out. Skip Roth from Yesterday and Today records called ‘cause I think the records got drop-shipped to him. He said, “Your record is here.” I drove out to the record store and picked up copies of my own record and I pulled it out of the box and it was just like I thought, green vinyl, red label. In those days we never knew that the factory could also make the picture sleeve. We would just go to Kinko’s and print them out, scissors, glue stick, and invite all your friends over with their scissors and glue sticks and you’d have paste up parties. That’s how all the early Dischord 45’s were made. Everyone would sit around with scissors listening to music, someone was DJ-ing and some brought Coca Cola so we could stay up all night and everyone was hand cutting and pasting with glue sticks. That’s why they’re all uneven and pasty and wavy (laughs) because we were working on them all night before the sun came up.

That’s how my first record came to be. I couldn’t give them away when we made them and now it goes for five hundred bucks.

Do you have a Holy Grail vinyl album that you have in your collection or are seeking to own?

Henry Rollins: Yes, I want the Indian pressing of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” single which sat on Discogs.com for $2100 for two years. The day I wrote the guy, I said, “Man, can you come down on that?” and he gave me a really good price on it and then a guy went right in front of me and bought it for a thousand bucks and I’ve never seen another one again.

For those music listeners whose preferred music listening experience is limited to downloads, CDs and streaming, what would you tell about the allure/appeal of vinyl?

Henry Rollins: I wouldn’t waste too much of their time to say “here’s why vinyl is better” ‘cause hearing is believing. I would bring them to a good listening environment and ask them about what kind of records they like. And I’d be like, “Well, damn, I’ve got those records. Let’s warm up the tubes and let’s sit and not talk for 35 minutes and just listen to this record. Let’s listen in a good analog environment and play one or two songs to allow your brain to remap and make the leap over to analog and let you emotionally connect with that music in a way that you never have before.”

I’d be like, “Yeah, you love that record when it’s coming out of your phone or your laptop but you have never connected with those same eight songs that you know inside out and by song three, you’re thinking, I need this, and by song eight, you’re like, “What have I been missing? Thank you so much.”

That’s what I would do; I would have listening parties and I’d be dragging those people in ‘cause like I said, hearing is believing. Once you connect to vinyl on that level, it’s kind of a door that cannot be closed. You want more of it and soon you’ll be thinking, “Okay, the turntable will go there and that’ll have to go because it’s gonna turn into a shelf full of records. And the couch has to go ‘cause now I need two shelves of records” (laughs) and it becomes that thing.  I’ve never seen that happen in the digital realm besides youthful exuberance and curiosity. I’m not putting down CDs, I’ve got a million of them. But I’ve never heard someone talk about music like they’re talking about their next breath or their next meal or a loved one like they talk about music via vinyl.

Don Was on the Sound of Vinyl
Gabi Porter

Don Was

As a curator with The Sound of Vinyl, what is your role?

Don Was: Being a curator just means being a fan. The thing I dig about Sound of Vinyl is this: Above all else it’s a community and an ongoing conversation among music fans you’re hard-pressed to find on the street. And you can’t congregate at record stores anymore, which is what we used to do in the ‘60’s. So I see myself as being part of the conversation, the conversation between the curators and the fans. But we’re all fans.

 Juggling many hats, artist, producer and now president of Blue Note Records, how do you account for vinyl’s resurgence?

Don Was: Most important is vinyl sounds really cool. It’s got a thing, I can’t explain it to you. It’s not hi-fi; it’s an imperfect medium but it happens to complement the listening experience. People talk about the warmth of the sound, they talk about the grain of the sound. If you mix records you think of it in terms of dimension and depth. There’s depth and imaging that happens that is different from analog tape.

Vinyl adds something; it sculpts the music a little differently in a way that allows it to speak more directly to you.

But in many ways it’s a mystery. You could probably put up all the oscilloscopes and analyze it but there’s an element of magic involved. It’s not supposed to work that well but it does. Perfect is really subjective, you know, perfect means that the music is communicative and it cuts through the air and your skin (laughs) and it gets inside of you.

Using your recent project with The Rolling Stones’ Blue and Lonesome, what’s your thinking working with artists, knowing that vinyl is not just a thing of the past but a thing of the future?

Don Was: When I started making records, all you did was produce for vinyl. You appreciate the value of the real estate on the disc. You know you have to give people 15 minutes on a side but if you go over 20 minutes you start losing some things so you self-edit. (laughs) You ask yourself, “Do we really need to repeat that twice? Is something new happening that we’re keeping those eight bars in because every eight bars becomes precious?” When you understand that every note counts you make better records.

Unlimited time allowed people to get lazy and maybe self-indulgent.

(Related: Listen to our Rock Cellar Conversations podcast with Don Was, about working with the Stones and more). 

Do you have a Holy Grail vinyl record you’re seeking?

Don Was: There’s a Junie Morrison album I’m looking for; he was the lead singer in The Ohio Players and he also sang in Funkadelic on “One Nation Under A Groove.” In the early ‘80s (“Bread Alone,” “Junie 5”) he made a couple of solo albums and there’s one that has a song called “Cry Me A River,” not the Julie London song, it’s his own song. He made two albums and I’ve been looking for those; I can’t find those anywhere.

I’m also looking for a Shelly Manne album on Atlantic called Boss Sounds! that’s got a song called “Frank’s Tune” that I’m also looking for. It’s a late ‘60s record and I need that one too. They used to play that song in Detroit all the time and I’m trying to find that. I also can’t find my copy of Charles Lloyd “Moon Man.” Charles Lloyd is on Blue Note; he’s one of my heroes. He was the first jazz artist to play The Fillmore before Miles (Davis) did and to jam with the Grateful Dead but also he’s a guy who could play with Chico Hamilton’s band.

As an artist with Was (Not Was), do you recall when you had your first vinyl album in your hand?

Don Was: It was huge. Success came rather late in life for me. I was doing nothing but music since I was 18. With Was (Not Was), when our first album came out I was 29, so that’s a long haul to get rejected all the time. (laughs)

I used to visualize record labels with names on them.  That would help me stay focused and stay motivated. To have that album come back with the Island Records logo, I’m sure I cried. It was really profound to get that back and to put on an album that we made that someone else decided to pay to have pressed. (laughs)

How big is your vinyl collection and are you still actively buying vinyl?

Don Was: Oh yeah, sure, I’m still buying it. I have thousands of records. It’s a wall of records from floor to ceiling.

The first record I ever bought with my own money was a 45 by The Four Seasons, “Candy Girl” backed with “Marlena,” a double-A side single. I was in 5th grade and it was the drums on those records that really got me more than anything. I still don’t know who played on those Four Seasons records; it was the New York equivalent of “The Wrecking Crew.” They’re bad ass, man. Those records just kicked right in.

What vinyl record would we be surprised is a part of your collection?

Don Was: I’m sure there would be some. As a producer I’ve tried to stay pretty eclectic. I got a sense of that early on. Right after Nick of Time (Bonnie Raitt) was successful, I started getting a lot of people calling with female blues guitar players and I thought, Oh I see, you can get pigeon-holed in a minute. So I made it a point for a decade to do all kinds of stuff.

When Nick of Time won all those Grammys I was working on an Iggy Pop album, Brick By Brick. I tried to change it up as dramatically as I could; I was working with everyone from Paula Abdul to Bob Dylan to The Knack to Neil Diamond. It was a very conscious thing to not get pigeon-holed; eventually you’re just old. (laughs)

You have an interesting Rolling Stones vinyl story.

Don Was: The Stones had just signed to Virgin Records and Voodoo Lounge was gonna be their first record for the label. But Virgin was gonna reissue the catalog at the same time. They chose Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers to be the first two to be remastered. So we sent it to Bob Ludwig—this was back in 1993. Ludwig did what he was asked to do and mastered it to sound like 1993. But it didn’t sound anything like how we remembered Sticky Fingers or Exile. We put it on and it was hi-fi but it was not right.

So we did a lot of research and went out and bought every incarnation of those albums and every one was incredibly different. We thought there must be EQ-ed production masters but no one could find any production masters for either of those records. But I’ll tell you, the non-EQ-ed master tapes don’t sound anything like the records we know.

Suddenly we’re sitting there thinking, “what do we match it to?” It was mysterious. No one knew where to turn. Finally, there was an ad in Goldmine Magazine. Someone had virgin vinyl copies of the original pressings still in the shrink wrap of Exile and Sticky Fingers. So without tipping our hand we answered the ad. It was someone who was living out in Ventura or something like that. They drove in and came to my house not knowing that Mick and Keith were there. (laughs)

The guy was smart enough not to charge ‘em (laughs) but asked them to autograph another dozen Stones albums, which they did. So we opened up the shrink wrap and put it on and there it was. So we sent it up to Ludwig and went, “Just copy this over, man” because this is how it was supposed to be. But Bob had too much pride to do that, and I’m glad he did because we saved a generation and he matched the sound and feel of them. That was a really significant lesson. Don’t editorialize on something that’s great. How fuckin’ dare you! (laughs) You think you’re gonna improve on this? (laughs)

Ron McMaster on the Sound of Vinyl

Ron McMaster

How do you account for the resurgence of interest in vinyl?

Ron McMaster: I ask all of the young kids that come into Capitol Studios why they’re interested in vinyl and it seems to relate back to the things that I liked as a kid and all my friends liked as well. You’ve got a nice piece of artwork to look at and you can read the lyrics and see what the songs were about.

You actually had a listening moment where you sat down and listened to 20 minutes and then turned the record over. Streaming is sort of a background kind of music; you can multi-task while it’s on. I think people have gotten a little tired of that.

They enjoy the experience of sitting down, holding a record and listening to it and having their friends come over and discuss it and maybe get turned onto another one that the same group might have.

Recording a record is an art, mixing is an art and mastering is also an art.

Ron McMaster: Well, the importance of mastering is it’s the final stage of the whole process. It’s ultimately very important that people have their record mastered, whether it’s going to CD or to vinyl. That should be a given. A lot of people think, “well, I’ve finished mixing and it sounds pretty good so there’s no need to spend the extra money to have it mastered.” And then they put it out there and compare it to something that’s already been professionally released and they see the big difference.

If you’re talking about mastering for vinyl, a guy like me who has been mastering vinyl for many years, I know what you can and cannot get away with when cutting a record. With digital, you have a lot more freedom and a lot less limitations frequency wise and with sound. I make sure the record sounds like people want it to sound, but when mastered to vinyl there are certain frequencies that are not as conducive on record versus CD so I have to make sure those are taken care of and make sure there are not problems with things like sibilance.

For the layman, explain the art of vinyl mastering.

Ron McMaster: Well, again, like I said, it’s the last stage of the recording process. We’re the last ones to make sure all the levels are balanced and there’s not too much low-end and it’s not too bright. There should be continuity between the first song and the last song so it doesn’t sound like a hodgepodge of things. Many albums are recorded in many different places so it’s the mastering engineer’s job to bring all those tracks together to make them sound unified. So when you put the record on, it’s just gonna flow. So the importance of mastering is to make sure you have some continuity, you have a good consistent sound so people don’t have to get up and change a setting or knob on their receiver every time a new song comes on because somebody hasn’t adjusted the levels correctly.

In terms of the Sound of Vinyl catalog that you’ve worked on, you’ve mastered records by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to KISS to Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsies. What were some of the more challenging vinyl records you worked on from a mastering standpoint?

Ron McMaster: That’s a good question. I think Pet Sounds. I wanted to keep it as authentic and as fantastic as it sounded. It’s a very dynamic record. You have your very soft parts and you have your loud parts and the harmonies. I just wanted to make sure all of that transferred over to disc and make it sound as great as it did on the tape itself. It’s not a long record but you still want to get all the dynamics out there and have it crystal clear so the audience can appreciate the beauty of the record.

What’s your favorite vinyl album in your collection?

Ron McMaster:  Oh, I don’t have one record that is my favorite. I would have to say that the early Blue Note catalog is one of my favorites to have and to listen to. I’ve cut that a number of times. I love that whole era of recording and the talent that emerged, from John Coltrane to Dexter Gordon to Horace Silver, it was just a wonderful time in our history, especially jazz and the Blue Note era and just the raw talent that emerged is mind

blowing. It’s a treat whenever I get to master some Blue Note titles; I never get tired of it.

One Response to "What Makes The Sound of Vinyl Special? Q&A with Henry Rollins, Don Was and Ron McMaster"

  1. Kaptain beyond   November 17, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    But don’t keep all your LPs in plastic outer sleeves. It’s like people who have plastic covers on their living room furniture, making it look ugly to keep it nice. Ugh.
    Leave LPs to grow old gracefully and show their age, just like us. Record covers are made of cardboard which is made from wood and that’s largely organic. So let em breathe, leave em out.


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