Creating a lo-fi mono recording never felt so satisfying.
The music industry’s digitization levelled the playing field for musicians. Without an expensive recording studio or shady record label, an album can be composed, recorded, and published from a bedroom. This DIY philosophy is not new. Bands have been independently producing and releasing records for decades, often with the help of local record shops.
A surplus of music has also been produced through digitization, making it challenging for new bands and musicians to stand out from the crowd. Furthermore, the majority of the attention is still focused on well-known performers with record agreements. Every Beyonce album is probably now celebrated as a national holiday. For every other artist, the return of vinyl and cassette has resurrected the possibility to gift or sell their listeners something tangible — a physical memento that could establish a closer emotional connection with the music. While making duplicates of tapes has been a popular hobby for homeowners since the 1980s, cutting records from vinyl has always required a professional. at least, not too long ago.
The $149 PO-08 Record Factory from Teenage Engineering combines the practicality of a device that can actually cut vinyl with the nostalgia of a Fisher-Price turntable. Each song will need to be specially mastered for the device, and you’ll have to put it together yourself. Your music will most likely still sound like it is being played via an AM radio even after all that effort. For some people, that could sound like a nightmare, but for others it could be fantastic.
The “Easy Record Maker” by magazine publisher Gakken, a record cutter/player created by Yuri Suzuki, is now known as the PO-08. Suzuki was consulted by Teenage Engineering for its version, and the included magazine/instruction booklet even features an interview with the designer.
Although the turntable appears to be a toy, Teenage Engineering repeatedly reminds you that children under the age of 12 should not use it. It’s designed mostly for those between the ages of 17 and 64 who consider themselves to be “children” and who have a DIY mindset, three bands, strong ideas regarding direct drive turntables, and an active Discos account. Oh, and the perseverance required to spend hours fiddling with tiny components in order to produce a single, imperfect mono copy of a song. Yes, it works, but The Factory is an EZ bake oven for vinyl; it’s a low-fi imitation of a professionally produced record.
It also provides insight into the Record Factory’s ingenious internal workings to have to put the device together. Teenage Engineering’s blank discs are inscribed with your audio using a cutting needle that vibrates through a tiny speaker. Your song is recorded onto the vinyl after three to four minutes (depending on the recording speed) thanks to a tiny gearing system that moves the needle along.
But there have been numerous changes made before that. Avoid using the PO-08 if you’re the kind of person who expects things to “just work” without much fiddling.
You start with your original recording and receive a mono representation at the end of the inscription. The device’s technological limitations include the single-channel audio. The Record Factory includes a minijack cable that combines the left and right channels of your stereo signal to ensure that the audio coming in is mono. Another technological restriction is the loss of fidelity, which is what happens. A song’s highs and lows can easily become muddy, and too much bass can actually cause the cutting needle to bounce.
Although it would be wiser to use Teenage Engineering’s online audio mastering tool, you can attempt to repair this yourself. Simply submit the file, wait a short while, and the website will produce something that is more compatible with the device. All of your song’s delicate elements are lost as a result of this process. The upper end loses its bite while the bottom end either gets slightly murky or fades entirely. Don’t use the PO-08 if you want clear, accurate copies.
You get to start making a record a full 45 minutes after finishing your audio mastering. During that time, you’ll be changing the cutting arm’s pressure, paying close attention to the audio being transmitted to the device to make sure it isn’t distorted, and if it is, lowering the volume. However, you can’t get too low since then the signal won’t be powerful enough to engrave. The equalizer must be opened and numerous modifications must be made until the audio sounds good (enough).
You’re now prepared to apply wax to it (as they used to say in the olden days). However, you must first record audio onto a test vinyl before making a record you may distribute. You record for 10 seconds, rinse the disc in water to remove any remaining debris from the grooves, then turn the Record Factory to play mode to hear your creation.
When you consider that Teenage Engineering has run out of the discs required for the turntable and hasn’t provided information on when they will be back in stock, the test record doesn’t seem like such a huge problem. This increases the significance of testing.
A word of warning: because the cutter slows down the turntable, it may sound slightly higher pitched when played back at standard speed. like a high level of chipmunks. Therefore, be sure to upload your file to the appropriate web tools to alter your song. But if you want the most accurate rendition of your music that the PO-80 can provide, it probably still needs improvement, which means you’ll need to make more tweaks. Before I was ultimately ready to make my first at-home vinyl record of a song, I made five test cuts.
In addition to all of that, the turntable itself is a poor player. You could almost think you were listening to underwater music. Although it’s entertaining to record and playback on the same machine, it’s recommended to move the disc to a real turntable. When compared to the original, the mono audio on my Technics SL-1200 MK2 seemed a little distant, and the fidelity is well below that of the professional vinyl in my collection. But the outcome is precisely what I expected, and I’m pleased with it.
The Record Factory’s success or failure depends on its owner. In our world, there are two types of people: those who get insane and lose all tolerance when faced with even the smallest inconvenience, and those who live for tinkering and experimentation.
The second group includes individuals like me who are intrigued by the sonic variations between a record manufactured at home, a cassette, and a digital file. My band usually uses an eight-track digital recorder, but I also have a four-track cassette recorder from the late 1980s. Sending a fan a vinyl record that was made at home is special in its own way. The PO-08 is designed for those who appreciate the inherent beauty in the possibility of mistakes in homemade analogue recordings.
Users of The Record Factory will discover their niche and happily invest hours in making the ideal imperfect vinyl copy of their tune. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t already own a PO-08 turntable, they will have to search on eBay or Craigslist to find one of these stunning machines. Searching for the Galen-branded version on eBay is the smart approach. These turntables are far less expensive than the Teenage Engineering model (around $100).
Unfortunately, Teenage Engineering tells Engadget that it has no plans to reorder the turntables that have already sold out. Not all musicians have the financial means to commission dozens or even hundreds of records to be made. However, if they can locate a Record Factory (they now sell for between $250 and $500), they can cut unique vinyl that they can share with friends and supporters while they wait to become well-known. As long as they are content to do it on a toy designed for very patient music nerds who are content to forgo fidelity in favor of something genuine.