By Gregory Daurer | Apr 12, 2021
Usually, a band needs to order a minimum of several hundred units to have a vinyl record made, says Baumeister. It could take a few months to have the order delivered from a busy record-pressing plant. And the low-end cost for the endeavor is in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $4,000.
But that's not the case at Meep Records. "I offer a way for people to make records where you don't have to press 500 copies," says Baumeister.
Meep's minimum order starts at only one copy. Granted, that one record might cost $35 for a 7" single or $95 for a 12" album. But if someone wants just one disc -- like the guy who requested his marriage proposal to his sweetheart be put onto a record album -- Baumeister will produce it quickly from the audio file sent to him, usually within two weeks.
But there are trade-offs that come with employing the vintage lathes that Baumeister uses. Sound quality is one, so he cautions serious audiophiles about placing an order if they're looking for top-of-the-line high fidelity. The records might even require a bit more pressure on the phonograph needle in order to be played successfully on someone's stereo system. (One DIY fix from Baumeister on his website: Put a penny on top of the tonearm's needle cartridge.) Oh, and the records that Baumeister produces are only in mono, not stereo (although stereo would be possible with an upgrade to his system).
Still, all in all, Baumeister cheerily contends, "It sounds better than you think it would." Calling it "lo-fi," he adds, "I say that with pride."
Baumeister uses 1950s-era technology made by a company that sounds like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon: the Presto Recording Corporation of Paramus, New Jersey. Back then, employing a Presto machine was an inexpensive way for, say, a family to send a message to a loved one overseas. Baumeister says this type of technology could be found, at one time, in recording booths within post offices, soda fountains.
Baumeister's records aren't stamped directly into heated vinyl like traditional LPs, which have experienced something of a revival in recent years. Rather, Baumeister's two vintage lathes cut grooves directly into polycarbonate. "It's a plastic," explains Baumeister. "It's like plexiglass, essentially."
"A lot of people think [the manufacturing process is] like putting a blank CD in and hitting the [record] button and it does it," says Baumeister. But that's not the case, in terms of time: "Every record is listening and adjusting, and all sorts of work." Each 40-minute record, for example, takes 40 minutes to cut the grooves into, after a 20-minute setup.
When Baumeister receives an audio file to transfer onto a record, he'll make adjustments to it on his computer, doing some mastering and equalization. Then he'll send the audio signal from, as one possible source, an MP3 player through a stereo tuner, with the volume blasting, to the lathe's cutter head, which will cut the record's grooves. The polycarbonate is first heated up, using a heat lamp -- and a smidge of olive oil is applied to the polycarbonate to smooth the cutting process. Sometimes Baumeister's two lathes, his Presto K-10 and Presto K-11, are used in tandem to produce records for larger orders.
The polycarbonate can be cut into all sorts of shapes, like a heart. Discs can come in different colors. Or an image can be inserted between two clear pieces of polycarbonate, before being adhered together, to craft a picture disc. Baumeister can also create record covers, featuring photos or artwork.
Although Baumeister most often works from a pre-recorded audio file, live music can also be cut directly into a disc, such as the time that Baumeister produced a one-off recording with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. Among his many projects, Baumeister has made limited-edition discs for musicians and bands like Lucero, Janet Feder, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Esme Patterson. There have been discs made for a Cardi B promotion, as well as tie-in with a tequila brand for a Grammys party; a Walking Dead Christmas gift for cast and crew members; and records, made using medical X-rays as the medium (a nod to the onetime black market practice of bootlegging music in the Soviet Union), commissioned by film director and soundtrack composer John Carpenter.
For the past three years, producing records has been Baumeister's primary source of income, supplemented occasionally with income from other types of jobs. Baumeister says, "I can create my own schedule, so I can hang out with my kid [after I pick her up from school]." At this point, he's made "at least 10,000 records," fulfilling 25 to 50 projects per month.
Baumeister acquired his first Presto lathe from eBay. He's subsequently purchased another refurbished one from a serious devotee of the devices in Tucson. They've cost Baumeister about $2,000 each. "I'm a musician who's always made music, recording on tape and computer, making CDs, making tapes," says Baumeister. "I'm also a record collector. I worked in stores forever. . . . Of course, I've always wanted to make my own records." His introduction to an online forum dedicated to discussion of disc recorders, The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls, set him off on his current path.
For every snobby audiophile who might find the quality lacking, there are other people who tell Baumeister the results are "awesome!"
Baumeister provides folks, who always fantasized about -- but thought they'd never have -- their very own record made, a way to realize their dreams. "To people who have wanted their music on records, it's miraculous that I can do this," he says.
Challenges: Growing competition: "There are so many more people doing it," says Baumeister. "I don't have the money to scale up the fidelity -- like, getting the stereo cutter heads. Getting a couple more lathes."
Not only that, there's talk of brand-new record cutting machines coming available, Baumeister says, which will emulate the function of the older ones. That might result in additional competition for work from people with brand-new machines, as well.
Opportunities: Baumeister envisions online streaming music companies partnering with smaller businesses like his. Say, someone wants to upload songs, or their own recording, via a company's proprietary app, Baumeister would receive the order and send the buyer off the disc.
Needs: "Everyone to wear masks, everyone to get vaccinated," says Baumeister, so he can get out and do more in-person appearances with his gear and so touring bands will place more orders for his services.