Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: Vinyl record mastering
Founder Paul Brekus is growing his analog-oriented business as digital music unexpectedly catalyzes a new vinyl boom.
When Brekus was four years old, his parents bought him Red Raven's Magic Mirror Records toy for Christmas. "I immediately took it apart," laughs Brekus. "I've always been into electronics and how things work."
He started cutting records when he was in high school in Pennsylvania and started amassing tools of the trade. "I was doing some cutting, just for fun," says Brekus. "Three of my brothers are musicians. I'm not -- I'm the tech guy."
He kept cutting records and came up with the name, Aardvark, while attending Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1973 -- "That's how people end up first in the phone book," he laughs -- but didn't officially launch his company until the next decade.
After dropping out and moving to Denver in 1975, Brekus started repairing phonographs and jukeboxes. A client in Nashville led him to meet Jack Linneman at Hilltop Recording Studio, now the longest-operating studio in Nashville, who asked Brekus if he was interested in buying a full stereo system: a vintage Scully Lathe with a Westrex cutting head for $10,000.
Brekus took out a second mortgage and went into business. It remains his primary lathe today. He first marketed his services by posting flyers at Denver's "big three" recording studios: FTM, Colorado Sound, and Avalanche. But 1985 also marked a huge shift for the music business. "That's when CDs were first coming out," says Brekus. "Records were an oddity."
Initially, Aardvark was something of a one-stop shop. Brekus would cut the original vinyl master with his Scully and act as a broker with record pressing plants in Nashville. But collecting payments and coordinating deliveries proved problematic. In the late 1980s, Brekus says, "I threw up my hands and said, 'I'm closing!'"
But his retirement was short-lived. Ron Lessard of RRRecords in Lowell, Massachusetts, called Brekus and asked for help with a unique project: the RRR-100, a compilation of 100 1.8-second tracks by various artists in locked grooves that play over and over until you lift the needle.
The release, which was RRR's 100th record, became a thing of vinyl legend. Brekus collaborated with Lessard on a pair of follow-ups with even more tracks: the RRR-500 and the RRR-1000. Each one upped the ante on how many tracks could be cut into a single vinyl record.
The experience restarted Aardvark as a mastering business. In 1996, he partnered with Mastercraft in New Jersey to turn the vinyl masters he cuts with his Scully into metal stampers for mass production at the pressing plants. "I was cutting four or five records a month," says Brekus.
That's steadily increased. As of 1997, Aardvark had a shelf of his masters stored at Mastercraft. "Now I have a whole room," says Brekus. "I've cut over 10,000 records."
He's learned a few lessons along the way. "Not to believe what other people say is a good start," he says.
Brekus listens to the record as he cuts it, flipping back and forth between the playback of the source recording, to make small adjustments. "I can find problems quickly," he says.
For the most part, he eschews technological advancements. A pitch computer proved a poor fit for the loud rock and dance records, so he mothballed it, except for the occasional classical project, and "went back to gears." Explains Brekus: "The pitch computer would make errors." Using gear-driven pitch control, he says, "I rarely have a problem. I can get 20 minutes on a side at full level."
About 30 years after his premature retirement, Aardvark is cutting about 40 vinyl masters a month in Brekus’ basement in northwest Denver.
A counterintuitive trend has driven the business: As digital technology becomes more accessible to musicians, they're more likely to release a vinyl record. When digital audio tapes (DATs) came out in the late 1980s, Brekus thought it would kill vinyl. "My business doubled," he says. Then cheap CD burners hit the market a decade later. "My business doubled again," laughs Brekus.
The ascent of MP3s in the 2000s also catalyzed a jump in sales. "With digital downloads, that's also more than doubled our business," he says.
There's a reason for the vinyl comeback: Music fans like the tangible nature of a physical record. "The large-format, 12-inch record is much more eye-appealing," says Brekus.
He's known for his attention to detail, and his price point. "I'm like the lowest-priced in the whole nation," says Brekus.
With a day job in IT for the City of Arvada, Brekus says it's been difficult to stay on top of the rising demand for Aardvark's services. His wife's son, Ged Heckler, "cuts most of the records and does a great job," he notes, but he's approaching retirement and plans on cutting more when he does.
He's a man of many hobbies: Brekus unsurprisingly collects antique horn phonographs and vintage records and wax cylinder recordings. He's also an aficionado of penny-farthing bicycle, and commutes from northwest Denver to his job in Arvada on one. He's also a black belt in the Korean martial art of Kuk Sool Won.
Challenges: "Mostly time," says Brekus, noting he plans to rectify that by retiring in 2020 and dedicating more time to Aardvark. "I work full-time, and that's why I have other people cut for me."
Opportunities: Brekus isn't motivated by money. "A lot of things are measured in growth," he says. "Cancer's a growth."
It's more about preserving a dying art. "The opportunities are to keep the equipment in great shape," he says. "They only made 800 of the Scullys. . . . There's not much out there." He recalls a friend who worked at NBC in New York in the 1970s, where eight Scully Lathes were unceremoniously sent to the landfill.
Needs: "To do better with customer communication," says Brekhus. "With that, the business will be much more sustainable."