Manmade Mastering, in Berlin the rare art of vinyl cutting
Kreuzberg is a unique neighborhood. A central area that suddenly discovers its borders when the Berlin Wall is erected, becoming a frontier, even artistically, as it was the cradle of the vibrant German punk movement in the ’70s and, after the wall was finally demolished, the avant-garde electronic music scene in the ’90s.
Right in Kreuzberg, you’ll find Manmade Mastering, a studio specialized in analog & digital mastering and, above all, in vinyl cutting of lacquer master discs for vinyl manufacturing. Yes, even today.
Tim Xavier and Mike Grinser are the architects of this realm of excellence, and hearing from them about how they started and conduct this now rare art is a unique opportunity to explore an analog world that has managed to survive and thrive despite (or perhaps thanks to…) the advent of the digital revolution.
Tim was born in Portland, Oregon, and began immersing himself in music from a very young age, starting his career as a DJ and artist in Houston. From there, he took flight first to Chicago, where he established himself as a producer, and then to New York.
The encounter with Mike took place in Berlin, where Tim arrived in 2007 equipped with a rare Scully / Westrex cutting lathe. Mike had made a name for himself in the music scene of Munich, especially at the legendary Ultraschall, the home of Bavarian techno at the turn of the millennium. He had begun venturing into music production almost by chance, and…
“I met Tim in 2010,” Mike recounts, “he had arrived in Berlin not long before with an American lathe he had purchased in Brooklyn. I had been trying to enter the industry for a while, and things magically came together.”
“When I saw Tim, I immediately thought: this is a professional,” Tim retorts. “He had the perfect attitude for this job. When I learned to use the lathe in the USA, my teachers were very clear from the start about one thing: this is not a profession for everyone. But it was evident to me from the beginning that this was the ideal profession for Mike.”
“I knew what I wanted,” Mike confirms, “and I had the opportunity to learn from the engineers at Neumann, a leading company in lathe production until the market demanded it. Their wealth of knowledge was crucial. At that time, vinyl was not a popular format, and the machines to cut it were all confined to the majors.”
Berlin has always been a unique city for the market of these very particular types of cutting machines. Here, the Neumann, one of the only three lathe manufacturing companies in the world, is based, and the engineers who worked on those machines preserved and passed on their skills and knowledge to the curious younger generations in the decades that followed; otherwise, they would have been lost. Mike had the opportunity to apprentice on a Neumann lathe and then convinced Tim to replace his Scully Westrex with a Neumann – around which Manmade Mastering’s activity now revolves.
“It was 2013,” Tim recalls, “and we had already been working together on the Scully Westrex for two years. The decision-making process was not the most dialectical; one day, Mike came and said, ‘We should sell the Scully.’ And I simply replied, ‘OK.’
Fortunately, at that time, prices were different from today; there wasn’t a big demand for vinyl. Now, on the other hand, the same Neumann machine costs almost five times as much. And we’re talking about the very same machines that were already in circulation back then since they haven’t been produced anymore.”
Indeed, these are highly sophisticated machines that require specialized training, and only a few professionals are capable of operating them to their full potential. Besides the skills to extract the best from the lathe, even more specific expertise is needed for maintenance, calibration, and potential troubleshooting.
Today, there are only a couple of engineers around the world capable of fulfilling these tasks. The schedule of recording studios revolves around the availability of these engineers, who spend their days traveling around the world to meet the demand.
“One common characteristic of all lathe machines is that they must be somehow isolated from the environment in which they operate. They need to be ‘lifted from the ground’ because every part of the machine’s body acts as a sensitive microphone, picking up even the slightest physical vibration.”
Consequently, rooms that house such equipment are equally sophisticated. For Manmade Mastering studios, they were designed by Thomas Jouanjean of Northward Acoustics, a brilliant acoustician and engineer renowned for crafting some of the world’s most prestigious mastering and cutting rooms.
“The Northward Acoustics rooms perfectly meet our needs,” Tim continues, “and the space was tailored around the installation of our precisely calibrated lathe. Specific solutions were designed for each individual element to ensure that the digital sound transferred to the physical medium is highly accurate. Thanks to these rooms, we can achieve superior acoustic performance compared to other entities in our market.”
Northward Acoustics practices what could be called “acoustic surgery”: the rooms designed for Manmade Mastering are floating, literally detached from the ground they rest upon.
“We have two rooms created by Thomas Jouanjean: a Control Room Front-to-Back (FTB) for mastering and one housing the Neumann VMS70 lathe, dedicated to cutting. They have different dimensions and specific details, with each having an acoustical design perfectly calibrated to meet the needs of the machines they house.
The majority of our work involves mastering, which is the final audio treatment for a project. Typically, our clients then request vinyl records, and we cut the master we produced in the Control Room FTB onto vinyl. This gives us the invaluable opportunity for a second listen, having a second reference of the same master on different speakers, different dimensions, and a different acoustic environment. As a result, the final outcome is improved.”
The rare art of cutting with lathe is currently experiencing a moment of success, as the market has witnessed a resurgence of vinyl in recent years. However, becoming professionals like Tim and Mike is not a simple task, and there is no standardized or institutionalized training path.
“There are no courses to learn mastering or how to use a lathe,” they explain. “To become a skilled mastering engineer, you need a deep passion for music, extensive experience with technical equipment, conversion systems, studio design solutions, and a solid understanding of acoustics. Knowledge of critical listening is also essential. The more expertise you have in these areas, the better professional you become. However, you also need musical skills and must learn the differences between various music styles. You must understand how rock albums were recorded in the ’60s and ’70s and how they sound today, or how hip-hop records were produced in the ’90s, what techniques were used back then, and how they sound today. In short, it takes time, and it is highly improbable to be a great mastering engineer at the age of 20. We come from the world of music production, worked on a lot of music in the ’90s, and acquired skills and sensibilities that proved valuable for our work.”
Francesca, our CEO, adds, “We learned a lot while building these rooms for Mike and Tim. It was challenging in terms of logistics, but the result is truly unique in the world. I personally supervisioned some delicate phases of the construction, such as the relocation and installation of the glasses that make up almost the entire cutting room… It has been one of the most memorable experiences of my professional life so far. We can only be happy with the result and grateful for the trust the Manmade Mastering team granted us.”