What Is a Record Lathe?

Mary McMahon

A record lathe is a piece of equipment a technician can use to cut a record, either a single cutting for a customer who wants a single record or a dub plate for a record company to use in mass production. The record lathe connects to sound equipment to drag a cutting tool across the surface of the record and translate the sound into a groove. When the record is placed on a record player, the needle reads the groove and reproduces the sound.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

It is possible to assemble a record lathe for a home workshop or studio with some basic tools, or to order a commercially produced version. A professional lathe is usually necessary for high quality record production and the ability to make dub plates. The cost can vary, and the equipment is only as good as the operator; a skilled operator can clean up and clarify musical tracks to improve quality and cut an excellent record. Conversely, an unskilled operator can turn a good track into a bad one by operating the lathe incorrectly.

Record lathes are used with lacquer and acetate plates, not vinyl records. Vinyl records are produced in a molding process that starts with making a dub plate. The dub plate becomes the template for a mold, and the records are made by injecting heated vinyl into the mold. It will spread out and conform with the grooves. A technician can check to make sure the record has no flaws and then package it for sale and delivery.

The cutting head on a record lathe must be in excellent condition and is necessary to periodically replace it or address worn components. Problems with the cutting head will translate into problems with the records produced on that lathe. Before a technician starts to make a dub plate, she will usually carefully inspect all the equipment to make sure it is in good working order. Plate are expensive, and technicians want to avoid mistakes that force them to discard plates.

At companies where records are made, it is sometimes possible to see the record lathe in action. Some companies offer tours to members of the public or customers and will allow them to watch the process. Actually cutting a record does not take very long, but the process of setting up requires a careful attention to detail to reduce the chance of mistakes. Turnaround on a customer order may take several days, especially at a busy facility.

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