Mark of the Finest Pressings

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Holger Neumann, President of Pallas, with Mark Sequeira, General Manager of Matrix Vinyl, and Nicole Sequeira

It’s official. For the first time since… I can’t be bothered looking up the statistic for a correct date. But it turns out vinyl is finally outselling compact discs again. Allegedly. Although, that’s not saying much, really, given that compact discs aren’t selling like they once were. Still, the statistic must mean something to someone – perhaps those observers who don’t actually buy records, but step into record stores to marvel at the shelves heaving under the weight of the vinyl in order to address the person behind the counter with the words, “they say vinyl’s making a comeback”. (“Mate,” I’ve been known to reply, “for some of us, it never went away.”) But Mark Sequeira – (“‘suh-KWAIR-UH’ is how I pronounce it,” he says; “I’m half Indian and my father was from Goa; it’s a Portuguese name, but a lot of Indians have got it”) – isn’t having any of this. “The first thing is, if it’s ‘sales’ they’re talking about, they’d be talking wholesale dollars, not units,” Mark says. “And obviously, vinyl’s worth a lot more.”

Of course. In the olden days – the late-’80s and early-’90s – long-playing records were in the vicinity of $20 an album, while CDs were around $30. Now it’s almost the other way around. Almost, because, while most CDs might be around $20 now, the records can be anywhere from $30 to $90 depending where they’re from, who they’re by, and how they’ve been pressed. Unless it’s Record Store Day. Then, the manufactured scarcity drives the price up to stupid prices. But even then, Mark’s “not sure that’s the case in Australia; that’s in America or England, one of those territories.”

Further qualification is still required.

“Regardless, physical sales are miniscule” – in America and Australia alike. In Australia, for example they may make up 15 percent of total music sales – the other 85 consisting of downloads and streaming; in the US, it’s about ten per cent.

However, and finally, such statistics regarding vinyl sales are all but meaningless, particularly in Australia: most vinyl sales, Mark insists, aren’t being sold “through ARIA retail stores” (that is, the ones through whom the Australian Recording Industry Association compiles the ‘top 40’ charts). “Bands – big and small – are selling direct a lot, to people like you by mail order and at gigs, to retail outlets that aren’t registered with ARIA – so I think vinyl sales are probably bigger”. Bigger, but ‘uncharted’ (in every sense of the word) and so whereas there were once ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’, now there is – at best – fake news and meaningless blather. But Mark will adeptly navigate clear of both these bastions of bull-twaddle throughout the course of his conversation. He knows a lot about vinyl as a music delivery medium. And so he should. His long-term intimate relationship with it – 30 years in the industry – included direct involvement in running the Festival Records plant for “quite a few years,” ending after the digital revolution threatened to render obsolete those ‘big old CDs you have to stick needles into’ (as I once heard a kid describe them). Mark transitioned to CD manufacture, swearing to “never do it again” with vinyl as it was not only “really hard to do,” but more specifically, “really hard to do well”. 

Master[er]s of the Recording Universe

Long-time readers of my musical musings on behalf of The Vintage Record ought to be familiar with Mark; he once offered the famed purple vinyl U2 Festival pressing and the blue vinyl Nirvana pressing to the store. When he’d mentioned ‘working at Festival’ as provenance of said discs, I’d assumed anything from ‘dude who fed coloured polyvinyl chloride beads into the press to be extruded as records’ to ‘dude putting discs in covers’ to ‘dude putting records in boxes’ to ‘dude putting boxes in back of lorry’. I hadn’t realised he’d been ‘dude running Festival Records pressing plant’. Now, it turns out, he is quite the expert on the current pressing of vinyl, in these heady ‘revival’ days. So now I’m buttonholing him for vital information. 

“Imagine my band has recorded some tracks,” I begin. “We’ve secured some studio time. We’ve got a demo. How do we go about releasing it?”

Readers, ‘don’t @ me,’ as the deliberately controversial wanna-be-influencers say on Twitter. It’s a rookie mistake, I know, but the words are out of my mouth before I’ve finished thinking them, and Mark responds almost before I’ve finished saying the last of them.

“If you’ve got a demo, you probably wouldn’t,” he says, but doesn’t dwell or rub it in with a ‘da-doy’, actual or implied. Rather, “let’s say you’ve recorded something that you think is suitable to be pressed and released; how would you put it on vinyl?” he offers rhetorically.

The first thing, according to Mark – “let’s say it’s recorded and mixed but you haven’t mastered it” – is to get it ‘mastered’. Again, I could attempt to google the technical details that would attempt to explain the what, why and how of mastering, but instead, let me put it this way: you know that first morning of school after holidays, when you find your school shoes and they still have the scuffs and scratches of the entire last term, as they had them when you came home from school, and now they look even worse after a couple of weeks of dust? You can either splash the liquid from the bottle of ‘shoe polish’ through the spongy bit at its lip and ‘colour in’ the scuffs and scratches. They’ll look dull, but they’ll look better. Or you can give those shoes a proper shine with wax polish and a brush or cloth, getting those shoes gleaming. The original recording at its best might be the dully splashed colouring-in of the scuffs; good mastering, on the other hand, makes a bold, gleaming, ear-catching equivalent to shoes shone properly with actual shoe polish and elbow grease. How they do it is some kind of magic steeped in knowledge of what all the buttons and knobs do on a mixing desk, and that’s quite a mystery. The important thing, says Mark, is that good mastering for vinyl records can only be done well by someone with experience. 

“You need someone who’s actually done it: cut records, worked in the factory – because it’s a very specific thing,” he says. “I can suggest only six people in Australia who know how to master recording for vinyl specifically, and these guys – whose names I’m happy to give you, I’ve got no financial interest in any of them – but they all have cut thousands of records at either EMI or Festival or Sony. They range from probably the most famous mastering engineers – well, one of the most famous in the world, really, but the only one people probably know – Don Bartley…” He doesn’t get to the other end of the continuum, the “to…” that must follow the “from probably the most famous…” because we end up talking about Don Bartley, whom I ‘know’, but only as the name often seen on the back of records: 

“Mastered by Don Bartley at 301”. Or “cut by Don Bartley at Studios 301 utilising the MaxiCut™ process”. (Whatever that means.) Accompanied by the preceding “mastered by” and followed with “at Studios 301”. There was a time when producers weren’t acknowledged in sleeve notes, but long after their inclusion was de rigour, a similar acknowledgement of balance and mastering engineers was still rare. So seeing “Don Bartley” repeatedly on back covers made him memorable. No longer at 301, Bartley’s current location is often given as ‘up the Mountains’: “yeah, we’re gonna take it to Don, at his place up the Mountains, for mastering,” according to everyone’s mate’s brother, whose band, you find out, has just finished recording – which is why they’ve come out drinking with you, and why they also appear to view the world like long-term basement prisoners who have just made a successful break for the outside world. But I digress. “Yeah, ‘in the Mountains’,” Mark confirms before adding “Benchmark, in Blaxland.” 

Knowing my fervour for the Beatles, Mark adds that Bartley was once “given a version of Sgt Pepper’s… to cut to vinyl; it was like one of the original tapes, and he was given open slather on cutting instructions. That Sgt Pepper’s copy is one of the most valuable ones – it sells for $1500. You can look it up…”

I really don’t know what he’s talking about and I do look it up.

Turns out, in 1983, five EMI titles were specially pressed for that year’s Sydney Audio Show, to demonstrate EMI Australia’s ability to create quality audiophile pressings. One of these titles was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for which, Abbey Road studios provided a direct 1:1 tape copy of the original Sgt Pepper’s… source tape from which Bartley worked. Fewer than 500 copies were pressed (497, some sources claim, so I assume there were 500 and the first few were snaffled up by staff), and were sold exclusively at the Sydney Audio Show, “cash in hand”. Bill Wright, writing online, says, 

“I know one person who bought a copy during the Sydney show. He still owns it and indicated it has a clarity and immediacy missing in the other analogue-sourced stereo versions he has heard.”

Back cover, side 1 label and press clipping regarding the ‘AUDIO-5’ pressing of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

According to Discogs the last one to be sold via users of the website was number 277, and it went for $1450, just over a year ago (22 October, 2018), with the highest amount recorded for it at $1,700 (Australian currency in these cases); meanwhile, Popsike tells us an unnumbered copy went for $1,028 in a single bid eBay auction, November 2018, and another , again unnumbered, for a paltry $946, in a single bid eBay auction in Feb 2019 (the number of these copies was unknown). But enough on what possibly might be Bartley’s rarest record, and probably the Beatles’ most collectible Australian edition. More praise of Don Bartley is required: 

“In his day, Don had a reputation that other cutting engineers have confirmed, as have other people, like Denis Tek of Radio Birdman: he was cutting the loudest rock records in the world and cutting them well. He’s at the top of the tree. He’s still mastering.”

The other names of worthy engineers who master best for vinyl, according to Mark, include William Bowden – “based in Tasmania; worked at Festival; won a Grammy for Gotye”; Rick O’Neil – “at Turtlerock, in Sydney. Again, ex-Festival”; Steve Smart – “at 301”; Leon Zervos – “also at 301”; and Warren Barnett – “down in the Southern Highlands; a bit more ‘catalogue’ and older stuff”.

These are Mark’s pick of the best, obviously informed by their extensive experience and his personal knowledge of and familiarity with their work. Yet, he concedes, “there might be others that I don’t know; there’s a few people who have come to Australia from England and Europe and so-on, but these are guys I know who are still working in Australia, and they know what they’re doing; they’ll get the best result.”

Pressing Issues (or, to put it another way, Releasing Records)

Once mastered to the best possible quality, the music has to be “cut” as a “record” and “pressed”. ‘Cutting’ is the process of converting the sound from the mastered tracks into a disc, from which, the stampers – that will literally press the record – are made. Just as Mark can name a handful of sound engineers most adapt at mastering music for vinyl, he is as cautious – in fact, more so – with regard to the manufacturers he’d recommend. “There’s probably three or four plants I would recommend, particularly for people with just ‘one-offs’ who don’t have a – let’s say – ‘relationship’ with them. Some of them have quite good websites. Some of them you won’t even get in touch with – they’re very hard for indie bands to use.”

Mark’s picks include US plant Gotta Groove Records – “I’ve had records pressed there, and I know about them; they’ve got a very user-friendly site for indie bands and they’re good”. Vinyl Factory, in the UK – “I think they’re pretty good” (and they should be – they’re based in Hayes, which is where EMI’s production used to be situated, and indeed, the Vinyl Factory website says they “continue to make the most coveted vinyl editions on the planet with the original machinery used to press The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Sex pistols and many more of the most emblematic records in history” (i.e., they’re using machinery that once belonged to EMI). Optimal Media in Germany is, likewise, “not bad; pretty good”. Quality Record Pressings in the US understatedly lives up to its name, providing “quality,” but Mark reckons “you probably won’t get there because they deal with bigger companies” (although their website offers pricing that suggests smaller runs are available, and smaller runs being the sort of work required by indie bands, perhaps they do get a look-in nowadays). However, what is clear about all of these recommendations is that they all lie off-shore. When pressed (so to speak), Mark admits that plants require significant investment: “you need a lot of skills and you need them across different grades. You need electroplaters, you need chemists… And the scale of economies in Australia makes it very difficult to do that well.”

There is, of course another option Mark has ‘overlooked’ – a local one, apparently, entitled Matrix Vinyl. “All vinyl is not created equal,” their website proclaims. “Matrix Vinyl is proud to provide bespoke local service and offer Australian Artists and Labels the best quality vinyl available anywhere in the world.” They do this, it turns out, by not merely sourcing but actually pressing the vinyl at the “premium European vinyl pressing plant” known as “PALLAS” in Germany. “PALLAS has been pressing vinyl records for over 60 years,” the website says, “and is consistently ranked as the 1 pressing facility in the world.” Another thing that the website says, that we ought not overlook, is that the General Manager of Matrix Vinyl Pty Ltd is none other than Mark Sequeira. So he’s fine mentioning his ‘competitors’. But when invited to sing his own praises, he is also willing and able.

“If you just want to press black, 140gm vinyl and you go to Pallas, you’ll get as good a record as anyone else,” he says. “That’s what I would do. I’d go to me!”

Carry On Up the Pallas

Before Mark was in a position to go to himself, he went to Pallas on behalf of someone else. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It was a mate, Ian Underwood, who’d played in bands, ran his own independent labels, and worked for distributers Fuse and the shop they established, Title, who put Mark onto Pallas. “He and I were talking about it many years ago, ‘this plant, no one knows about’.” At that stage, Mark was one of the many who didn’t know about it. “It was when vinyl was virtually dead, between 2000 and 2010. They pressed for the Necks and bands like that, and it really shows on those sorts of records.” Having moved on from running Festival Records’ vinyl plant by that stage, Mark had sworn his time with vinyl had ended; being informed about a hitherto unknown vinyl pressing plant had no bearing on him as he was now part of a group “making CDs out west”. Nor was Mark swayed by frequent requests from Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Group (one of his oldest music industry clients) that he return to vinyl manufacturing on their behalf.

“I kept saying, ‘I just think it’s too hard to do well,’ so they found their own ways of getting vinyl – from the Vinyl Factory and places like that.” Until one final request from Mushroom Group’s request, to return to vinyl, came in 2014. Adalita, from Magic Dirt, had recorded an album, but the release was proving elusive. Pressing a record requires a lacquer to be cut; Adalita was up to her seventh lacquer, which, according to Mark, “is ridiculous!”

Mark’s assistance had been summoned at their fifth attempt at cutting a lacquer and he’d dismissed it. “You’ve come this far, wait for the next one,” he said, hoping it would “all go away”. But that “next one” – lacquer number six – likewise proved to be “no good,” leaving Adalita “beside herself”. So when approached again, Mark acceded. Conditionally. “I said, ‘I’ll oversee it for you, but you’ve got to use the best’.” And although he already knew Pallas to be “the best pressing plant in the world,” he also knew they were not the most accessible. “Some plants are much more dedicated to public use and others – the better ones, usually – are harder to order from. And being Europe, with a six-month turn-around, Pallas didn’t really deal with Australia.”

Vinyl pressing of Adalita’s All Day Venus

Undaunted, Mark made his approach, conducting “a fair bit of diligence” along the way. After the receipt of the first test pressing of the seventh lacquer, the message came through: “Mark, it’s approved. Adalita came into the office dancing. She was in tears she was that happy with it.” That left Mark feeling “extremely good” and also realising, “that’s why I do it.” So when Gudinski and his people once again approached Mark, this time suggesting he “set up his own vinyl business,” it was the final approach. He was ready to part company with his CD manufacturing mob out west. “I’d put a Roland S. Howard boxed set together, including the box and the book and everything, for them. They asked me to come over, and I thought, ‘I’m not happy where I am’ so I started that. It just happened from there.”

Well, it didn’t ‘just happen’; it took a lot of work on Mark’s part, including visits to Pallas’s operations in Germany. “I know why they’re so good,” Mark explains: “They’ve just got these standards they refuse to lower. In fact, I think they’re actually getting better. They’re a fourth generation family company – Ralph Neumann, the son of the founder, is on the board; his 95-year-old father is also on the board. Holger Neumann is the president, and his son Dominic has been working there a long time and is quite senior.” Despite being pushed by the European arms of the major labels to reduce their price they’ve refused to use cheaper chemical compounds in their manufacturing process. “I happen to know other plants in Europe have; Pallas won’t. But they’ve still got work. To me, it’s much more satisfying doing the best, doing something of a really high standard, and most of the people I do it for appreciate it.” People Mark doesn’t work for also appreciate it: the likes of Neil Young and Metallica have ‘their own’ presses at Pallas. That is to say, they lease specific equipment that is solely for the manufacture of their product.

Neil Young’s press, left, and Metallica’s Metallipress, right, at Pallas

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

Pressing an album is expensive. “It’s too much money, there’s nothing to be gained with a really shitty record that’s scratched or warped or that people can’t play,” Mark reckons. “Turntables are frickin’ cheap and they’re good: I’ve got a Rega – just an entry level – but one with an updated stylus that I bought a couple of years ago. It’s incredible how good that is with my stereo, and how easy that was to buy. But it’s not very pleasant playing shit records on it!” For him, entering the Matrix and pressing at Pallas make perfect sense. Despite the standards and quality, which definitely must cost, using him as the Aussie agent that can get your record pressed at Pallas is not out of any band’s reach. He offers the example of the band Cone of Confusion, “totally ‘off the street’ people” who wanted a pressing of 200 copies.

“They followed what I suggested to them in terms of trying to keep their costs down. Although, according to them, they wanted Pallas anyway because one of the guys, who is French, knew the quality and they were really happy with it.”

However, cost can be kept down by keeping production within certain parameters. Pressing to 140gm vinyl rather than 180gm because, despite the hype, 140gm offers the same quality at “0.3 of a euro” less, which can be saved or put towards the artwork. Printing and manufacturing covers locally because Pallas’s print minimum is 500, and shipping 500 covers from Europe becomes expensive, what with “the cover” being “volume”, and “volume costs money to freight”, and you only wanted a pressing of 200 records in the first place. Designing a “one-colour black label” because the label is “the last thing that people see,” and usually, only after having committed to owning the album anyway; a one-colour black label halves the price of a full-colour label (and Mark has “a whole list of black-and-white labels that look good” for reference). Further, if timing isn’t important, freighting options can save on costs: the indie order of 200 can be put in with a major label pressing of 2000 – but this is only possible when a rapid turn-around isn’t required. And finally, the seemingly most shocking manner with which some artists choose to save money is to dispense with test pressings because “they know Pallas won’t fuck it up”; an emailed MP3 – “so we know all the tracks are there” – will suffice. “That’s smart thinking,” Mark says, “but if bands want test pressings, you do them. These are the sort of options I put to people.”

Communication is key; unlike other operations, the Matrix website doesn’t offer a price list. This is because “there are too many variables; Pallas prices are extremely complex – it’s like pages – because they never used to deal with outside clients.” The general rule of thumb, however, is if you, the artist, need to keep prices down, sacrifice label art, inner sleeves and lyric sheets for the cover and the actual grooves. Mark: “They’re the sort of things I try to do –  keep prices down and tailor them towards indies; work out what they want and give them options. I actually get a lot of joy helping them, even though most of my business isn’t indie bands.”

A prime example is the gorgeous Reloaded compilation – a ‘various artists’ covers compilation of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, featuring a track each by Sydney, Coastie and Wollongong bands – financed by The Vintage Record. “I pressed that one,” Mark says proudly. And what a gorgeous pressing that is – pink vinyl, gorgeous cover, brilliant sound. Had no idea it was a Pallas pressing.

“I’m not a salesman, you know,” Mark confesses, “even though it’s kind of part of my job. But here’s the best advice: I use Pallas for my own fuckin’ records. Descent into the Maelstrom soundtrack? Pallas. The Prehistorics’ – my brothers’ – records? Pallas. These are people I care for and the advice wasn’t any different to what I’m giving an indie band, so it wasn’t for the money. Let me put it this way: if you can afford to, use them; if you think the record’s good enough and you can afford to get it mastered properly… I don’t know anyone who’s doing it as well as this.”

Reloaded – a Velvet Underground Loaded covers album pressed by Pallas, via Matrix Vinyl, spinning at The Vintage Record. (Note the ‘one-colour black ink’ label!)

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