The digitization of the music industry leveled the playing field for artists. An album can be written, recorded and released from a bedroom without an expensive recording studio or predatory record label. This DIY ethic isn’t new. Bands have been recording and releasing albums on their own or out of friendly record stores for decades.
Digitization has also created a glut of available music, which can make it difficult for new bands or artists to break through the noise. Plus, popular artists with record deals still get the lion’s share of the attention. I’m pretty sure every Beyonce release is now a national holiday. For every other artist, the resurgence of vinyl and cassette has revived the ability to give or sell something tangible to their fans – a physical keepsake that could offer a tighter emotional bond with the music. While making copies of tapes has been an at-home pastime since the 1980s, vinyl has required a third party that specializes in cutting records. At least, until recently.
Teenage Engineering’s $149 PO-08 Record Factory combines the nostalgia of a Fisher-Price turntable with the utility of a machine that can actually cut vinyl. You’ll have to assemble it yourself and master each song specifically for the device. Even after all that work, your music will probably sound like it’s being played through an AM radio. That might sound like a nightmare for some, yet is potentially wonderful for others.
The PO-08 is a rebranding of magazine publisher Gakken’s “Easy Record Maker” — a record cutter/player designed by Yuri Suzuki. Teenage Engineering worked with Suzuki for its version and even includes an interview with the designer in the supplied magazine/instruction booklet.
Although the turntable looks like a toy, Teenage Engineering tells you (again and again) that it’s not recommended for kids under the age of 12. It’s really built for “children” between the ages of 17 and 64 — for the type of person that has three bands, strong opinions about direct drive turntables, a very active Discogs account and a DIY attitude. Oh, and also the patience needed to fiddle with tiny parts for hours to create a single, not-so-perfect mono copy of a song. Yes, it works, but it’s a lo-fi representation of a professionally created record; The Factory is an EZ bake on top of vinyl.
Building the Record Factory takes about 60 to 90 minutes, and it helps give you the confidence to disassemble it when you realize that, say, you didn’t attach the cable for the needle securely. I had to do exactly that when there was no audio after I first put the device together – everything seemed to be working but there was no actual sound.
Having to assemble the device also lends insight into the Record Factory’s inner workings, which are quite clever. The cutting needle vibrates via a tiny speaker to engrave your audio onto one of Teenage Engineering’s blank discs. A tiny gearing system moves the needle along and after three to four minutes (depending on the recording speed), your song is inscribed onto the vinyl.
But everything leading up to that is a series of adjustments. If you’re the type of person that requires a thing to “just work” without much tinkering, stay far away from the PO-08.
You begin with your original recording and at the end of the inscription, you get a mono representation. The single-channel audio is a technical limitation of the device. To make sure the audio going in is mono, the Record Factory comes with a minijack cable that takes the left and right channels of your stereo signal and merges them together. You also end up losing fidelity, which is another technical limitation. The top and low ends of a song can get muddy easily and too much bass actually causes the cutter needle to jump.
You can try to fix this yourself, but it’s smarter to use Teenage Engineering’s online audio mastering tool. Just upload the file, wait a few minutes and the site spits out something that works better with the device. This process results in the loss of all the intricate details of your song. The low end becomes slightly muddy or disappears altogether while the high end loses its bite. If you’re looking for crisp, exact copies, skip the PO-08 entirely.
A whole 45 minutes after mastering your audio, you get to cut a record. In that time, you’ll be adjusting the pressure of the cutting arm, listening very carefully to the audio being sent to the device to make sure it’s not distorting and if it is, turning down the volume. But you can’t go too low, or the signal won’t be strong enough to engrave. That means you have to open up the equalizer and make adjustments (so many adjustments) until the audio sounds good (enough).
Now you’re ready to put it on wax (as they used to say in the olden days). Except before you create a record you can share, you need to cut audio onto a test vinyl. You record 10 seconds, wash the disc with water to get all the excess bits out of the grooves, then switch the Record Factory to play mode and listen to your masterpiece.
The test record isn’t that big a deal until you realize that Teenage Engineering has sold out of the discs needed for the turntable and hasn’t shared information on when they’ll be back in stock. This makes testing all the more important.
A word of caution: the cutter slows down the turntable, so when played back at regular speed it might sound a little higher pitched. Like low-level Chipmunks high. So make sure you drop your file into the relevant tools online to adjust your song. Except it probably still needs work if you want the closest representation of your song available from the PO-80, which means you’ll have to, surprise surprise, make more adjustments. I conducted five test cuts before I was finally ready to create my first at-home vinyl record of a song.
On top of all that, the turntable itself isn’t a great player, either. It sounds like you’re listening to music from under the sea. It’s fun to create and play on the same device, but it’s best to take the disc to a proper turntable. On my Technics SL-1200 MK2, the mono audio with the high and low-end cut-off sounded a bit far away compared to the original and the fidelity is nowhere near the quality of professional vinyl in my collection. Yet, it’s exactly what I anticipated and I’m happy with the end result.
The Record Factory lives or dies by its owner’s expectations. There are two types of people in this world: those who lose their minds and patience dealing with even the tiniest inconvenience and those who live for tinkering and experimentation.
The second group are people like me, and are excited about the difference in sounds between an at-home produced record, a cassette and a digital file. My band typically records on a digital eight-track, but I also use a cassette four-track from the late 80s. There’s something special about sending a fan a vinyl recording that was produced at home. The PO-08 is for people who find beauty in the inherent potential for errors in DIY analog recordings.
The Record Factory will find its niche of users who happily spend hours creating the perfectly imperfect vinyl copy of their song. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t already have a PO-08 turntable they will have to find one of these beauties on eBay or Craigslist. The power move is to search for the Gaken branded version on eBay. Those turntables are much cheaper (under $100) than the Teenage Engineering version.
Teenage Engineering told Engadget that it has no plans to produce more of the sold-out turntables which is a shame. Not every musician can afford to have hundreds of records produced by a third party. But, if they can find a Record Factory (they’re currently selling from $250 to $500) they can cut one-of-a-kind vinyl they can share with friends and fans while they wait to make it big. As long as they are happy doing that on a toy built for very patient music nerds that are happy trading fidelity for something real.
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