Gearbox is a studio and a record label that’s based near Kings Cross. It’s a mastering studio to be precise and the most purist example of the breed I have encountered. Purist in the sense that its creator Darrel Sheinman wants it to be totally analogue, not such a radical idea in the world of the music lover but a pretty extreme one when it comes to pro audio. Mastering is the final link in the chain of record production (in its broadest sense), the place where recordings go for a final tweak and polish prior to release. So in theory they need the latest kit to get the latest style of sound and as most recordings are digital from the ground up they remain in that state to the point of delivery. But they don’t have to, if you are making a vinyl pressing which is increasingly popular, they have to become analogue for vinyl mastering.
Darrel is doing his utmost to equip Gearbox with the best sounding analogue equipment that has ever been made, in many cases this means vintage. Vinyl cutting lathes haven’t been made for some time but they come a lot newer than the 1967 Scully VP-131 that sits at one end of the studio. This is a totally mechanical even hair shirt lathe, it doesn’t have a digital preview signal so that you can to vary pitch on the fly – and accommodate variations in level – it has fixed pitch so as to avoid the circuitry that isn’t absolutely essential. This means better sound but shorter sides because you can’t have very closely spaced grooves, typically that limits you to about 18 minutes. The lathe’s turntable has a Lyrec motor and the cutting head and amp are by Westrex, the professional arm of Western Electric, it’s a classic piece right down to the nuts and bolts.
This studio has one goal and that’s to produce the best sounding vinyl that can be made. It’s an admirable cause but does it have commercial potential, Darrel thinks so not least because of the resurgence that the format is enjoying. It’s not only audiophiles that love vinyl there are a lot of people who are attracted to its large scale artwork and its tactility which makes a big change from virtual formats like MP3. These customers probably don’t have great turntables but they have driven a 40% year on year increase in vinyl sales and who knows one day they might discover the full potential of the format.
The studio was constructed by Munro Acoustics (who built AIR studios and Mark Knopfler’s place among many others) to very high standards, for a start it is suspended, the whole room is isolated to minimise noise from the surrounding building. Apparently this gave the floor the same resonant frequency as the suspension on the Audio Note AN-TT2 turntable, that’s why it’s hung on cables. It’s not the only turntable in the room, the other is a classic EMT 948 pro model which has a Thorens arm. There is of course one more device which plays records, that’s the Scully lathe which has a 12inch Ortofon arm and new old stock Ortofon S15T stereo cartridge or a vintage mono SPU. This is analogue heaven, of that there can be no doubt.
The monitoring system consists largely of Audio Note tube equipment with the aforementioned turntable, CD4.1X silver disc player (not sure what that’s for!) an M6 phono stage, Tomei Kensei 211 power amp and AN-E LX Hemp speakers. Probably the most expensive system per watt in professional audio but it sounded pretty glorious playing a test pressing from young British jazz ensemble the Simon Spillet Quartet, the album is called Square one and was released last month. There is also a concession to the modern age in the form of a Mac Mini computer and a CAD 1543 DAC, a very fine converter indeed.
Darrel likes this system a lot as you might imagine, he realises that horn speakers would be an upgrade but is also aware that mastering engineers would struggle to work with them, he has a pair of Loth-X folded horns at home. The AN-Es sounded better than I’ve heard them elsewhere which is as much to do with the room as anything else. It has been arranged with a dead end behind the speakers and a live one behind the listening position so it’s not as damped as some studios but sounds very even and relaxed.
For mastering purposes you need a tape recorder, Gearbox has two but the Studer C37 from 1960 is the star, this pristine example was restored by Andreas Kuhn at Analog-Audio in Switzerland. Darrel thinks “you won’t hear anything better” and when he played it I couldn’t argue. It delivers power, dynamics and precise timing in such an effortless relaxed fashion you could listen to it all day and all night. If you had the tape to play that is, Gearbox has been licensing classic British jazz recordings from the BBC, with artists including Tubby Hayes, Don Rendell and Tubby Hayes and has a number of their titles in its catalogue, all are limited to 500 copies. Darrel gave me a copy of Tippin’ by the Jazz Couriers Live in Morecambe 1959 and I have to say it blew me away, it’s as high energy and well played as almost anything that came out in the US at the time and totally shook up my notion of where British jazz was at. Gearbox is also releasing contemporary albums like Jazz Jamaican Allstars Massive Vol.1 and a Kenny Wheeler project with Norma Winstone.
The most impressive stack of gear at Gearbox is a tower marked discos de centroamerica that contains analogue electronics for equalisation, filtering and amplification for the cutting lathe. In it are two Lang Pultec EQ and limiter units, high and low filters from Urei and two blue units at the bottom which are the amps. All the units and the lathe are marked Haeco because that was the distributor in 1967 when it was built, the reference to central America is presumably an indication of where it spent its formative years.
The most up to date equipment in the room is to be found in the desk in front of the monitors, this features a Maselec MEA-2 equaliser with a stepped attenuator volume control. The units in the front of the console are also Maselec, a de-esser for de-emphasising S sounds and an MTC-2 controller which is a bit like a preamp. If Gearbox is to pay its way Darrel (above) needs to attract mastering engineers from across the spectrum and all of them want a compressor so plans to install a vintage analogue example in the console. When I visited he was looking for a Fairchild 670 which are highly sought after these days so was also considering an EAR 660, a tube compressor from Tim de Paravicini that is considered to be in the same league. Subsequently however he has bought a mid sixties Telefunken U73b, a tube compressor/limiter that's apparently known as the European Fairchild. A concession has also been made to the fact that all modern recordings are digital, this comes in the form of a Lynx HiLo A to D and D to A convertor.
Gearbox is a dream come true for Darrel, he doesn’t have a music industry background but clearly has a passion for great sound that he is trying to share with others. It can’t be an easy thing to get off the ground but the sound he gets is like nothing else I’ve encountered, even in the world of esoteric valves and horns. The studio is available to hire by the day at very reasonable rates so if anyone fancies making their own vinyl masters get in touch.