Inside Musicol, one of the only one-stop vinyl record shops in the USA.
Do you know where your records come from?
Sure, maybe you bought them new at Used Kids or Lost Weekend or Spoonful or even Urban Outfitters—but do you actually know where the record was manufactured?
Did you know that, nestled back on a dead end street in North Linden there exists a one-stop factory capable of recording your song and turning it into a vinyl record?
Yes, one of the only still-operational record plants in the United States of America is right here in Columbus. That factory of wonder is called Mus-i-Col. Many local artists have cut tracks there and even more artists have been pressed into the annals of rock on the machines in the basement. Most of the catalog from local 2000s cult label, Columbus Discount Records, was pressed there and owner Adam Smith was the house engineer for a few years before starting a mastering business in Austin, Texas. Guided By Voices, Lydia Loveless, Times New Viking, and Jenny Mae are a few big local names to have been pressed at Musicol—but Carmen Cavallaro is probably the biggest international name to record to tape in the big room called Studio A. (He was huge in Japan).
While Smith and his label may have fueled the studio’s slight resurgence, right now they’re riding the seemingly unending wave of vinyl fervor, that has now eclipsed its trendy “it’s back” novelty to being a viable recording format again. John Hull, the longtime owner and operator of Musicol says that the pressing plant this year is “going about as heavy as we’ve had it.”
Amazing, considering Hull and Musicol—and all of us—had to make it through a dark period of time in music, a time we called the ’90s. Compact discs and digital music files proliferated like dandelions on a healthy spring lawn. Musicol was able to survive by supplying national and international indie labels, but also local imprints like Columbus music super-promoter Bela Koe-Krompecher’s Anyway Records. By the 2000s, tech companies couldn’t create enough different gadgets to shrink and minimize portable music players. The popular portable player of the ’80s, the Walkman (plus a pocketful of tapes) had shrunk into a cassette-sized player that could hold thousands of songs. Soon this was integrated into our phones and is now contained in The Cloud and owned by everyone. That ownership of music has changed drastically—just like scrawling your name on the cover used to be enough to denote the ownership of the beat up Black Sabbath Paranoid record you brought to your friend’s house, your Spotify playlist now defines your tastes for your friends.
Digital media has become the throwaway pile, whereas your vinyl collection has been restored as the musical collection with which to impress your friends.
Which is why it’s worth celebrating that of the few one-stop factories left in the country, one shares a zip code with Rod’s Western Palace.
House Engineer Keith Hanlon has been behind the mixing board in Studio A since 2013, filling Smith’s boots when he left for Texas. A few things drew him to concentrate his energies at Musicol, but among them was the prospect of getting to spend every day at work amongst his own personal utopia of classic sound engineering. When he attended Ohio University, his class was the last to work with tape before ditching analog for the impending condensing.
“It is the oldest studio in Columbus . The studio’s history drew me in, but the kicker is the collection of vintage gear there. I’m able to work in both the digital and analog realms. We still have multitrack tape machines there, and plenty of musicians want the opportunity to record to tape,” he said. “I love the workflow of an analog session, because everybody knows they have to nail the performance. Editing a performance is much more time-consuming and difficult.” Hanlon’s presence completes the circle of quality that comes with a session at Musicol: the studio thrives because of the caliber of the gear and of the staff controlling the machines.
Now, let’s get the record-making process on record.
The engineer captures the sound to tape, then mixes those sounds together to create a level recording. This mix is then mastered for vinyl, setting the high and low limits of the physical grooves in the record. Hull explains that this master copy is then plated with nickel, “essentially making a nickel-plated negative of the record.” This negative, with its raised grooves, is then used to literally smash a gooey glob of vinyl into the shape of a disc with indented grooves, known as the plastic molding process.
You can crank out as many as you want, something hardly envisionable when disc records started appearing around 1900, when Thomas Edison came out with a machine that recorded sound on cylinders. Cylinders were a hard thing to mass-produce and duplicate.
“A fella had come over here from Germany [Emile Berliner, inventor of the Gramophone] and suggested this flat-disc approach that was easier to manufacture. That exists still today,” Hull said. You plop your flat vinyl slab on the turntable and it spins underneath your phonograph needle, which bounces along those grooves and makes those good boom boom sounds on your stereo.
Part of the appeal with vinyl, beyond its tactile feel and warm, rich sound, is that you can hear the history in it. You can hear, feel the space in which it was created.
Recording at Musicol feels like creating in living history: the painted wood-paneled walls, diamond-patterned carpet, cardboard boxes of old pressing discs create a metaphysical patina; it’s a space you could breathe in just by looking at these photos.
Beyond that, the history and breadth of diverse material recorded there is equally part of the charm. Decades ago, they worked with church choirs, gospel choirs, and radio programs.
“Mother Earth News, a weekly radio program produced by a local operation, in the earlier days would release their show on a phonograph record. They’d then mail out the phonograph to stations ‘cause it was less expensive than recording to tape,” Hull said.
Musicol is not immune to the changes in the market, and sourcing the actual raw plastic required for quality vinyl production is much more difficult than you’d think.
“Most of our vinyl has to come from offshore,” Hull explains. “Lead is essential to make the vinyl flow properly in the press, and the EPA wouldn’t allow the American manufacturers to use lead—our plastic comes from Britain and Thailand.” Even the fluctuation of oil prices affect the supply of vinyl, “because of the inherent nature between the two.”
Hanlon knows that the deflation of the recording market has democratized creating records, offering financial and creative freedom for much more musicians. But, yet, he knows what a unique approach a place like Musicol offers.
“Obviously, the last 20 years has seen home recording gear drop in price, and people can make good records in their homes—I’ve done that a lot too,” he said. “But I always preferred to have somebody else do the recording so that I can concentrate on the performance. I think people come around to that after a while, so thankfully there are still good studios here in Columbus to record. I try to give the artist a relaxed atmosphere to create, and that seems to be the compliment that I get the most from my clients. I’m very sensitive to that.”
Sure, it’s much cheaper to record at home—but you really get what you pay for. The gem of having Musicol so close by, with so many high fidelity facilities and experts able to optimize their performance just cannot be lost on a generation with every song ever at their fingertips.
The inspiration creates the song, but capturing the song is the only way to share it with a wider audience. Long live Musicol.
O’Shaughnessy is a (614) contributor and long-time drummer in Columbus. He’s put his work to wax a number of times at Musicol as a member of Nick Tolford and Co., IPPS, and Connections. For more about Musicol, visit musicolrecording.com.