Artisanal gin, cheese & ... vinyl records? Yes, crafting LPs is a thing
Aragorn Eloff learnt how from the gurus in Germany and brought the technology to Joburg
Vinyl records are, thanks to hipsters and collectors, the one physical music format that has continued to increase its sales in the post-CD, digital download era.
That said, if you dig deeper and start thinking about perhaps pressing a few LPs of your band's latest release, you might find that being stuck at the bottom of Africa is not the most conducive geographical location for your old-school purposes.
Traditionally vinyls are made in a process whereby a master is cut using a lathe machine; this master is then turned into a metal stamper, which is used to press multiple uniform copies of the record.
However, in the days when the CD looked as if it was the music format of the future, South African record labels all sold off their vinyl pressing machines until the only plant left in the region was in Harare. It, too, was recently sold and shipped off overseas.
Today the local vinyl releases you see in shops have been pressed overseas in plants that require minimum orders of 300 copies - hence the "import" stickers you may have noticed on the many still unsold Theuns Jordan records in Musica stores.
So what to do if you're a small, probably unsigned, up-and-coming band who wants to release on vinyl?
Well, thanks to two computer-programming, left-of-centre music enthusiasts there is now an option.
In his flat in Killarney, Johannesburg, vegan-anarchist Aragorn Eloff has, with his friend Justin Barrow, installed a modern-day stereo lathe-cutter for the production of small-run vinyl releases.
They produce what Barrow quips is "peak hipster, craft vinyl" - except, "You don't make as much money as you would if you were making craft beer."
"Let's never ever say that again," says Eloff, who is standing over the machine holding a thermometer and waiting for the optimal 45°C temperature at which the needle can begin to cut a groove in the hard surface of the specially-imported-from-Germany polymer plastic blank waiting on the turntable to be turned into a record.
Barrow, who used to run the Aware Records store in Braamfontein, and Eloff, who still works in computer programming, both shared an interest in the lathe cutting process, which they had independently heard of from friends overseas.
Eloff began researching the process, discovering an insular world surrounded by "mystique and pedantry", where enthusiasts "discuss all sorts of stuff on a very high level of sound engineering expertise" on sites like the Secret Society of Lathe Trolls.
Old lathe machines from the '50s and '60s are still in existence, but Eloff found they were "expensive, impossible to find, usually falling to pieces, you can't get them repaired, [and] they cut in mono".
Eloff did learn of a modern stereo lathe cutter, made by two German brothers in their late 60s who live in a village two hours from Munich.
"They're eclectic inventor guys and they got into it because they used to sell jukeboxes and lots of people would ask them for records to play on jukeboxes," Eloff says.
"They started researching records and essentially invented their own way of cutting records. They're the only people in the world who do it and it's a very strange process, so before selling you one they make you travel to Germany to meet them and undergo the training with them.
"If they like you after the training and they feel that you would make good use of their technology, then they're willing to sell you one."
Eloff approached the mysterious inventors and began a conversation, which, a year later, resulted in an e-mail asking him to come and visit them in a week's time.
After convincing the Germans that it would be difficult for a South African passport-holder to travel at such short notice, Eloff went to undergo the training in October last year.
"It's such a finicky technology, they're not selling something that you can just pull out of the box and use. There're so many things that can go wrong, and there's like a real art to cutting a record that sounds good, so I think part of it is also them filtering out people that they think are going to cut shit records or get upset and complain about the technology."
Eloff obviously impressed the brothers enough to be granted permission to buy the equipment, which arrived in South Africa in January this year.
Since then he and Barrow, under their label Contour Vinyl, have been producing small runs of records for both small bands they're interested in and bigger names who have approached them. When I interviewed them a small pile of Zackie Ebrahim singles, complete with sleeves and labels, were being processed for delivery.
With the German equipment, each disc has to be cut individually, which militates against mass production.
"If there was a new Parlotones album and they wanted 500 copies, that would be listening to it 500 times because each one you have to make, and so ... ja," Barrow says.
He and Eloff have produced small runs of records for bands like Cape Town's Context Model and the participants in the experimental music festival Edge of Wrong.
The polycarbonate material for the discs is made by one of the German brothers who told Eloff "he uses his own mix and I mustn't trust anyone else who makes blank records, he uses 50 different chemicals to make this polycarbonate material and it has to be a certain sort of weight and consistency to cut on with low surface noise".
Barrow says: "You have music, you want it cut, we'll cut it and we'll give it to you. We do label it and we do basic covers."
However, the label has ambitions to eventually "be a force behind releasing stuff".
"So we are keeping an eye on young bands who aren't signed and would be keen. We haven't turned anyone away purely because we didn't like their music."
But their website does warn that, "In keeping with our values we do not cut records that contain racist, sexist, homophobic or similar material."
So if you're not Steve Hofmeyr and you're looking for a unique and memorable way to give something to your fans then visit contourvinyl.co.za.