Introduction: How to Make a Record Without Prior Acoustic Information

We present a method to produce analog records with a standard vector graphics software (i.e. Adobe Illustrator) and two different types of cutting machines: laser cutter, and paper cutter. It is a part of  "cutting record - a record without (or with) prior acoustic information" at IAMAS.

The method enables us to engrave wave forms on a surface of diverse materials such as paper, wood, acrylic, and leather without prior acoustic information (i.e. digital audio data). The results could be played with standard record players. We present the method with its technical specification and explain our initial trials with examples. The work examines the role of musical reproduction in the age of personal fabrication.

We've uploaded some of our initial trials to the Thingiverse as well as the Vimeo.  

Cutting a record with a Laser cutter:

Cutting a record with a Paper cutter:

Special thanks to Yuki Kimpara, Iori Iwashima, Satoe Doi, and Daichi Ando for their help with this project.

Here's a video that gives a whole process of the method as a form of performance.

Step 1: Background

“I have suggested to change the gramophone from a reproductive instrument to a productive one, so that on a record without prior acoustic information, the acoustic information, the acoustic phenomenon itself originates by engraving the necessary Ritchriftreihen (etched grooves).”  László Moholy-Nagy, 1923.

In 1923, László Moholy-Nagy, master at the bauhaus, proposed to produce a record without prior acoustic information. It is not clear whether he succeeded or not to achieve the anticipated results, however, the coming practitioners followed his notion with a knife to form different rhythmic patterns on the surface of record (Thomas Brinkmann, Klick, 2000), or with a second hole to rotate the record off center to induce variations in pitch and speed (Non, Pegan Muzak, 1978). You could read more stories at Philip Samartzis's Surface Noize. In this instructables, we propose an alternative method, which legitimately follows the notion with a help of vector graphics software and current cutting machines.

Analog records have its origin in 1858, the invention of Phonoautograph by Leon Scott. At the moment the device only could transform the vibration of sound into graphical forms, however, after over a century, researchers renewed the history of earliest audio recording by decoding the sound from its graphical forms (more information at Archaeologist of Sound by Ron Cowen). In 1878, Frank Lambert made the talking clock, the first machine, which could play back the inscribed sound into lead with its own mechanism. After few months, Thomas Edison made the Phonograph, which record and reproduce (mainly) voices with a vertically vibrated stylus and a tin foil on a cylinder. In 1887, Emile Berliner proposed the Gramophone to record sounds on a disc. The Gramophone used a flat disk rotated on a horizontal plate as a recording surface. In its recording, a vibration of air according to time (i.e. sound) is converted into a horizontal vibration of stylus to etch a groove into the rotated surface. In play back, the procedure works in a reverse order. The stylus moves along the groove and the vibration is mechanically / electronically amplified to produce a monophonic sound (Figure). The mechanism also allowed multiple duplications with casting technique.

After the Gramophone, the basic mechanism of record continued for a century with several inventions and experiments. For example, the change of diameters and rotational speeds, the appearance of  45/45 stereophonic recording in 1950's, and a laser turntable in 1980's. Diverse materials were tested for the disc include not only standard shellac and vinyl but also other experimental stuff such as rice cake in 1920's, chocolate, or ice. In the late 1960's to 1970's, Dubplate was come from a reggae music scene. It uses an acetate disc, a recordable fragile disc originally invented for testing purpose with cutting machine. They used the disc to produce an original version (i.e. mixing) for their sound system. The culture of making a unique record has been continued since then such as a building of hand made cutting machine on a CD, or 3D Printed Record.

Step 2: What You Need

Materials: Paper, Acrylic, Wood, etc.  *with paper cutter, we only could use paper.

Hardware: a. Laser cutter (e.g. Universal VLS 2.30), b. Paper cutter (e.g. Silhouette), scissors, and cutter.

Software: Vector graphics application (e.g. Adobe Illustrator).

Step 3: Drawing a Wave Form

In our method, we follow the invention of Berliner's gramophone. Instead of using a vibration and a stylus, we use a computational vector line and a laser beam/cutter blade, to etch a groove on a flat surface. The resulted groove could be played as a monophonic record in a same manner as its ancestor. We firstly introduce a way to use a locked groove (i.e. a concentric circle), instead of the standard spiral groove. With the groove, we could approximately have a range of time from 1.8 seconds in 33RPM (60 sec / 33.3) to 1.3 seconds in 45 RPM (60 sec / 45).  

We basically use a standard vector graphics application (i.e. Adobe Illustrator) to make the locked groove. With Illustrator, we draw a circle at first (Figure), divide it into a collection of arcs with the scissors tool(Figure). Then, we apply the Smooth zigzag effect (Filters > Distort > Zig Zag) for each arc (Figure). The size of zigzag defines the amplitude (i.e. volume) of the wave form. We recommend to set the size between 0.5pt and 0.05pt.

We already have a fixed range of time (1.8sec in 33rpm, 1.3sec in 45rpm), therefore, we could calculate a desired frequency (Y vibration in second)  by dividing the circle into X parts and apply Z numbers of ridge for each arcwith following function.

Z = Y * 1.8 (or 1.3) / X

We could have a beat, if we apply the zigzag effect into every other arc (e.g. 3/4 beats in 6 divisions, 4/4 in 8 divisions, 8/8 beats in 16 divisions)(Figure > 4/4). 

We also could make a spiral groove with the spiral tool (Figure). In this case, we need to set the direction of the spiral in counterclockwise.

Step 4: Mastering the Wave Form

Next, we need to have a mastering for the wave form. Instead of standard analog record, we do the whole process in a graphical way (that's why we call our method as "a record without prior acoustic information").

Here is the process.

1. Change the width of stroke into 0.01pt for engraving (Figure). 

2. Expand Appearance to realize the zigzag effect (Object > Expand Appearance) (Figure).

3. Connect the arcs into a wave form (Connect anchor points of the arcs with Direct selection Tools) (Figure)

4. Draw a periphery circle to satisfy a desired size of record (7inch=177.8mm, 10inch=254mm, or 12inch=304.8mm).

5. Make a hole in the center (7.24mm in diameter).

6. Adjust the diameter of the wave form (i.e. zigzag effected circle) to fit it into a form of record (Figure).

7. Add other information (e.g. title, name) within the circle. 

8. Differentiate the peripheral circle and the hole for cut, and the wave form and other information for engrave with different colors (e.g. red for cut, blue for etch) (Figure).

Step 5: Cutting a Record

To make a playable record with the wave form, we could use two different types of cutting machines: Laser cutter (e.g. Universal VLS 2.30) and Paper cutter (e.g. Silhouette). Before the cutting, we need to adjust the machines (i.e. speed and power in Laser cutter, blade length in paper cutter) in relation with the materials.

*Laser cutter is a device to engrave or cut images on a material with a laser beam. To compare with it to office printers, instead of printing the image with substantial ink or toner, it could produce the image without physical contact. Because of its principle to burn away a surface of material, it is difficult to treat some materials such as vinyl which produce poisonous gas or metals with reflective surface. Beside that, it could be used with diverse materials such as paper, wood, acrylic, and leather. Normally, a laser cutter provides two modes: raster, and vector. In raster, the laser beam horizontally scans  (i.e. burn) the surface based on a bitmap or painted data. In vector, the laser beam outlines on the surface to make a continuous line for engrave and cut based on a vector data. In our method, we mainly used the vector to engrave the wave form (Figure).

*Paper cutter uses a thin cutter blade in place of a laser beam to engrave or cut an image. It works in a similar way to laser cutter. Based on its structure to rotate the blade on the surface, it only could treat vector data with thin materials such as paper, adhesive vinyl, or film. Normally, the cost of a paper cutter is about one hundredth of a laser cutter (e.g. $200 vs $20,000) (Figure).

After the adjustment, we could cut a record almost in the same way as printing a paper with an office printer. In both machine, it approximately takes 3 to 5 min in the case of a locked groove. With paper cutter, you also need to cut the paper with scissors, and make a hole with a cutter (Figure). 

Step 6: Playing the Record

After the cutting, we just need to put the record on our turntable and put a needle on it. With some turntables, we might need to put  scotch tape on the back side to prevent a slip. 

Again, here is the sound of the record from Laser cutter, and Paper cutter.

Laser cutter:

Paper cutter:

The whole process is a part of  "cutting record - a record without (or with) prior acoustic information". The project is working in progress . We have a few videos on YouTube and Vimeo, and just made a first release of our record "beats - a record without prior acoustic information" on Thingiverse. As a next step, we plan to explain "How to make a record with prior acoustic information (yes, we could make a record from our audio files). If you have any interests in our work, please leave us comments!