Show Us Your Space: Leesta Vall's Direct-to-Vinyl Recording Studio

Welcome to the latest installment of Show Us Your Space, a Reverb series that explores and celebrates the unique music-making environments of studio owners, independent builders, and musicians at all levels.

Today, we're looking at a unique facility in Brooklyn where artists can cut vinyl records live in real time. At Leesta Vall Sound Recordings' sessions can be mixed and mastered live, in the tradition of early Sun Studios records or others during the proliferation of independent recording spaces in the 1940s and '50s.

Keep reading to hear straight from founder and principal session producer Aaron Zimmer. To learn more about Leesta Vall, visit its website here.

Have you assembled a great practice space, project studio, or music workshop? Be sure to drop us a line at [email protected].

Welcome to Leesta Vall Sound Recordings. We're a niche record label based in Brooklyn, New York, with an exclusive focus on vinyl releases. Though we have several unique and ongoing vinyl-related initiatives, the label was founded on the back of our Direct-to-Vinyl Live Sessions project, which are live performances at our studio cut directly to 7" lathe cut vinyl records. No tracking or overdubs of any kind. Just a song played live, mixed, and mastered on the fly, and cut right to limited-edition lathe-cut vinyl records.

Our mission is to provide an authentic, one-to-one experience between artist and listener. Our records are like audio polaroids; they capture music in its truest form, live, in real-time, one at a time, resulting in a completely unique musical artifact.

As you'll see, the studio's layout and gear are set up to do this one thing. It's a one trick pony to be sure, but it's a pretty cool pony.

Where it all begins. Or I guess, where it all ends, actually. Here's our 1950s-era Rek-O-Kut record cutting lathe. They called these lathes "suitcase cutters," and were originally housed in big, heavy boxes with a lid and old leather handle. I pulled it out of that case and jigged a hole into the top of an Argosy two-bay rack, which is where it has lived for the last couple of years. A blank record spins on the platter, and the lathe carries the cutting head, a Presto 1D, across the top of the record, carving a groove in as the band performs the music that's going on that particular record. Pretty slick.

We're fortunate to have an Audio-Technica endorsement, and next to the lathe lives our AT LP7, which we use for playback of the cuts that have just come off the lathe, as well as whatever I've found most recently at Human Head or Academy Records, my two favorite Brooklyn record stores.

Here's that one trick pony I mentioned. As studios go, this is pretty minimal, but everything has a very specific purpose. We program three Direct-To-Vinyl sessions every day, so the rig is built for speed. We don't spend much time experimenting with sounds or ideas, as you might do when making a traditional record. Instead, we like to get the bands up and running quickly so we can capture their live performances while inspiration and energy are high. After all, we're capturing little moments in time here, directly to vinyl records. Here's what's in there:

About those drum preamps: I love a simple mic setup on the drums, and since we're cutting a mono groove, three mics is about all we need—kick, snare, and overhead. Then, we slam all of that through the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor. Perfect.

We have two old Furman RV-1 spring reverb tanks in the rig (bottom right). I don't know anything about recording music on a computer. Instead, I'm drawn to the tangible/tactile thing that real analog outboard gives me. So a spring reverb unit that actually has the springs in them? Yeah, I'll take two, please.

And we have a Yamaha E1010 (bottom left) for slap delays. These things are so so good on a vocal or electric guitar.

The last piece before our mixed signal hits the lathe's preamp is a Warm Audio WA-2A. Compression is a big piece to the puzzle when cutting records live in real time while a band is performing the music. We want our records loud, but not too loud. Cutting a groove that's too loud can make the grooves touch, which causes the record to skip.

Since there are so many moving parts with no room for error, we tend to use a higher compression ratio than you normally might. The WA-2A's might not be a traditional choice for a backend limiter, but whatever, I'm not precious about it... they sound good.

Here's a bird's eye of the control room. A couple of other notable things in there: Our Tascam 38 1/2" 8-Track that we use for more traditional recording sessions that are released on pressed vinyl. And, of course, the mighty Roland RE-101 Space echo.

On to the live room, where the magic happens.

Here's a good portion of my personal record collection, and a pair of AudioEngine A5+ speakers. We'll send playback of a record that's just been cut back to the band to listen so they can hear it on a speaker rather than in the cans. I love those A5s. They are perhaps a little dark, but make for a really gratifying listen. I like them so much, I have them at home too.

Our Gretsch Renown kit in Vintage Pearl. Super versatile kit that sounds amazing, especially the kick. Also, if you're a drummer and aren't hip to the Big Fat Snare, do yourself a favor and get one. It's appropriately named. As for cymbals, Zildjian K series, a no-brainer if you're having 20 different drummers in every week. Sometimes drummers pull them off and use their own, but nine times out of 10, those Ks sound better.

If there is one thing I have to force myself not to buy more of, it's amps. Currently, our workhorses are a 1981 Bassman 70-watt head with a 1x15 cab, a Vox AC30, and a 1995 Fender Blues Junior. I challenge you to bring another Blues Junior in that sounds as good as this one does. No idea how or why I got the best one I've ever heard (thanks Jamie!), but I have it.

And finally, my day-to-day guy, Henry.

Check out Leesta Vall's website here for more information. And check out previous installments of our Show Us Your Space series below.

We'd love to see your studio, practice space, or gear lair too—whether it's a professional outfit or a weekend retreat. Contact us at [email protected].

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