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VOL. 36 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 21, 2012

URP exceeds reputation as ‘Kmart’ of pressing

By Tim Ghianni

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While he’s among the most prolific clients of United Record Pressing in his role as “psychedelic cheese” for Third Man Records, that wasn’t the reason for Ben Blackwell’s first treasured foray into this historic space.

“I was in this band, The Dirt Bombs. We had just played a show in Nashville,” he recalls of that five-year-old experience.

“As we were driving out of town, we were going to Knoxville that night and we were driving past United Record Pressing. We thought ‘I wonder if we could get a tour?’ so we stopped.”

URP’s Jay Millar, who knew of the Dirt Bombs from his own Detroit years, gave his standard, anecdote-filled trek through the plant.

“I remember it being really exciting,” Blackwell says. “When you see it on the tour, it’s really invigorating….

“Not long after that, Jack (White) called me with the idea for Third Man Records, which was at the time issuing White Stripes that was out of print in vinyl.”

White figured that Blackwell, a White Stripes devotee “who knew the catalogue better than anybody” was just right for the job.

White had purchased a building near Nashville Rescue Mission and was ready to begin doing business in Music City. The fact URP was pressing White Stripes vinyl was a big plus.

“The whole idea was predicated by the idea of using United,” Blackwell says.

“You can drive over to the plant, drop off the master, pay cash and pick everything up,” Blackwell says. “Test pressings are ready. You don’t have to wait. You can go listen to them, give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

“Being able to interact with the presser face-to-face is crucial for our operation.”

That relationship began in 2009, when, after finishing a yearlong tour with The Dirt Bombs, Blackwell relocated from Motor City to Music City and began his psychedelic cheese duties for White.

“The first Dead Weather album became our main focus for the first 12 months,” says Blackwell, referring to one of his boss’ post-Stripes outfits.

The next year was dedicated to reissuing White Stripes catalogue.

Blackwell says he was “wary at first,” because “in the world of vinyl pressing here in America or underground vinyl pressing, (United) didn’t have the greatest reputation. Their reputation was consistently pegged as ‘The Kmart of record pressing.’

“They are big and they are powerful and you can probably get something from them the cheapest. Even before the huge spike in vinyl sales: it’s quick, it’s big and it’s cheap. The quality might not be up to snuff as other places and if you wanted something special or a little fancy you might be left wanting,” he says, summarizing the widespread opinion of the plant.

That reputation was quickly disproved when White threw United a challenge. “We wanted a gold sparkle record, like a gaudy 1970s bowling ball. We said ‘show us what you can do,’” says Blackwell.

The hand-operated, 45-rpm press was able to perform magically.

“They came up with a record that the playing field of the vinyl was divided into thirds: it was red, white and blue,” says Blackwell. “They did that on their own. They wanted to surprise us and say ‘look what we can do.’

“Jack pulled it out and stared at it and said if they could do yellow, black and white, that was what he wanted. That was it.”

Beginning with Mildred and the Mice’s nifty little ditty I Like My Mice (Dead), United began pressing the tricolor 7-inchers. Generally, the plan is for the first 150 units of every recording to be pressed tri-color for collectors, with the rest all black. Similarly, the field is split into two colors for 150-500 copies of the initial vinyl LP pressing, again for collectors. The remainder of the run is all black.

White’s first dual-tone LP pressed here was the white-and- yellow second disc of The Dead Weather’s Horehound double record.

For smart business reasons, there are CDs and iTunes formats of the works of White and his sidekicks. In fact, the company has, as something of an operating principle, “TCB.” But instead of “Taking Care of Business” – as that acronym meant when Elvis roamed the planet – it means “Tangible, Collectible and Digital.”

Still it is the vinyl that clearly holds a cherished role among White and his crew.

“It’s what we grew up with,” Blackwell says. “I’m 30 years old. I am at the tail end of it. But my earliest musical memories are vinyl records. In terms of the underground punk-rock kind of world, it never went away.

“When you are first starting out, the band I played in, the first things they have done is vinyl.”

Blackwell smiles when thinking back to those days.

“There’s a little hocus-pocus in any kind of manufacturing. I couldn’t tell you how a CD player works. It’s a laser reading grooves on a CD. I really don’t understand that.

“But if you show me a record lathe and say ‘there’s a needle here and it’s cutting into a blank disc and it’s vibrating according to the music that’s being played, well that I understand.”

In fact, a recent addition to the evolving Third Man complex is a vinyl lathe, allowing White and his company to record live shows directly to disc. The Shins, The Kills and Seasick Steve have been captured in this fashion.

Those live-lathed concert discs are a short drive from being pressed. “We take them to United, United does the electro-plating and we get them lickety-split,” Blackwell says.

“There’s infrastructure here” that includes URP, Blackwell says.

“While there is a pressing plant in Detroit, it’s not one that could crank out 10,000 a day.

“Because of the history of country music in Nashville, there is everything you need: A place to buy magnetic tape, gear rental and studio space to record.”

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