London based Gearbox Records is like one of those stellar boutiques that you only find in places like Brooklyn or Paris, or London. A place that caters to the aficionado, a shop that shouldn't be in business but is because there are still enough passionate people out there to keep it breathing, if not thriving.
The Gearbox Records label is the living embodiment of one of those places, crafting vinyl releases focused on jazz, funk, folk, electronic, and other genres that collectors drool over. They are dedicated to the craft of analog from recording to mixing to mastering, all ending up as a sweet piece of flat, round, plastic licorice.
What's even crazier is that they love vinyl so much they made their own turntable, and it's a stunner. We got a chance to shoot some questions over the internet to label founder Darrel Sheinman to dig what drives him.
Going on their 13th year and opening a new office in Japan, there is a lot to celebrate for Gearbox.
How did you start to find your first records? Was it only you, in the beginning, doing the A&R?
I found them at the British Library and old jazz contacts I had, especially linked to BBC. It was a process of trawling through radio broadcasts, which had never been released. After trying to release some indie rock titles and failing because no-one knew who Gearbox was, I decided to release some great jazz names instead, an area where the rights were less jealously guarded. As this took off, I started to look at contemporary jazz, folk, and electronica; "music for the people." And this is where we have landed. I have always done the A&R and continue to do so because music taste is so subjective, so it's the best way to avoid arguments amongst my team! However, everyone at Gearbox is highly capable and come from excellent provenance musically (DJs and trained musicians etc), so when they scout something or have a commercial suggestion, I always take it on board.
Is it challenging to do everything analog for the recording process?
Yes, it is. Most of our releases are all analogue from recording to mastering, but several are not. They simply cannot be. For example, a vintage tape might need some sonic restoration before it is presented to the public, in which case we might go through a digital clean up process before putting it back down on to tape for lacquer cutting. We don't use a digital preview signal on the cutting lathe, and we don't upsample in the digital domain, so the chain is pure analogue off the pre-masters. Although I like to produce as many of our contemporary artists as possible, some come to us with the recording already done, and this might be in hi-res digital format from the recording studio. One thing we do do however is always put any digital content on to tape, so every release we have ever done is in analogue form at the end of the mastering process, so always AAA, ADA, DAA or DDA.
Where do you press your vinyl? and tell us a bit about the packaging and quality control as well.
We press the majority of our releases at Optimal in Germany because they have exquisite quality control, with lacquers routinely placed under an electron microscope before going through the galvanic process. We also always go through a test pressing stage on every release. Final QC comes in-home listening. Both Caspar (our mastering engineer) and myself have home systems which come from the same philosophy as our studio, ie. Audio Note components, single-ended Class A tube amplification, vintage Tannoy horn speakers, hi-res DAC equipment, and high torque turntables (e.g. idler wheel and powerful motors), and we check all-out test pressings and final releases in that environment as well as the studio.
Other plants used are Toyo in Japan for our Japanese editions, Vinyl Factory in UK, and Hand Drawn in US. All of them are best of breed.
You started to put out more genres over the last few years, what has caught your attention in the genre of electronic music?
I am currently enjoying the ambient electronica genre. We are soon to release Chihei Hatakayama, our first Japanese signing, which also has quite a following in US. Later in the year we have a young Scottish duo made up of classical guitarist Kevin Cahill and drummer Graham Costello, delivering a dark, drone, and loop driven type of ambient.
Tell us about how the turntable project came about? Why embark on such a difficult project with so much competition?
My favourite oxymoron I am touting about at the moment is elitism for everybody! At Gearbox our products must deliver high quality from writing to recording to finished product. No schlock here. However, I feel people shouldn't have to fork out uber high prices for good quality. It is possible to deliver high-quality products for more sensible prices by taking less margin and direct selling. I have long contested that if you listen to music playback in high quality, you can widen your genre tastes. So after developing a prototype turntable with Rega to emulate the sonics of the RP3, an affordable, high sonic quality with unique functionality turntable was born. I wanted it transparent so that you could see all the inner workings, a break from masculine black hardware. It also is the ultimate cross-over of analogue and digital, with on board phono stage, wireless connectivity, and analogue to digital conversion to be able to move your vinyl musings to the digital world by simply connecting. You can jukebox playlist your vinyl tracks to Spotify and can wirelessly connect to speakers, as well having the option to use traditional wired connectivity via you HiFi system. Significantly, it has a small footprint, so it needn't be placed in the traditional way that most HiFi setups are, which has appeal to those with limited space.
Yes there is competition, but we are only selling in low volume niche markets. Pro-ject manufacture it for us, so we can scale if necessary.
You are going into year 13, you have just opened up a Japanese office. What's next for Gearbox? Any plans for a US office?
We are focused on getting Japan up and running. This is the second-largest music market after the US, and our music and products are a good fit there. Having a local presence will help us exploit the nuances of that market. The US is also important for us. We have recently moved over to a US distributor for all worldwide territories and also have direct to fan fulfillment facilities there, so we have indeed boosted Gearbox infrastructure in the region. If all goes well, it is possible that we will open a Gearbox office there in the future. But this business is cash hungry, as producing records is expensive, and the time to recoup is long tail, and can be some 2 years later. We must go lightly!
Gearbox Records has released albums by up-and-coming artists such as Thiago Nassif, Theon Cross, Binker & Moses, and Butcher Brown, as well as established masters like Abdullah Ibrahim and Charles Tolliver and archival albums from all-time greats likes Yusef Lateef, Buddy Rich, Nico, Sun Ra, Thelonius Monk, and Dexter Gordon.