Gearbox Records Q&A – “Analogue to the Future…”

They’ve established a catalogue of stellar archive jazz recordings and contemporary releases, built a reputation for faultless vinyl remastering and even released their own turntable. Mike Gerber meets Darrel Sheinman, the man behind the Gearbox label

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You’ve thrived as a trader in London’s financial sector, then established a successful maritime security business… so, what do you do next? What Darrel Sheinman did, in 2009, was found a record label dedicated to producing quality audiophile vinyl.

Initially, it was something of a hobby for an audio enthusiast who in his downtime played drums, mainly in funk combos: “Because I played drums, I used to do my own recordings using cassette machines, overdubs, and playing along to one until the degradation got bad,” Sheinman tells us. “I’ve always had a fascination with tape. My dad had a reel-to-reel machine I used to play with and splice with when I was a kid.”

It was while attending an N.E.R.D gig that the yearning to start a label took hold: “They were playing with two drummers, they were so tight. I thought, ‘this is great’. So I tried to get the rights, because my wife’s best friend was doing the live streaming and video. But I was nobody, so no way would I get a licence to release that.

“So I went to the BBC and looked for rights I could easily get, things like radio broadcasts, and jazz for vinyl rights was easy. Hence we did the Tubby Hayes Jazz For Moderns, our first release.”

Tenor saxophonist and vibraphonist Hayes was one of Britain’s most revered jazz musicians, and the album was a first-ever commercial release of a 1962 broadcast. Archive-first releases continue to be a significant component of Gearbox’s burgeoning catalogue; the latest such is Dexter Gordon’s Fried Bananas, mastered from VPRO radio broadcast tapes recorded during the celebrated American jazz saxophonist’s 1972 Netherlands tour.

Sheinman has equipped the Gearbox premises, near London’s King’s Cross station, with a combination of some of the finest vintage and contemporary studio kit attainable. The mastering studio comprises four reel-to-reel professional tape recorders: a 1969 Studer H37 valve three- and four-track 1/2-inch, similar to the machine on which The Beatles recorded Sgt Pepper’s…; a 1965 Studer C37 1/4-inch ‘interchangeable’, again valve – reputedly one of the best-sounding tape machines ever – and a Studer A671, with interchangeable quarter- and half-track facility for playback of broadcast and domestic tapes where, for economy, both sides of the tape were used. This impressive quartet is rounded off by a 1965 ex-Decca-modified Philips Pro51 two-channel 1/4-inch tape machine with 30-inch-per-second tape-speed capability – not valve, but using sonically superior Germanium transistors.

Gearbox can therefore cover all formats and speeds – invaluable for handling historic recordings. Also acquired was an old EMT professional turntable from the BBC: “So if there’s nothing left but the vinyl, we’ll master off that, because it’s got X and R outputs, it’s got EQ,” Sheinman explains.
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Harmonic Distortion

Given the plethora of recording standards employed in the industry since the advent of vinyl, equalisation is crucial when processing old material. The EQ suite at Gearbox comprises two mastering desks. One is a modern Maselec (“an amazing piece of equipment”, says Sheinman); the other is an ex-Decca: “That’s a one-o , which is all-valve, so we can do valve-mastered products”.

Valves even figure heavily in the modern audio systems Gearbox relies on for monitoring purposes – all the amps are valve. So valves clearly sound better than transistor alternatives, in Sheinman’s opinion?

“Definitely. More open, warmer, better separation of instruments… Less reliable than transistors, which can sound quite clinical. To be honest, a valve sound is more distorted – it’s not distortion as people know it when you’ve got your speakers too high, but there’s a second-harmonic distortion, which creates a sweetness that people like.”
So does this mean slightly less fidelity? “It depends what your definition of ‘fidelity’ is; it’s a more natural sound, more musical. And when you’re mastering, listening for hours and hours, you don’t want your ears to go tired, because you don’t master correctly. So I firmly believe we can do a better job mastering, as well as the sound being better.

“Here, you’ve got a blend of vintage and modern stuff, because this is not a museum; we’re doing lots of sonic experimentation in  nding the best blend to make the best sound – our original philosophy. So we have an old Scully [vinyl cutting] lathe, which is the same make as the one Rudy Van Gelder used…” Sheinman tells us he contacted Van Gelder, the late record producer, legendary for the technical excellence of his work, notably for Blue Note, to ask about technique and “he authenticated everything”.

What started life as a sideline fast gained traction once Darrel decided, in 2012, to transform Gearbox into a full-time operation. “Having been an entrepreneur before, I know you can’t make a business successful unless you make it full-time,” he says.

He engaged Adam Sieff, who had been in charge of Sony UK’s jazz division, as executive producer. “What Adam brought was an understanding of how the industry works, how records are sold, marketed, how you do your release schedules. My limitations were how the music industry worked. He and I built up the label based on this philosophy that it’s all about high-quality product.”

Sieff has since retired; Darrel has not replaced him, but has instead absorbed his industry nous: “Now we’ve got all that in our toolbox and know how to use it.”

A further key appointment has been that of full-time mastering engineer Caspar Sutton- Jones, since the studio – besides its own releases – now undertakes a lot of third-party mastering for other labels and artists.
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All Directions at Once

While continuing to unearth fascinating historical recordings for  rst-time commercial release, Darrel is increasingly signing up contemporary artists: “The label’s moved on a bit; we were very jazz-focused, but we’re much more multi-genre now, though still jazz at our core. In fact, we’ve become more jazz, but started to focus a lot more on contemporary living artists. We seem to be getting a good foothold in this new UK jazz scene – so we’ve got Binker And Moses signed up.”

Tenor sax and drums duo Binker Golding and Moses Boyd’s semi-freeform first album, Dem Ones, won a MOBO; their follow-up, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever, notes Sheinman, “has really gone ballistic” in terms of sales and reviews.

Another British jazz artist Gearbox is poised to sign is  eon Cross, whose propulsive tuba blowing is über-contemporary. Before now, the tuba has mainly been viewed, jazz-wise, as the bass instrument in trad bands, especially in early recordings.

The label is also attracting American artists. “We’ve signed Butcher Brown, who are very much more funky jazz. We’re about to sign Dwight Trible, a Leon Thomas/Gil Scott-Heron/[Terry] Callier-type vocalist. We’re also building up a repertoire in Americana alt-folk: we just signed Ana Silvera; Applewood Road – that’s beginning to do very well for us; and folk duo Wild Ponies.”

Generic diversification is evident, too, on the Gearbox mini-album Tileyard Improvisations Vol. 1, a collaboration between electronic and techno producer Max Cooper, former Belleruche singer Kathrin deBoer and jazz trumpeter Quentin Collins. And the first release for a new initiative – Gearbox’s Valve Mastered Sevens series that entitles subscribers to receive exclusive 7″ singles – features rock artist Johnny Borrell, formerly with early-2000s indie band Razorlight. “It’s indie-rock with a bit of jazz/world sounds,” Sheinman explains.

“Adam used to say, are you a record company or a music company? We’ve probably become a bit more of a music company – vinyl-led, but we’re not vinyl-only anymore; we now do CDs, digital, cassettes, all formats.” Gearbox will even supply – at £300 a pop – reel-to-reel master-tape transcriptions of releases if, as Sheinman puts it, “people want that level of audiophile nuttiness”.
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Keeping it Reel

The label’s tagline is ‘future analogue’, yet some Gearbox releases are recorded digitally because, as Sheinman explains: “We don’t record every frontline artist that we exclusively sign; a lot of them like to do their own recordings. So they record somewhere else and they give us the digital, or the tape, whatever their format.”

Whatever the format, however, all Gearbox recordings, digital included, are analogue-mastered on the tape decks. Sheinman relates why: “Reel-to-reel is arguably the best sound there is. It’s somehow very cohesive – the tape binds the music together. It’s not like putting music through a compressor, there’s a sense of space. We had one hi-res source for one of our artists, Kate Tempest” – for the Gearbox album Brand New Ancients, on which performance poet Tempest is backed by an electro-acoustic quartet playing music composed by Nell Catchpole.

“And,” continues Darrel, “I was at the recording, so knew where she was in the room – slightly off-centre to the right. When we had the digital  le back – which was 96 resolution – it was really clear, really nice, but in the soundstage she sounded in the middle of the mix. When we then converted it off that hi-res back to tape, for some reason her voice, where she was in the mix, was exactly where she was in the room. And the people that hadn’t been at the recording, but that were at the mastering session, agreed that the tape sounded better. So that’s QED.”
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Gearbox Automatic

Gearbox’s dinky new portable turntable, with its inner electronics displayed proudly through the transparent casing, looks enticingly ultra-contemporary. Retailing at £499, it uses a Pro-Ject arm, an Ortofon 5 cartridge, set up optimally, and the platter is made of chunky glass. Under the casing, the belt-drive motor revolves the platter at 33 or 45rpm; the speed is adjustable electronically. An in-built valve phono stage means you just plug directly into your amp’s auxiliary, and Bluetooth enables use with cordless speakers or headphones.

“No other turntable in the world does everything this does,” claims Sheinman. “I’ve got patents pending on a chip we’ve programmed to tag the vinyl. So when you’re playing a record, it knows what you’re playing, sends it into the Cloud and we match it up against Gracenote. All the artwork and options are added to Spotify. The question that then arises is, what if you’re putting on vinyl that’s not in the digital domain? Each turntable’s got its own identifier, so everything can be database-matched in future… We’re taking analogue techniques into the future by not being closed-minded to digital, or to whatever the new future platforms are.”

Mike Gerber