How Sheffield musical archivist'sÂ label is cutting it with handmade vinyl records
As the saying goes, if you want something doing, do it yourself '“ or, as the name of Jon Downing's cottage-industry record company puts it in classic Yorkshire dialect, Do It Thissen.
Jon, an enthusiast of Sheffield's music scene for decades, keeps a studio in the middle of the city where he puts out releases by local bands.
But Jon, who took early retirement from his job in IT, has gone further than most by taking delivery of a specially-made lathe cutting machine, allowing him to create small quantities of vinyl records for South Yorkshire acts.
While there are others offering such a service nationally, he believes he is the only person in Yorkshire able to produce discs in such a way.
'I think the nearest is a guy in Manchester,' he says. 'They're definitely all over the place, but I don't think there's anyone else in the vicinity. Not that I know of anyway. There could be but I've not found them.'
Jon '“ an inveterate collector of pop memorabilia, from singles and albums to gig posters, badges and ticket stubs '“ loved music from an early age, when his father took him to see New Orleans jazz bands. Later, as a teenager, he would come to Sheffield from his home in Rotherham to watch performers like David Bowie, Roxy Music and Genesis.
He went to study in Guildford in 1974, immediately joining the stage crew for university concerts, and returned to Sheffield for a graduate job at British Steel in 1978, when post-punk and early electronica was taking off. In his first week of living in the city he saw The Human League at the Limit Club, where they supplanted Kraftwerk as his favourite band.
The idea of releasing records was sparked by a meeting in 2012 with Sheffield musician Kevin Hobbi, of the punk band Hobbies of Today. Jon, who was exhibiting some of his archive at the Festival of the Mind, was given a CD of a long-lost EP by Kevin's group '“ tracks unheard since 1977. Enthused, Jon helped Kevin to revive his old record label and got the songs pressed up for a belated release which sold out all 200 copies.
Jon retired in 2017 and then launched Do It Thissen, which had been the title of his exhibition. EPs by Sheffield bands Thee Mightees and the Stunt Kites followed before he purchased the lathe-cutting device for â‚¬7,000 from a man in south-west Germany.Â
The seller, by all accounts, is quite choosy about his buyers.
'The guy is a bit of a character and I think he's got to want to sell you one,' says Jon. 'You've not got to come across as knowing more than he does or being offhand. He's got to know you and like you before he'll consider it. I think in the past he had a bad experience with just letting anybody have one. I applied and I was successful.'
Lathes, he points out, have been around '˜since the 50s or probably earlier', and his is an '˜entry-level' machine. 'There are really top-end ones that professional studios use for cutting acetates which are Â£100,000, probably more, so this is a nice way to do it and get reasonably high fidelity. It's not audiophile quality by any means but it's a good thing for a band that just wants to do a few cuts.'
Jon produces one record at a time from a CD source which needs to be mastered for vinyl, which he says is '˜an art in itself'. 'You have to make sure the bass is all in mono, in the centre of the stereo image '“ no wild panning or subfrequencies, nothing below about 100hz. If they were let through they'd certainly give you hard work. You wouldn't be able to cut for technical reasons.'
Trial and error is the best way to get to grips with the process. 'There are certain variables you can tweak on the machine, it's just a question of learning about those and trying. If it doesn't sound right, scrap it and start again. There's a reasonable support group among people who have these things. It's not like you're on your own trying to muddle through.'
Jon is working on a vinyl album for Do It Thissen by Michael Somerset Ward, and '˜a handful' of other releases are in the pipeline. 'I'm under no pressure to do these things so it's as and when really. It's quite casual and informal.'Â
The music scene in South Yorkshire is in a fairly healthy state, he feels, 40 years since he moved to Sheffield '“ and he admires the attitude of independent artists above all. 'I just like the ethos of them - doing it for themselves.'