Scratched Wax – Return to the Run Off Groove

in Blog, Scratched Wax, Vinyl by Gareth Peebles

On our last journey in to the run off groove I focused on the thrill of finding those clandestine messages that live where the record ends (‘Scratched Wax – The Magic of the Run Off Groove‘). This time we’re going to take a look at where these secret messages enter in to the pressing process and who is responsible for them.

As I learnt last time – to my great dismay – these words are not carved by tiny Borrowers with sharp sticks, but by men and women who play a huge role in getting a record in to the public domain. Mastering Engineers etch the messages in question at a key stage during the production process. These master craftsmen are responsible for creating the master discs from which a record is pressed, while ensuring that the master audio file being transferred from its source to vinyl, sounds as perfect as possible for the medium.

This is a huge technical undertaking that requires skill, finesse and a hell of a good ear. It’s one of those processes that puts such an emphasis on the engineer’s ability that it becomes something of an art form in itself, so it seems only fair that these artists get to put a name to their work. After all, these are the people responsible for ensuring that when the glossy black disc is cut, it spins perfectly and that the needle glides through the carved trenches with minimum resistance; as well as finding a happy home for the treble, bass and mids. Ensuring that they sit comfortably within their range, while still allowing them enough room to breathe…essentially, these guys put the cherry on the cake and while doing so they like to leave behind a trade signature to help identify their handy work.

After cutting the audio to the master lacquer (the records first iteration and “roughly 4 or 5 generations away from the finished product”) the engineers take this opportunity to make their mark. This is a crucial moment, because cutting in to this master lacquer ensures that the signature enters directly in to the DNA of the record. From this point on, every single iteration that is generated from this master will feature the signature – including the version that is made available for public release.

One of the most famous of these “signatures” is George Peckham’s ‘A PORKY PRIME CUT’ which he carved in to more records than most of us have had warm meals. After consulting a list of engineers signatures and pseudonyms at Discogs it seems fair to suggest that because of the sheer number of HUGE albums that Porky worked on, combined with the cheeky chappy charm that he scarified in to the collective consciousness, he is one of the men – if not the man – who inspired future artists to leave their mark in the run off groove.

There is an abundance of great material available online, written by enthusiasts who have also had their imaginations caught by these subversive messages and dutifully documented their findings (additional links to these can be found at the bottom of this page). But a solid place to start exploring from is this list over at Public Collectors – which provides a nice intro to the topic and details a thorough list of examples.

“There is a marked emphasis on underground and independent music including punk and metal, but some more mainstream artists appear as well.”

This quote, taken from the Public Collectors list, accurately summarises my own experience while researching this topic. There does seem to be a large emphasis within the independent, punk & metal genres to feature these secret messages. However, one thing that has surprised me is the lack of examples documented across the hip-hop genre – so if anyone has any then I’d love to hear them.

The thing is, there is something undeniably ‘punk’ about these run off signatures. A cheeky F-U to the labels and execs and done so in a creatively subversive, DIY fashion – instantly checking off a number of classic punk tropes with a few simple words. I mean, I would be shocked if the words found on The Clash’s, London Calling LP A: Tear B: Down C: The D: Walls were written with anything but a safety pin.

What’s more, before it became a common practice for engineers to leave more than just their initials, I imagine that label execs rarely ever noticed these subversive scrawlings and that must have given the engineers an immense amount of punk-as-fuck satisfaction. In the same way that I imagine a graffiti artist feels, walking anonymously passed their freshly painted wall. That warm inner glow that nobody else can see.

Here are a few great examples gleaned from my research:

Black Flag
My War
A: Exploring the inside of empty guns
B: Lookin for the markings of rifled thoughts. Is that it then?

Boogie Down Productions
Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love)

El-P *of Run the Jewels fame – the only hip-hop example I found
Fantastic Damage

Green River
Dry As A Bone
A: I wanted to love life…
B: But it wanted to be just friends

The tipping point of this phenomenon may be lost in the froth of space time foam forever now, but as long as records keep spinning there will always be a cheeky punky spawn of Porky waiting in the wings to leave their mark on the record industry and the imaginations of record collectors around the world.

What’s your favourite example? Let us know in the comments.


Dead wax speaks

Run out grooves not for nothing

Porky prime cuts and more

Vinyl etchings

About the Author

Gareth Peebles – I have always been in love with popular culture – but, being a child of the 80’s and part of “the MTV generation”, I suppose it’s fitting that the one constant in my pop culture obsession has been music. Music, music, music. All day, everyday, in every and any way that I can get it.

My first full time job was at a now defunct major label store – which I loved. Then I taught Media Theory & Production for a few years – which I also loved. Now I get to listen to music all day and create stuff using computers, which I love too!

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