Teenage Engineering’s Record Factory is a DIY musician’s dream Engadget

The digitization of the music industry has leveled the playing field for artists. An album could be written, recorded and released from a bedroom without an expensive recording studio or predatory record label. This DIY ethic is nothing new. Bands have been recording and releasing albums on their own or outside friendly record stores for decades.

Digitization has also created an abundance of available music, which can make it difficult for new bands or artists to break through the noise. Plus, popular artists with record deals still get the lion’s share of the attention. I’m pretty sure every Beyonce release is now a national holiday. For every other artist, the advent of vinyl and cassette has revived the ability to offer or sell something tangible to their fans—a physical keepsake that can provide a stronger emotional bond with the music. While making copies of tapes has been a household hobby since the 1980s, vinyl required a third party who specialized in cutting records. At least until recently.

Teenage Engineering’s $149 Record Plant PO-08 combines the nostalgia of a Fisher-Price turntable with the utility of a machine that can actually cut vinyl. You will have to put it together yourself and master each song specifically for the device. Even after all that work, your music will likely sound like it’s being played over an AM radio. This may sound like a nightmare to some, but it can be great for others.

Roberto Baldwin/Engadget

The PO-08 is a rebranding of the magazine’s publisher’s “Easy Record Maker” – a record cutter/player designed by Yuri Suzuki. Teenage Engineering worked with Suzuki to release their edition and also included an interview with the designer in the supplied magazine/instruction booklet.

Although the turntable looks like a toy, Teenage Engineering tells you (over and over again) that it’s not recommended for children under 12. It’s really designed for “kids” between the ages of 17 and 64 – the kind of person with three bands, strong opinions about direct drive turntables, a very active Discogs account and a DIY attitude. Oh, and also the patience needed to fiddle with the tiny bits for hours to create a single, imperfect mono version of a song. Yes, it works, but it’s a Lo-Fi representation of a professionally created record; The plant is an EZ oven baked vinyl.

The Record Plant takes about 60 to 90 minutes to build, and helps give you the confidence to take it apart when you realize, for example, that you haven’t connected the needle cable securely. I had to do exactly that when there was no sound after I first put the device together – everything seemed to work but there was no real sound.

Having to put the machine together also lends an insight into the inner workings of the record factory, which is very clever. The cutting needle vibrates through a small loudspeaker to etch sound onto one of Teenage Engineering’s disc blanks. A small gear system moves the needle and after three to four minutes (depending on the recording speed), your song is recorded on vinyl.

But all that leads to is a series of modifications. If you’re the type that requires something to “just work” without much of a fix, stay away from PO-08.

You start with your original recording and at the end of the engraving, you get a mono representation. Single channel audio is a technical limitation of the device. To ensure that the audio coming in is mono, Record Factory comes with a minijack cable that takes the left and right channels of your stereo signal and merges them together. You also end up losing fidelity, which is another technical limitation. The upper and lower ends of a song can easily get muddy, and too much bass causes the cutter’s needle to jump.

A rotating table with an arm ending in a cutter touching a black disc.

Roberto Baldwin/Engadget

You can try to fix this yourself, but it’s best to use Teenage Engineering’s online audio mastering tool. Just upload the file, wait a few minutes, and the site will come up with something that works best for the device. This process causes all the intricate details of your song to be lost. The low end becomes a little muddy or disappears completely while the high end loses its bite. If you’re looking for crisp, accurate reproductions, skip the PO-08 altogether.

After a full 45 minutes of mastering your audio, you can cut a recording. At that time, you will adjust the pressure of the trim lever, listen very carefully to the audio that is being sent to the device to make sure it is not distorted, and if so, turn the volume down. But you can’t go too low, or the signal won’t be strong enough to engrave. This means that you have to open the equalizer and make adjustments (many adjustments) until it sounds good (enough).

Now you’re ready to put it on the wax (as they used to say in the old days). Except before you make a record that you can share, you need to cut out the audio on a test vinyl. You record for 10 seconds, wash the disc with water to get all the excess bits out of the grooves, then switch Record Factory to play mode and listen to your masterpiece.

Close up of needle cutting at Teenage Engineering Recording Factory.

Roberto Baldwin/Engadget

Test history isn’t much of a problem until you realize Teenage Engineering has sold out of the discs ordered for the turntable and hasn’t shared information about when they were back in stock. This makes the test more important.

A word of caution: the cutter slows down the turntable, so when running at normal speed it may sound a little louder. Like squirrels low level high. So be sure to drop your file into the relevant online tools to tune your song. Except it probably still needs work if you want to get the closest representation of your song from a PO-80, which means you’ll have to, surprise surprise, do a lot more tweaks. I did five test runs before I was finally ready to make my first home vinyl record of a song.

On top of all that, the turntable itself isn’t a great player either. It seems that you are listening to music from the depths of the sea. It’s fun to create and play on the same machine, but it’s better to transfer the disc to a suitable turntable. On my Technics SL-1200 MK2, the mono audio with high and low frequencies cut off sounded a bit off compared to the original, and the fidelity is nowhere near as good as the professional vinyl in my collection. However, this is exactly what I expected and I am happy with the end result.

The record plant lives or dies according to its owner’s expectations. There are two types of people in this world: those who lose their sanity and patience in dealing with the smallest inconvenience and those who live for tinkering and experimentation.

Front view of Teen Engineering Record Factory PO-08.

Roberto Baldwin/Engadget

The second group are people like me, who are excited about the difference in sounds between a home produced record, cassette and digital file. My band usually records on eight-track digital, but I also use a four-track cassette from the late ’80s. There is just something special about sending a vinyl record to a home produced fan. The PO-08 is for people who find beauty in the potential for error in DIY analog recordings.

The Record Factory will find its niche from users who spend endless hours creating a completely imperfect vinyl copy of their song. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t already have a PO-08 turntable, they’ll have to find one of these beauties on eBay or Craigslist. A power move is to look for the Gaken-branded version on eBay. These turntables are much cheaper (under $100) than the Teenage Engineering version.

Teenage Engineering told Engadget that they have no plans to produce more turntables that have sold out which is unfortunate. Not every musician can own hundreds of recordings produced by a third party. But, if they can find a record factory (they currently sell for $250 to $500), they can cut one-of-a-kind vinyl that they can share with friends and fans while they wait to make it big. As long as they’re happy to do it on a game designed for patient geeks who are happy to be honest in trading for the real thing.

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