A day with the artisan: Gearbox Records

Everyone’s familiar with artisan winemakers, bakeries and brewers – but how about an artisan record label?

Words by Will Hodgkinson

Gearbox Records

“We offer the complete audiophile experience, from recording to playback,” says Darell Sheinman, who in 2008 left a lucrative career as a maritime security specialist to set up Gearbox, a label, analogue and digital recording studio, mastering facility, vinyl cutting plant, record label and even turntable manufacturer occupying a tiny space in Tileyard Studios in London’s King’s Cross.

Gearbox is filled with the kind of equipment that helped make Sergeant Pepper great: an ultra-rare 1969 Studer H37 valve-powered tape machine, a 1959 Telefunken mixing desk, the same 1967 Scully lathe Blue Note cut their jazz classics on, and an EMT 948 turntable formerly owned by BBC’s Bush House, widely considered the best ever made. If you want to go into a studio to record your music, have it taped and mastered on high end equipment, pressed onto vinyl and even have somewhere to listen to the finished product, Gearbox is the place.

“After the maritime security became a bit too dangerous I just thought: I want to do something I really love,” says Sheinman, who went into vinyl production after seeing poor quality records flood the reissue market. “In 2008 I secured the rights to sessions recorded at the BBC by [British jazz giants] Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott. It kicked off from there.”

Gearbox Records

Sheinman built the studio in 2012. Recent releases include a Thelonious Monk recording from a legendary 1963 concert in Copenhagen and an album by the West Virginia jazz funkers Butcher Brown, recorded live at Gearbox and cut direct to disc on the lathe. Specialising in jazz but stretching into folk and pop, Gearbox is not so much a haven for vinyl elitists — the Monk album is available in a £12 CD form as well as limited edition £40 vinyl — as a vanguard of audio quality.

With both analogue and digital recording and mastering facilities, it is not for vintage purists either. The Gearbox turntable may have a 60s-style valve amplifier, which uses vacuum tubes to increase the power of the signal, but it also has Bluetooth and Wi-fi. Sheinman sees Gearbox not as a journey into the past, but an opportunity to bring the craftsmanship of making records into the modern age.

“I bought the Studer H37, and it was so great that I had to build a studio around it,” he says. “[Famed Amy Winehouse producer] Mark Ronson was building a studio next door, so we made a decision to link up and now a band can record in Mark’s live room and cut direct to disk or tape in here. Only good musicians need apply because you cannot clean up afterwards. That is the philosophy of Gearbox: to capture music as a snapshot in time. Production here is not about cobbling together bits of samples. It is about getting the right sound.”

Gearbox is, however, operating a time when the average person is content listening to music as a tiny digital file on their phone. The luxurious warmth of valve amplifiers may be eulogised by audiophiles, but isn’t this artisanal approach just one big folly?

“If you listen to a piece of music that is recorded well, mastered well, finished well, and then compare it to something recorded badly, mastered badly, played back badly, you will appreciate the difference,” says Sheinman. “It’s experiential. You sit there before a great stereo or CD player and the sound is so much better that you will engage. The challenge is getting people to that point.”

The Scully lathe
The Scully lathe

Gearbox is still a bijou concern. On my visit to the cramped studio/mastering facility/record label all four lab-coated employees are working within a few feet of each other: one prepares the lathe to cut a master disc, another signs for a shipment of turntables, a third prepares the Studer C37 for a mastering session and Sheinman is talking to me. But demand is increasing as more people realise just what has been lost in the name of technology and convenience.

“The goal is simple: to get the best sound possible,” Sheinman concludes. Gearbox proves that when it comes to making records, as with so much in life, the hand crafted wins over the mass produced any day of the week.