High-Tech Throwbacks: Mobile Vinyl Recorders UpCycles CDs to Play like Vinyl Records

Electronic waste overflows in landfills all over the world, and many of the materials associated with this type of waste will take centuries to break down, if ever. Some components of computers are even toxic. Recycling has made an impact on global waste management, but society must think more resourcefully about items that cannot decompose and cannot be recycled. Upcycling and repurposing of electronic hardware represent an opportunity for both creative and industrial projects. 

A great example of cleverly upcycling e-waste is the small, hip, record-cutting company Mobile Vinyl Recorders. MVR was lathe-cutting upcycled CDs with new tracks, live this year inside the Toyota Tent at AfroPunk Brooklyn 2016. This differs from burning CDs with tracks both in the physical process and in the outcome. These CDs can be played on a record player. Hipsters and tech enthusiasts alike watched as Mike Dixon of Mobile Vinyl Recorders gave new life to old objects, driven by a passion for music and a medium. Some of Mike Dixon’s other projects involve cutting records on materials like chocolate. 

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Mike and partner Kris Dorr looked like mad scientists, dressed in lab coats, while carefully monitoring the vintage Presto 6N lathes cuttting CDs to play like vinyl. I got the chance to talk to Mike about Mobile Vinyl Recorders, a project that combines performance art with education and upcycling.

1) Why do you think it is important to promote vinyl records, or any analog music playing medium, when we have limitless access to digital music at our fingertips? 

I think that having a tangible, physical way of interacting with music is important.  Making a conscious choice to spend money on a single piece of art or music gives it an extrinsic value that streaming cannot provide. 

2) What inspired you to start experimenting with cutting records on nontraditional materials? Do you have a favorite of your experiments?

 I’ve always loved upcycled art. Making beautiful and unique art pieces out of things that would be discarded or from objects that are unrelated to what they eventually become. Every experiment is new and exciting to me. I love making things that have never been made, or putting a new twist on things that have. I want to make objects that confuse and bewilder people.  Things that they want to show off to their friends. I want to promote artists that I really love and believe in at the same time.

         ---->Also, what happened when you played the cacao record? 

We played it once (sounded pretty good), and then ate it (tasted even better). 

3) You have divided your vinyl projects up, each into individual companies. Why expand into five companies instead of one with multiple departments? 

Each of the companies has a different ethos and target market. And, in some cases, different people involved.  Lathecuts.com was a for-hire short run record manufacturer for small bands, and has now become an aggregator for my former employees who now work in my studio as a co-op and run their own businesses doing the same thing, independently. MobileVinylRecorders.com cuts records live at festivals and events (we’ve done Coachella, SXSW, Mardi Gras, Pfork Chicago and Paris, Afropunk, Sundance Film Festival, etc) for corporate clients, ScienceofSound.org goes to libraries and schools to present about the science and history of recorded sound, and PIAPTK/Soild Gold are record labels specializing in weird and unique formats and packaging. They all have their own personalities, and I like for them to be understood on their own terms, not necessarily as a piece of a whole.

3) One of your companies, Mobile Vinyl Recorders, brings what could be called a reinvented vintage experience to the public. Why do you think this resonates with bystanders? What has been your favorite venue to take Mobile Vinyl Recorders and why?

Vinyl records have been around for 130 years, but most people don’t actually understand how they work or how they are made. Maker culture is on a huge upswing, and we help to take a little bit of the mystery out of it, while simultaneously drawing attention to the incredible science behind it. All of our gigs have been incredible, but our month long residency on the canal in Paris is probably my favorite.

5) I know MVR takes upcycled CDs and cuts a new song onto them, but they can still be played in a CD player as well as on a record player. Can you explain a little more about how the lathes work/the technical process?  

The cutter head (which holds the cutting needle) acts like a tiny speaker. But, instead of having a paper cone that pushes the sound waves through the air, it focuses the waves to the tip of the tiny needle (made with a sharpened ruby).  As the ruby vibrates, it scratches the grooves into the disc, which is turning underneath it.  The groove is actually the physical representation of the sound wave. 

6) Do you have any advice to give young tinkerers, innovators, and entrepreneurs about entering a market that is already filled with massive and long-standing corporations? How have you found your niche?

My advice is to not try to move into the pressing side of records. Pressing records is a huge industrial process that takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to enter.  I would never even dream of it. What I do is on the experimental lathe cut side.  I make records one at a time, rather than by the hundreds. The investment is much smaller, the learning curve (while steep) is more manageable, and the market is easier to reach. If you want to make records, buy a record lathe (if you can find one) and start out slow. It has to be an obsession, not a casual hobby. It’s a horrible business model, extremely expensive and time consuming, and there is no real way to make much money at it. I’ve been doing it for almost a decade, am one of the most well-known in my tiny field, have 20 machines, and yet I still make about the same yearly income as I would slinging fast food.  And I work twice as many hours. But, it’s what I love. It’s a passion and it has led to me working with artists and bands that I wouldn’t have dreamed of when I started.  

I found my niche by being creative, working hard, and being there before the beginning. The Vinyl Revival was still a couple years away when I started, and I happened to be one of the few people doing what I did when it started to come around. 

Thank you Mike for sharing so much with me today!

This is one of Mike’s many vinyl projects that bring art, music, and science together. To learn more about his other pursuits and experiments with strange materials and record players please check out his website http://www.michaeldixonvinylart.com/ .  

To paint the picture, please view this original montage of Afropunk Brooklyn 2016.