National Sound Corporation: Ron Murphy

Posted on August 1st, by Tim Langham in 20, Interviews. 1 Comment

Ask any techno enthusiast who is responsible for making the Detroit’s techno sound heard throughout the world and they’ll probably give you names like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Richie Hawtin, or Jeff Mills.  True, each of these producers gave Detroit music to be proud of again, and after its introduction to Europe they became “techno ambassadors” to the world on Detroit’s behalf.  Ask most people who Ron Murphy is, and you’re bound to get many puzzled looks.  No, he’s never been to a “rave” or a club, and really doesn’t have much desire to, but his work has been experienced by almost everyone who has.  Ron Murphy is almost single-handedly responsible for allowing Detroit’s techno pioneers and successors to produce vinyl copies of their groundbreaking tracks that provided ground-shaking sound.  Without Mr. Murphy’s technical expertise and genuine love for his work, Detroit techno may never have gotten the worldwide recognition it deserves.

I met Ron at his studio, which is located a little to the east of Detroit in Wayne, MI.  After a short walk down a hallway, I found myself in front of a rather large amount of recording equipment.  Sitting in a chair in front of it all was Mr. Murphy with a bowl of Chef Boyardee pasta.  After some brief fumblings with my portable tape recorder, the interview began…

Ron grew up in Detroit in the 50’s, and lived there for 47 years until moving to Wayne four years ago.  For as long as he’s been able, Ron has been cutting records.  “I’ve cut records nearly all my life, on and off.  I [always] had a cutting lathe somewhere, whether it was in my bedroom, living room or in a little storefront that was rented where we stored stuff.”  His interest in records started after learning what really went on in a radio broadcasting studio when he was young.  Though the many aspects of the workings of a radio station would enthrall any kid, “once I found out there were records, I was fascinated by it.”

Although the sound on Ron’s records today is top-notch, things weren’t the same in the beginning.  “In ’59, I got a comic book and there was an ad from a place that sold these little buzzers and x-ray glasses, and they had this thing that said, ‘record your voice at home, just send us $6.98 and we’ll send you everything you need…  full supply of blanks, cutting needles, everything…  it all hooks up to your phonograph.’  So what did I get? I sent them my money and I got this plastic horn.  It went down to a little diaphragm, and they sent you a couple little cardboard cutting records to cut on… coated cardboard.  But you know, I cut on that, and you’re screaming in it and you can’t even hear it play back- I said ‘this isn’t going to work.’  From there I got different equipment and lathes and said ‘no, this isn’t going to work’, or ‘this isn’t going to cut.’  Finally I worked up to the better stuff, but it started from that basic toy.”

After working in recording studios for several years, Ron started a record store with another guy from the area.  The store was basically oldies records, located at 17610 West Warren, 2 blocks from the Southfield Freeway in Detroit.  Eventually, his partner became interested in cutting records, so they bought the system that came to be used for most of the Detroit techno records we hear today.  Eventually the lathe became a bigger part of what they were doing.  The primary use for the lathe was going to be cutting dubs for people with jukeboxes, or people who wanted old 78s transferred to 45s.  However, that changed the day Derrick May and Juan Atkins wandered in to the store.  Derrick saw the lathe and asked Ron if he would cut him a dub.  Ron agreed and Derrick came back the next day with his DAT machine.

After getting the equipment set up, Ron sat down at the lathe and asked “‘OK, what do you want me to do?’ and [Derrick] said ‘you just do it any way you want to do it.’  He wanted to see what I was gonna do.  I think it was something he had already mastered somewhere.  He brought a couple records with him, so I cut the record and he listened to the one record, and he said ‘play this record,’ and then ‘now play the record you cut’ and he jumped up and down and said, ‘damnit!  I always knew a record could sound like that with that low end.’  So the next day Juan [Atkins] came in and I cut him a dub, and he liked it.  Then the amplifier blew up.  It wouldn’t take all that low end and all that level at the same time.”

After getting the cutting lathe set up to cut masters, which require better sound quality than dubs, Ron started National Sound Corporation in 1989.  Initially Ron’s main customers were Derrick May and Juan Atkins.  However, they couldn’t provide all of the business Ron needed to keep his new company alive, so he started an advertising campaign of sorts by inscribing “NSC” in the runout grooves of the record. “That was a good idea because a couple months later, after I started doing a lot of these guys’ masters, I’m pretty sure it was Derrick [May], came in again and I was cutting some stuff.  He says, “yeah, everybody’s asking us where we’re cutting our records, but we’re not telling them!  It’s a secret!’  I said ‘yeah, that’s why I’m putting NSC in there, because I’ll go out of business cutting records just for you.'”   That was indeed a good idea, because if you look on the vinyl near the label of almost any techno record to come out of Detroit, you’ll see “NSC” inscribed there.

Even with Ron’s limited number of customers, it wasn’t long before the letters “NSC” became a mark of excellence for a techno record.  “Mike Banks (UR) told me a funny story one time.  A few years ago, he was in London.  He likes to go around incognito sometimes into stores and see what they’re doing with his records, and to see if everything is on the up-and-up.  He won’t say anything, and he might come in disguised, in case he thinks that someone might recognize him.  So he was in this one store in England a few years ago and these two guys were standing over by the twelve inch records and saying ‘no… no…  oh!  Here’s a good one… here, here’ and they kept opening them and looking at them and were getting a stack, but he couldn’t figure out what was making the difference between good and bad.  He noticed they were putting what he thought were some good records over here, and he couldn’t make any reason out of the ones they were picking so much, and they said, ‘well, these are the good ones because they’ve got ‘NSC’ on them.  That’s how we know they’re good!”

Still not sure what Ron does?  Honestly, sometimes he doesn’t do much at all.  If someone sends him a tape that sounds good already, there isn’t much to do besides cut the master lacquer, which is what is sent to a pressing plant so they can make copies of it.  “In the early days, I helped these guys work on their tapes a lot, more than I do now.  As far as techno, that started here, but it started at a time when there was nothing here anymore.  Motown had left.  Nobody was doing anything; all the quality studios had closed.  Kids were in their basement doing things, experimenting.  A lot of these guys, like Juan [Atkins], Derrick May, Mike Banks, and these guys had the talent for doing that, but when it came to the technical part, they didn’t have anybody to learn that from.  They had to learn that on their own.  I was lucky that I was able to learn from people with a lot of recording experience.  These guys [Juan Atkins, Derrick May, etc.] didn’t have too much experience in that…  Basically I take a digital tape that ain’t got nothing to do with a record, and I have to make it a record and make it sound like other records.  That’s what they want.  They want their product to sound like someone they’re familiar with.  If their idol is Jeff Mills, they want their record to sound as loud as Jeff Mills’ or have the same low end.  Sometimes they’re coming to me because that’s what they want theirs to sound like.”

Although sometimes the tapes themselves don’t need much work, Ron doesn’t just press a button and watch the cutting head move across a blank lacquer, carving the tiny grooves which later move the needle on your record player to reproduce the sound.  In many cases that’s far from the truth.  Mastering involves first making sure that everything sounds good, and that overall mix has a “hot” sound.  This can involve a lot of EQing, which may sound easy, but to make a record that’s going to sound clean and exciting, it takes a trained ear and lots of experience at the controls.  A lot of producers can give their tracks an “interesting” sound with all sorts of effects, but in the end, the sound doesn’t stand up unless it gets a quality mastering job.

New technology has made lots of complicated audio processing tools available to more people, but the effects they produce are often little more than a novelty, and can end up being annoying instead of inspiring.  “You listen to some of these things on CDs, and you know that some of these engineers are deaf.  They’re just plain deaf, man.  And they want everything to spit, you know, the ‘essing.’  They want to have the exciter on there and the esses have to go sssssshhhhhit! And you can’t cut that on a record, you have to ‘de-ess’ that all.  But they think it sounds good.  All that stereo imaging, they make it wide and big and I just have to take it back down because those things aren’t going to work on records.”

Once the tape sounds good, the master lacquer (or dub) has to be cut.  This seems like an easy job, but to get that “loud” sound people want, it requires the kind of experience Ron has.  However, don’t confuse “loud” or “hot” on a record with “loud” or “hot” on a sound system.  “A hot record doesn’t mean loud, level wise.  If you have a crappy sounding tape, you can turn it up as loud as possible and it still won’t sound hot.  It’s a combination of the right EQ and the level.  Both together make the record hot sounding.”

Naturally, plenty of people have turned to him for help turning their tracks into top-selling records.  He quickly became more familiar with what was going on musically in the techno scene than many producers and DJs because he was exposed to more of it than anyone else.  Being someone from the Motown era, it’s a little bit surprising that he didn’t go crazy listening to all this ‘devil music’ over the years.  “I’m a Motown guy, so you’ll probably ask me, ‘do I like any of these things?’  Yeah, I like some of it.  Depends if it’s got a beat and if it’s clever.  I don’t care what it is, even techno; there’s too much of it now.  I don’t care what kind of music you’re doing; it has to be clever in order to stand above the rest.  There’s a lot of product out there, and I’ve cut a lot of it.  Mike Banks will come in and ask me sometimes, ‘what do you think?’  And I say, ‘why you askin’ me?’ and he says, ‘because you listen to more than I do’…  Over the last 3 years, [I] did over 1000 12″ masters a year, and then there’s dubs.  It’s slowed down some this year, but I think that’s due to some of the distributors dropping, and not wanting to handle these smaller labels, so some people just stop making records.”

It’s not just producers who have grown to respect Ron’s mastering skills.  Once, someone from Tresor called for advice.  “They were having trouble cutting records.  [They said] ‘we’re having a problem with distortion on the high end and we wanted to get some ideas from you as to why we’re getting that problem, because we noticed that most of your records have a real good high end on them.  It’s not distorted.”  As an example, they cited Jeff Mills’ ‘Waveform.’  Of the three versions cut- one by Ron, one by Tresor, and one by Sony, Ron’s sounded the best.

With his background it’s  hard to imagine how in the world he got involved mastering techno records.  “When I started, I was doing a lot of soul and R+B and Motown stuff, because I started working in the studio when I was 18.  That’s kind of my specialty in music, and maybe that’s what I was cutting this techno better maybe than some cut it because I was only going by the old Motown records.  We had a lot of low end and bass and we had a beat and their records were cut louder and so on and I knew that was what these guys wanted…  Plus I had been cutting a long time.  Some guys who cut are afraid they’re going to burn the cutting head out or this and that and they’re not familiar with it and they’ll cut it nice, but it won’t be good like the records coming out of Europe.”

It wasn’t just Murphy’s great-sounding records that made him so popular with producers.  He also was willing to help the producers do different things with the records themselves.  “In the beginning some of the guys were saying, ‘what can I do different?’ because they were into that.  I had no problem writing things into the wax for people.  A lot of places won’t even want to bother, but I used to tell them ‘OK, you want me to write something in here?’ So I would volunteer to do it.  That led to some funny stuff, you know.  Richie Hawtin, Plus 8, John Acquaviva, they would [come here and] start writing, trying to figure out what they were going to put on the record, their little story.  I would make a test cut of {their record] and I’d play it, and they’d be sitting there [more concerned with] ‘what are we gonna do, let’s put this…’ and I’d say, ‘hey, there’s your test cut,’ and ‘oh, yeah… OK…  what are we gonna put now…’  It started catching on and so I started doing it for other people and other people cutting records had to start doing it.  [John and Richie] got mad one time and said ‘look, this time write ‘We are the original techno groove writers.’  [But] people kept doing it so they said ‘to hell with it’ and gave up.”

Groove writing wasn’t the only trick Ron had up his sleeve.  “I tried to get them to do a record backwards.  I could do that- in fact that’s the way records were originally cut- going from the label out.  Everyone kept asking me what could they do different.  I kept saying ‘cut it backwards,’ because I wanted to do it.  I said ‘this is gonna be cool and I can get some more business this way’ because it would be something different.  I was trying to talk somebody into it.  UR passed on it, and Plus 8 passed on it, but Jeff Mills said “OK, we’ll do it next time.”  Kevin [Saunderson] came in next, [asking] ‘what can I do different on this record,’ and I said, ‘cut it backwards,.’  He stopped for a minute and I thought he was going to say no, and then he went, ‘well, wait a minute, how would that work?’   I guess he was trying to figure out how he was going to scratch or whatever with the record and I said, ‘well it will just go from the label out, it won’t make no difference.'”

Even though techno lovers may be offended when someone claims the music is too repetitive, it’s probably not too uncommon to find someone who has wondered if their record player is stuck when listening to some records.  “I’d been cutting for a year or so, and I started noticing a lot of these samples and stuff- [the producers] were actually just making loops.  Some of them were really bad, you know, just looping over and over again.  So I said, ‘I wonder if I can do just one groove- actually cut a loop with one groove continuous and it would just play there until it wore through to the other side of the record.’  Jeff Mills came in with this project called ‘The Rings of Saturn’ and he said, ‘what can we do different?’  I said … why don’t we cut a track and then put these rings around it on the outside? Once again, he got into his little paperwork and I started EQing the track up, the main track he had, and I started hearing a loop in there… ‘da-da-da-da-da… da-da-da-da-da…’   Not knowing that it had to be exactly 133bpm [for the loop to work].  I cut a little bit of the track, and I just tried that, not knowing… never did it before, never practiced it before, so I just played it… Jeff was there writing up some information about his label -they usually sometimes do that when I’m cutting – believe it or not, that’s what they use that time for- and I played the loop.  It’s perrrfect… perrfect… no glitch or nothing.  I’m just playing it- I was amazed myself- and it’s just playing, playing, playing.  And Jeff was writing and all of a sudden he looks up because I guess a hi-hat or something should have changed, and all of a sudden it ain’t changin’, something should be happening, and it he’s like ‘wwwh what’s happening?!?’  I said ‘that’s the loop I was telling you about.’  He jumped up and he was looking at that record and it’s just one groove and he looked at me and said, ‘do you know what this means?'”

The music isn’t the only thing Ron has seen grow and change.  The people behind the music are just as familiar to Ron as their music is.  “Most of the guys are very well-mannered, intelligent, and some of these guys started [young] but they’ve grown up now.  Sometimes they’ll bring their little kids in.  They went and got married.  Robert Hood or Terrence Parker will bring his little baby girl in.  They’re moving along… Most of the guys, we have a lot of laughs and some fun.”  Ron has rarely been put off by many of the techno producers he’s dealt with over the years.  “I can’t think of many thugs in techno- though with rap, that’s where you deal with the dope dealers coming in.  I had one guy come in last week and paid me all in ten-dollar bills and we knew what he was selling.”

Ron has no plans to stop mastering records anytime soon.  “I’m not retiring.  I may die, but hopefully I’ll be around to see the end of it.  Hopefully there won’t be a need for records much longer.”  His love for music has allowed Detroit techno artists to touch audiences worldwide, and has helped them to continually push the music forward.  He is planning on hiring another person to cut dubs, because he doesn’t have enough time to keep up with both mastering jobs and doing dubs.

Also in the works is a new record label, NSC.  There will be a double picture disc out in stores in September.  The records were being manufactured at the time of this interview.  One side will have a picture of Ron’s $7 recording lathe that got him started when he was 12.  “My intention is to get these guys together and have an all-star kind of thing.  See if we can get some competition going.  Try to put the best guys together on record, and find out who comes up with the best track for it.” There will be a Mike Banks track titled ur046, a track from Shake, a borrowed track from Kevin Saunderson.  Ron’s stepdaughter will even be singing on it.  Submerge will do the distribution.

Although he hasn’t been active in the party or club scenes, nearly everyone who is owes their damaged hearing to Ron Murphy’s records.  Speaker-hugging (at least in Detroit) wouldn’t have been such a tactile experience and high-end distortion might have been enough to shatter glass at four hundred paces.  His open mind, creativity and love for his work have provided every Detroit techno fan with a record collection whose sound quality matches its ingenuity.

“A lot of people will say “I like records better…  they’re warmer sounding.  ‘Analog is better, it’s warmer.’  Actually I like digital better, if it’s recorded right, I don’t care, because it’s cleaner, but the thing is, it’s numbers, and numbers don’t change, and they don’t take into account the hearing of the human ear.  You can put so much on there you can’t stand it, it’s so harsh to your ear.

When records are cut, the little cutting head’s got little tiny speakers per se, little coils, so it’s built more around the human hearing.  You just can’t cut some of those digital things on records.  Records are records, tapes are tapes, CDs are CDs.  They’re all different, and obviously records, you know I hate to talk bad about records, but if records were the optimum thing, then that’s all there would be.”

Also, Ron says that, contrary to popular belief, dubs (dubplates, acetates, etc.) will last as long as vinyl records, provided they are taken care of.  With dubs though, the oil from your hands really messes them up, and there isn’t a good way to wash it off.  If you use record cleaning solution, it will eat away at the lacquer very quickly.  You can use a mild soap solution, but that doesn’t always do the job.  Ron has dubs that he cut back in the ’50s and they still play.  Of course the time you’ve kept them doesn’t have anything to do with how many times you’ve played them, but basically, if you handle them by the edges (which is difficult for many DJs) then they will last basically as long as a vinyl record.