The vinyl revival has seen sales continue to grow for the 15th consecutive year. In terms of revenue, vinyl has recently outsold CD for the first time since the 80s! (Although CDs are still outselling vinyl by 2 to 1 units). CD sales have declined every year since their peak in 2000, just as digital music emerged into how we know it today. However, the LP has somewhat seen the opposite happen with an unpredicted resurgence.
So it’s no surprise that bands, artists and labels are asking me for vinyl masters to go with their masters for digital and CD.
What is vinyl mastering?
Vinyl mastering is the process of optimising your masters for the vinyl medium, taking into account the limitations of the format and making adjustments to the audio to ensure the best possible sound quality. The end result is a ‘vinyl pre-master’ which the cutting engineer uses to produce a master lacquer disc. This is used to create metal stampers for pressing the records.
How do vinyl masters differ from your main master?
It’s important to not use an existing master as the source for a vinyl press. If the regular mastering process used for digital formats is used for vinyl, it can result in poor sound quality, distortion, increased surface noise and other issues during the cutting process.
Most of the process is exactly the same. I master as normal and the same files captured from my analog gear are used for all masters. The main difference is in the overall volume and limiting. Vinyl cutting heads don’t like cutting at a constant volume so most peak limiting is removed. This is why vinyl can often sound more dynamic and open. The shortcomings of vinyl actually demand a less-squashed master which will normally result in a better-sounding, louder cut.
The songs are sequenced into the right order and provided on one file per vinyl side.
Since vinyl is an analog medium, it is important to deliver the highest resolution and sample rate possible to ensure that the audio is accurately and meticulously transferred to the master lacquer disc. This results in a final product that sounds as close to the original recording as possible.
In addition, I provide a comprehensive track sheet to the cutting engineer, which helps them to understand the timings, the layout of the songs and the intended sequence.
Things to consider
One of the main restrictions with vinyl is the maximum length per side. Basically, the shorter the better for superior sound. The sweet spot is generally considered to be around 20 minutes per side, which allows for optimal sound while keeping the record size manageable. However, it is possible to get longer playing times of up to 25 minutes per side with decent sound quality. With longer sides, the cutting engineer will have to compromise between low-end bass and overall level to fit more grooves onto each side. A lower signal-to-noise ratio will result in more audible surface and background noise. Ultimately, the optimal length will depend on the specific recording and the preferences of the artist.
Test Press Approval
The pressing plant will often supply a small number of test pressings for the artist, label and mastering engineer to approve before commencing the run. Please feel free to send me a copy so I can listen on my reference vinyl playback system and compare it to the original master. If there are any issues then I can compile a report.
When pressing vinyl, there are several ‘non-mastering’ things to consider:
- Vinyl Durability: Vinyl is a brittle medium and the records should be pressed to a thickness that will ensure they last a long time without warping or becoming damaged. Consider 180g thickness.
- Vinyl Colour: The colour of the vinyl can also be a consideration. Standard black vinyl is the most common, but other colours are available for a unique look. Black vinyl tends to be higher in quality with less surface noise.
- Run Size: The number of records to be pressed should be considered. The cost per unit decreases as the quantity increases.
- Label and Catalog Number: The record should have a label and catalog number that allows it to be easily identified and found by customers.
- Packaging: The records should be packaged in a way that protects them during shipping and handling.
- Pressing Quality: Pressing plants have different quality standards and it is important to choose a reputable one that has a good track record of producing high-quality records.