You’ll get no argument out of me, vinyl records are to CDs what CDs are to mp3s. I don’t care about a little surface noise or so-called ‘comprimised’ top-end; comparatively, vinyl LPs are to mother’s milk what CDs are to canned formula. It has been made crystal clear precisely why I feel this way in previous rants, but basically, it comes down to the fact that we hear in analogue. Whereas it may be that digital is a more compact storage medium, that is the only advantage that I will attribute to it. Analoge tape is the real item and digital sound reproduction is akin to the projected image on the screen. Digital ‘sound’ is an illusion to our ears and more importantly, our essence. The adverse effect is in what you don’t hear. Sterility is fine for the hospital but awful when used in the music industry. For instance, those drop-dead sound-proof studios back in the 70’s were the worst. They’d suck the life right out of you. You could even lose your balance in them, which I personally did. I always wondered if that wasn’t why the session players usually sat.
Now, I could argue that the eventual ruination of popular music can be traced directly back to the introduction of digitally recorded music. But I’ll save that for another article. After all, pop music has always sucked a little bit in some way or the other, it just sucks a whole bunch more now.
So you and your band are considering a vinyl record release? If you record to tape, due to certain limiting physical anomolies of the medium, you already have a bit of a fail-safe built in. If you are recording in the digital realm, get ready for a bunch of new rules, but I hope that, either way, you haven’t started mixing yet. And you’ll be better off if you haven’t even begun to record. Your involvement in the entire process just got bumped up several notches and it starts in the studio. For you folks who record digitally, it isn’t a as simple as finalising and torching the hottest CD possible. Physical limitations carry over to the vinyl and stylus, too.
First, it pays to bear in mind that, on a stereo LP, there are three ‘channels’ of information being cut into the groove that the stylus runs through, and how well that happens depends largely on your mixing skills. Not only do we have discrete left and right information (and a combination of the two, depending on the stereo pan), there is mono information as well, and this information is cut into the bottom of the groove. During the inception of stereo records, mastering engineers quickly discovered that the best sound resulted when bass guitar and drums were reproduced using the mono channel. Here, better response is achieved, because reproduction of these frequencies require deeper grooves. If these instruments were panned, tracking would become increasingly problematic as levels would decrease, increase, and then decrease again. Harmonic distortion would increase, or finally the stylus would be bounced plumb out of the groove.
Say you’ve mixed a hard L/R pan of a rumbling, gurgling B3 in track 3 at 2:28? That doesn’t represent a problem on CD, but the mastering engineer will really appreciate your giving him a heads up in detailed programme notes. I would suggest discussing the cutting of your record with the engineer and asking what his requirements are. The main thing to remember is to keep the mix sensible and leave post-production EQing to the mastering engineer. Why?
There are two types of record albums: epic sounding ones and horrible sounding ones. Sure, the music starts at the session with the musicians, but the magic that makes those performances memorable is in the mastering. It isn’t such an odd thing that many Gen-Y folks don’t know much about the process of album cutting, but there’s a lot of people who grew up listening to vinyl who are as clueless about how the sound is transferred from the tape to the LP. As I briefly hinted above, it’s a complex operation. Let’s take a look at the entire process.
After delivery of the master tape (or .wav file or whatever) containing the final stereo mixdown, the mastering engineer prepares to cut a ‘lacquer’ (actually an aluminium disk with a thin layer of acetate). The blank is placed on what is called a lathe. There is an arm which runs laterally above the blank on which rides the cutting head. Within the head are big coils which send electrical impulses to the cutting stylus, which makes the groove in the spinning acetate disk. The engineer adjusts the pitch of the stylus depending on the programme information. The louder the information, the more the stylus vibrates, thus, the pitch is increased, resulting in increased distance between the grooves. If the pitch is set too shallow, the grooves may converge and a skip may result.
The head coils generate quite a bit of heat, requiring that the head be cooled. This is achieved using any number of cooling agents, the most common being water and the most exotic being liquid oxygen. This seems oxymoronic, because at the same time, the cutting stylus is heated so that it slices neatly through the lacquer without tearing it. Then, there are other factors which the engineer must control such as cutting head resonances, and ad nauseam. The closer the stylus gets to the center of the disk, the greater the pitch must become, and the worse resonance issues become, so it pays to remember to leave the engineer some room. Keeping the album short is a necessity to preserve sound quality. Longer albums became a double release. Four or five tunes per side is the norm for a vinyl record.
Most times, the artist will want a lacquer to listen to so that, if any problems are apparent, he or she can get back to the mastering lab with his or her concerns. The lacquer is a ‘temporary LP’ at best, as the acetate is quite soft, and sound degradation occurs with each successive play.
After the artist is satisfied, another lacquer is cut which is then electroplated with a fine layer of silver. This is referred to as the metal master. After the metal master is created, a ‘negative’ is produced from it, which is referred to as a metal mother, and from that, the stamper is made.
With each successive step, a tad of audio detail is lost. In the heyday of the LP, a copper disk was sometimes cut in place of the lacquer, and then the stamper was made directly from this. In addition, the master tape was sometimes played back at half-speed while the cutting also took place at half speed. The process was more time consuming (and expensive), but the albums sounded spectacular. These were pressed in limited quantity and offered, sometimes by special order only, at a premium. At a time that a normal album would run in the neighbourhood of $7.99, the price of the ‘half speed direct to metal master recording’ was steep at around $20.98, but daaaaamn, the difference was amazing. One of the most impressive albums I ever heard which was manufactured in this fashion was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. CDs never reproduced as well, but the gold Ultradisc came closest.
After being produced, the A and B stampers are afixed into the press, a biscuit of vinyl is placed in between, and the stamper is heated, pressure is applied, mashing the vinyl flat as the grooves are embossed into it. After the vinyl cools, it is removed and – tada! – an LP is born.
Biscuits come in different weights and the artist gets to choose which weight they prefer. The choice is also given pertaining to how much virgin vinyl as opposed to recycled vinyl the biscuits are composed of. It was once believed that LPs which consisted primarily of virgin vinyl offered a lower noise floor and better reproduction. On the other hand there were those who believed that recycled vinyl produced the same results.
Me? I believe I’ll allow you to decide for yourself. Let me know when you have the release party.