A Vinyl Mastering Guide to Creating the Best LPs Possible
Written by Dave Polster – Well Made Music
Interest in vinyl records has seen a tremendous increase in recent years, and for good reason. There is plenty to love about the format – larger artwork, a tangible disc too large to ignore, and the social aspect of dedicating your time and concentration to the music contained within the grooves. More and more artists are deciding to press their latest releases to vinyl, and although this is great news, there are a few factors to take into account that are not applicable to any other format. The purpose of this post is to help make your vinyl release a success!
First and foremost, let’s talk about the actual audio fidelity and the differences when compared to, say, a digital master. Generally speaking, if you have a mix that is fairly good, it should translate with little to no issue. Here are some FAQ’s I get from engineers:
Are there any specific things I should avoid when mixing for a vinyl release?
Yes, generally speaking, the overall tone of the mix should be balanced. Excessive treble/sibilance (hard ‘S’ sounds) can actually damage the cutting equipment. Be sure to ‘de-ess’ your vocals during the mixing stage, as these hard ‘S’ sounds are one of the first things to break up/distort. Make sure the cymbals/higher frequencies aren’t too loud in the mix. If you have a ‘bright’ mix we very well might have to process it in some way. Phase is another aspect unique to vinyl. Be sure to make sure your bass/low-end is in phase and/or panned mono. Most modern mixes tend to have bass instruments (ie: kick drums, bass guitars) panned in the middle anyhow. This eliminates most phase discrepancies by default. Consider using hi-pass filters. Avoid hard panning to the left or right, especially loud transients (tom drums, etc.) This usually creates phase issues, which in turn can lead to skips on the finished record. Normal panning is totally fine, but just avoid any extremes.
How much music can I put on a single LP?
This is a great question and there is no simple answer, but ideally speaking I prefer to have a maximum of 16-18 minutes per side at 33 rpm. We can cut more (I cut a 24-minute side earlier today), but at a certain point fidelity will decrease. Volume to disc has a direct correlation with running time. In other words, the shorter your side, the louder it can be cut to disc. On the flip side, the longer your side is, the lower the volume might end up to disc. There is only so much real estate on a 12” record. A louder cut record takes up more space, but if your running time isn’t too long, it will all fit just fine. When you ask us to cut a 24-minute side, however, sometimes our only option is to lower the volume in order to physically make all of those grooves fit on the disc. As a result, your 24-minute side is closer to the noise floor of the medium, and pops and clicks that are inherent to the format become much more noticeable. Some of the benefits of a louder cut include masking the noise floor and other ticks and pops, and with that I suggest 18-20 minute 33 rpm maximum sides whenever possible. Remember, you can always put out a double-LP!
Should I have my record be 33 RPM or 45 RPM?
Those who are familiar with tape machines/sample rates might understand this question a bit better. The same general concept applies here. Most professional level tape machines have the option of either 15 ips or 30 ips. The general conclusion is that 30 ips sounds better because it is physically using more tape to capture the same source in the same timeframe, like a snare hit for example. On the other side, however, you have just used twice as much tape to recreate that snare hit, so your overall running time on the tape is shorter at 30 ips. You burn through the tape faster. The same idea applies to 45 rpm. You are able to get better frequency response/less distortion at 45 rpm simply because you are using up more real estate to recreate the same sound as compared to 33 rpm. The downside is that you have less running time to work with. With a 45 rpm 12”, we recommend a running time of 15 minutes max. Any longer and you start getting into the same volume issues presented in the last section. Also notice that 45 rpm 7”s almost always sound better than a 33 rpm 7”. Ultimately, it comes down to running time. If you are opting for longer sides, you probably want 33 rpm.
I’ve always heard to put quieter songs at the end of a side. Why is that?
12” vinyl records are susceptible to a phenomenon known as “inner groove distortion”. Essentially, given our aforementioned tape analogy, there is less real estate towards the inner groove for our “snare hit” to take up. Remember, the turntable is at a fixed speed, so that “snare hit” at the beginning of the side has a lot more real estate to work with as opposed to something towards the end of a side, where revolutions take up less space. As a result, a lot of styluses have a difficult time playing louder grooves towards the end of a side, resulting in distortion. All this being said, most records I cut have a loud song as the last song, so I sometimes will avoid cutting towards the center if possible. This, once again, explains why a 45 rpm 7” sounds better than a 33 rpm 7”. A 7” has the same physical limitations and is essentially in the same area of a disc. My turntable always seems to be distorting. Why? Make sure that your stylus/needle is counter-weighted properly. A lot of distortion can come from a needle that is not counter-weighted properly. Most cartridges have specs you can find online to determine the right amount of weight.
Is there a benefit to black versus colored vinyl?
This is a very subjective question, but ultimately black vinyl tends to have a lower noise floor. That being said, certain colored vinyl sounds great too. If you are opting for a longer side/quieter cut however, black is probably the way to go, mostly with noise floor in mind. For shorter/louder cuts though, color might be a great option. (I’m going to take a second to plug Wax Mage Records who do amazing colored-vinyl work at Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland. If you aren’t familiar with their work, check it out! They do some amazing stuff with colored vinyl.)
Should I release a single LP or double LP?
Once again, running time is your main factor here. If you have a 40+ minute release, a double album might be the best option (who knows, maybe it could even be cut at 45 rpm!) As mentioned earlier, cramming a 40+ minute album onto one LP is physically possible, but your fidelity will likely go down as a result. If finances demand it be a single LP, I recommend black vinyl for fidelity purposes.
What type of files should we send for the vinyl release?
Generally speaking, we prefer the highest sample rate/bit depth possible in an uncompressed format (.WAV or .AIFF ideally). Our converters range from 44.1kHz to 192 kHz. I am not suggesting you send us 192 kHz files necessarily, but if it was recorded/mixed at a higher sample rate/bit depth, send us those native files. Please do not send us a CD master (16 bit/44.1 kHz) or compressed MP3 files, etc. if you have a better alternative. Ask your digital mastering engineer to make a separate set of masters for the vinyl version. Unlike CD’s, vinyl is not subject to the ‘loudness wars’. We tend to prefer masters with dynamic range and headroom in the native sample rate it was recorded and mixed in. A lot of vinyl cutting engineers will try to avoid any heavy-handed mastering techniques. If I make any tweaks, typically it is to make the transfer to disc as faithful to the source (“flat”) as possible. Lastly, I highly recommend having your album mastered for vinyl and digital releases separately if possible. Here in Cleveland, Adam Boose at Cauliflower Audio is very familiar with mastering for both formats and does an excellent job.
When should I place my order at the pressing plant?
As soon as possible! The manufacturing process can take a while (generally 3-6 months) and varies from plant to plant. We always advise bands to avoid planning a vinyl release party until they have the records physically in their hands. There are many opportunities for delays in the manufacturing process and unfortunately rectifying those takes additional time, so it is best to place an order as soon as mixing and mastering are finished, even if the release date is a few months later….And that’s a great starting point for any band looking to put out a vinyl release. If you follow these guidelines, you should have a great LP when all is said and done. If readers have any specific questions, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dave Polster is a vinyl mastering engineer at Well Made Music in Cleveland, Ohio. Well Made Music utilizes a vintage Neumann VMS-70 Lathe in addition to state-of-the-art converters to provide some of the finest lacquer cuts currently available. If you ever see a record with a “dP” inscribed near the matrix number between the run-out grooves, now you know where it came from!