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How Are Vinyl Records Mastered? A look at the preparation and production of a vinyl record.




A mastering engineer working on mastering audio for vinyl
A picture of me hard at work mastering for vinyl, using the Unfairchild compressor for dynamic control and tone

Have you ever wondered what goes into the making of vinyl records and why your favourite albums sound SO GOOD on wax? Prepare to embark on a journey behind the scenes of music production as we uncover the dark art of mastering vinyl records. Dun dun DUUUUNNNNN… Whether you're a seasoned musician or an aspiring audio engineer I’m about to drop some gems that only come from cutting loads of records. There’s loads of kids on Youtube who will claim that they can teach you how to master and how to prepare your tracks for vinyl but I guarantee that not one of them has even been in the same room as a cutting lathe, let alone actually cut a record. When I acquired my first lathe (which is a lengthy story that I’ll tell another time) I spent 2 solid years, putting it together, taking it apart, and basically learning how every single piece of machinery worked and what it did. I’m being 100% genuine when I tell you that if I knew the amount of mechanical engineering that it would involve, the amount of power tools and measurement devices I’d have to buy and the amount of maths & physics I‘d have to learn I would have seriously reconsidered! Anyway, I’m getting off topic, but the point I’m trying to make is how incredibly complex the vinyl mastering, cutting, plating and pressing process is. First of all, preparing your audio to be cut, the vinyl mastering!...


The Art of Vinyl Mastering:

At the heart of every vinyl record lies a meticulous preparation process known as mastering (You already know this I’m sure). This crucial step ensures that the audio is optimised for the unique characteristics of vinyl playback, allowing the music to shine with unparalleled warmth and clarity. Unlike digital formats, vinyl records demand special attention to detail to achieve optimal sound quality.During mastering, we audio engineers carefully fine-tune the dynamics, EQ, and overall balance of the tracks.. By delicately sculpting the sound, mastering engineers strive to create an immersive listening experience that really brings the music to life. There’s something really special about taking the time to put on a record and sit down to listen to it, I always feel like I’m very much ‘in the room’ with whoever I’m listening to when I listen to vinyl. Over my years cutting thousands of records I’ve really tuned my ears to a well mastered vinyl release and I can spot a bog standard mastering job a mile off. To me, with a well mastered record the sound leaps from the speakers, it’s not a case of just volume, it’s the transient detail which springs forward, effortlessly. Sometimes it feels like the sound is coming from behind the speaker cones on an average master but on a really good vinyl master the sound is just brimming, almost like it’s dancing from the very tips of the tweeters and surface of the speaker cones.

Of course, this isn’t very scientific or probably even helpful to you if you’re reading this hoping to learn how to master well for vinyl, but in this blog I’m going to talk a bit more broadly to explain the basics of vinyl mastering and in my next piece I’ll write some tangible steps on how to master for vinyl yourself if you’re an audio/mix/mastering engineer.


So let’s get started!

Sequencing is an often overlooked but very important place to start, unlike mastering for CD or streaming services, each side of a record has to be sequenced as one complete audio file. Every fade in, fade out and all gaps between songs must be decided beforehand. This is because each side of a record is cut on one continuous groove, there’s no room for stopping and making any alterations between songs. Be prepared!We also want to make sure we are working from the highest quality audio possible, with high sample rates (48 or 96kHz) and at least 24-bit depth. This allows the engineer to preserve the most sonic detail before transferring to analog format.

The actual mastering comprises common tools that you’ve probably already heard of, mainly compression and equalisation. These are used slightly differently than in CD or Streaming mastering and the use of clipping & limiting are vastly reduced or, ideally, not used at all. The waveform manipulation that occurs with clipping and limiting makes it difficult for the cutting head to replicate leading to distortion and less accurate representation of the original source material.


Compression is applied for a couple of reasons but, broadly it’s about controlling the dynamics of the track. Firstly it’s used to prevent loud peaks and to keep the overall loudness and dynamic range consistent. This helps avoid any skipping on the finished vinyl. Secondly it’s used to ‘glue’ the track together and give that ‘now it sounds like a record sound. Before compression a track can often feel like each element is sitting separately from one another but the dynamic control of compression brings everything together in a pleasing and cohesive manner. This can be difficult to dial in correctly though and is probably the most crucial part of the process to get right. Too much compression and the track will sound dull and lifeless but not enough and it may sound thin and uneven. The attack and release times (how fast the compressor works and stops working) are crucial to maintaining energy of a track and must be dialled in extremely carefully.



Equalisation is utilised to compensate for vinyl's inherent frequency biases. Low end should be consistent and tight, with very little to no stereo information and high end should be controlled with the aid of EQ, (alongside high frequency limiting & compression). To replicate low frequencies a cutting head moves wider but slower and to replicate higher frequencies the cutter head must move back and forth a lot quicker and many more times per second. Too much low end information and the grooves can ‘bump’ into each other and even overlap, causing skipping and if there’s too much high end information it will cause the cutting head to blow and burn out! It’s a very costly and time consuming event to blow a cutter head so cutting engineers have to be VERY careful with high frequencies!

An ‘Elliptical EQ’ is also used to remove any low end information from the stereo image. The bass on a record must be very much in mono, otherwise it can cause skipping and thinned out grooves, which playback styli hate! 


Cutting the Groove:

Once the mastering process is complete, the next step involves cutting the audio onto a lacquer disc, which serves as the master for vinyl production. This intricate procedure, known as cutting the groove, requires precision and skill to translate the audio into physical grooves on the vinyl surface.Using a cutting lathe equipped with a diamond or ruby tipped stylus, the mastering engineer meticulously etches the audio waveform onto the lacquer disc. The depth and spacing of the grooves directly influence the playback quality, making this step critical to the final sound of the record.

Jack White's Third Man Records, a label renowned for its commitment to preserving the art of vinyl production employ vintage cutting lathes to craft records with unparalleled fidelity and character, ensuring that each release embodies the label's dedication to sonic excellence.


Pressing and Quality Control:

With the master lacquer disc in hand, the final stage of vinyl production begins: pressing. This involves using the master disc to create stampers, which are then used to press vinyl copies. Throughout this process, quality control measures are implemented to maintain consistency and integrity across each pressing.From inspecting raw vinyl pellets for impurities to monitoring temperature and pressure during pressing, every detail is carefully scrutinised to uphold the highest standards of quality. By adhering to strict quality control protocols, manufacturers strive to deliver vinyl records that faithfully reproduce the artist's vision.


So there we have it! I hope that’s been an interesting read and you now understand a little more about mastering for vinyl and the production of a record. I’m sure it’s probably thrown up some more questions, there’s some things I’ve had to gloss over a little bit so I can get back to actualling cutting records! But please send me a message if there’s any elements of this you’d like to know more about. I’m currently filming a series of short ‘Vinyl FAQ’ videos for my Youtube channel which will be available to watch soon. I’ll be showing you my lathes, and some actual cuts, with close ups of grooves etc. will really help you to understand some of the things I’ve talked about here! I’ll put a link below so you can go over and check them out.


Whether you're a musician looking to bring your music to life on wax or an audio engineer seeking to hone your craft, mastering vinyl records is both an art and a science and I'm here to help. If you have any questions or are ready to take the next step, don't hesitate to reach out. Let's collaborate to create vinyl records that stand the test of time!


Click the link to go to my contact page - https://www.raretonemastering.com/contact


Speak soon!

Ben


P.s. if you like all things analogue, mastering & vinyl related please go over and follow my Youtube & social media accounts where I regularly make videos about mastering and cutting records! 




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