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Mastering For Vinyl: A Practical Guide For Audio Engineers

So here we go with a follow on from my previous blog about mastering for vinyl. In this piece I’m going to talk a bit more about the practical aspects of mastering for vinyl and give you some techniques and software recommendations you can use to improve your mastering game. I’ll start with a bit of basic info on how the actual cutting works, how sound affects the grooves on a record and then move on to some software recommendations so that anyone can start creating really good sounding vinyl masters.

How a Vinyl Cutting Lathe Works:

First, it helps to understand exactly how a vinyl cutting lathe works to turn an audio signal into those grooves you see on a record. A cutter contains a sharp diamond stylus that moves from side to side and up and down, cutting a thin groove into a blank vinyl disc. This groove physically represents the stereo information from your audio track.

The cutting head vibrates at precisely the correct frequency and intensity to etch your song’s waveform into the record’s continuous spiral groove. Adjustments in these vibrations create the variations in the width and depth of the final grooves.

Groove Geometry Basics:

During the cutting process, lower frequencies cause wider side-to-side motion of the cutting stylus and higher frequencies make the cutter move more rapidly from side to side in a narrower space.

Since vinyl mastering engineers have to cram a lot of music into limited space, they optimise the groove shape for the best sound quality. Wider grooves that aren’t too close together generally yield better bass response and volume. Narrower grooves tend to capture more top-end but can distort easier so it’s important to get the right balance when prepping your tracks.

When mastering for vinyl consider that the more bass you have, the further apart the grooves have to be spaced. This does 2 things - it reduces the amount of time available on the disk and also it causes more information to be closer to the centre of the disc. We want to keep an eye on this, especially if this is for a 7” as cutting too close to the centre of the disc can cause…

Inner Groove Distortion:

This is a phenomenon that occurs due to the physical limitations of cutting a spiral onto a circular disc. As we cut closer to the centre of the disc - the groove gets smaller per disc rotation so we’re fitting the same amount of audio information onto a smaller space.This causes distortion, especially in the higher frequencies more of a roll off of high frequencies too. On 12” albums you’ll notice that a quieter song is often chosen as the last song on each side of the disc, this is to help mitigate the issue of inner groove distortion!

Fixed vs Variable Pitch:

Older record cutting lathes use fixed pitch, meaning grooves were evenly spaced and all the same width. This restricted how engineers could optimise the groove geometry when mastering.Modern vinyl manufacturing predominantly uses variable pitch cutting. This allows the width between grooves to vary, with wider spacing for heavier bass sections and closer narrow grooves for intricate high frequency audio. Variable pitch enables mastering engineers to fine tune groove spacing for maximum fidelity and the most music per side.

I know you might be thinking that this isn’t very useful knowledge if you’re mastering but it’s good to know the lingo so you can communicate with your pressing plant and cutting engineer. A lot of short run lathe cut records are done on fixed pitch machines but most lacquer masters will be cut on a variable pitch lathe.

If you’re getting lathe cut records, you could ask the engineer, ‘Hey, are you cutting on a fixed pitch machine? If so, there’s a big bass part at 1:24 to look out for’. This will help your engineer keep a close eye on the cut to ensure the best course of action.

Practical tips for vinyl mastering:

So now we’re getting to the good stuff, here’s some actionable tips that can help you master your audio for vinyl. The most important thing to know is that if you’re not expected to get everything perfect, the cutting engineer has amazing tools to optimise audio for vinyl. If you can do some of these things first though, it will leave lots of room for the cutting engineer to get a great sounding cut, instead of having to fix problems.

Write a comprehensive PQ Sheet:

Great communication is the best way to get a great sounding record, this starts by making a comprehensive PQ Sheet (Production Queue) which will be sent to the cutting engineer. If you’ve never heard of this before don’t worry, I’m going to break it down and I’ll even include a blank template that you can use to get started with. This is basically a sheet of information including song start and end times, contact details and room for and specific notes about the record. As each side of the record should be sequenced as one complete wav file, sometimes it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t have any prior knowledge of the project to understand the nuances of all the fade outs and song gaps, especially if some of the songs might fade into each other, or there are short gaps between songs. This sheet helps the cutting engineer know exactly what’s going on and gives you an opportunity to mention anything out of the ordinary. It’s really handy to give any notes about long fades, any silence, any explosively loud sections and anything else that someone who’s never heard your project before might need to know!You can also leave contact details so the engineer or plant can give you a ring if they have any questions or there are any problems.

So, on to the fun stuff…

Compression & Multiband Compression:

Since clipping & limiting are generally harmful to a vinyl master, compression is essential. Evening out the song’s dynamics prevents overloading the cutting head and allows for maximum volume. We’re aiming for a fairly consistent signal, with no giant peaks and a good average volume. The most important thing I’ve found after years of cutting records is that the ‘energy’ has to be right. It’s a hard thing to quantify and we could talk about Crest Factor or Peak to RMS ratio (and they’re important terms to understand as audio engineers) but to me, the key is getting the right attack and release times on your compressor. If your attack is too fast, it will kill the transient energy and if it’s too slow it will let too much transient through, leading to large peaks in your audio. Similarly with your Release times - too fast and you’ll get audible pumping and too slow and everything will feel clamped down and dull.

Take your time experimenting with these settings, and try to get the balance between a good energetic master and a nice controlled master. Listen to the effect that altering the attack has on the transient material - pick out the snare in the mix for example and really hone in on how the energy changes with the attack time. Try not to lose the punch while also evening out all the peaks.

Unfortunately there’s no single setting that will work best, it’s completely dependent on your material - but as a rule of thumb, think about energy and control. Find the sweet spot and you’ll have a record that just ‘leaps’ off your speakers!

Multiband compression is also useful but must be used with a degree of subtlety. This targets just low, mid or high frequencies instead of blanket compression. It’s useful if you want to compress a kick while leaving the rest of the audio unchanged or if you want more control on the high end without affecting your mid range.

Multiband compression can lead to phase issues so use with caution, I only really use it very sparingly if I feel there’s one particular element of the mix which needs more control than the rest of the audio. Often used in conjunction with normal compression.


A very important part of the mastering process but don’t be too worried as the cutting engineer will also apply their own EQ. The main thing is to keep an eye on your low end and also any high frequency sibilance or harsh cymbals. For low end, too much can cause large groove modulation so ideally, the low end should be nice and tight. Sometimes to get the best results for vinyl it’s best to be a little more conservative then you might be for a digital master, especially if you’re working on electronic or bass heavy genres of music. Don’t feel you have to compromise your sound but just be aware of the limits of vinyl. 

The ‘Always Mono The Low End’ Myth:

You might have come across this online or heard someone else mention this - always mono your low end. Whilst there is some truth to it, it’s one of those things that’s been vastly over simplified and taken out of context on the internet and then repeated by a load of Youtubers who’ve never cut a record in their life.

The issue with a stereo low end is again based in groove modulation. Close your eyes and visualise the cutting head moving side to side and up and down cutting the groove into a record. In fact, keep your eyes open and continue reading… Mono information is cut side to side (Called Lateral in record cutting terms) and stereo information is cut up and down (vertical). Now because low end yields wider variations in groove modulation, not only does the cutting stylus have to move side to side further, if there is stereo information present it has to move up and down further too. If there’s too much stereo information present the stylus may start moving up and down too fast and literally just jump out of the groove and up off the surface of the record. Once this happens and there's a break in the continuous groove of the record, the needle has nowhere to go and will skip and skate over the record. It’s ruined. Game over.

Therefore, it’s very important to keep any low end stereo information to a minimum or make sure it’s low enough in volume to not cause any problems. It CAN be present if it’s an important part of your composition but it needs to be handled delicately. It’s definitely something to make a note of on your PQ sheet if you do want to keep some low end stereo information.Like everything, it’s always case dependent, classical recordings often have lots of low end panned at various positions across the stereo field and yet we can cut great sounding records because we’re not competing on volume. The double bass is often panned out to the right in a classical recording, if we were to ‘mono the low end’ we’d lose an integral part of the orchestra.

I hope that’s helpful in understanding that you don’t have to just mono all low end on every track as some kind of default setting but you must be conscious of it becoming a serious problem if it’s too loud. I would suggest this is an issue that can be fixed in the mix if it occurs. And if it can’t be fixed there, we can use an elliptical EQ to make the low end mono if we need. This can easily be replicated by an EQ plugin like Fabfilter Pro Q3 using the mid-side function - creating a high pass on the sides at 150 hz upwards with a slope of 6dB. Typically the hardware EQ units found in cutting chains have a gentle slope of 6dB and cut anywhere from 100hz upwards to 200hz, depending on the material. You might find changing the slope to 12dB works better but typically it’s always a gentle slope so we don’t get any phase issues associated with steeper high pass filters.

The High End:

Vocal sibilance or harsh cymbals can cause a lot of strain on cutting heads and lead to them blowing, much like a speaker. Cutting engineers are very cautious with this so they have dedicated high frequency limiters in place but if you can balance your master well beforehand, it definitely helps.When listening, take note of any sibilance and plosives on the vocals and watch for harsh, spiky cymbals. Reduce any spikey frequencies with some EQ notches or gentle curves and this will allow for overall better volume. Some engineers like to use a high shelf reduction at around 16 khz to start gently rolling off the high end, while others rely on the high frequency limiter in the cutting chain to deal with any issues there.

It’s important to note that every single cutting lathe is different, most of them are getting old and have been heavily modified over the years to suit the exact needs of the cutting engineer or cutting studio. You may find several Neumann VMS-80 lathes out there, but they will all have their own quirks and each engineer knows their lathe really well. That’s why it’s so important to communicate any potential issues with your cutting engineer or pressing plant (via your diligently filled out PQ sheet!)

Case Study: Mastering The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper for Vinyl

One acclaimed case of the importance of vinyl mastering is The Beatles’ iconic 1967 album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Engineer Geoff Emerick along with George Martin perfected both the recording and vinyl cutting process.

With a mix compliant to vinyl’s needs already complete, mastering began. Careful compression contours ensured levels stayed even. High passing below 30 Hz prevented anticipated rumble or skips. Precision EQ boosting added vibrant low end and crisper highs built for record players.

The prepared stereo master lacquers were then cut expertly using variable pitch lathes, creating wider grooves for richer sections and tight intimate grooves for intricate parts. They tweaked the limits of the technology while avoiding potential distortion pitfalls.

The outstanding mastering contributed greatly to fulfilling the potential of “Sgt Pepper's” creative invention and cementing its place as one of the most influential vinyl records in pop culture history.

On the flip side, the early stereo vinyl pressing of The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” suffered from poor master tape sources. The lack of adjustments for the medium resulted in thinner sound lacking the bass expected from the Stones. This contributed to the album's initial mediocre reception.

Carefully crafting masters for vinyl played a big role in some truly memorable listening experiences as well as some less impressive outcomes. With attention to the format's unique needs, audio engineers can ensure albums reach their fully intended vibrancy and musical magic.

So, if you want to get started mastering but would like some information on what gear to use I thought I’d put a bit of information below about some of the key pieces of gear used in record cutting alongside some more budget friendly plugins that are actually affordable. Record cutting gear is very expensive so we definitely need some alternatives to get started!

Key Hardware, Simplified Software:

When mastering for vinyl, specialised hardware like the Neumann VMS80 Lathe handles the physical cutting while tools like the HAECO Tilt Filter and Manley Passive EQ contour sound. However this professional gear often costs many thousands. Eep.

The good news is software can emulate prized analogue mastering gear without breaking studio budgets. Below are just a few recommendations for affordable plugins but there’s lots more out there. The best thing to do is use something you’re already comfortable with (as long as it can do the job you need of course).

Cutting Lacquers:

The Neumann VMS 70 & VMS 80 lathes are the gold standard for cutting records and unfortunately there’s no software that can cut a record. Buuuuttt…. There is a great piece of software from Tokyo Dawn Labs called Simulathe which allows you to see a virtual record and how your audio would present as a cut record. It gives helpful information about how your audio affects groove width, depth and modulation and allows you to ‘virtually’ cut a record along with helpful insights about your audio. It’s a must have piece of software for anybody really interested in making the best quality vinyl masters.


Gear like the Maselec MDS- 2 or MPL-2 are High frequency limiters often found in record cutting studios but you can achieve great results with a variety of EQ plug ins. The FabFilter Pro Q3 is one of the best EQ plugins out there and can mono your low end, notch down any problem frequencies and also perform ‘dynamic’ Eq reduction, useful for high frequency problems. 


Most DAWs will have compressor plugins that can deliver great results, The Fabfilter C2 is a very popular plugin and there’s also a lot of Fairchild emulations which work really well for getting a great sound compression. (The original Fairchild were labelled with ‘Lateral’ & ‘Vertical’ instead of Left and Right as they were primarily used in the record cutting process.

While hardware may set the gold standard, innovative plugins put vinyl polish well within a small studio’s reach. Proper mastering is more about precision than price when preparing audio for those cherished grooves.

iZotope Ozone also has a complete mastering suite and has improved vastly in recent years. The ‘Elements’ version has lots of features and is well within everyone’s reach budget wise.

As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you. Give me a shout with any questions or if there’s any topics or specific areas of mastering or vinyl cutting you’d like to learn about.

Click the link to go to my contact page -

Speak soon!


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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