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Vinyl Mastering in a Digital World…

The art of mastering vinyl, or indeed vinyl itself, may have been lost to a generation of budding mastering engineers and their consumers. I recall with horror DJing in a club a few years ago on my trusty 1210’s only to find a young guy watching me intently before plucking up the nerve to ask me “what the hell I was doing and where is the music coming from?” You could hear my jaw drop to the floor over the volume of the music…

These days it seems vinyl is back in vogue. What few pressing plants that didn’t close down are now bursting to capacity with finished product taking up to 9 months to be delivered (I kid you not). It seems a lust for the wax has captured the hearts of many new fans, and quite rightly so, high resolution, warm tone, focused centre image… Here also lies a problem. Vinyl mastering is a specific art form, it’s from where the mastering engineer originated. When all the pressing plants decided vinyl was extinct, by default a whole breed of mastering engineers trained up without the knowledge of what makes a good cut. Many mastering houses sold, or scrapped, their cutting lathes and the engineering refocused on CDs and the fledgling download industry. So now how can we supply music to be cut to that infamous black disc?

Many factories insist they will cut your music for you, some don’t give you an option. Indeed some of them even have on-site mastering studios for that purpose. Some of those studios provide a direct transcription of what you supply, some will mould your music like a creative mastering engineer. Most, though, won’t have the creative prowess of a dedicated mastering engineer and communication with the engineer can be difficult. They cut to technical specification and that’s about it.

The solution, in this digital age, is to send high resolution mastered WAVs for the pressing plant to cut. High resolution WAVs have a much deeper and fuller sound that suits vinyl’s huge bandwidth, it’s easy to spot a 44k CD that’s been cut to vinyl rather than one cut from HD WAVs or tapes (not everyone has access to tape so this is another reason to record and mix at higher sample rates, especially if you have vinyl product in mind! See a future blog).

Best case scenario: liase with your mastering engineer, get your sound correct and drop the WAV off in the plant’s Inbox. Then, let the plant perform a transcription cut and wait for your test pressings. The advantage of this is twofold: you get the sound you want from your independent mastering engineer and if the factory screw up the cut (which unfortunately is quite frequent in this day and age) they’ll recut and reprocess it FOC.

There is a couple of drawbacks with not providing the factory with a lacquer master disc (the traditional way to send your master). Firstly you have to rely on the pressing plants lathe to be flat with little colouration. You also have to rely on the pressing plant to cut your high resolution files without downsampling them to 44k (which I know some plants do) because their system can’t handle HD files (or they have a basic digital delay on the front end of their cutter head that doesn’t go higher than 44k!). The other drawback is the assumption that your mastering engineer knows about cutting vinyl. There are phase, separation, bass, volume, dynamic and centre imaging issues that should be taken into account before presenting your music to the factory in order to achieve a quality vinyl cut. Yes, the plant passes your music through some filters as standard but if you’ve tailored your sound correctly before this you will end up with a much better sounding cut when you drop the needle and wow your consumers. Mastering engineers that work with vinyl understand this and recommend you master specifically for the vinyl format, creating a fresh master for your download duties.

With everything taken into consideration, taking your vinyl WAVs to the plant and letting them cut and process your records has made vinyl manufacturing more accessible than it was a few decades ago. For optimal results, record your music in HD (96k is good) and get your music mastered twice, once for vinyl, once for digital. A mastering engineer that understands the differences between a vinyl record and an iTunes download can anticipate these varying complexities and at the prices this site offers for mastering, you can’t really go wrong! If you get my meaning 😉

Plus, with this latest resurgence, not so many DJ’s will get asked where the music is coming from.


Microscope view of vinyl grooves!