CHELSEA, MANHATTAN — Catering to consistent calls for vinyl across music genres and markets, Sterling Sound, the A-list mastering complex housing the likes of Greg Calbi, Ted Jensen, Tom Coyne and George Marino among others, has added all-analog vinyl mastering to its repertoire.
With the addition of a Neumann VMS-80 cutting lathe and the one-of-a-kind modification of an ATR-102 tape machine, Sterling now offers as pristine an analog path to vinyl as possible. SonicScoop caught up with Calbi, Marino and Sterling head technician Barry Wolifson to get the details on how this system works and why these guys have gone to such lengths to bring back a lost art.
“Almost everybody who comes here for mastering at least inquires about vinyl,” assures Calbi. “And, with so many bands putting out vinyl, there’s more competition now to get attention for those releases. What’s been the standard in recent years, for mastering vinyl releases for both DJs and indie bands, is to simply transfer the CD master to vinyl.
“But we now offer two options for higher-quality vinyl — we can re-master your digital source as a high-res 24-bit/96k file for vinyl, or we can take your analog mix and master it to vinyl via an entirely analog signal chain, for a true ‘AAA’ vinyl release: that’s analog mix, analog master, analog playback.”
The all-analog vinyl mastering setup in Marino’s room is unique to Sterling, and few facilities in the world offer this service via any equipment configuration.
The typical mastering chain for vinyl involves a digital delay, where the signal cut to the lacquer is actually a delayed stereo feed as opposed to the analog signal from the tape. A couple other NYC facilities do offer an all-analog mastering path for vinyl, with no digital delay — Masterdisk in midtown and Salt Mastering in Greenpoint — but Sterling’s equipment modifications pose some innovative updates on this classic process.
Marino describes, “The basic setup for cutting records is that you have an analog playback machine and the playback head feeds the signal to the cutting lathe. To cut a record properly, the computer in the cutting lathe needs to have a ‘preview’ [of what’s coming next as it’s printing], which is typically done via digital delay. The lathe gets two signals — the preview and the digitally delayed signal — and it’s the delayed signal that gets cut to the lacquer, which is not ideal.”
Any facility that offers all-analog vinyl mastering has a tape machine that’s been modified to add a preview head. At Sterling, Wolifson worked with ATR’s Mike Spitz to design such a modification for the ATR-102 machine. “People love this particular ATR machine,” says Wolifson. “And, with the modification, this is the only one of its kind.”
The system’s design also involves a unique concept for delaying the signal but printing the original signal. “On this machine, the tape travels along a path, from preview head to playback head, which is the longest delay you’re ever going to need. For anything shorter than that, we actually delay the delay,” explains Marino. “So, we use a digital delay, but only for the preview, and what’s being fed to the lathe is the original pristine signal from the tape machine.”
Key to getting Sterling’s analog vinyl mastering system running has been equipment designer and mastering guru Chris Muth, who built Sterling’s mastering consoles. “We’re turning our Muth mastering console into an A/B console, with Chris’ help,” says Wolifson.
“We need to have two identical sets of processors so that we can match the two signals going to the lathe — the preview signal and the signal going on the lacquer. So we have our standard Muth mastering console and then another Muth console, normally used for surround sound processing, that becomes the preview processing area when we’re cutting vinyl.”
The A/B console allows the mastering engineer to pre-set his processors one song ahead of time, a critical piece of this continuous vinyl cutting process.
“One song may have been cut in Chicago and the other in LA, and they can sound pretty radically different from one to the next,” describes Marino. “We’ll make it sound more continuous in the mastering process, but since it’s all running in real-time, we’d only have 1 or 2 seconds between songs to run and change the settings. With the A/B console, you just hit one button to switch the whole thing over to your pre-sets for the next song.”
The records coming into Sterling for AAA vinyl release have ranged from classical and audiophile to popular music, including re-issues of Beastie Boys Ill Communication and Nirvana’s Bleach, a re-issue of a classic recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and a brand-new record by Ben Harper and Relentless 7.
So, when does doing AAA vinyl make sense? And how much time and budget should you commit to whatever vinyl release you choose to do? Tune into Part II of Vinyl Comeback to find out what Sterling recommends!