CHELSEA, MANHATTAN — Going the extra mile to do a AAA record pressed on 180-gram vinyl can be a costly “add-on” at the mastering stage of a record depending on how and where the record was tracked and whether the artist’s audience will appreciate the top-quality LP.
Like many mastering engineers these days, Sterling’s Greg Calbi is called on often to consult with clients on how best to master their records for vinyl. “You need to analyze your market, and then determine whether that extra money you’re going to spend mastering for vinyl is going to be worth it,” says Calbi. “Depending on how you plan to master, it can be very time consuming.”
There are options — Sterling offers three tiers of vinyl mastering:
1) Transfer the CD master to vinyl
2) Re-master the digital source as a high-res 24-bit/96k file for vinyl
3) Master from analog tapes, through an all-analog path, exclusively for vinyl
“Tell us up front that you want to do a vinyl release and we’ll discuss the best way to do that,” says Calbi. “Typically I’ve been recommending a high-def bounce of the mixes, and master for vinyl as well as for CD. This adds about two hours of studio time at roughly $400/hour, so it’s about an extra $1K for a great-sounding vinyl release. I recently talked to an artist, Jay Reatard, who said that about 20 percent of his total sales are vinyl, so for him, the extra $1K is worth it. But if you’re just going to have them on your merch table as extras for the die-hard fans, maybe just transfer the CD master.”
Mastering engineers will also advise on optimal running times per side. The more minutes of music you try to fit on a side, the thinner the grooves have to be to fit them all, and thus the quieter the signal.
“At 22-minutes a side, you get a certain RMS (Root Mean Squared: refers to loudness) level, but once you get up to 26, 27 minutes, it diminishes drastically,” explains Calbi. “The best way to do it is to do a double-LP and put 13-14 minutes on a side; the signal-to-noise ratio is way more in your favor. It’ll be a really good sounding record, but it does double the cost of your pressing and jacket costs. So, again, you really have to evaluate your sales potential.”
Going for an all-analog vinyl release may mean more time and money, starting with the assembly of your record onto a reel.
“They don’t necessarily have to walk in with an assembled tape, but to assemble here you’re going to pay top dollar,” says Marino. “There are ways to cut down on the time spent here, i.e. don’t spend five hours here listening to mixes; choose your mixes ahead of time and assemble it in your own studio.”
Or, Sterling can assemble the tape. In that case, it helps to have anticipated the vinyl release in the mixing stage. “If the CD has cross-fades, for example, you’re into a whole other level of expense,” says Calbi. “Those cross-fades that take 30 seconds in the computer can take half-an-hour with tape.”
The process can be affordable, however. “If you come in with a sequenced tape, it really wouldn’t be much different than coming with a digital file,” notes Marino. “People can even do their mixing to digital in order to select their mixes, and then re-run the mix, and just print the ones they’ve decided on, to tape.”
Content is also a consideration in deciding how best to master your record for vinyl. “In the heyday of vinyl, engineers knew the challenges of the mechanics of vinyl,” says Marino, “And they knew that the wilder the sound — like if there’s really out-of-phase drums or record scratching effects — the wilder the grooves made into the lacquer, and it’s harder to fit a lot of those wild sounds onto vinyl.”
And, the time needed to press and package your vinyl, too, must be considered, as the 180-gram vinyl pressing plants in the U.S. may be inundated with orders. According to Calbi, a lot of the spill-over from one of the major plants, RTI in CA, has been taken on by Palace, a plant in Germany represented in the U.S. by Furnace MFG in Fairfax, VA, where jacket and assembly is done. Depending on the weight of your vinyl — 120-gram, 140-gram or the audiophile-grade 180-gram — there are also local pressing plants, including Brooklyn Phono and EKS Manufacturing in Long Island City, that may be able to press your order.
“If you’re going to go to the trouble of doing a AAA vinyl release, you’ll want to do 180-gram vinyl,” notes Calbi, adding that this higher-quality option will up your cost per record by about $1 a piece. The thicker and heavier the vinyl, the lower the noise and typically, the wider the dynamic range, especially if mastered from analog.
Though vinyl has made a mainstream comeback, the top-quality AAA vinyl format will only appeal to a small portion of Sterling’s clientele. For everyone else, Marino assures, “We get great results cutting vinyl from digital as well.” And, Wolifson clarifies, “A lot of other mastering facilities cut from a finished digital file, where George takes the digital mix and masters from there, going through the analog console.”
Marino interjects, “So, we’re printing from the output of the analog console as opposed to the CD file. And that can be quite successful — a little different coloration than having it off analog, but way better than mastering from the finished digital file.”