As we talked about in the previous “Vinyl Evolution” edition of Sound Thinking, there are a lot of artists releasing their records on vinyl. If you are going to be one of them, here are some things that may help you get the best results.
One thing to do is plan ahead. Artists are quickly getting used to uploading songs to the mastering studio and having a master ready to go to replication in a day or so. Vinyl is going to take several weeks. There are three separate physical processes that happen. So plan your record release accordingly.
1. Cut the lacquers
2. Plate the lacquers
3. Press the records.
These steps are often done at different locations. For example, I will cut the lacquers for my client, then overnight those to the plating house. They make the plates and send those to the pressing plant. Plan on a 2-to-3 week turnaround time before you have your records in hand: There are only a few places in the country that actually do this, and since this technology and machinery is as old as it is, it’s unlikely we will see more popping up.
The Size of Sides Matters
Unlike digital media, the length of your record directly affects the sound quality (and volume) of a record. The longer a record is the tighter the grooves need to be and the lower the volume will end up. This is a big reason why we had the 12- inch dance record. You would put one song per side around 10 minutes and you could keep the volume noticeably louder than a full-length record without sacrificing the low end. The more low end the songs have, the more space it will take up.
I recommend keeping your sides under 25 minutes. Recommended time for a 7-inch record is four minutes per side. This allows for a good cutting level without having to sacrifice sound quality. A couple of minutes either way is fine, but if you have a 27- minute side on a big rocking record, it’s going to have to be lower in volume. Also try to keep your sides close in length. Better to have two 22-minute sides, than one that’s 15 minutes on one side and 27 on the other.
Also, the further you get into the side the less fidelity you have, because of inner groove modulation. Those inside grooves are more compressed than outer grooves. One helpful idea is it to sequence the sides so the bigger/louder songs are at the front of the side — keep the mellower stuff later.
Facts for Stacks
The standard record is 140 gram vinyl, with about 30% of the product being recycled vinyl. You can also get 180-220 gram (virgin) vinyl — this higher (audiophile) quality is less prone to deformation, lasts longer and sounds better. If this is something you’re interested in, speak to your pressing plant and find out what they offer and what the cost difference is.
Speed also affects the length and fidelity of a record. The standard full-length time is 33RPM. If you have shorter sides (around 10 minutes) consider cutting at 45RPM. 45 RPM gives you better sound quality, more definition and less distortion. The disc is spinning faster so the waveforms are cut further apart allowing the playback stylus to pick up more information. But that faster speed gives you 26% less length.
Most records, because of budgetary reasons, are mastered for digital release. Then those EQ’d files are used to cut the lacquers from. Some mastering engineers (myself included) will master at higher resolution. So make sure your lacquers are cut from those higher resolution files. To take it one step further, you can have a separate EQ pass done, skipping any limiting used to make the digital files as loud as people expect them, and make your EQ decisions based specifically for vinyl.
When cutting records, the signal is first sent to the lathe’s computer to be able to properly adjust the optimum spacing between grooves before it hits the cutter head. To make this possible there is what’s called a preview channel — a digital delay line is used to allow this to happen. This is not a big deal, but if you want to keep it totally analog you need a tape machine with the necessary analog tape delay head stack. Be sure to ask if this is an option if you want the full tweeker mode. There may be some cutting engineers using the old-style analog delay but I don’t know of anyone. If you’re one of those engineers, let me know!
One last note: Take advantage of the 12 square inches of space to put some really eye-catching artwork on! One of the great selling points for records is having something physical to look at and hold, so use the space wisely to get people interested in your music. I bought many a record as a kid simply because the cover was cool.
I hope this is helpful! — Joe
Joe Lambert is owner and chief engineer of Joe Lambert Mastering (JLM) in Brooklyn, NY.