An example of a disk lathe.
BY GINO ROBAIR
VINYL RECORDS are very much in vogue again, as much for their
sonic quality as for their collectability. To get the best sounding
results when pressing a record, you need to consider the physical
limitations of the medium before you mix. Here are some tips
for maximizing the sound of your record, the first time around.
when pressing vinyl, you’ll trade off program length versus audio
quality, so begin by determining how much music you want
on each side of your record. An LP typically holds less than 30
minutes of music, and the width and spacing of the grooves plays
an important role in the sound quality of a vinyl record.
Keep in mind that the volume level at which you can cut the
tracks is proportional to program length. If you want the record
to be loud, you need the largest grooves possible. However, wide
grooves take up physical space, so you’ll need to keep the timing of
each side short if you want maximum volume.
Speed also plays an important role. Like analog tape, the faster
the vinyl media moves, the better the sound reproduction will be,
but the more media you’ll need. For example, the hottest playback
signal will come from a 12-inch pressing at 45 rpm, which is one
reason why it’s the preferred format for dance music. However,
the optimum program length of a disc at that size and speed is
around 9 minutes per side—great for an extended
remix, but not much for a full album. Even with a
maximum length per side of 15 minutes at 45 rpm,
it may not offer enough time for your project. At 33
1/3 rpm, a 12-inch yields a maximum length of about
22 minutes per side, although the optimum length is
around 14 minutes.
To make a record longer, you will have to cut it at a
softer level to fit more grooves into the same amount
of space. The softer level also means you’ll have an
increase in the noise floor.
Freaky Frequencies Low frequencies also require
a lot of space on a record. If your music is bass-heavy,
you’ll want to have fewer songs on the release, to leave
room for wider grooves.
Keep an eye on the level of your low-end:
Excessive bass will cause a needle to skip, and
mastering engineers will tame this frequency range
if they think it’ll cause a problem during playback. In
addition, low frequencies are panned to the center
during the mastering process, and the crossover
frequency differs between mastering houses. It’s
recommended that you mix the bass instruments to
mono, so that you have control over the sound before
it gets to the mastering studio.
Excessive high frequencies can also present a
problem on vinyl, particularly sibilant vocals or
sharp transients which will distort during playback.
Mastering engineers recommend using a de-esser on
vocal parts. In addition, too much compression and
limiting in the final mix will exaggerate the highs,
making it difficult to cut a good vinyl master.
The stylus has the greatest distance to travel on the outside of the record, letting it reproduce highs more accurately here.
It’s also important to understand that the quality of
high-frequency reproduction diminishes as the needle
gets closer to the center of the disc.
If you boost the highs to compensate
for this, you’ll end up with a record
that distorts. One popular approach
is to sequence the songs so that the
loudest tracks are at the beginning
of the record, where the stylus
has the greatest distance to travel,
allowing it to accurately reproduce
the upper registers.
Analog or Digital Master?
Consider the media that you
use to deliver your mixes to
mastering. If you’re pressing
to vinyl because you prefer the
sound quality of analog sound
over digital, you’ll want to mix
to something other than CD.
Many artists deliver their mixes
on analog tape, from which the
mastering engineer will cut the
master lacquer. Select the mastering
lab before you mix, and fi nd out
which tape format it prefers.
An alternative is to mix to a
high-resolution digital format
and deliver the files on a DVD-R
or upload them to the mastering
lab’s FTP site. Each of the 16 songs
of Arcade Fire’s recent Grammy
winning release, The Suburbs, was
mastered to vinyl from 24-bit,
96kHz mixes, and then re-digitized
from the lacquer masters at 16-bit,
44.1kHz for release on CD and MP3.
This allowed mixer Craig Silvey and
mastering engineer George Merino
to impart the characteristic timbre
of vinyl to the subsequent
But no matter how you deliver
the mixes, be sure to document the
song order and timings, as well as
the length of time you want between
songs. If your master is on tape or
CD, add a few minutes of silence
between the last song of side one
and the first song of side two, so that
it’s clear where one ends and the
In all cases, find out what the
mastering house wants to receive
before you mix. That way, you don’t
waste money and time redoing one
of the steps in the process.