The days of the demo tape are finished. CDs have taken over as the preferred demo- and DIY-album format, and producing them is easier and cheaper than ever before. Almost every musician has a CD of his or her music — and that's the problem. When you reach the stage of promoting your music to the public and the industry, it can only help your cause to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Pressing some of your music to a vinyl record is one way to do that.
These days burning a CD is so simple that it no longer automatically indicates that an artist has a serious commitment to the music. Pressing a 12-inch record, on the other hand, shows at the very least a financial sacrifice and suggests that time was taken mastering the music to a high standard. If you've been paying attention to record labels lately, you know that most of them are no longer interested in cuts that are “demo-quality”; labels want demos to be completed or nearly completed.
Pressing a vinyl record should not be thought of merely as a ploy for attention. There is a serious market for vinyl. Turntables have definitely reentered the mainstream consciousness as a result of the explosion of the DJ culture, and vinyl never went out of style with the punk and indie underground. For aspiring hip-hop or dance-music artists, making a 12-inch record is an almost inevitable rite of passage into a more established place in the business. Sure, you could wait hopefully for the labels to bite, but for the price of a new synthesizer or multitrack digital recorder, you could press 500 to 1,000 12-inch singles suitable for sending to DJs, radio stations, and record labels. Your marketing strategy is an entirely different subject, but here's a look at some of the logistics of pressing a record.
MASTERING FOR GROOVES
Record pressing involves two mastering processes: the mastering of the source material to DAT, CD-R, or another format that a pressing plant will accept; and the transferring of the source material to a lacquer and then to a metal stamper that presses the vinyl. You need only concern yourself with the first part. Some pressing plants double as mastering houses and will create a master for you from your mixes. That will add considerable cost to the job, but certain companies will include mastering as part of an entire record-pressing package.
If you are mastering your own source material, here are a few suggestions that can help you prepare a digital source such as DAT and CD-R for pressing to an analog record. (For detailed information about mastering, see “Mastering on a Budget” in the October 1998 issue of EM and “Mastering Continuity” in the October 1999 issue.)
One thing to keep in mind is that vinyl records reproduce the frequency spectrum differently from the way that CDs do. As you would suspect, the system you use to play back the record (including the turntable and the speakers) plays a critical role in determining what you hear. The better the system, the more of the frequency range you can recover from the record.
Although some people will argue that the theoretical frequency range of a record surpasses that of the compact disc, it's difficult to get mastering engineers to agree on the exact limits of the range. Engineers concur, however, that the practical upper limits of a vinyl record are in the range of 16 to 18 kHz for albums destined for audiophile-quality systems and 8 to 16 kHz for the average reproduction system. The upper limit depends on the physical position of the music on the record itself as well.
Distortion will result if the reproduction system cannot adequately handle the frequency range of the record that is being played. Make sure to keep this in mind before boosting anything in the 8 to 16 kHz range as you mix. You should also consider using a de-esser on high-frequency sources such as vocals and cymbals.
On the flip side, a well-mastered record can reproduce lower frequencies better than a CD. For this reason, bass-heavy music is particularly well suited to vinyl — that's why DJs often prefer it for thumping club music. Problems can occur, however, if musicians, wanting to hear the bass the way they like it, overcompensate in the bass frequencies when they mix to CD-R. When such mixes are pressed to vinyl, the bass information can end up so loud that the stylus skips during playback.
In addition, higher bass levels require more physical space on the record, so for bass-heavy music, you need to limit the amount of music on each side of the record. Typically, the length of each side of a 12-inch record should be 10 minutes (optimum) to 12 minutes (maximum) at 45 rpm, and 16 minutes (optimum) to 24 minutes (maximum) at 33⅓ rpm. For dance and hip-hop with heavy bass, however, I recommend that you keep it to 6 to 8 minutes (optimum) or 9 minutes (maximum) at 45 rpm, and 8 to 10 minutes (optimum) or 12 minutes (maximum) at 33⅓ rpm. Longer times may necessitate a drop in levels.
CHILL ON THE INSIDE
Another element that plays a part in the sound quality of the pressing is where a track sits physically on a record. A groove at the outer edge of the record can have a circumference as great as 36 inches, whereas the circumference of grooves toward the inside of the record can fall to fewer than 15 inches. These distances are covered in the 1.8 seconds it takes for one turntable revolution at 33⅓ rpm. As the grooves of a record approach the center, the same amount of information must be squeezed into a smaller space. As a result, music at the beginning of a record side sounds more pristine, and the odds that you'll get treble distortion increase the closer the grooves are to the record's center.
Dance-music 12-inches often have the banging club mix on the first side, with a more mellow, chill-out version on the second. You should follow suit on your own record by putting the louder, busier, more bass-heavy music at the beginning of a side and quieter music at the end of the same side.
Although you should always check with the record plant about how to prepare your master source for pressing, a few details are customary. If you want any changes made to the levels or dynamics of the source, be specific about what those changes are and type out the details on a sheet of paper. Also include a track sheet with the names, track numbers, start IDs, and lengths for each song, as well as the total side time, which should include the pauses between songs. The pause time between songs on the record will be whatever it was on the master.
Depending on the record-pressing service you use and the number of options you choose, the final pressing cost should fall between $750 and $1,300 for 500 12-inch 130-gram (130g) records, and between $1,100 and $2,000 for 1,000 records. Generally, these prices would include the master lacquer, metal processing, record pressing, test pressings, labels, shrink-wrap, jackets, and possibly paper sleeves. The cost per record is much lower with greater quantities because the most expensive parts of the process, mastering and plating, are fixed costs that occur regardless of the number of records pressed. Ordering another pressing of the record is usually much cheaper, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. You could also spend a bit less by cutting down on the number of extra options.
Using colored vinyl, including swirled or marbled vinyl, adds a distinctive look to your record, and colored vinyl is also known to sell better than black vinyl. Colored vinyl comes at a cost as well. Plan to spend $0.25 to $0.50 per record extra for colored vinyl. White, patterned, and custom colors are the most expensive. Depending on the company, there may also be a setup fee for ordering colored vinyl.
The aforementioned pressing prices are for the standard vinyl weight of 130g. Stepping up to a heavier-grade vinyl results in all-around improved sound. With 180g vinyl, you can count on a better stereo image, boomier bass, sharper treble, and less noise and distortion. Be prepared to pay dearly, however. Again, costs vary, but if the cost per 130g 12-inch is $0.78 to $0.89, 180g vinyl costs around $1.50 to $2.10 per record while fixed costs remain equal. Slightly higher grade 140g vinyl is another option, with prices sometimes only a few cents per record higher than the 130g price. Whereas 180g records are considered audiophile quality, some outlets do make 220g records available.
If sound quality is a top priority, make sure you order records made from 100 percent virgin vinyl. Some pressing plants will use recycled vinyl unless the customer requests otherwise. Virgin vinyl is more consistent and offers better audio performance. Just be aware that ordering virgin vinyl will put your cost in the upper tier of the aforementioned price ranges. But as with everything else in life, you get what you pay for.
Some record-pressing companies guarantee that you'll get virgin vinyl or they offer audiophile packages with virgin vinyl and, usually, a heavier-weight pressing. Other companies may offer only one set of prices, so check with them to find out whether they use 100 percent virgin vinyl.
Remaining considerations include labels and dust jackets. Most package deals include a white or black dust jacket with holes in the center and white labels with black print. If you have the money to go all out, you can order full four-color artwork for the jackets and labels. These prices are often quoted by the pressing plant for each customer.
Even with the improvement of CD recording and playback technology, vinyl records still offer advantages to DJs, favorable sound for bass-heavy music, and an intangible cool factor in a number of music scenes. Because they sell well at gigs and suggest a pro attitude to industry types, vinyl stands to be a major part of any artist's self-promotion. Although its mainstream days are long gone, the 12-inch record's cult status with DJs worldwide ensures that it will be a viable option for years to come.
Markkus Rovito(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor for E-Gear magazine and a bedroom studio musician.
KEEPERS OF THE LATHE
Here is a selected list of record-pressing services.
Acme Vinyl Corp. (Ontario, Canada)
tel. (905) 470-2937; Web www.acmevinyl.com
tel. (800) 468-9353; Web www.discmakers.com
tel. (800) 455-8555 or (718) 407-7300; Web www.europadisk.com
tel. (866) 629-3475; Web www.maxdisk.com
tel. (805) 484-2747; Web www.recordtech.com
World Media Group
tel. (800) 400-4964 or (317) 549-8484; Web www.worldmediagroup.com