How To: Vinyl Checklist

After preparing Elton John's catalog for reissue, engineer/producer Matt Still offers expert advice on what to listen for, before you approve your album test pressings
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Matt Still is helping to bring Elton John’s music to a new generation of hipsters and audiophiles (not that those two are mutually exclusive). With the help of top mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, and the lacquer-cutting team at Abbey Road Studios, he’s prepared 10 albums from Elton John’s vast catalog for vinyl reissue. Though many of these releases were originally released in the vinyl format, others are hitting turntables for the first time.

“And some of those digital releases are double albums now,” Still says. “You could put 80 minutes of music on a compact disc and no one necessarily thought in terms of album sides. We had to think for the first time about where to split up those tracks musically, but we also had to consider that you don’t want to put too much information on one side because then the grooves won’t be far enough apart to keep the audio quality high.”

Still was tasked with ensuring the highest standards from remastering through vinyl pressing. His insights are important for anyone who’s working on a vinyl release.

Please give a general picture of the process for reissuing these releases on vinyl.

First we had to find the best master we could. Bob Ludwig would then remaster and send me the new masters for approval. To check and approve the new masters, I would reference my original vinyls and CDs.

Bob did an amazing job, of course. He’s the best at what he does. I was there mainly to make sure the masters stayed true to the original Elton recordings, and stayed true to the original intent of the records.

Once the remasters were approved, we would send them to Abbey Road for them to cut the lacquers. From that point, they would then go off for a test pressing and the test pressings would come to me to listen and approve. Approved test pressings could go for full press and be released to the public.

What are some of your front-end concerns, during mixing and mastering, when you’re working on music for vinyl release?

You have to be very careful with the dynamic range because there are physical limitations to vinyl. With CDs, dynamic compression was more of an aesthetic, a creative choice, whereas for vinyl it was a necessity. If the dynamic range is too great, the needle would jump all over the place; it wouldn’t be able to stay in the groove.

How many test pressings do you typically receive of each album?

Two. I always need more than one, because I have to be able to compare vinyl to vinyl. The process I would always use is, I would have the [Pro Tools] master files that Bob Ludwig gave me, and I’d play each of the test pressings back on my turntable and import it into Pro Tools.

I’d listen to the import of the first test album, and then I would import the second album and compare each little imperfection that I’d hear on one record to the other, and determine whether those cracks or pops occur in the exact same spot on both records.

If the flaws occurred in different spots, then it’s not on the master or the original lacquer. If there were identical imperfections on both records, depending on what it was, we would possibly have to look at asking them to recut the lacquer.

What equipment do you recommend for playback?

Use a turntable you know and trust. I have an Audio-Technica LP1240. A moderately priced turntable is what I recommend, because this is what the end user will be listening to. If your pressing sounds good on a modest turntable, it will sound great on the higher-end stuff as well, and you want it to sound great for everyone.

What other types of anomalies are you listening for?

A problem we came across on one record was inner groove distortion. That occurs when, as you get closer to the center of the vinyl where grooves are closer together, sometimes you will find high-frequency distortion. You have to be particularly careful when you’re cutting to watch your dynamic range on that part of the vinyl. You can have deeper grooves on the outside of the vinyl where the curvature is greater, but the grooves can’t be quite as deep on the inside.

There was one record that had inner groove distortion on a classic track of Elton’s, and we actually changed from a lacquer cut to a copper plate because those handle high frequencies a little bit better. Lacquer has more of that warmth that people seem to like with vinyl, but in this instance a copper plate served the record better.

What happens when you receive flawed test pressings?

One time I got pressings back and they were warped. I don’t know what happened—they may have sat in a hot truck for too long—but they were like bowls. I couldn’t play them. Then I just had to request more test pressings.

Another issue is, when you get a crackle or a pop, that can be because of something called “non-fill.” That’s where the vinyl doesn’t flow fully enough to produce a well-formed groove, so there’s a little gap. So I have to determine if any crackle or pop I hear is from non-fill at the pressing, or if it’s a problem with the original lacquer cut.

If there’s something significant that I’m concerned about, then I will send notes back to the pressing plant and ask them to address it. But to some extent, engineers need to understand that a little bit of hiss and crackle now and then is inherent to the vinyl medium, but the benefits can outweigh the flaws

Listening to a vinyl record is a very tactile experience. There is a specific smell to vinyl. You have artwork to look at, and lyrics and credits to read while you listen. Placing the vinyl on the turntable and lowering the needle onto that first song is an intentional act. It’s not like selecting a playlist or passively allowing some algorithm to choose the next song for you.

Sitting down and listening to a vinyl record allows you to connect to the artist in a way that other formats can’t. Yes, there are crackles and pops here and there, but I think any perceived shortcomings of the medium are outweighed by these aesthetics alone.

Tips for Preparing a Vinyl Release

Simply pressing an LP or a 7-inch from the same mix you’re using for a CD does not guarantee the best results that vinyl has to offer. Often a number of decisions, and even some compromises, have to be made to get a great-sounding record.

Song Sequencing: LPs typically contain less than 40 minutes of music, and the amount of good-sounding space on the disc is important to consider. The rule of thumb is that the greater the circular distance over which the music is cut into the record, the better the reproduced sound quality will be.

The distance around the inside of a 12-inch record is about half the distance the needle travels around the outside. As the distance of each revolution decreases, high frequencies become harder for the stylus to read. Inner tracks will sound duller than the outer tracks because the high frequencies cannot be reproduced the same as if they were cut on the outside of the disc. Typically, a loss of high end begins about halfway through an LP.

Song sequencing for a vinyl release is very important if you want to maximize sound quality, particularly in the upper frequencies. Many classic albums were sequenced with a softer song or ballad on the inside and louder cuts on the outside. In some cases, you may want to sequence the vinyl version of your release differently from the CD.

Length vs. Volume: There is a direct correlation between album length and loudness. The shorter a record is, the louder it can be. That’s because there is only so much room to cut the groove. Therefore, the longer the time per side, the smaller the groove needs to be, and the lower the volume must be to make it fit and to prevent skipping.

The mastering engineers we spoke to recommend putting no more than 18 minutes of music on each side of a 12-inch record at 33 1/3 rpm. If you’re doing a club track and you want strong levels, definitely keep it under 10 minutes on a 12-inch disc at 45 rpm. Disc manufacturers post their recommended playing times for different record sizes and various speeds on their websites.

Check Your Reference: To get a sense of how their project will sound on vinyl, the pros get a reference disc cut before creating a master lacquer. Similar in composition to the master lacquer, the reference disc is a 12-inch, lacquer-coated aluminum record that the artist or producer can listen to at home to see whether or not they want to make any EQ or level adjustments.

Although it’s tempting to skip this step to save money, it’s better in the long run to have a reference disc made. Otherwise, the first time you’ll hear how your mix translates to disc is from a test pressing, which is more expensive to produce than a reference disc because of the steps involved (cutting the master lacquer, plating, producing metal stampers, and pressing), all of which you’ll pay for. And if you want to make changes at this point, you’ll have to pony up for the entire process again.

Know Thy Master: Be sure your master sounds the way you want it to, and the songs are in the proper order, before you send them for disc cutting. We’ve heard stories of artists who hadn’t auditioned their master mixes (or even test pressings) and wound up pressing records they didn’t intend to. —Gino Robair

Elton John’s Vinyl Reissues

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Empty Sky (1969)
Honky Château (1972)
Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
Caribou (1974)
Rock of the Westies (1975)
Blue Moves (1976)
Sleeping With the Past (1989)
The Big Picture (1997)
One Night Only - The Greatest Hits (2000)

EM managing editor Barbara Schultz is also the senior editor of Mix magazine.