With the recent massive uptick in vinyl's popularity of late, more and more artists have been working to get their music pressed in this format to release to fans. Preparing and album for vinyl, however, is decidedly different from doing so for CD or digital release. Here we look at how to so correctly.
Guest Post by Vlado Meller
When vinyl album production ramped down in the 1990s, many thought the format was as dead as the 8-track tape. But vinyl has returned stronger than ever, and more artists are looking to get releases out in this format for their fans. However, preparing a recording for a vinyl pressing has a few important differences than for a digital or CD release, and it’s important to know what they are before you even go into the studio to record.
I’ve been mastering records of all kinds - from Frank Sinatra to Frank Ocean and Metallica to Andrea Bocelli - since the 1960s, and I’m deeply familiar with how vinyl albums are prepared and cut. If you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of vinyl, here’s what to keep in mind throughout the process – from recording and ordering your album to pressing and shipping:
1. Engineer Experience Varies
First of all, if you're choosing to release music on vinyl, you should know that you can’t just send your usual engineer the files and ask them make a vinyl out of it. Many of today’s mastering engineers - especially less experienced ones - have not pressed vinyl, so make sure to ask a candidate if they personally master to vinyl, and if so, the extent of their discography. For example, the most critical things to prep for vinyl are the levels and the EQ; excessive high and low frequencies should be avoided in the mix and also during mastering, as they do not translate well to vinyl.
2. Length Matters
When you're preparing your album's final length and tracklisting, you need to take into consideration the way these factors relate to the vinyl medium. If you're looking for loud levels, sides should be between 17-18 minutes or less - the shorter the better. If the program sides are longer, EQ and overall levels have to be adjusted accordingly.
3. The First Song Will Sound The Best
Your best tracks, or the most sonically complex ones, or song you care most about, should be the first or second song in a side’s tracklisting, because the best playback is on the outside of the vinyl. As the diameter of the grooves gets smaller and smaller, audio quality slowly and subtly degrades as the pick up travels toward the center of the record.
4. For Your Reference
Once you've chosen the right engineers and tracklisting, you'll need to make sure that the engineer cutting the vinyl is doing their job correctly. It’s standard for the cutting engineer to share a vinyl reference disc before the vinyl master is sent for production, so you’ll need to confirm that this will happen. The reference disc you get from a cutting engineer should come back sounding nearly exactly the same as the finished product from the pressing plant. The quality of the final pressings depends on the skills and quality of the pressing plant.
5. Testing, Testing
While it is standard, double-check that your pressing plant provides you with a test pressing for your approval before the complete production order is fulfilled. Problems can arise in the pressing plant; just because you got a great vinyl reference doesn't mean the same thing will come out of the factory. A test pressing is viewed as a sort of insurance policy when making mass amounts of vinyl. And make sure you’re not going on vacation or something that delays you getting the test pressing and approving it - the plating should take place within 24 hours after the cutting. It cannot wait two weeks, and it cannot even wait from Friday to Monday (especially in hot weather). The cutting master can develop pre and post echo problems, similar to analog tape.
Mistakes can be made at each step of the process, and these are just the basic points to keep in mind. So if you are serious about getting the best possible sound from vinyl for your music, do your due diligence and learn more about the intricacies of vinyl production, and make sure everyone involved with your album is on the same page.