The science and the art of vinyl records
In celebration of vinyl resurgence in popularity over the past decade, we’re taking a minute to review its history, and look a few basic pointers when it comes to vinyl mixing and releasing.
Guest post by Andre Calilhanna of the Disc Makers Blog
Excerpted from “The Musician’s Guide To Vinyl,” we review a brief history of vinyl records and share some basics when it comes to mixing for your vinyl release.
The resurgence of vinyl over the past decade means that manufacturing, releasing, and distributing an album or single on vinyl is a viable option for your independent release. We’re thrilled to be part of the return of this medium; vinyl harkens to the origins of Disc Makers, after all. And renewing the debate over analog vs. digital recording and playback in an age obsessed with technology and expedience is what we audiophiles live for.
The science of vinyl records
Sound is the vibration of particles across a medium — air and water, for instance — in the form of waves. In 1877, Thomas Edison first developed a way to record and play sound by imprinting sound wave information onto tinfoil by etching the electrical signal of a sound wave with a needle and creating a phonograph to read and reproduce the recorded sound.
Unlike the flat discs we use today, Edison’s early phonographs used cylinders, and the mechanical cylinder phonograph played sound with the help of a reproducer, which included a diaphragm and a sapphire needle and a horn that broadcast the recorded material. The size of the horn determined the volume of the playback.
A decade later, Emile Berliner used the same principles, recording to a flat rubber disc and then shellac — the predecessor of the vinyl used for modern-day release.
While Edison originally envisioned the phonograph being used as a recording device for dictation and teaching, Berliner’s gramophone introduced the era of the recorded musical album, providing a way to mass produce recordings for people to play on systems in their homes. The process is similar to how records are enjoyed today.
The mechanics of modern playback
A stylus, or record needle, is one component in a transducer — a device that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy (or vice versa). In the case of a record player, this transducer is a cartridge — composed of a stylus, cantilever, magnets, coils, and body — which converts the mechanical energy of the recorded vibrations into sound waves, which are amplified and broadcast through speakers.
A stylus is cone-shaped and typically made from diamond or other gemstone or hard metal. The stylus fits into the grooves of the record, picking up and sending the etched vibrations through the cartridge, which converts the information into an electrical signal, sends it to an amplifier that boosts the signal’s power, and then to the speakers, which broadcast the sound.
The stylus’ job is to read all the information in the grooves, which were originally created using another needle as part of a transducer — in this case, converting the electrical energy of the sound waves into vibrations etched into the record grooves. In a stereo record groove, the right channel is recorded on the right wall, and the left channel is recorded on the left.
While mastering engineers preparing a recording for transfer to vinyl will adjust the groove pitch to account for dynamics in the program (i.e., louder and softer sections of your music), there are maximum and minimum depths permitted for a record’s groove. Too much low frequency information combined with a lot of information spread across the stereo field can result in the stylus jumping out of the groove and skipping. Too shallow and narrow a groove, and the recorded sound can lose its stereo image and suffer from low volume.
Furthermore, a record only has so much space to contain the grooves. The length of your program — as well as the levels and frequencies contained in your recording — will affect the depth and width of the grooves, and ultimately the quality of the playback. This is one reason why mastering a recording for vinyl release is an important step in creating a high-quality end product.
Recording and mixing high frequencies
High frequency and sibilant sounds, particularly with vocals and cymbals, can turn into distortion on a vinyl record if not mixed properly. Vinyl can’t reproduce high frequencies as accurately as digital media. In fact, higher frequencies can sound fine on playback from WAV files, but when transferred to vinyl, some of those bright, sibilant frequencies can turn into a crispy buzz. This can result from various factors, but specific frequencies, mixed improperly or lacking proper compression, can ultimately be too prominent and distort on playback.
In most of these cases, it isn’t an issue of the sound not being pressed onto the vinyl accurately, it’s that the stylus is unable to track the sounds correctly. The same recording can sound fine on a 24 bit WAV file, and might replicate perfectly on a CD or other digital product.
One way to avoid sibilance issues is simply to choose the correct microphone and employ an effective pop filter in the recording process. Knowing from the outset that vinyl will be your ultimate end product can affect choices you make all the way back to the pre-production and arranging stages.
The use of a de-esser in these situations can also be a key and is highly recommended when mixing and mastering for vinyl release. A de-esser acts like a very narrow-band compressor that is set at specific frequencies where you typically get “esses” and “tees” and other sibilant consonant sounds. It compresses those frequencies to keep them from jumping out and becoming a problem in playback.
Pro tip: Center the bass frequencies
With lower frequencies, and especially in music that requires a lot of bass and low frequency content, the recommendation is to center your bass frequencies when preparing a mix for release on vinyl. In essence, make the low frequency information mono. It’s also recommended that you avoid hard panning of the toms when recording drums.
Learn more about recording, mixing, mastering, designing, and manufacturing a vinyl LP. Download our free guide, The Musician’s Guide To Vinyl today!