Before we start with specific steps and hacks for vinyl mastering, the #1 tip we can give you for a seamless vinyl mastering and manufacturing is this:
HIRE A PROFESSIONAL MASTERING ENGINEER!
And not just a regular mastering engineer, but a mastering engineer that has a lot of experience in vinyl mastering because mastering vinyl is difference from mastering digital releases. A master engineer does exactly understand the boundaries where mastering meets cutting and cutting meets vinyl pressing for an optimized result of the highest order possible. The final product of vinyl is essential with an ace sound of vinyl mastering!
If you DIY or hire an engineer who has zero experience with vinyl mastering, then your risk of producing a bad vinyl record in high. You can try the DIY route but it could cost you time and money. You might even have to redo everything.
However, as the client, it’s of course good to read this guide to be aware of the basics of mastering and manufacturing vinyl. When your engineer tells you technical things say, he wants to minimize the bass, then you understand what he’s talking about. Vinyl pressing requires that everything must be perfect before you even press hundreds of records and a professional vinyl mastering engineer will make sure you achieve it.
Some things you should know when vinyl mastering:
#1 Volume and bass directly affect audio capacity.
Unlike with CDs, there is a limitation in the amount of recording time on each side of a record. The factors that affect what you can put in each side are the cutting level (volume) and the amount of bass you have in your music. The higher the volume and the more bass you have in your album, the more space it takes up.
The aim to have excellent sound quality and yet provide adequate playing time has been the greatest challenge of vinyl but it remains to be a great way to experience music.
#2 If you want to put more music, here are your options:
RPM affects quality and audio capacity. The faster a record turns, the better the audio sounds and the lesser the chance of music to get distorted. That means, in general 45RPM sounds better than 33RPM. However, the higher the RPM, the lesser amount of music it can hold (approx 25% lesser).
|33 RPM||45 RPM||78 RPM|
|7”||6 min||4.5 min|
|10”||12 min||9 min||4 min|
|12”||18 min||12 min|
* Take note: Not all turntables can play 78RPM
To get the best compromise for your high frequency/loud music, we recommend you get the 12” for a maximum of 12 min.
FROM JAMES, OUR CEO:
“From my experience, if you’re pressing a 12-inch vinyl (with max 22 minutes per side), don’t use up all 22 minutes. In fact, don’t go past 17 minutes. I hear you, and yes I have lost many customers to this issue. You can, in theory, go up to 22 minutes but people, please, the risk of DISTORTION goes up every minute you go past that mark.
So what if you really have to put 22- 30 minute of audio per side? Yes, I can get your 22 – 24 – 30 minute of audio onto SIDE A or SIDE B, but you know what I’m going to do to achieve that? It’s something you might not like. I’m going to compress the sh*t out of it…which I won’t do. Why? Because it changes the integrity of the music. It would just sound like an MP3, but the most expensive MP3 in the world. Why make a vinyl if you won’t make it sound like a vinyl? Just make MP3 and save your money.”
#3 Loud, heavy tracks should be placed at the beginning to prevent distortion.
Louder, heavier tracks should be placed at the beginning to prevent inner-groove distortion. When the needle gets closer to the center of the record (meaning, the end of the side), there’s a chance there’ll be slight distortion. If you put your heavy tracks here, it will be more obvious. The standard rule is to put the louder/heavier tracks at the beginning and the ones with lower frequency in the end. That’s the safest way to arrange your songs in vinyl.
#4 Because of the things mentioned above and more, you should make a separate master for vinyl.
It’s not going to sound the same. It’s just not. If you use the master you made for your CD as the master for your vinyl, that’s fine but don’t expect it to sound the same. That is why we suggest to anyone pressing vinyl that if you have the money, make a vinyl master.
If you have a master for CD, here are the additional changes you should do to make it vinyl-ready. Talk to your vinyl mastering guy and make sure you:
- Avoid using “finalizers” on your mixes as they could cause distortion.
- Don’t mix hi-hats and cymbals too loudly or the high frequencies will cause distortion.
- Center your bass frequencies
- De-ess your vocal tracks
Analogue Mastering Specifications:
- Formats: WAV, AIFF, FLAC (lossless) or DDP Image.
- Bit Rate: 24 bits (16 bits works too) 32 bits is overkill.
- Sampling Rate: 44,1 kHz or higher, we prefer 48 khz.
- Tracklist: Tracks with sensible hi end frequencies sound better at the beginning of each side, the highs can sound slightly more distorted and less clear near the end of each side due to less playback speed.
- Compression/Limiting: Slight mixbus compression/limiting is not a problem if you know what you do, otherwise don’t use it (recommended).
It can be good to send a reference track along, but only AIFF, WAV or FLAC (uncompressed). MP3 is not a good reference because of the data compression, so links to youtube or soundcloud neither.
Maximum Side Lengths 12″ Records for optimized sound:
- Maximum levels, approx +6 dB: 6 min at 45 RPM, 8 min at 33 RPM.
- Sufficient levels, approx +4 dB: 8 min at 45 RPM, 11 min at 33 RPM.
- For dj use, approx 0 dB: 11min at 45 RPM, 15 min at 33 RPM.
- Maximum playtime albums for optimized sound, approx -6 dB and lower: 18 min at 45 RPM, 24 min at 33 RPM.
(keep in mind this is not possible or recommended with more bass heavy music, a record with just speech might be even longer than 24 min but not recommended).
* Again, longer playtime is possible but not recommended.
- Try to use de-essers on vocal tracks in mixing, it’s better then solving these issues in mastering.
- Don’t go wild on stereo width enhancers for loud cuts! Keep the stereo content at least lower then half of the mono content, so at least 6db lower (in M/S coding). We use an elliptical filter to transform the lowest stereo information to mono. For loud cuts at least 9 dB difference is nice. Stereo cuts vertical and modulation get’s much more limited, which means less hard cuts.
Extra digital masters:
It’s possible to order extra digital masters for online distribution. This is what you get by default:
- Streaming Ready Master (iTunes) – 1dbfs, 24 bits (for sending to iTunes) Minimized clipping, better for data reduction and reduced loudness for streaming, so dynamic range before loudness
Conversion will be done by iTunes. With possibly slight adjustments in sound to reduce issues caused by data reduction.
- MP3 320 kb Normalized Master – minimized clipping, for sharing with MP3 data reduction. With possibly slight adjustments in sound to reduce issues caused by data reduction.
- 16 bit WAV Masters – extra conversion from the original Vinyl master for normal DJ use and digital distribution.
* More formats with different specs on request, price will be customized in that case too.
James Hill is a veteran of the music industry. He first worked at Warner Reprise Records then later joined Interscope/ Geffen Records where he managed producers and songwriters and got his first platinum record for Keyshia Cole’s The Way It Is. He is now helping indie artists with branding and manufacturing through his company Unified Manufacturing, a CD/DVD/vinyl and merch company in LA.