Vinyl Mastering – How to make the best sounding record!

Vinyl records have seen a tremendous increase in popularity during recent years, and for good reason – there is so much to love about the format. The sheer size of a record, with its larger artwork, offers designers more opportunity for creativity and expression, and the whole ceremony of playing a record offers a more tactile experience when listening to music. More and more artists are deciding to press their latest releases on vinyl, and although this is great news, there are a few factors to take into account that are not applicable to any other format. The following guidelines are designed to help make your vinyl release a success!

Firstly, I would like to talk about audio fidelity and the differences when compared to a digital master. Generally speaking, if you have a good mix, it should translate with little or no issue. Below are some FAQs we get from studio engineers:

Is there anything specific that I should avoid when mixing for a vinyl release?

Yes. Firstly, It is important that the overall tone of your mix is balanced. Excessive treble or sibilance can actually damage the cutting equipment! Hard ‘S’ sounds are one of the first things to break up or distort, so it is a good idea to ‘de-ess’ vocals during the mixing stage, if any of this is present. Always make sure that cymbals and any other high frequency content isn’t too loud in the mix. If you have a very ‘bright’ mix, it may be necessary to process it in some way before cutting. For this reason, it is a good idea to consider using low-pass filters when mixing.

Phase is another aspect unique to vinyl, so always make sure that your bass/low-end is in phase. Most modern stereo mixes tend to have instruments like the bass guitar and kick drum panned centrally – this eliminates most phase discrepancies by default!  Avoid hard panning to the left or right, especially loud transients such as tom toms etc. This can create phase issues, which could lead to skipping on the finished records! Normal stereo sound field panning is totally fine – just avoid any extremes!

What is the maximum play length?

Another important question, with no simple answer! There are a few considerations here, the style of music and frequency content (particularly the amount of bass) for a start. For a 12” LP at 33 rpm, I would ideally suggest a preferred maximum of around 18 – 20 minutes per side for most types of music. We can cut longer play lengths, sometimes up to 24 minutes, but at a certain point fidelity will decrease. Heavy dance music (lots of bass) poses more of a restriction so always bare this in mind when planning your release. As a guide, suggested maximum play times are listed below.

Volume has a direct correlation with running time. In other words, the shorter the running time on each side of your record, the louder it can be cut to disc. On the flip side, the longer your running time, the lower the volume will be at the cut, thus risking a quieter sounding record. There is only so much physical space on a record, and a louder cut takes up more space. However, as long as you stay within these guidelines everything should fit perfectly for a high quality ‘loud’ cut.

As mentioned previously, we can cut longer sides, but in most cases our only option is to lower the volume so that it is physically possible to fit all of the grooves on the disc! As a result, a longer (23 – 24 minute) side will be closer to the noise floor, consequently allowing surface noise to become much more noticeable. A main benefit of a louder cut involves masking the noise floor inherent in the sound of vinyl. This is why I suggest an 18 – 20 minute per side maximum for a 12” album whenever possible. Remember, you can always put out a double-LP in a beautiful gatefold sleeve!

Should my record be 33 RPM or 45 RPM?

A record will always sound better running at 45 rpm rather than 33 rpm. Frequency response is improved and distortion figures are lower at the higher speed – simply because you have more space available in the groves to recreate the same sound. The downside is that you have less running time to work with. With a 12” record running at 45 rpm, I would recommend a maximum running time of around 14 – 15 minutes. Any longer, and we start getting into the same volume issues mentioned above. 45 rpm 7” records almost always sound better than a 33 rpm 7” record. Ultimately, it comes down to running time. If you are opting for longer sides, you probably want 33 rpm.

Is it better to put quieter songs at the end of a side?

Vinyl records are susceptible to a phenomenon known as “inner groove distortion”. The easiest way to understand this is that, with the turntable running at a fixed speed, there is lot more room in the grooves at the beginning of a record for the music to work with, as opposed to something towards the end of a side, where the revolutions take up less space. As a result, some styluses can have a difficult time playing loud cuts towards the end of a side, which can result in distortion.

Is there a benefit to black versus coloured vinyl?

This is a very subjective question, but ultimately, black vinyl does tend to have a lower noise floor. Having said that, coloured vinyl can sound great too. My advice would be that, if your record needs a longer running time/quieter cut or is very spacious, ambient music; black is probably the way to go – considering the noise floor. However, for shorter/louder cuts, coloured vinyl is a great option and provides for a really striking and collectable vinyl pressing. 

Should I release a single LP or double LP?

It’s all about the running time! If your release is over 40 minutes long, a double album may well be the best option (and remember, if the audio is spread over 4 sides – it may be possible to cut at 45 rpm). As mentioned earlier, it is easily possible to fit over 40 minutes of music onto one LP. However, this can compromise audio quality (particularly volume). If finances demand it be a single LP, I would recommend black vinyl for best results over 40 minutes.

What type of audio files should we supply for vinyl mastering?

Generally speaking, we prefer the highest sample rate/bit depth possible in an uncompressed format (.WAV or .AIFF ideally). Our converters range from 44.1kHz to 192 kHz. I am not suggesting you send us 192 kHz files necessarily, but if it was recorded/mixed at a higher sample rate/bit depth, send us those native files. Always avoid supplying low quality compressed formats (such as MP3 files) and try to avoid sending us CDs, if you have a higher sample rate format available.

At Cyclone, we will always make a separate set of masters for the vinyl version prior to cutting – vinyl is not subject to the ‘loudness war’ often associated with CD. With this in mind, we prefer masters with dynamic range and headroom, preferably in the native sample rate that the audio was recorded and mixed in. A good vinyl cutting engineer will always try to avoid any heavy-handed mastering techniques, with a focus on making the transfer to disc as faithful to the original sound files as possible.  

How long does it take and when should I place my order?

The manufacturing process generally takes around 5 weeks and we would recommend placing your order as soon as the mixing and mastering stages are finished. We always recommend having test pressings prior to your final stock order and, even if your artwork isn’t ready, we can still begin work on cutting and processing these whilst your artwork is being completed. We don’t need your artwork files until the test pressings are approved, so this will help keep your order on schedule for delivery on time.

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