Mastering for Vinyl

Mike Marsh Mastering is very proud to be at the forefront of cutting records and supplying lacquer masters for the production of vinyl. It's the format that Mike trained on at the start of his mastering career and consequently he holds it very close to his heart.

 

Every lacquer is painstakingly produced to provide the optimum sonic transfer to disc using a modified Neumann VMS70 Lathe – the lathe that is responsible for an enormous number of hit records with its past masters reading like a music industry hall of fame!
For full details, download Mike's Discography from our Engineer's Page.

 

Mike has always preferred the 'all hands on deck' approach when cutting master lacquers and he uses a pure analogue path to the lathe with no vari-groove or Digital Delay Line. Mike will tell you, "Why do I need a delay line and vari-groove when I can vari-groove by hand and operate the lathe manually – and it sounds better! Coupled with the fact that many lacquers are cut from soundfiles where you can actually SEE the audio coming, I can work better than a Digital Vari-Groove system by just using my eyes".

 

Vari-groove is the means of controlling the pitch motor of the lathe by speeding up or slowing down the motor, therefore opening the groove out on itself during loud and dynamic moments or closing it up tight on itself during quiet sections of the music. This process is useful to make optimum use of the vinyl playing surface area and not waste valuable outer diameter portions of the disc which retain the best quality sound.

 

Cutting records is not something you can learn in five minutes as it takes a good few years to master it properly. It's a very physical process because you're dealing with a moving, modulating, wobbling groove that’s crammed full of information! Mike will also tell you it’s still one of the best sounding formats in which to listen to music – even today!

 

"With this Neumann VMS70 disc mastering set-up capable of cutting harmonics and frequencies way above our normal hearing range it's a system that still has a better dynamic range and frequency response than many other formats!"


Mike cuts master lacquers for LPs, 12", 10" and 7" singles as well as master lacquers for picture discs. We also cut instantly usable 'playback acetates'. Lacquers for vinyl production are usually cut on 14" master discs whereas playback acetates are usually cut on a disc the size of its eventual manufactured format.

 

When a master record is cut, test cuts are made on a separate lacquer first and then played back to determine the quality of the sound transferred to disc but once you commit to a master lacquer for production you never play this back as it will damage the very sensitive information contained within the groove.

 

Playback Acetates are cut in the same way as a master lacquer and can be used as an instant reference of how your record will sound before it goes through the manufacturing process. They are playable on conventional turntables but it must be remembered that they have a limited shelf life and will deteriorate with every play.

 

If you would like to see video of the vinyl production process please click on the links at the foot of the page

 

In reality, a good sounding set of tracks mastered for Digital / CD will also make for a good vinyl master but there are a few extra things that need to be taken into consideration when you cut a record due to the physical nature of the medium and the manufacturing process involved in producing pressings.

 

The main consideration is the total playing time of the material to be cut into one side of the record. The longer the record is, the quieter it will be in terms of volume. The loudest records are nearly always the shortest! That's why singles are always louder than albums.

 

When cutting a record you may have to cut between 3 and 35 minutes of audio into one side of a disc, depending on the format, and it's this running time which dictates how loud your record will be.

 

See the chart below for recommendations relating to running times for sides of vinyl

 

Other issues which need consideration when producing a lacquer master are excessive high frequency content and / or vocal sibilance and the likelihood of distortion. High frequencies are cut cleanly to the master lacquer but, often, many playback styli cannot reproduce them accurately unless you're using a broadcast tone arm and broadcast playback stylus. With this in mind, some gentle 'de-essing' is required to soften the impact of big cymbal crashes and hi-hats within the music programme, along with big 'esses' and 'effs' in vocal performances to ensure clean playback on all turntables in the outside world.


It's useful to realise that the fidelity and high frequency response of a record becomes poorer as you travel towards the centre. This is due to the decreased surface area of the disc coupled with 'inner-diameter distortion' which effectively and incurably rolls off the high frequency content of the material. When thinking about ordering tracks on a record it's worth keeping big, bright sounding tracks towards the outer edge of the disc leaving the chilled-out mellower ones towards the centre.

 

Another issue which can cause cutting engineers a problem during mastering a record is excessive stereo width - particularly that of lower-frequency content.


We're dealing with a physical medium and a moving groove. The motion of the cutting stylus whilst cutting a groove is left to right and up and down with regard to stereo information. Extremes of lower-frequency stereo width can cause the cutterhead and cutting stylus to bounce up and down resulting in the cutterhead leaving the surface of the lacquer and the groove it's cutting disappearing completely - resulting in a jumping record. This is dealt with by the gentle use of an elliptical EQ which will draw back and narrow the out-of-phase portion of the troublesome low frequency content.

 

It should be noted that a mastered lacquer be sent to your choice of manufacturer as soon as it's cut. Lacquers need processing quickly before the very fine groove-wall that's just been cut starts to collapse on itself. This causes problems with processing and affects the sound of the finished record.

 

Always arrange for a manufacturer when you make a booking to cut your record. We can ship the mastered lacquer direct from our studio to the manufacturer of your choice speeding up the time it will take to get your record from lacquer to pressing.

 

We'll also need to know a Catalogue Number / Matrix Number for your release at the time of making the booking. Once a master lacquer is cut, this number is etched into the outer edge of the disc uniquely identifying it to the manufacturer.

 

After we cut your record, it's also possible to inscribe a personalised message into the run-out groove of the lacquer. This message will appear on each and every one of your pressings! If you’ve already noticed Mikes – The Exchange in the run-out groove of your favourite record you’ll know what we mean! This was Mike’s tag in the run-out groove of many records mastered during his time at The Exchange Mastering Studios.

 

We'll need to know any personalised messages at the time of booking because once the mastered lacquer is boxed up and on its way to processing, it's too late!

 

Mike Marsh Mastering recommends that you have a test pressing made of your record before you commit to a vinyl production run

 

A Test Pressing is produced by your manufacturer in advance of the main pressing run and providing the processing stages have completed successfully, this pressing will give you and idea of what your pressings will sound like once the main pressing run is complete.

 

Mike Marsh Mastering cannot be held responsible for any sonic or technical defect beyond the test pressing stage

 

Vinyl Sides Optimum Duration Chart

 

Vinyl Format

Loud Level (minutes)

Average Level (minutes)

Lower Level (minutes)

7" 45 prm

3.5

4.5

6

7" 33 rpm

5

7

9

10" 45 rpm

6

8

10

10" 33 rpm

8

10

13

12" 45 rpm

8

10

12

12" 33 rpm

12

14

16

Album

(comparable side length)

17

20

25

 

It should be noted that the table above is a general guideline. Musical style and content can also affect overall volume parameters versus side length. For example, it's possible to cut much longer sides of mellow acoustic music or spoken word at a reasonable level than it would be to cut a full-blown rock band / electronic dance track.


It's also worth remembering that it's possible to cut lacquer sides longer in duration than is shown in the 'lower level' part of the table, being aware that cutting volumes are further reduced thereby increasing the vinyl signal-to-noise ratio. Vinyl pops, crackles and clicks appear more noticeable and seemingly louder due to the reduced cutting volume of the playback material.

 

Further cost can also be incurred when stretching vinyl duration sides to absolute physical maximums both at the cutting / mastering stage and processing stages.

 

During the cutting stage there is more room for error when dealing with side lengths that are at physical limits because of greatly reduced groove depth and the increased risk of inter-cutting where grooves can overlap each other. An extra material cost charge will be made in respect of very long sides due to the need for extensive test cutting and use of extra blank master lacquers in the process.

 

Problems can also occur during the processing and plating stages due to the greatly reduced groove depth and the fact that the grooves have to be bunched up very tightly together.

 

Never say never though! Mike remembers cutting an album on Island Records in 1989 (ILPS 9937) for the comedian Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed, which was a mixture of musical tracks, skits and vocal comedy sketches with a total running time of something like 37 – 38 minutes per side! "It was hard work – but we did it!”

 

How vinyl records are made - part 1

How vinyl records are made - part 2