Ask the Engineer with Scott Hull: How Much Music Fits on an LP Side?


Ask the Engineer is a series on the Masterdisk blog where our engineers answer questions about music production.

SCOTT HULL is a 28-year veteran mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. Scott started his career in 1983 and has mastered hit records and classic albums in every genre, as well as many Grammy-winning titles. He is widely regarded as an expert in vinyl mastering. Recent projects include albums for Donald Fagen, Sting, Dave Matthews, Glenn Frey and KISS, as well as multiple albums for the Sh-K-Boom, Tzadik and Luaka Bop labels. Over the course of his career Scott has mastered albums for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Ravi Shankar, Herbie Hancock, Tom Zé, John Mayer Joe Bonamassa, and many more.

Photo of the Masterdisk latheQ: How many minutes of music will fit on the side of an LP vinyl disk?

A: It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Many websites publish charts explaining how much music fits on one side of a vinyl record. The main purpose of those guidelines is to make it easy for the cutting engineer to do his job. But do you want to have an average record or an extraordinary one? Ah, I thought so. You need to read on.

Lets just say, for argument’s sake, that we wanted to cut a vinyl side with a 1k test tone (midrange near a middle B on the piano). Pretty boring “music,” but this control measure will help me explain the process. And lets say that that tone an be cut on a particular lathe at a level of 0db and at a duration of 30 minutes. The relationship between level and duration is due to the fact that a louder signal cut into the disk takes up more room on the disk and thus the grooves have to be farther apart to avoid cutting over themselves.

Now lets take the tone generator and lower the frequency to 500hz (down one octave). Cutting this signal at the same level as the 1k tone, we will run out of disk near 24 minutes. The bass frequencies have longer wavelengths and use more space as they squiggle back and forth.

Lower it another octave to 250hz and we run out of disk at 18 minutes. Surprised? So how can we possibly cut rock and roll, with energy down to 20hz, for more than 20 minutes? There’s more to the story.

Let’s go back to 1k. Remember, it fit on the LP side for 30 minutes. If I lower the level 1 db, we can now record 33 minutes of tone on the disk. Wow, only 1 db? The reason is that it’s 1 db throughout the entire side: the average level is down all the way across the disk. This is very important.

Then let’s raise the level to +2 db from the first test. What do you expect to happen? We run out of disk at 25 minutes. That’s 5 minutes less audio recording space with just a 2 db raise in level. So level is king, bass is queen and hi-frequencies are the jack, ten and nine. Remember we are still talking about simple test tones, not music.

The point I’m trying to make is that music doesn’t obey rules of thumb. No two projects are the same. Even if the music was identical, two different producers might have different objectives. One might want the record loud, another may be more concerned with being very high quality / low distortion and might not mind a slightly lower level.

Before you decide if your music “fits” on a side please talk to your cutting engineer. The engineer has to listen to your music, and measure how his or her lathe will respond to your music. Anything will fit if you turn the level down far enough. Don’t just send your cd master to the vinly pressing plant asking for an “average” cut. Your music doesn’t have to sound average on vinyl – it should sound amazing! And you already know who to contact to make that happen. (That’s me!)

I’ll go a little deeper into the grooves next time when I talk about what happens when we aren’t cutting mono test tones. I’ll give you a hint… the grooves get deeper and that causes them to take up more room on the disk. Uh oh…

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Ask the Engineer with Scott Hull: Can We Fix it in the Mastering?


Ask the Engineer is a series on the Masterdisk blog where our engineers answer questions about music production.

SCOTT HULL is a 28-year veteran mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. Scott started his career in 1983 and has mastered hit records and classic albums in every genre, as well as many Grammy-winning titles. He is widely regarded as an expert in vinyl mastering. Recent projects include albums for Donald Fagen, Sting, Dave Matthews, Glenn Frey and KISS, as well as multiple albums for the Sh-K-Boom, Tzadik and Luaka Bop labels. Over the course of his career Scott has mastered albums for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Ravi Shankar, Herbie Hancock, Tom Zé, John Mayer Joe Bonamassa, and many more.

Photo of Scott HullQ: Can you bring out the vocal in mastering? Can you push the snare drum back in the mix? Can you soften the cymbals? (And other “Fix it in the mastering” questions.)

A: There is a lot of subtle tone change that can be applied in mastering, but there is always a “but.” I’ll start with the least successful stuff first. If your mix is harsh, too much cymbals or too much high frequency “zing” on the vocal, it is going to be hard to make that sound great in mastering.

Don’t get me wrong — there are solutions and there are ways to soften the upper-mids and top, but often these fixes cause more damage to the rest of the mix. That is why I always suggest that your final mix SHOULD be just a little dark and a little warm. This means different things to different people and in some genres it’s desirable to be dark and warm and in others it is not. But the main take-away point is that if you “aim” your mix to sound exactly like a mastered CD, I may not be able to make it sing. When I use mastering EQ to soften the high frequencies, ALL of the elements of the mix get darker, not just the one(s) that are harsh. So if the hi-hat is ear splitting, I can roll off 7k and up, but even in very small amounts that will make the vocals sound less impressive and the guitar crunch will change and so on.

Tonal balance is the key to this equation. If ALL of the elements are too bright, then the EQ will work. If it’s just some elements then the EQ only serves to un-mix your music. Many people reach for multi-band compression in this case to try to take the sting out of the offending elements. This ONLY works when the offending element is the loudest thing in that part of the frequency spectrum. The effect of the hi frequency band-specific compression will be to soften the loudest, most transient part.

De-essing is a special case and is surprisingly effective. The de-esser has been designed to identify vocal esses and not confuse them with the brightness of the cymbals or snare. Because of the extremely bright tone, trumpets – especially muted trumpet – will get eaten alive by most de-ssers, so great care has to be used around brass and vocals.

Many times, the solution for an overly bright mix is not to cut the harshness, but to find ways of making the bass, warmth and punch regions stand out more. Balance is the key.

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Ask the Engineer: Scott Hull on Mixing: Master Buss EQ and Peak Limiting, Part 2

Ask the Engineer graphic

Ask the Engineer is a series on the Masterdisk blog where our engineers answer questions about music production.

SCOTT HULL is a 28-year veteran mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. Scott started his career in 1983 and has mastered hit records and classic albums in every genre, as well as many Grammy-winning titles. He is widely regarded as an expert in vinyl mastering. Recent projects include albums for Donald Fagen, Sting, Dave Matthews, Glenn Frey and KISS, as well as multiple albums for the Sh-K-Boom, Tzadik and Luaka Bop labels. Over the course of his career Scott has mastered albums for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Ravi Shankar, Herbie Hancock, Tom Zé, John Mayer Joe Bonamassa, and many more.

Photo of Scott HullQ: When I send my mixes to my mastering engineer should I remove the buss limiting and EQ? (Read Part 1 of Scott’s answer here.)

A: Here are “Scott Hull’s Guidelines for the Use of Buss Processing.”

1. If you have mixed through the buss processing, i.e. had the compressor ON while you were mixing, then you most likely should leave the buss compressor or EQ ON when you send the mix to the mastering engineer.

2. If you find that when you take the buss compressor out the mix “falls apart” or loses it’s soul, then you should probably leave the compressor or effects ON when you create the mix for mastering.

3. If however, you didn’t mix thru the compressor – but added it after the mix to bump up the level for references — in that case you really must take the buss effects OFF the mix when you send it to mastering.

4. If someone else did your mixing and you are not sure if they mixed “through” the buss compressor or not, ask the engineer to print the mix with AND without the buss effects. Please remember too that your final 24 bit mix Does NOT have to be limited to peak at zero.

One other detail. Many times my clients come to me with a mix that has very obvious “flat topped” peak limiting. We call them “bricks” or “Tootsie Rolls” because of the way the waveform looks. At this point I’ll ask for a mix without the limiting, and they respond that they hadn’t put a limiter on the mix. And they hadn’t — but there WAS limiting, it just wasn’t done by a plugin called a limiter. Anytime you raise the level, or combine two or more signals together, or process the signal in a plug in, you run the risk of peak limiting within that component — and in many cases the software doesn’t flag the overshoot. You have to consistently be aware of your internal gain structure through your workstation and keep an ear and eye out for hidden limiting.

It’s like this: if every peak peaks at exactly the same level, then limiting happened.

One more final note: Don’t confuse track compression or limiting with buss compression or limiting. Individual tack by track gain control is not only a good thing — it’s absolutely essential. Oftentimes, when I find someone has overused a master buss compressor they did so because they had not applied enough gain control (compression or limiting) to the individual tracks.

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