Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part One

Header image for Scott Hull on Vinyl seriesMy name is Scott Hull — I’m the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. I’ve been mastering records and cutting lacquers since the early 80s.

In advance of Record Store Day 2013 I will bring you a series of articles just about vinyl. A new one every week until RSD on Saturday, April 20, 2013. I hope you find them to be a fun and informative look at many different aspects of making and enjoying records. We are going to talk about vinyl from all angles: technical, musical and historical. This behind-the scenes-blog will help you understand what goes into making exceptionally good sounding records.

Vinyl Basics

Let’s talk about some basic equipment. The most important piece of audio equipment in my disk cutting room is my ears. Because every single decision I make is based on what I’m hearing, and how that relates to thousands of other records I’ve heard and mastered. Gearheads might be a little disappointed with that statement, but musicians can probably relate.

Turning a recording into a record is very straightforward process. Back in the 40s, there were portable recording rigs that had a microphone and a platter that cut “field recordings” into plastic discs. The machine was marvelously simple. The microphone signal was electrically amplified and caused a cutter head coil to vibrate while it carved through the plastic. The disc was about the size of a 7″ single and played at 78 rpm.

I have one of these discs — it’s a recording of my grandmother and her six young sons outside a grocery store in Tippecanoe, Ohio. The interviewer was selling bread, and asked my grandmother what bread she liked best. Then each son said a Sunday School verse he had memorized. It must have seemed like magic to hear their voices played back on a record. I remember hearing this at a very young age, and marveled at the recording of my father as a 9 year old.

Postcard image of a SoundScriber
The SoundScriber (postcard from The Blog About the Postcards).

Many of these disks were recorded at home and sent overseas to servicemen in war zones. And many came the other way too — carrying the real live voice of their son or husband serving far away.

So, why bring up an obscure dictaphone technology from fifty years ago? I think it’s best to first think of making a record as a very simple process. A process that becomes more complicated as we try to make the recordings better, and longer, and quieter.

When you’re cutting a record, you start with a recording on analog tape, or as a digital file. This recording is converted to an analog voltage, amplified and sent to the cutting head on a lathe. The cutting head is very much like a speaker. When the signal comes into the voice coil, it causes the “speaker” section to vibrate. The Voice coil is attached to a cantilevered shaft and causes a small sapphire needle to wiggle. Each wiggle—left and right and up and down—is analogous to the audio signal being fed in. This sapphire stylus is allowed to contact the surface of a soft lacquer disk and the squiggles are preserved in the plastic. It’s magic.

The reproduction of the signal is just the reverse process—except that the cutter head is designed to dig a small trench in the vinyl, and the playback cartridge is much more delicate and meant to ride along in the groove without damaging it. As the playback stylus rides through the groove, the microscopic squiggles move a coil and the voltage is faithfully reproduced, amplified and routed to speakers for listening.

Next week I’ll take a step back from the technical view and discuss the experience of playing a vinyl record. Over the course of the next few months—leading up to Record Store Day 2013—I hope to touch on many different aspects of the art and science of vinyl. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.

(Read all of the “Scott Hull on Vinyl” articles here.)

Fill out my online form.

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange wins Grammy

Congratulations to Frank Ocean and Island Def Jam for winning the Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy for “channel ORANGE!”

Special thanks and congratulations to Karen Kwak and Scott Marcus at Island Def Jam.

“channel ORANGE” was mastered at Masterdisk by Vlado Meller with Mark Santangelo assisting.

Photo of Frank Ocean and Vlado Meller at the mastering session for Channel Orange
Frank Ocean and Vlado Meller at the mastering session for Channel Orange

Scott Hull at NAMM 2013

Back in NYC — I sure didn’t miss the weather. But the sad part was it was sucky LA weather too for the 2013 NAMM show. Now I have to admit — this was my first NAMM show and so I may make it sound a little unbelievable. But it WAS!

If your life has to do with music — then there were a bunch of people there you needed to meet. Guitars — sure, tens of thousands — but how about a bass ukelele with plastic strings and pickups being played in a prog rock fusion band? Trust me, it didn’t sound anything like a uke.

There were spectacles and impressive chops everywhere.

Photo of guitars at NAMM by Christopher Schirner

So what’s new? Everything! The music business is doing great. Everyone is full of enthusiasm and energy. New products were all over the place. Mics, pedals, amps, lights, software, brass, pianos, strings, you name it — I was blown away.

The attendance was off the charts — four giant halls, up stairs and down, demo rooms in all the neighboring hotels. And my feet complained about the schedule.

My top picks? Well, advancements at Avid and Universal Audio drew big crowds and had everyone’s attention. There was high tech and low tech. I met Bob Elliot, the guy who invented the Guitar Dock. Every guitarist and studio owner needs at least 5 of these nifty guitar neck holders to prevent drops in the studio and on stage. It mounts to anything! Hi tech wireless and DSP-controlled everything. You want fries with that?

Us pro audio/record industry folks have been prone to singing the same song recently… The good ol’ days of pro audio… When the work was lined up around the block… Budgets were bigger… More records we’re made… But something clicked for me. Its a mad mad mad mad music world out there and there are tons of things to be excited about — new opportunities — new tech — old tech — 192k 64 bit and vacuum tube ‘phone preamps… Pick your passion and go for it!

But the artists themselves became the show on Saturday. Impromptu jams in every isle. An electric bass soloist at a bass guitar booth had 50 people stopped in their tracks — with iPhones recording… Stevie Wonder was spotted… Trumpet wizards showing off what they could do in the brass isle… And a Mexican trumpet band a la Herb Alpert serenaded a birthday celebration in the Selmer/Bach booth with a hundred onlookers.

Way too much to see and HEAR. Exhausting… Next year I’ll have a plan… And maybe a Hoveround.

Fill out my online form.

Meet Engineer-Producer Jamie Siegel of JRock Studios

In today’s music business, many of us take on multiple roles to stay afloat. Roles that, in the music business of old, were often quite separate. This is the age of the hyphen and the slash, the age of the musician-engineer-producer-composer-booking manager-promotions guy-blogger-etc-etc…

Some have entered the age of the hyphen grudgingly, some have adapted more-or-less-easily, and some blessed souls have dived in joyfully. Meet Jamie Siegel of JRock Studios, a self-professed “Swiss Army knife” of the recording studio.

Photo of Jamie Siegel

Q: So you’re basically a composer, musician, guitarist, producer, recording engineer, mix engineer, and studio owner, right? That’s a lot of stuff, and I’m probably leaving something out. How do you primarily think of what you do, and how does all that get organized in your life?

A: That’s a great question!! It’s not really a conscious choice on my part and finding balance outside of the studio has always been a tricky thing. I LOVE making records and working with artists, so finding the energy to work and be creative usually isn’t difficult. I think the most important factor is the emotional tie I have to music and the ability to communicate and understand the artists I work with. There is a ton of psychology involved in working with talented people (so maybe add psychologist to that list!). I consider myself an “all around” music guy. If the music is great, I’ll be happy to work on it with you and contribute in any way I can. Additionally, I’ve always had a good business sense and JRock Studios is the culmination of that.

When I started my career at Chung King studios, I really wanted to learn how to engineer and mix records properly. Composing/producing was always something I’d done growing up but I considered it to be more something I did for fun. I never tried to “push” those skills at the studio. Next thing you know, I’m being asked to play guitar on a Whitney Houston record or programming drums, etc for some other platinum-selling artists… I always asked myself “Why me?? Aren’t there much better musicians out there??!!” Apparently, I was capable and just needed some pushing.

It’s really dull for me to be tied down doing the same thing every day and I pride myself on having the ability to be a “Swiss Army knife” in the studio, so even though I didn’t set out to be all the things you mentioned, that’s how my career evolved. As far as how all that gets organized in my life. I have no idea. 🙂

Q: I like the metaphor of the Swiss Army knife. A lot of us in the music industry have jobs that require that kind of flexibility, and you clearly embrace it! When you’re producing do you bring in someone else to engineer or will you do both? Or does it depend on the circumstance?

A: I’d say that 99% of the time I’m engineering everything myself – unless of course I’m playing acoustic guitar — then I’ll have my assistant Tony engineer for me. Considering I’m mixing most of these projects, it’s a lot easier for me to get the sounds correct during tracking. It’s way more difficult trying to “fix” something after the fact — especially when recording digitally. Spend a few extra minutes listening and make sure the sound you’re capturing is going to work well in a mix context.

Q: Tell me a little about your studio. What is it about your space that makes it a good place to record and be creative?

A: JRock Studios is a warm, unintimidating space with some really great gear. I think of it mostly as an overdub/mix room but have actually cut tons of drums in the vocal booth! I spent lots of years freelancing in the big studios and I really enjoy having a smaller space to work in. I think the artists feel less pressure and it affords us more time to dig in.

Photo of the console during a Jamie Siegel recording session

Q: What do you look for in a mastering engineer and from the mastering process?

A: The main thing I look for in a mastering engineer is someone who isn’t going to be too heavy handed. I’ve spent a lot of time making sure the mix is as good as I can get it and I’d like the mastering engineer to enhance what I’ve done and not alter it too drastically. Scott Hull is my absolute favorite mastering engineer. He’s a true artist. Every time I get a master back from Scott, I am happy.

Q: Can you mention a couple things you’ve worked on recently or have coming up that you’re excited about?

A: I just had the pleasure of mixing Rob Mathes‘ solo album. That was an incredibly challenging and fulfilling experience. We’ve worked on a ton of projects including Sting’s birthday concert (which was released via iPad app), Jennifer Hudson, etc. I’ve also recently musical directed a variety/circus show called Absinthe which is running at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. This week I’m co-producing a song on the new Blondie album. In between all that, I’m always working with some great independent artists.


Contact Jamie Siegel at www.jrockstudios.com or at (646) 484-9240.

Ask the Engineer: Randy Merrill on “How Loud Is Too Loud?”


Today’s “Ask the Engineer” question goes to mastering engineer Randy Merrill.

Randy Merrill joined Scott Hull Mastering in early 2006 as Scott’s production engineer. Shortly thereafter he started building his own mastering clientele, and today he’s a staff engineer at Masterdisk. Randy’s approach is to be as attuned to his clients’ aesthetic and practical goals as possible. He goes the extra mile to make sure the finished product reflects how you want your music to sound. Randy’s credits include Bruce Hornsby, Bill McHenry, Tom Wopat, 3 Cohens, Perez Hilton, Darcy James Argue, Paul Jacobs (Naxos) and Chantal Claret.

Photo of Randy Merrill and Tom Wopat
Tom Wopat and Randy Merrill
Q: How loud is too loud?

A: We’ve been hearing about the “loudness wars” for a long time now, but one point people don’t make is that “loud” can be done badly, and it can be done well. I’m not somebody who’s going to say that everything today is too loud. There are some great sounding albums that are loud, dense, exciting, and punchy.

The first thing to keep in mind, when you’re talking about loudness and mastering, is that the client ultimately sets the target. When I’m mastering, I’m serving the client’s vision for their project. That said, just because a client wants a loud album doesn’t mean it can’t still sound great. It can.

The first thing you need if you’re going to make something loud AND sound good is the skill to do so. That, plus effort, experience, and the ability to scrutinize your work in a finely tuned environment.

There are entirely different ways to get things loud. There are good ways and not so good ways, and are often dependent on the qualities of the actual mixes. Every approach has its caveats. I may do it differently from project to project depending on a lot of factors, like how the mixes come in; what the music is like; what kind of intensity the music needs.

But to really answer your question, it’s too loud when the music is fatiguing and unpleasant to listen to. In this case, it’s either too loud or it was done badly.

If a client wants a very uncompressed, dynamic recording then that’s the direction we go, of course. I have clients in classical, jazz, and even singer-songwriter stuff where that’s the right approach. But if my client wants their project louder, then its a matter of finding a balance. On different resolution playback systems loudness can sound either good or bad. If it sounds good on an iPod dock it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good on an expensive hi-fi system. And the opposite can be the case too: it may sound great on the hi-fi but it doesn’t sound as impressive or alive through the dock. So you have to find a balance; the music has to sound good however it’s played.

So even if you want a loud record, you can still have a great sounding record. You and your mastering engineer will find the right balance.

Vinyl, Through the Microscope Looking Glass

For most of my clients and friends, there is nothing quite as cool as looking at the grooves that make a record. To be able to “See” the music, the relationships between high frequencies and lows is just mesmerizing. It looks so simple, yet seems so complex. I know it’s just a waveform display turned sideways, but the fact that it’s tangible and not in a computer helps us connect with the music.

As disk cutting engineers we are always looking at sound. We have a microscope mounted on the record cutting lathe and we use this scope to determine the quality of the cut and to diagnose problems when they occur. We can also measure the groove width and separation between the grooves. The space between the grooves is called “land.”

So, What do the squiggles mean? Lets look at the record groove closely. Very closely.

Fig.1
In the microscope a simple quiet groove looks like Fig.1.

There are four grooves in this picture. Each groove looks like three “lines.” The light from the scope lights up the bottom of the groove and the top edges. This is a picture of grooves cut in a fresh lacquer. It’s a very clean and quiet cut. This groove would make a very good sounding – albeit silent record.

When we add music to the picture this is what can happen to our cute little grooves. (Fig.2) We can notice the grooves move back and forth and they get fatter and skinnier.

Other things we can notice are that there are large sways in the groove that look a little like sine wave. These are the bass frequencies. Bass frequencies have large wavelengths and when cut they make the groove move in long sweeping curves. They’re so long I can barely get part of a wavelength in one slide.

Fig. 2
We can also see grooves that have tight little squiggles that look something like fish scales (center). These are the higher frequencies. Instruments like a cymbal or trumpet can make the very tight squiggles like those in the middle groove.

These sharp, high frequency squiggles are something we’re constantly dealing with. The sustained bright “S” sound is a particular challenge. In fact, there are so many reasons why “esses” are problematic I’ll devote a whole blog entry to just that.

The goal is to cut a “bright” groove that can still be played back by a standard quality needle and cartridge. If the movements of the groove are too sharp and bright, not all playback cartridges will be able to track the groove accurately. When a needle fails to track the groove you hear a fuzzy sounding distortion. A stiff DJ cartridge–one that is durable and can stand up to scratching and back cue-ing–will often be too stiff to accurately track all those sharp turns. “Hi-fi” cartridges are designed to have the flexibility to track those turns accurately. The trade-off is that they tend to be very delicate, and expensive.

Fig. 3
In Fig.3 we have cut some sine wave tones so that we can see more clearly the independent movement of the left and right channels.

This is a really interesting slide. It wasn’t easy to get all four grooves in one picture–and it wasn’t edited together in Photoshop, either!

The groove on the left is a recording of a 4,000 cycle tone (4kHz) in both left and right channels in phase. Since the signal was in phase, the depth of the groove is constant, and you simply see the sine wave wiggles of the left and right walls. The left wall is the left channel; the right wall the right channel.

In the second groove you can notice that the left wall is straight. The left channel is silent and the right channel is playing the test tone on it’s own. Since the two channels are not identical in this example, the groove gets alternately deeper and shallower. This is because the channels are not in phase and it causes the playback needle to rise and fall. Remember that even though there are two channels of audio, there is only one point where the stylus touches the record. The movement of the groove, left and right, up and down, is completely analogous to the movement of the left and right speakers upon playback.

In the third groove both channels are off. This is our silent groove like the first photo above. And then the last groove has audio on the left channel and the right channel is silent. I love this slide–because it clearly displays what motion is shared by both channels and what is independent motion.

Photo of Scott HullOne of my favorite things is sharing my passion for music. And there are few music fans as passionate about their music as vinyl lovers. If you have not given a commercial vinyl release serious thought, you should. Not only is vinyl “buzzy, hip and awesome” it completes the music listening experience for many of us. The large format artwork and the playback process are just some of the factors that make people stop for a moment and listen to the music.

Fill out my online form.

Ask the Engineer with Matt Agoglia: The Art of Sequencing

Matt Agoglia is a mastering engineer with a deep love for the album format. Talk to him about one of the recent albums he’s mastered — he always seems to have one that he’s particularly excited about — and you’ll pick up on just how keen his attention is to the nuances of the long-player. Matt is passionate about the album as an art form, and it shows in his work: listen to his work with legendary singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, or the pop-punk group Sleeper Agent, or avant-pop composer Mikel Rouse and hear for yourself.

Since this is the first “Ask the Engineer” that Matt’s doing, I thought we’d have to start with that very ephemeral but all-important aspect of the album art form: sequencing.

photo of Ventures vinylFirst of all, when we’re talking about sequencing, we’re not really talking about song order, right?

That’s right; I don’t really deal with song order. That’s usually dictated. Often the spacing isn’t though.

Do you ever get asked to contribute to the song order?

Clients sometimes ask for my input. The important thing is to have a storyline, a thread. To have highs and lows. With the song order you play around with those feelings. Make a journey out of it because you know, some people still listen to records all the way through!

What’s important about the gaps between the songs?

In the mastering stage you’re taking your mixes and turning them into a listening experience. How each song sits and breathes can enhance a listener’s enjoyment of the record. And that’s what mastering is about. Enhancement.

So how do you do that?

A couple different ways. You get projects where the artist has a specific idea about how each song should go into the other. Crossfades and things like that. Sometimes it’s very elaborate and they’ll send me an mp3 mockup and I can recreate it.

Other times, if we’re not doing elaborate crossfades, I ask myself how much time my ear needs to settle before the next song comes in. A lot of people like these really fast-paced records and I don’t think that’s ALWAYS appropriate. You can rob a listener of a better experience of your album by smashing it all together. It’s nice to have a mix of short and long spaces. Take the listener on a journey, and make it a pleasant one. Maybe it’s quick in the beginning then maybe you need an intermission. It depends on the music, of course.

So it’s by feel?

Yes. And you can really enhance a listener’s perspective on the songs. Music still has energy after the last note has died off. Sometimes the emotional response needs to subside, you need to have that time between songs. That’s what sequencing can add to a project.

Is there any particular technique involved?

A lot of times when people are sequencing, they listen only to the last few seconds of a song before trying to determine the gap before the next one. It’s really not ideal; you want to feel the energy of the full song in order to determine how much of a rest you’ll need before moving on. So I’d say that ideally, you’re going to get the best sequencing by listening through the whole album while you’re making your decisions. You’ll spend more time doing it this way, but it’s worth it.

Ask the Engineer with Scott Hull: How Much Music Fits on an LP Side PART 2

Last time we cut mono test tones and found out how big a difference a little bit of level can make on the duration of an LP side.

So let’s now look at a typical rock program. For our example this music is compressed — something like a classic Rolling Stones record — but not peak limited like a typical radio rock hit of today.

The grooves for this cut wiggle back and forth and up and down. That is how a stereo disk works. The more stereo the mix is (for example, guitars and drums panned to the sides) the deeper the groove is. A deeper cut is also wider — check your geometry lessons from middle school. 

image of vinyl grooves, magnifiedDoes anyone know what the word “analog” means? The signal and the groove is an analog of the original audio, i.e. the groove and signal are analogous. (I should not try to use such big words.) But louder alone does not determine how much space the grooves take up on the disk. The character of the program, how loud, how soft, how much bass and how much stereo all contribute to the picture. Bass has the biggest overall impact on duration.  

So when measuring the grooves to see if they will fit on a side, the cutting engineer has to consider the bass, the peak level, the average level and the duration of the music. Every change you make to the music is a compromise, so deciding how much bass, how much level and how much compression has to be decided by ear and with experience.  

Why do records that come from one studio sound better? One simple reason is the engineer, and how much they care.  

John McLaughlin Now Here ThisThe sad truth is, a typical engineer hears the music and says, “Oh it’s kind of bright, lets roll of the top; they probably won’t notice… and wow, they put a lot of bass in the mix too so we had better roll that off too! And wait a second, the floor tom is panned all the way to the side and that means we have to put in a low frequency EQ called an Elliptical to partially mono the bass.” You can certainly expect this record to sound weak, limp and dull. I don’t even like my breakfast cereal that way.  

What if that same music could be cut and fit, in full frequency range, with the bass intact and the floor tom where it belongs — but just lower the level 1db. Only a patient, determined and experienced disk cutting engineer, who is compensated for his or her time, will push that cut, take the right chances and make an amazing record. But what about the compromises?  

I cut a recent John McLaughlin album, “Now Here This,” for the Abstract Logix label. It would have sounded awful if the bottom end had been rolled off. It was in-your-face with bass and that was how the artist wanted it. So to fit the music on the side, the level had to be reduced. Not a lot, just a db – but in this case, with a quiet pressing, there was no creative damage done to the music.  This is the caring part. 

I recently cut a very demanding Glen Frey record, “After Hours,” with my young ace cutter Alex DeTurk assisting. We cut many refs and compared the playback to the tape master — that’s right I said “analog tape master.” It IS very cool to cut an analog record from an analog tape through an analog console! The original Elliot Scheiner-mixed 2 track analog was beautiful. I was tasked with making the record sound exactly the same as the analog tape. They wanted full range, no filters, almost no de-essing, and NO digital or analog processing of any kind. Well, let me say it wasn’t easy. But I’m super proud that Michael Fremmer’s review claimed it to be a 10 of 10 for sound. (link )  It only took experience, determination, and patience. Just like anything worth doing well.

Fill out my online form.

Music Production Event at City College: Off the Record with Scott Hull


Masterdisk is co-sponsoring an exciting music production event at the Sonic Arts Center at City College in New York next week! It’s called “Off the Record with Scott Hull:” an informal talk about music production focusing on best practices in making great recordings — the artistry involved rather than a focus on only technical matters.

Scott’s guests are John Davis and Aaron Nevezie. Aaron and John are producers and engineers and co-owners of The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn.

Visit our event page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/events/375252289218648/

Please spread the word! It’s FREE and open to the public. Attendees can enter to win a $250 gift certificate to Alto Music too!

Off the Record with Scott Hull at City College
Thursday, November 15 at 7:30 p.m.

City College Campus
Shepard Hall, Room 95
Southeast corner of 140th Street & Convent Ave

Bring your questions for the Q&A!

Masterdisk Up and Running After Hurricane Sandy

It’s been a crazy week here in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The Masterdisk studios, our engineers, and the members of our business team all came out alright, thankfully. Our hearts go out to the many New Yorkers who were hit harder by the storm — many of whom are still struggling.

I’m happy to report that after a few dark days, the welcome sound of great music is once again radiating from all of our mastering rooms. We’re a little behind, but our engineers and staff are working extra hours to make sure all of our clients meet any deadlines they might have. We should be fully caught up and back on our usual schedule by end-of-day, Thursday, November 1.

Though our phones are down, please continue to contact us by email. If you have a mastering deadline you need met, please let us know. We’ll be working through the weekend to make sure you get the same service you’re used to from us year-round.

Thanks for your support. — The Masterdisk Team