Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering

I’ve just been over at the Masterdisk website editing some of the text on our Vinyl page. It’s a good article that was originally put together by Scott Hull to highlight why a) a potential mastering customer might want to master for vinyl as well as digital; and b) what’s cool and different about vinyl. Though it has a more of a sales bent than what we normally post on the blog, the content is excellent and I wanted to share it with blog readers that might not normally get to our main site. So here it is: “Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering”. I hope you enjoy it. – jB


The Masterdisk Lathe
The Masterdisk VMS-80
Have you considered joining the recent vinyl revival? Masterdisk is one of only a few companies worldwide that has been continuously making masters for vinyl. We have more experience cutting masters than nearly any other facility. Before digital, vinyl record mastering was Masterdisk’s sole business, and we were at the top of the heap. Producers would fly to New York from England on the Concord Jet just to have their records mastered at Masterdisk. We are very proud of that heritage and master vinyl records with great attention to detail.

Not All Record Cutting Equipment is the Same.
Masterdisk has maintained one of only a few existing VMS-80 lacquer cutting lathes. It is quite simply the finest disk cutting lathe ever produced. With it’s “modern” 1980’s technology, a master cutting engineer can fit a longer side at a louder level than any other lathe. You will find that many disk cutting businesses that have sprouted up recently are not using this superior equipment. Even experienced cutting engineers can’t produce the same results on lesser quality lathes. Channel separation, distortion specs, bass quality and transient integrity are all vastly improved with our cutting equipment. And modern enhancements and modifications extend the low frequency response, improve high frequency tracking and allow us to cut a louder and more dynamic record.

Experience Counts.
Record mastering was and is an apprentice-learned craft that took several years to master. Young engineers and studios have to experiment with hundreds of variables to try to achieve a high quality cut. We’ve seen all of the problems and pitfalls that can beset a vinyl project, and we get it right the first time. Choose your vinyl mastering engineer carefully. We can make your records sound amazing!

Masterdisk VinylPlating and Pressing.
Once your record masters are cut you’ll need to get them processed, plated and pressed into vinyl records. This too is a process where lots can go wrong, so choose a pressing plant with a great reputation. Give us some information about your project and we can help match you up with the best pressing — standard or any degree of “deluxe” — for your money.

What’s Cool About Vinyl?
People really cherish their record collections. Why? It’s because records provide a musical experience that you want to come back to. Vinyl returns us to a time when music was something to set aside some time for, not just something that you put on as a background to a day’s activities. Records are a very tactile and visual experience. Full-size artwork, combined with the hi-fi sound, makes vinyl a more immersive musical experience. And vinyl holds its value much better than CDs; on the collector’s market some vinyl trades hands for three figure sums. Whether it’s being spun on a high quality playback system or an inexpensive USB turntable, vinyl is resonating with people because it provides a rich experience and value for money.

Loud Records vs Loud CDs.
There are virtually no level wars on vinyl: the length of the sides and the depth of the bass in the recording dictate how loud the sides can be cut. In some music genres — like rock, hip-hop or pop — the compression and limiting used to “make it loud” can actually make the music sound small on vinyl. Interestingly enough, a heavily limited and compressed recording cannot be cut to sound as loud as a recording that has most of its dynamics intact. The cutting lathe needs the slightly quieter sections to help make longer sides fit better. If you know in advance that you are going to make vinyl, consider asking your mastering engineer to make a separate master for vinyl or at least making a second pass that has less peak limiting and allows the music to breathe. The vinyl will sound better, and it doesn’t have to be heavily limited to sound loud.

Masterdisk VMS-80Cutting from Analog Tape.
Masteridsk is one of only a small group of dedicated mastering studios that can truly cut to vinyl directly from analog masters. Specially modified tape machines are needed to do this. There is a small computer in the lathe that needs to know what music is coming before it reaches the cutter head. This “preview” or look-ahead signal tells the lathe how much room to leave on the disk so that the next wrap (groove) will clear the previous wrap and not collide with the already cut groove. So, if you don’t have one of these specially manufactured preview tape machines, then you simply cannot cut from tape to the lathe. Many studios that claim they can cut from analog actually have to send the audio through a digital delay box, and send that digital signal to the preview and main converters. There is a lot wrong with this method, and because of that, most studios are not completely clear with their clients about their signal path to the lathe. If you have analog masters, you really should — if at all possible — plan on cutting directly from them. The record will turn out better.

Cutting from Analog Tape: Panic at the Disco
In 2008 Scott Hull cut the Panic at the Disco album Pretty. Odd. straight from tape. Scott says, “I did two distinctly different masterings for the record. One was only for the CD. It wasn’t terribly loud or compressed, but it had a competitive level and sonics for radio play and shuffling in iPods. For the vinyl, however, I re-mastered straight from the original analog mix down masters. This meant that I had to edit the heads and tails and splice the original master together. It was like it was 20 years ago! The bottom line is that the final product really sounds amazing.”

Expect the Best from Masterdisk.
Please call to talk with one our project coordinators about your upcoming cd and vinyl mastering. It doesn’t matter if you mastered your music at another facility or if you used one of our engineers. We will process your order, cut your record, and help you understand all of the details, with all of the quality, integrity and professionalism you would expect from Masterdisk.

Fill out my online form.

Scott Hull on Mastering

Photo of a Mastering Console at MasterdiskThere’s a lot of information on the web about mastering. Some sites take a scientific approach, some a creative approach. Both are useful, but neither tells the whole story. My mastering lies somewhere between the two.

Mastering is a very technical art. There are certain requirements, yet there are many exceptions to “rules” and many good reasons to ignore the rules entirely. Even though it’s sometimes creative to “shoot from the hip” and let the pieces fall where they may, mastering, in my opinion, needs a healthy measure of control. Just how loud is “too loud”? Can there be such a thing as too much hype? Can the quest for radio play make an otherwise exciting album sound boring? For me these questions have to be asked and answered on every single project that comes through my mastering studio. If you are familiar with some of the work in my discography, you may find part of the answer in how each project sounds.

For me there is not so much a single “right way” for an album to sound. The grouping of the songs, the sequence — the art of the album — is so much more important than the actual sound of any single component.

A lot of mastering questions are answered with “It depends….” and that’s because it does depend! I like to let the music of any project approach me. I mean, I let the music tell me what it wants to be. Then I listen to what the artist and producer want their album to sound like. I ask questions related to the way the music strikes me and how it should strike me. What kind of audience is this music expected to have? How is it likely to be played back? Is high resolution the most important aspect? Or is it just as important that the listener feel moved in another way? Somewhere in all of that emerges a “plan” or direction for the sound of the project.

I may be unusual in this, but I don’t really identify with a particular style of music more than others. Well, maybe a little. But whether I’m mastering experimental music, soul, jazz, rock, big band, orchestral, pop, fado or whatever — I don’t need to have lyrics, or even understand the language that is being spoken or sung. It can be far-out or very traditional. all the information I need is in the music and that’s what guides me. When it all falls into place it’s like magic.

You might not understand the “how” of a mastering engineer’s job, but I think you do know good mastering when you hear it. Mastering can help a listener enjoy the production more, not get hung up on “flaws”, and stay engaged in the musical experience.

Fill out my online form.

We Hear More Than We’re Supposed To Hear: Mastering Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature

Steely Dan - Two Against Nature
Two Against Nature
I’ve had the pleasure over the years of working with many great artists. Watching some of the masters of our business do what they do best. It’s been a behind the scenes look, a close up, without the cameras and public attention. In this environment you really get to see who these creative people are. One of my experiences was with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.

I was mastering their Two Against Nature CD with them in my mastering room. We had spent many hours over the course of several days getting all of the songs exactly the way they wanted them. Using the right equalization, the right level, fades and timings. There was one song that Donald was not content with. We experimented with EQ frequencies and such for quite some time. What was interesting about this was that even the most minute changes in EQ had a profound impact on the mix.

Steely Dan’s songs are mostly very sparse, carefully crafted sounds blended so that the individual elements aren’t immediately apparent. In this case the overall sound of the song needed to be a little brighter, as in more “present” compared to the other tracks on the record. But when EQ was added to make it brighter, one or more of the elements of the mix moved more than the other elements. In this way the EQ changes were more like mix level changes. We eventually came to a debate over whether we should add 0.2 db of EQ at 1,400 Hz or add 0.2 db of EQ at 1,250 Hz. The difference between these two settings would ordinarily be completely inaudible to most people, unless they had trained their perception. For Donald however, who was deeply aware of how his record sounded, the difference was huge. At the first setting one of the shakers in the mix seemed to sound louder and dominated the mix in a way it hadn’t before. At the other setting the snare seemed louder, which was the intention, but it was too much. He asked me if we could split the difference, but at the time 0.2 db increments were the smallest change available and there wasn’t another option. If I recall correctly what was finally decided was to not add the EQ. The track would be a tad less present than there other tracks, but the balance between the instruments would be what he wanted.

Be very aware of how a piece of music makes you feel. While manipulating sound with modern technology, perfection is often confused with better. Good, better and best are feelings inside that are linked to the emotional reaction of the listener. Perfection is often not the most emotional or compelling attribute of a recording.


“We Hear More Than We’re Supposed To Hear” is excerpted from Scott Hull’s extensive article “Ramblings about Music from a (Not Quite Yet) Mad Mastering Engineer” in the Tzadik/Hips Road book Arcana III: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn. Arcana III is available from Downtown Music Gallery and other online retailers.

Fill out my online form.

Randy Merrill’s Mastering of Darcy James Argue’s “Infernal Machines”

Infernal Machines
Infernal Machines
On Tuesday, May 12, 2009, New Amsterdam Records released a remarkable new big band album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society called Infernal Machines. Not a traditional big band album mind you, nor is it exactly like the updated big band sounds of, say, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Argue’s band goes one further than what was heretofore the most “modern” big band sound by adding loops and rock guitar treatments (among other innovations) to his palate. Argue has called it a “steampunk” big band, and it’s definitely fresh sounding.

The album went on to collect a number of honorifics, among them the Best Debut of 2009 nod in the Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a 2010 Juno Award nomination for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year, and inclusion in over 70 Best-of-2009 lists including those from the New York Times, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal. Impressive in general, and especially so considering that Infernal Machines is a 34-year-old composer and bandleader’s first record.

Masterdisk engineer Randy Merrill did the mastering honors on Infernal Machines, and is proud to have been a part of a great project like this one. Randy has been at Masterdisk since he came over with Scott Hull when Scott purchased and took over operations at Masterdisk in 2008. Prior to the move to Masterdisk Randy had been Scott’s Production Engineer with Scott Hull Mastering, and prior to that he spent five years at the famous NY studio Avatar (formerly known as Power Station).

Tracking room at Bennett Studios
Tracking room at Bennett Studios (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
Darcy chose Randy for the gig because of Paul Cox, the tracking and mix engineer on the album. Darcy said, “Paul had worked with Randy before on other projects and recommended him extremely highly. We did audition several mastering engineers, but most of them seemed to have an awful lot of trouble hearing the kind of sound we were going for. Randy offered to do a test mastering of one of our mixes, and from that it was clear that he knew exactly what this music needed.”

And it was a complex job. Actually, the making of the album was an intricate process from the beginning. The tracking was done at Bennett Studios in New Jersey. Of the recording session Paul said, “I’m used to larger ensembles, but the more mics, the more wires, the more wires the more room for problems. From a technical and production standpoint, though, the only real challenge was that at high sample rates (96k) with as many channels being recorded simultaneously (about 40) ProTools will not let you punch in smoothly.” The tracking was 95% live, according to Paul, with “some solo or patchwork overdubs here and there.”

Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook
Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook. (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
The mix for the album took two months, mainly due to the fact that the individual musicians had been close-mic’d, and it took a lot of work to “balance those elements together in a way that sounded natural and open, especially considering the number of voices that occur in this music compared to, say, a four piece band,” Paul said.

The attention paid to the recording and the mix paid off though, and then it was down to putting on the finishing touches through the mastering process. Randy said that the mastering session, which both Darcy and Paul attended, was fun and productive, but he mentioned that it went all night. As Darcy tells it,

“Yeah, we started at about 7 PM at night and wrapped around 9 AM the following morning. This was my first record and it was intense and unbelievably stressful. Paul and I had basically turned our entire lives over to editing and mixing this record for the previous two months solid. There was a stretch near the end where I was literally living in Paul’s East Village project studio, working to the point of total exhaustion and then crashing on the floor in the isolation booth on a pile of blankets. We had already missed two previously-scheduled mastering dates because the mixes weren’t ready. The March 9th session with Randy was our Hail Mary session — as late as we could possibly push it and still have the CDs back from the manufacturer in time for our release date. Even then, Paul and I were tweaking stuff in the mixes right up until the last possible moment.”

I wondered what had taken the majority of the time — sequencing? EQ adjustments? Darcy explained,

I had settled on the sequencing long before going in, and there were only a few minor EQ adjustments required. What we needed from the mastering process was, for the most part, loudness. We (deliberately) used very little compression in the mix — a touch here and there on individual instruments, but for the most part we preserved the extremely wide dynamic range of the source material (a mostly acoustic recording of an 18-piece jazz orchestra). What we wanted as a final product was a sound that preserved the feeling of extreme dynamic contrast, but also makes sense when someone puts their MP3 player on shuffle and it comes up between tracks by, say, TV On The Radio and, like, Mastodon.

To pull off the right dynamic balance a number of the tracks were mastered in sections and then put back together. “It’s a tricky thing, because we wanted the compression to be basically invisible. There is a very small sweet spot between something that sounds powerful and something that sounds squashed. Thankfully, Randy was able to hit that consistently,” Darcy said.

Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk
Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk

Randy has a pretty even-keeled demeanor, a definite asset in a high-pressure recording environment. I asked Darcy about the tone of the session.

Randy was very chill but very focused, a combination I appreciate. I am sure he sensed how much blood and toil had gone into every stage of this record, how hard we’d worked to get to this point, and how much we were counting on him to bring us over the finish line. Despite the marathon 14-hour overnight mastering session, I never once got the sense that Randy was operating on autopilot, or took any shortcuts in order to try to wrap things up.

When you put as much into a recording as Darcy and Paul did with Infernal Machines, you need to make sure that the final stage is handled by a mastering engineer that’s going to do his damnedest to make every ounce of that work pay off. “At every stage, Randy’s only concern was about what was best for the music,” Darcy said, “It really felt like he believed in it as much as we did.”


You can purchase an Infernal Machines CD or mp3 download directly from New Amsterdam Records’ website, or through retailers like Amazon.

Darcy James Argue is a NYC composer, bandleader and blogger. Read up on all DJA plots and machinations at his blog, Secret Society.

Paul Cox is a recording and mix engineer based in New York. Paul freelances and owns the studio La Sala, where he does most of his mixing. Recent projects include the editing of George Crumb: Winds of Destiny for Bridge Records, which was nominated for a Grammy for best contemporary classical composition; the recent completion of the editing of all ten Beethoven violin sonatas performed by Gary Levinson; and the imminent launch of Metaphonic, a production company that will represent both Paul’s own work and the work of his colleagues.