MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part II

This is the second of a three-part article about the mastering process by singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien. Read the first part here: Part I. Visit Kirsten online at www.kirstenthien.com. -James Beaudreau


People Get Ready
Preparation is key for staying on budget. When you consider the hourly rate you’ll pay for a good mastering facility, your preparation becomes exponentially more valuable than it was even when you were preparing for studio recording or mixing time. Even if you negotiate a day rate, you will pay more if you go over a certain amount of time — or you’ll have to cut corners when you run out of time. My biggest fear was running out of time or money because of things I could have avoided. Here are a few things I did to get ready.

Kirsten Thien
Kirsten Thien
  • Talk to the engineer: I found out his process for using alternate mixes. Could he work directly from my stems in Pro-Tools to create alternate mixes on the spot? Or is it better to have important alternates already bounced down to stereo mixes? What is the fastest way for him to get the files into his system? Tell them the bit depth and sampling rate of your highest-quality mixes. (If you’re mixing in 24-bit or higher, don’t compress to 16-bit for the mastering engineer. His equipment for doing this is much better than yours and he should do it after other mastering techniques have been applied.)
  • Prepare Files: I created a folder on my hard drive called “All Master Mixes” that would hold individual folders for each song. Within each song’s folder was a Pro-Tools Session of the master mixes of that song, along with the associated audio files. This is where all my alternate mixes were. All of these files and folders had already existed in different places on my hard drive, depending on when or where we mixed it. But I copied them all over to this one “All Master Mixes” folder so my mastering engineer didn’t have to search around the hard drive to find the files he needed. (This came in handy later, as you will see.) I re-named audio files to names that make sense, like “Vox Up”, “Bass Down”, etc. (Be careful not to accidentally disassociate your files from your session if you rename.) Finally, I also added one additional folder that had a Pro-Tools session with the choice mixes lined up in order on a single stereo track (45 minutes long), and copies of the choice mixes only in the session’s “Audio Folder”. This is where we would start off our mastering session and where the engineer could grab all my audio files to drag to his system.
  • Alternative: If you’re not working with a hard drive and have CD’s or DVD’s from several studios and mix sessions, try to at least make a screen shot of your various file structures and make notes on each alternate mix for each song. Give this to your engineer as reference so he’s able to see his options on each song as he masters and as “problems” present themselves.
  • Song Order: I’m a big believer that song order on an album is super-important. There are the commercial goals of the record to consider, but, more importantly, it’s your last chance to affect the flow of your tunes and how they affect listeners who hear the album as a whole. I spent hours listening through to different song orders and making notes. I also got some outside advice because by this time, I’m sure I had lost my objectivity! Even if I didn’t stick with the “final” order I came up with (we eventually did change the order), I was sure of why I picked this song order and its advantages and drawbacks compared to other song orders. Mastering would affect how each track sounds next to another, so anything was possible when we got to the end of the session. Nonetheless, we had a really solid starting point.
  • MASTER CLASS – DAY OF THE SESSION

    I eventually chose Jigsaw Sound in SoHo because their new engineer, Scott Hull, came highly recommended. [Scott was at Jigsaw in 2005. -Ed.] My research on him made him my top choice in my price range. It turns out that the fit was more than serendipitous. I chatted with co-owner of the studio, Dave Ares, before the session and learned that he and his partner Mike Iurato started jigsaw in 2001 specifically to fill a need they saw in NYC. “We were seeing so many indie records that weren’t even being mastered b/c the budgets wouldn’t allow it.” says Dave. So they created a top-level mastering environment, and offered it in a price range that made it accessible to indie projects. Over the past 3 years, Dave has seen many an artist come through the doors with anticipation on their faces, and watched them leave, sometimes ecstatic and dying to get their product out, and other times devastated and wondering what they did wrong. I thought this was a good person to get some advice from, so I asked him for some tips on preparing for a successful mastering session. He came up with some great ones.

    Inexperience with the process will cost you time (and money you don’t have): Even if it’s your first session, do some research ahead of time so you’re not completely surprised about how the process works.

  • Don’t be too attached to your mixes: You’ve been listening in your project studio, on headphones, on many systems. Be open to what the mastering studio environment reveals about your mixes and be prepared to hear EVERYTHING. It’s a vulnerable place to be, but you’ll have to quickly face your mistakes and work with the engineer to make your mixes and your album the best they possibly can be at this stage. That is, unless you have the cash to go back and do some re-mixing or re-recording.
  • Be open-minded, but don’t go with too many choices to make. Have your song order picked out ahead of time. Have your “choice mixes” decided on. Song order, or which mix you master from can easily change during the session but your familiarity with your choices will save you time (read, money) during the session, and ultimately, it helps you get toward the best product you can achieve on your particular budget.
  • Listen to your engineer’s advice. He knows this room better than you do, and he should know how masters from the room sound all over the outside world. If you agree on vision with your engineer, his input can be very useful at this point; so make sure you listen.
  • Keep track of time and the big picture of your album: “I’ve seen lots of artists get too zoned in on one small piece of the whole album in the mastering session”, Scott tells me. “You’re dealing with a stereo mix at this point, so there’s a limit to what you can fix without messing up other parts of the album”.
  • Get some rest the night before your session, and especially let your ears rest: I agree! If you haven’t attended a mastering session before, I probably cannot convince you of how draining and demanding it is on your ears and your brain. If you have attended a session, you know that at the end of the day your ears physically hurt and you’ll be more tired than after running 10 miles. So get some rest and don’t listen to loud music the night before your session.
  • Scott Hull
    Scott Hull
    SCOTT HULL –- Quiet Please. Mastering Session in Progress.

    When you walk into a well-designed mastering room, the first thing you notice is that it is completely and utterly silent (except for the ringing in your ears). You almost feel like you’re in outer space, and the words you speak just disappear the minute they come out of your mouth. This environment is created to be the most unforgiving, transparent, and revealing listening environment on Earth. Be ready to hear every little thing when the music comes on.

    Scott and I said hello a bit, plugged in my hard drive, and started the session off with opening up the tracks in my ProTools session. We started listening to the songs at a low-to-medium volume. While the music played, we talked a little about the goals of the project. “A lot of times, the music tells the story on it’s own, but one thing we have to talk about is the ‘volume question’.” Scott explained.

    If you hadn’t already noticed, do an experiment and play (in chronological order) some CDs that you’ve purchased from 1995 to today. Especially in the last few years, you’ll hear a noticeable volume increase over time. Pop music, particularly music that is driven by radio play, is getting louder and louder. The loudness does not only affect the actual and perceived volume, but also the overall sound presentation because of the extensive compression and limiting that is used –- it’s crunchier, there’s less “space between the notes,” and there may be less overall dynamic range because it starts out loud so it only has so far to go. The “volume question” is one that even the big-budget producers and artists are grappling with. We indie artists who want to compete with the big boys need to give some thought to the question and work with our mixing and mastering engineers to make sure that our intentions for both commercial success and artistic expression are carried out.

    After he had listened most of every song, Scott had a good idea of where the mixes and album were going as a whole. He found some areas he knew he’d want to work on to improve the overall sound. And then he got to work on Song #2. “As I listen through,” Scott told me, “the starting song sort of picks me.” It turns out that a lot of times, the 2nd song is a good place to start because it gives some guidance as to how far you can push the envelope on the first song. You want the first song to pop and attract attention, but if it pops too much and Song #2 doesn’t lend itself to that treatment, you could end up making it sound a little flat.

    When we got to Song #3, I noticed Scott looking around on my drive while the choice mix was playing. Next thing I know he turns and asks me if I mind if he checks out the “Bass_Reg” mix. When he heard a “problem” with the mix I had chosen, he went straight to my drive to scan my alternate mix choices for the song. Since they were all in a folder named after the song, and had file names that told him what made the mixes distinct he was able to find his alternatives very quickly and keep us moving forward. I took a moment to pat my self on the back, feeling at the height of organization!

    We mastered a couple tunes, and I could totally start hearing a major difference. As the end of Song #3 played, the bass was ringing oh-so quietly for what seemed hours after everything else died. I had never heard that before. Easy to “fix” in this case, but Scott told me that one of the most common mistakes made in studios is either abruptly cutting off quiet parts at beginnings and endings, or, alternatively letting something very quiet (chair creak, voice click) stay in the mix that shouldn’t. The mastering environment is unforgiving in its exposure of these little bits. In a recording studio, with computers and gear whirring, there is a limit to what you can hear through the speakers. Before you print a mix, make sure to listen through headphones or you might end up in mastering and find all sorts of little sounds popping up or disappearing inelegantly.


    Go to Part III.

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    MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part I

    In 2006, when her album You’ve Got Me was released, singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien wrote an article about the process of mastering a record from an independent artist’s perspective. It’s really one of the best primers I’ve ever seen on the subject. Happily for us, Kirsten chose Scott Hull to master her record, and there’s a lot (starting in Part II, posting tomorrow) about what a mastering session with Scott is like.

    As of this writing, in June 2010, Kirsten is in the process of wrapping up the recording of her third album, which numbers among its guests the great guitarist Hubert Sumlin (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf). Visit her online at www.kirstenthien.com Thanks to Kirsten for allowing us to post “Mastering an Indie Project”! -James Beaudreau


    Kirsten Thien
    Kirsten Thien
    As an indie artist with high hopes, a marketing plan, and an album full of material, the challenge of realizing your musical vision while sticking to your budget can seem insurmountable at times. You know that after the CD is complete, you need some dough to promote your album. But as recording, editing, and mixing expenses add up you start to have fewer options for finishing the project before running out of cash.

    Because it’s a bit of a black box for many artists, mastering is often one of those expenses that gets slashed to a bare minimum. There are lots of programs emerging that add mastering to the list of things you can now do at home. You could also buy or “borrow” a program/room and master your project on your own. Or maybe you’ll consider a mixing engineer who recently started mastering in his recording studio. These are all options for the budget-conscious, and are better alternatives to not mastering a record at all. All these alternatives considered, I decided that mastering by an experienced mastering engineer, in a carefully designed listening environment, would be the best way to ensure that my recording would sound the way I intended it to no matter where listeners were tuning in.

    From Recording to Finishing
    Like so many of us do now, I financed my entire CD project out-of-pocket. We scrimped to get the most out of every dollar, learned to do a lot on our own, and had to make some compromises to save money. Part of that meant being very flexible in how, when, and where everything was recorded and mixed. Some basic tracks and vocals were recorded in a great studio environment; some were done in well-equipped project studios, and I did a fair amount of recording with my Pro-Tools rig in living rooms of guitar players, kitchens of harmonica players, and in my own apartment. Dan Myers, the mixing engineer, was our first stop on the highway of pulling everything together. He mixed almost every track on the record, but even so, mixes were done over the course of 6 months and in two different studios (Dumbo Studios in New York and Mixolydian in Lafayette, NJ). Even so, there were two tracks recorded and mixed by other engineers entirely in a totally different studio environment. This is where “mastering” valiantly entered the picture, so we could be sure that the differences that made each song unique were not a distraction to the listener.

    Choosing an Mastering Engineer and Room
    The decision on where you will master your record and who will engineer the session is going to depend on many factors. Here are some things I took into consideration:

  • Budget: That again. It was clear that with my expectations of what mastering would do for my album, I would be paying more than $1000. How much more I could afford or even stomach became the question. I put on my best negotiator’s hat and made sure that the engineers or assistants I spoke to knew this was an indie project. I also found out every way they cut a deal. Having some flexibility (time) may help you get a deal on the price. Mention if you are willing to be “on call” to do your session at the last minute when a top-paying session is postponed and the room would otherwise be empty.
  • Recommendations: Nothing beats recommendations to get you started in finding engineers to look into. Ask artist-friends, musicians, read liner notes of indie and small label projects that you liked. Especially remember to ask your mixing engineer who’s mastering work he can recommend.
  • Location: If you’re not in a major music town, this will be a big one — use someone local? Or travel? If you decide to use a mastering engineer that isn’t near you, that could actually work in your favor on the budget side if you’re willing to set up an “unattended session”. More on that later. If you are in a major music town, don’t forget to consider mastering facilities that are outside of town, whose prices might be lower because overhead is lower. Being willing to travel will expand your options, so don’t rule it out.
  • Unattended sessions: The “unattended session” concept was totally new to me, and it brought some mastering facilities I thought I couldn’t afford into my realm of possibilities. Some mastering engineers offer a lower price for an “unattended session” as it gives them the freedom to fit your session in between scheduled projects. It may also give them the chance to hand your project over to their assistant engineer to do most of the work. But if you are confident that the lead engineer you have chosen is of high caliber and wouldn’t let anything out of their room without their stamp of approval, you might get extra bang for your buck with this approach.
  • Vision of the mastering engineer: Do you want a more scientific, or commercial, or an artistic view on the mastering of your project? Mastering is your last stop in the creative process, and it’s an intensive 1-day collaboration before you go to market with your product. There’s not much time to warm up and get to know one another. Understanding the engineer’s vision can help you make the right choice and help things run more smoothly and quickly during the session. Use the internet to find interviews that your engineer has done in the past. That’s also a good way to learn more about the process.
  • The engineer’s experience in your genre/style of music: I wanted to know that my engineer had worked on projects similar to mine, as well as projects that I knew and respected. If you’re in a heavy rock band, think twice about going to master with someone who’s known predominantly in the jazz world. Yeah, he’s a pro and should do a great job, but is he faced with dealing in your market and its unique requirements for radio and sales on a regular basis? Most engineers work on a huge variety of projects, so its easy to come up with a good list no matter what genre you’re in.
  • Equipment: There is some standard equipment in almost every top-notch mastering studio. The environment and tools are crucial to the best possible mastering job, so make sure to review and compare equipment lists of your top choices. “Sonic Solutions” is pretty much the industry standard mastering platform for the pro-mastering facilities, and there are about 10 pieces of gear that are really common tools used by the top mastering engineers. Make sure you consider the equipment list along with your other factors.

  • Go to Part II.

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    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.

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    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.

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    The Mastering Panel at SXSW

    I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the Mastering Panel I participated in at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March. It was a great opportunity to hear some opinions on mastering from some experienced engineers. The other panel members were Bob Ludwig, Adam Ayan, and John Merchant.

    I’m glad to say that it wasn’t the now-typical rant about why you shouldn’t make your mixes really loud. Rather, it was a more creative look at what a mastering engineer thinks is important about the music — what really matters when you are tying to get noticed.

    Mastering Panel with Scott Hull at SXSW 2010
    The Mastering Panel at SXSW 2010: (L to R) Adam Ayan, Bob Ludwig, Scott Hull and John Merchant

    Bob Ludwig started the discussion with a brief history of the art of mastering, some photos and descriptions of equipment and philosophy from 30 years of experience.

    Next, Adam Ayan discussed some of the mistakes artists make when preparing their music for release. He played several examples showing how an intuitive mastering engineer can extract more depth, emotion and value from a mix with a “just right” (as opposed to cookie cutter) approach.

    I reinforced what Adam said, explaining that a first-class mastering engineer gets to know the producer and the artist, and is an integral part of the music creation process. An “e-mastering” approach will never achieve this. I asked the bands in the audience if their music has deeper meaning than just being “loud enough”. Of course it does! It’s important to look carefully at what’s lost when the primary focus is on competitive levels.

    Then I played a few samples demonstrating that mastering can have a significant impact even on low-bit rate files. I played some 128K mp3 files of a tune with and without mastering. It was clear to me (and hopefully to the audience too) that even at these low bit-rates you still get more out of your music when it’s well mastered. For example, good tonal and instrument balances will translate regardless of the delivery format.

    John Merchant, a well know mix engineer, kept us all laughing while showing us some very badly mastered examples to make the point — very graphically — that too much “mastering” is like too much hot sauce. The example he used was from Metalica’s “Death Magnetic” album. The CD version was played side-by-side with the much less compressed Guitar Hero version — showing just how ugly “loud” can get.

    Unfortunately, the panel was very short considering all the opinions we could have unleashed! A lively Q & A was expected too, but time ran out before we could get to it. Hopefully we’ll get to do a panel like this again — it was a lot of fun. And I would have liked to have heard what questions independent artists might have about mastering. –Scott Hull

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    Scott Hull on Cleaning Vinyl

    Weather Report 8:30
    Weather Report's 8:30
    A few weekends ago I was at a record shop here in NYC and a remarkable thing happened: I found the exact record I was looking for. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you ever hunt in the used record bins you’ll know that it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Anyway, the record was Weather Report’s 1979 double LP “8:30”. The price was right and the condition was NM (“near-mint” for you non-nerds); the only thing was that the vinyl was smudged with some pretty nasty fingerprints.

    I’ve been playing vinyl since I was a kid (with a furlough through the 90s) but I haven’t had to do any heavy-duty record cleaning myself; occasionally I’ll bring a record into a shop and pay a couple bucks to have the record cleaned on a machine. But the fingerprints looked like a fairly simple job, so I thought I’d investigate some of online manual cleaning recommendations I’ve read over the years. I’m not talking about the solution-and-microfiber-brush combo for dust and light dirt — I meant to get involved in some water and soap.

    The Smudged Record
    A couple of the offending smudges.
    Here’s what I gleaned from some online sources. Use distilled water to clean records. Some sites get crazy talking about super-duper distilled water. But that’s not for me — it would have to be plain old once-distilled water. As far as the solvent, there are some nutty ideas out there, but the one that kept coming up and seemed the safest bet was a drop of Ivory dishwashing detergent in a lot of water. But in case you’re rolling up your sleeves, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to go into record cleaning techniques or particulars here — you can find lots of info about that online. What I DO want to share with you is the following.

    Working at Masterdisk I’m exposed not only to lots of cool stuff, but there’s also a wealth of expert audio experience walking the halls. And who better to ask about vinyl than Scott Hull? (who is, believe me, extremely knowledgeable about how records are made, played and preserved). Here’s what he told me when I asked him about cleaning records.

    “I’ve got to emphasize: use very little soap! Too much soap makes a mess, can wreck the label, and doesn’t help clean anyway. You only need a drop of non-foaming soap to create a tiny surface tension in the water. And very little water is needed. A bristle brush, like a clean toothbrush, can help with super dirty records. I’ve seen dirty old pressings improve from double cleaning. But even new records benefit from a cleaning. It probably reduces their collector value, but it improves surface noise. Test pressings are VERY dirty and must be cleaned before evaluating for surface noise.”

    The VPI Control Panel
    The VPI Control Panel
    “Though the DIY cleaning methods do work, with a little patience and clean cloths, the most predictable and professional results come from using a VPI motorized/vacuum record cleaner.”

    “Occasionally I need to make a reissue from a vinyl source because masters get lost, damaged or stolen. Sometimes it’s just that vinyl sounds better than tape that wasn’t stored properly. Anyway, when I’m making a reissue from vinyl I’ll clean and transfer multiple copies of a record. I line each pass up in a workstation, then pick the quietest copy at each location; sometimes every few milliseconds. When you find a similar click in all the pressings that’s an imperfection in the stamper.”

    Since we’ve got a VPI machine in the studio, I brought in my copy of “8:30” and a few other recent smudgy finds to give them a good cleaning. The basic process is this: the record goes on the platter and a special cap is applied to the spindle to hold it in place. The “turntable” switch is then flipped to get the record rotating. Cleaning fluid is applied around the record as it spins (making sure to keep away from the label). Then, as Scott mentions in his manual cleaning instructions above, a bristly brush is applied to the record’s surface. The brush evens out the fluid, and is used for some mild scrubbing. Lastly, the machine’s vacuum attachment (think of it as a fat turntable arm with suction power along the bottom) is spun out over the record’s radius. Flipping the “vacuum” switch on the control panel activates the suction. It only takes one rotation of the record to have all the fluid removed. As you can see from the photo below, it did a fantastic job.

    Where has this machine been all my life?

    Wet Record
    The record in the VPI. The cleaning solution has been distributed with the brush.
    The Clean Record
    The finished record, after the solution has been vacuumed up.
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