Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Four

Header image for Scott Hull on Vinyl series

One of the most sought after vinyl-cutting systems in the world is the nearly indestructible VMS-70 and VMS-80 cutting systems built by Neumann. The VMS-82 was the last of these produced. I’m thankful to say that we get to use our VMS-82 lathe every day to cut lacquers for clients around the globe. (Fig. 1)

Photo of the Masterdisk lathe
Fig. 1
The actual cutting happens at the cutter head. In this case, the BMW of cutter heads, the SX-74. (Fig. 2)

Though it was initially built in 1974, this design was never dramatically improved. It was capable of cutting with sufficient level and flat frequency response to please nearly everyone.

The head has been removed from the lathe and is sitting upside down for viewing. (Fig. 3)

Now just a little closer look to see the working parts of this little marvel.

Photo of Neumann SX 74 name plate
Fig. 2
The two round “cans” on either side are the voice coils. (Fig. 4) You can also see the cutting stylus: a faceted sapphire glued to a pin that mounts in the tube that connects to each voice coil. Also in the foreground are two fine wires. These carry a small voltage that heats the stylus to an optimal temperature so that it slices smoothly through the lacquer instead of dragging and causing extra noise from a jagged cut.

The drive coils of the stereo cutter head are mounted at right angles. When there is audio in the left channel the left coil goes in and out, just like a speaker does. And when there is audio in the right channel the right coil goes in and out. One voice coil in the cutter head is wired deliberately out of phase so that when a mono signal is cut, as the left coil is moving in the right coil is moving out. Thus, a mono signal cuts a lateral groove that looks like this. (Fig. 5)

Why is this done this way you might ask?

Photo of the Neumann lathe cutter head
Fig. 3
We have go back to mono to find out. Early records, initially 78s and then LPs, were mono. Systems that cut mono records had only one drive coil and it moved the cutting stylus back and forth creating a lateral, constant-depth groove. There was little concern about the depth of the cut so long as it was deep enough to hold the playback stylus in the groove. Then along came stereo. Researchers needed to find a way to carve two channels of audio into a record but make the new technology compatible with mono records and players.

Unfortunately, today’s technology designers don’t put quite so much effort into forward- and backward-compatibility. That’s a soapbox speech for another time.

So what they came up with was to record the mono component of the stereo audio laterally, like on a mono record. Then by adding a second coil and wiring it “out of phase” with the first coil they created depth modulation which records the stereo or side signal.

If I’ve lost you, take a breath and read on; I’ll try to make it clearer.

Photo of Neumann cutter head close up
Fig. 4
Stereo is made up of a left signal and a right signal. OK, that’s simple. But stereo can also be described as the mono component (everything that is exactly the same in both speakers) and the difference component (everything that is different). This is commonly called Middle and Side, or M-S for short. A stereo signal can be converted into an M-S signal and back again with nearly no change at all. FM radio is transmitted in M-S. The middle signal is a strong “full wave” signal and it is this signal that you hear when you are far away from the radio tower. That signal is mono. As you get closer to the radio tower, your radio can tune in the sub carrier signal, which carries the difference (side channel). When you receive a strong enough signal, the FM station now plays back in full stereo because it has BOTH the middle and the side signals. It can be hard to believe, because we commonly think in left-and-right rather than middle-and-side. But it’s true. It’s a matter of physics and alternating current electronics. Are you still with me?

Photo of record groove
Fig. 5
The groove shows us the “difference” signal by it’s depth. So a mastering engineer speaks “lateral” and means the mono aka “middle” signal. And when the engineer says “vertical” he or she is referring to the “difference” aka “side” signals. Got it now? Good.

Once you have a hold of that concept then we can start to talk about why some records seem to make the vocals spitty and sibilant. And why some recordings have to be modified with equalization to minimize out-of-phase bass.

But there is one more thing to understand before we can control our quality. It was a standard developed in the 1950s called the RIAA Curve.

Next week I’ll talk about what the RIAA curve is, why it was standardized, and what steps we have to take to make records sound really good.

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

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Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Three

Header image for Scott Hull on Vinyl seriesAs 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.”

Photo of quiet record grooves
Fig. 1
So, What do the squiggles mean? Lets look at the record groove closely. Very closely.

In the microscope a simple quiet groove looks like this. (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.

Photo of record grooves with music content
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.

Photo of record grooves
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 first 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.

Next week we’ll look closely at the cutter head.

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

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What Does Your Music Say?

Photo of woman pretending to listen to giant ship horn. Berlin, 1929.What does your music “say”?

I find it interesting to allow the music to tell me what it needs. Here are a couple ways that I do that.

I let the producer or artist describe their thoughts about their record to me. Who was it written for? How was it recorded? What are the ideals, goals and purpose in producing this music? I find that not everyone has thought this stuff through. Sometimes the purpose of making the record IS the making of the record. How the producer describes their goals will give me a lot of foundation to base my decisions on. This is really the art of the craft of mastering. Listening with an imagination. Not as often about achieving specific ideals of loud or bright, but finding out what can and should be done to help the music communicate those goals.

Instead of asking “who do you want your music to sound like,” ask “Who is your music composed for?” And “how would you like them to react to it?”

Initially, everyone wants their music to be everything, for everyone. But if the artist is experienced they can tell you why they made the music, where the emotional references come from and how the listener should relate to these emotions. Deep stuff right? But the answers to these questions lead you to a starting point that preserves the musicality of the record, and makes it stronger emotionally and justifies all of the hard work getting the recordings to this point.

There really is no shortcut for experience, but if you ask good questions you can hope to get good answers. I find that these answers put me in a state of mind — ready to listen. Turning the knobs is the easy part. Determining where to aim, where the “target” is takes a lot of thought, an open mind and careful listening. It is very easy to substitute my goals for the goals of the music. Listening carefully and asking the right questions is step one.

If you haven’t thought much about what your music is saying, try to answer these simple questions. I bet it will help you make decisions along the path of making your music.

  • Who is your ideal fan / audience?
  • How will they listen to this music? Engaged and absorbed? Or while working out? On a dancefloor? While driving?
  • Is your audience tied closely to your live performances?
  • What would your ideal fan expect you recording to sound like?
  • Do you want to surprise your audience, either with variety of subject or sound?

And on the technical side:

  • Do you really understand what happens to your music when you compete for level (loudness wars)?

If your project needs to be loud and “shout” then you really must address that issue in the composition, and in the recording and mixing stages. Mastering alone can not achieve all of that despite what the ads and equipment designers claim. Any project that was recorded with the goals clearly in mind, will almost master itself and have a much improved chance at success in the long run.

Listen to what your music is trying to “say.”

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Ask the Engineer with Scott Hull: What Happened To My Vocal?


Today we’ve got a question from a reader about how her track was affected by mastering (at another facility). Scott Hull answers.

Q: I had a song mastered and the vocals seemed to sound harsher, with a loss of ambience. Can this occur from the mastering? — Sherri

A: Sherri, thanks for your email.

The effects of mastering can be very profound, both positively and sometimes negatively. An “average” engineer might have been taught or learned to brighten the midrange and high-end even if the music doesn’t need it. As a veteran of thousands of mastering sessions, I can tell you that the hardest thing to learn was when not to “master”.

I can help you get the sound you are looking for. I will give you a free song / mix evaluation ($99 value) — for free! Just for sending us your great question.

You don’t have to compromise. The right engineer can make a world of difference.

All the best,
Scott Hull

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Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Two

Header image for Scott Hull on Vinyl seriesHow do we listen to CDs and MP3s? We hear them in the car, while jogging, over computer speakers while we blog (as I am now, listening to yesterday’s mastering project, Dave Matthews), and from the tiny little ear buds plugged into our iPhones.

How do we listen to records? We take the record out carefully, and often we’ll clean it. We double check the tone arm balance and anti-skate, we set the first side on the platter, cue the tone arm and sit back and listen,often playing an entire side, maybe even with our eyes shut.

Columbia Phonograph advertisement, Public DomainIt’s no wonder we have a different relationship with our records than we do with our CDs and computer files. The format engages us on many levels. Records have to be stored and handled carefully or the experience is lost. We’re rewarded with better sound when we spend a little extra time with an anti-stat gun or a record cleaner. The playback sounds nearly the same as it did years ago when we fell in love with music. And I haven’t even mentioned the larger graphics and interesting packaging.

So, I guess I am preaching to the choir, right? All of you understand why you are vinyl junkies. You can justify spending hundreds of dollars on a turntable and pre-amp since it helps you love the music even more. That really is wonderful and I hope all of you have had that experience.

We’ve all heard that the younger generation has rediscovered vinyl. I had a client in my room the other day who told me a story about a young man’s vinyl conversion. A son of a friend of this man was a huge Bob Dylan fan. In fact he believed that he possessed every single downloadable Dylan recording and was very proud of the history and folklore, which he knew by rote.

One day my client invited this friend and his son over to hear his very expensive and detailed record playback system. They left the room for a few minutes to talk, as the son was absorbed in listening to a familiar Dylan record. When they returned they saw he had been crying. And he told them that he had never really heard the album before. It was like everything he knew about Bob Dylan was only on the surface. He had heard the songs a hundred times before, but played back on vinyl it was mind blowing.

Next week I’ll get into the geometry of the record groove. It’s deep!

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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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