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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Koolarrow Records Masters La Plebe’s New Album with Matt Agoglia

La Plebe is one of the pillars of the bilingual community in the Bay Area. Their most recent album, “Brazo en Brazo” (“Arm in Arm”) was released on Koolarrow Records in 2010 on CD and vinyl, and mastered by Matt Agoglia.

La Plebe was formed in 2001, “among friends who liked to listen to music, drink beer and smoke things,” says trumpeter Antonio Cuellar, in an interview in AMP Magazine (American Music Press).

The interesting thing for me is the music, the angst-y-ness of it, the horn-driven lines, and it’s easy to imagine a mosh-pit with this music; Mick Jones of The Clash even appeared on stage at a concert in London in 2008 to sing “Guns of Brixton.” What could be better?

Their songs also have a social awareness aspect with titles like “Siempre Unidos,” (Always Together) “Guerra Sucia” (Dirty War) and “Venas Abiertas” (Open Veins). And then there’s the song “Been Drinkin'” which speaks for itself.  Because these guys have experienced discrimination in their lives, they champion the cause of La Raza against ICE raids in the Bay Area and around the country, and they also have something to say about border politics around the world. With the influence of their producer Billy Gould, a lasting member of Faith No More, who has traveled extensively in the Balkans, the union of musical influences is actually electrifying (no pun intended).

Photo of La PlebeCuellar says that “the fact that we have the ability to express ourselves in two languages… has definitely allowed us to reach a wider audience. However, I will also say that we have often played in places where the spoken language was neither Spanish nor English and still received a gracious response from the locals at the show. So hopefully, it is the international language of music, along with our deep love and appreciation for what it means to be part of a group, that makes us stand out.”

La Plebe seem to really enjoy what they do, and this is a good parameter for success in my book. Cuellar says he especially enjoys playing in small towns in California, such as Chico, Oxnard, Watsonville and Salinas, and some of his favorite cities around the world include Mexico City, Belgrade, Berlin, Skopje (Macedonia), Pozega (Croatia), Bucharest (Romania) Sofia (Bulgaria) and the area of ​​Brittany in France.


ComScore
The band’s writing process is an exchange of melodies, riffs, rhythms and lyrics thrown around between members.They never know if the song will be in English or Spanish until they write the lyrics; and they’ve even attempted to write lyrics in Italian.

Tips for other bands now trying to survive and thrive? Cuellar says “work hard and try your best to be earnest in what you do. Don’t take gestures of kindness for granted and don’t encourage any feelings of entitlement. Mix all that with a few parts vodka and make sure that you all stay alive on tour. That should be a good start, or continuation, for any functioning band.”

También en español

Getting the Most Out of Your Medium: Mastering for Vinyl in the Digital Age, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

In our last session my client and I were in the mastering suite — now we’re in the lathe room. I’ve got my high res vinyl-centric files lined up. Now I have to ask myself a lot of questions. How loud can I get this and still fit the program on the side? Is it going to sound good all the way in to the center of the disk? No, probably not. How much high frequency stuff is going on here? — in the vocals and cymbals?

The vocal is waaaaaay back in an Aztec temple chamber — no worry about lancing ssss sibilance messing playback up. Some of the cymbal crashes are forward, but I know I have some room in terms of level so amplitude of the crash should be tamed. Usually we listeners can take a little more cymbal than vocal, so I’m in a good position to not have to use any high frequency limiting.

Photo of Alex DeTurk adjusting the latheNext I ask myself How deep is this thing going to cut? It’s possible to cut a deep groove all the way to the metal plate sandwitched between layers of lacquer, and we DON’T want that. This music has some pretty heavy downtuned guitars in the sides, so we’re going deep, but nowhere near the real danger zone. I do note that this is going to eat through the disc at a brisk pace though.

I look at my LPI meter — it tells me how many lines per inch are going to cut on the disc based on all my current settings. With this you can estimate the total run time to figure out about how far into the disc you’re going to go. Right now it looks like we’re going all the way in, and I don’t like it.

Metal (the music, not the substance) albums don’t fare too well in the inner diameter. I have the choice to either put my elliptical filter in, or drop the level. The elliptical will sum my low end in the sides to mono — with the result that I’ll loose some of the width in the guitars. That would be detrimental to the sound, so I choose instead to lower the level another .5 dB. Now we should finish in a friendlier place.

Time to cut. This part goes quickly — it’s the prep that takes all the time — and the result looks good! Off to plating and then pressing. I won’t hear this again unless there is a problem or I have a finished LP in my hands.

In this case, there was a problem. The test pressing comes back sounding really gritty and harsh in the top end, tinny to the max. What happened? My bet is on the quality of vinyl used: the grooves still look good under the microscope, but the surrounding vinyl looks like kitty litter. I bet it’s re-grind. The disc isn’t really even black, more like dark gray. OK, let’s call up the plant and see if there is an alternate vinyl source we can use and try again. Luckily they can still use the stampers and we don’t have to go back to square one.

We wait around for a couple more weeks, and the new test pressing comes back. This round looks a lot better! And it sounds better too; quieter overall and the high end actually resembles what I put down in the first place. I’d say we’re done, run the presses!

Now for the home test…

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Getting the Most Out of Your Medium: Mastering for Vinyl in the Digital Age, Part 1

So I’m sitting down with a client friend today. He has a concept EP that he’s been working on for the past couple of months, but now it’s ready to go. As we sit and chat before the session I figure out he’s looking to do a vinyl as well as digital release. Things just got more interesting for me.

Photo of Alex DeTurk
Alex with a project he cut for the Luaka Bop label.
Unfortunately for the the ones footing the bill, it’s common knowledge (or at least it should be) that the CD master doesn’t always make the best cut. And he wants a nice hot CD master. Not only that, but my friend had done all his tracking and mixing at 24bit 96k. Sounds like a perfect time to suggest doing two different mastering passes. One will be the loud 16bit 44.1 CD/dig release, the other a full dynamic/depth interpretation at high resolution 24bit 96k. Sweeet. Turns out the label will pay for it: great.

After touching on all the finer points of mastering we get to work. I do the CD version first. After each transfer I work out a different vinyl-centric approach and print at high res. On this project I’m looking to get out of any squashed digital peak limiting, though I’m still using some analouge hard limiting for feel, really to get that kick drum right. I also tend to change the EQ once the material is brought back from the brink of converter/limiter annihilation. Sometimes the annihilation is doing a good thing, in this case it was making the high freq crunchy and present, so I brought up a bit more of the highs to reflect this in the vinyl transfer. Also the bass changes when you pull it back too, the dynamics of it, in this case too much, so pulling out a little more in the low end helped keep things feel balanced. Onwards we go EQing the EP down in parallel.

Had this been an LP, I would have approached the CD and vinyl mastering in two separate sessions. The process would become exhausting over the course of a full length album. But in the case of a shorter program like this one, it’s great to give the client immediate feedback on what the vinyl would sound like.

Now I’m checking out the potential side lengths and formulating my best release format. Hmmmm, a 12 and 14 min side. Could be a 10″ at 33 1/3 or, yes, my favorite 12″ 45 rpm. Maximum disk diameter means less inner band distortion. High speed 45 rpm keeps the groove geometry nice and open, extended high freq response. Great, awesome. The 14 min side is a bit consistently loud, so we may have to cut the level back a dB or two – but it’s well worth it for the 12″ 45.

We’re done for the day. My client takes a reference home to check it out – and loves it. If he wanted to change anything, I would have had to change both EQs — so it’s especially good that we nailed it on the first pass.

Continued in Part 2.

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Vinyl sales in 2011 up 39 percent over 2010

Via Digital Music News: according to Nielsen Soundscan, vinyl sales in the US topped 3.9 million in 2011, a 39.3% gain over 2010. I bet sales were even higher than that, when you consider how much vinyl is sold at shows and through indie stores. It is, as we’ve said before, great to see such a beautiful format become popular again!

Read the article here: http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/permalink/2012/120104vinyl

Photo of record on turntable
Photo: Echoes.in.side