Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Eight

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This week, a behind-the-scenes look at some of the challenges of producing good vinyl reissues, particularly remastered-from-vinyl releases.

Hey, where did my master recordings go?

Photo of Analog Tape MachineLets look at vinyl from a different angle. Let’s say you made a record in the 70′s or 80′s. You had pretty good success with the record. It might not have been a “top ten” but the fans loved it. Then in the 90′s your record label folded or was sold. Now today your exclusive deal with the label has expired, and maybe even the rights to the songs are back in your hands, and you want to put that old vinyl back into production. Except who has the masters? The original two-track master tapes. They should have been handed over to you, right? But you call and meet and ask around and no one really knows what happened to them. A few are found in a vault that has nothing to do with your old label, but by and large your original recordings are lost.

This isn’t fiction. This happens every day. During the “digital reissue” days master tapes were taken from the libraries, some orphaned at mastering studios, some taken by producers, others destroyed. They should have been returned to the label, but truthfully, few labels dedicated resources to keeping close track of their own masters. This sounds outrageous, but as labels dissolved and sub labels merged and staffs got trimmed, often there was no one left that truly cared about the music. I’m not saying this was all of the major labels, as there are several notable exceptions still working their back catalog with great care.

So what does the band do? They almost certainly hate the way their CD sounds. Unless it was expertly re-mastered with care it’s either going to sound thin or scratchy-bright, or it was made so much louder to “compete” with recently produced CDs that it’s almost unlistenable.

Sometimes a producer or artist will find a DAT recording that was made at the same time as the mixes, but most times it was made with poor quality A/D converters or it might not include all of the main mixes. If the band doesn’t give up entirely, then they start looking at their vinyl collection and think, “well these pressings sound pretty damn good… why can’t we use these to make our reissue?” And to be honest, if you’re careful, this approach works quite well.

First you have to decide if your fans are in love with the vintage vinyl sonically. If you think they are, then you might just hit a home run by re-doing your vinyl so it sounds exactly like the mint pressings. You can then decide if the digital audience would like to have it presented in a more modern sounding format for streaming and download.

Photo of a shelf of analog tape boxesBut there’s quite a lot to getting a really great transfer from a piece of vinyl. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the cartridge has to be set up just so, and the playback curve correct, and the alignment of the phono preamp through the analog chain. The record also has to be ultra clean. If your record is mint and really clean then you’re almost there. Ideally, you have more than one copy of mint original vinyl, so you can transfer multiple pressings. This is so that if you have a “pop” issue or a noisy groove on one of the pressings, you can select the best disk to use for each track. I’ll often switch between copies multiple times within a track to get the best sound. Now, before you cry foul, remember we have the original pressing as a guide. This was exactly what the producer wanted the record to sound like. And if I can give the consumer exactly that same music with a better noise floor – not taking away any of the feel, groove, air, or warmth, then why shouldn’t I do it?

Once I have a high-resolution digital file that sounds like the vinyl, I can start cleaning any remaining clicks and pops. There are several tools for doing this. Some work better than others. To avoid choosing sides, I’ll just say that the one I use is the best. But again, the goal is not perfection. The goal is to make a pressing that sounds just like the original pressing. It’s my opinion that the original pressings will still be valuable collectors items, but with a reissue of this kind, the general fans can enjoy the sound of the vinyl. Even many collectors might enjoy having a “service copy” of a favorite record. This way they can maintain their collection and still play the record for friends and family.

In a Perfect World

Making a re-issue vinyl from the original analog masters is one of the most fun things you can do with non-adhesive tape. When the original sources are first played they sound “like a record.” Right out of the box, you can hear what went into making the original vinyl. My point is that 20 years ago or more, the mastering process was about getting as much of the original master’s sound onto the vinyl as possible. Mastering was more of a craft and less about “post-production.” Mastering now for CD or vinyl often involves extensive editing, complex fades, mixing in auxiliary elements and sometimes even mixing.

Photo of a lacquer being cut on the Masterdisk lathe.Vinyl cut from original analog masters just sounds right. The two were made for each other – literally. And the compression and smoothness from analog tape – when it’s not recorded too hot – makes all of the technical issues of cutting less of a concern. If you ever get a chance to listen to a favorite recording played directly off of the original masters you will be shocked at how wonderful it sounds. Everything that is good about vinyl is realized on the original masters. If you have any – guard them, catalog them, document them and store them safely. No digital archive format will sound exactly like them.

From CD Back to Vinyl

I have been asked on many occasions to take the CD master files and transfer them to vinyl. You might be able to sense me wincing through your screen. Doing this creates lots of issues for me. Technically, a hyper-compressed CD master will have to be lowered in level to accurately track on a record. Now let me explain, it’s not that the CD is such a low quality format. The issue is that the well known CD level wars have left us with a tiny dynamic range, drastically limited bass range and high frequency hash that is very hard to cut without distortion.

But what if our “heritage” band didn’t make vinyl, but only CDs in the 80s. And like our 70′s band they didn’t keep track of their masters. This happens all the time now that digital files and production techniques vary so much. Only the most responsible producers made backup copies of the original masters. And many of the digital formats of the 80′s are disappearing. We may be forced to take the existing CD master and try to make it sound whole again. Sometimes this can be done, but there are no magic tricks. Just hard work with EQ’s and manual level control to mimic what the dynamics might have been before brick-wall limiting. We never get it all back, but with lots of patience we can often find a much warmer, rich, organic feel by carefully processing the digital masters. The craft in this is making it rich with out being muddy, warm without being dull, and to somehow simulate the sense of space that was in the original. Sometimes I have rough mixes or outtakes to compare to. Sometimes it’s just my imagination. But if the mastering was done expertly, it will sound like I was never even there.

Thanks for reading. I hope you are enjoying reading these as much as I’m enjoying writing them.

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