Two albums were played: Caravan’s “In the Land of Grey and Pink” in Scott Hull’s mastering suite…
…and Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in Randy Merrill’s room.
We split up into two groups — 15 went to Scott’s room for some Caravan, and 15 to Randy’s for the Captain. Everybody got comfortable and the albums were played — both sides. And here’s the best part: no talking until the needle hits the side 2 runoff groove! It was a pretty fantastic experience to listen to both these records, on great sound systems, in a room full of quietly listening music fans. When the first listening session was done we all took a break before switching rooms to hear the other record.
Lights were provided by Curtis Godino and Chaz Lord of Drippy Eye Projections. The photo below is Randy’s room during one of the Beefheart playbacks.
Beverages were provided by our pals down the block (10th Avenue and 45th Street) at The Pony Bar.
We wanted something special for Randy’s room, so we talked to our friends at the downtown NYC hi-fi and record shop In Living Stereo and they graciously let us borrow a Rega RP1. Check out the In Living Stereo showroom:
I know. I want to live there too.
Expert cutting engineer Alex DeTurk did a show-and-tell in the lathe room before the needle dropped:
I’m pictured here with Mike and the evening’s listening selections:
We didn’t advertise the event very much beforehand because space was limited and the spots filled up very fast. The Listening Party will continue though, and maybe even at Masterdisk again. So definitely keep an eye (ear?) on Mike’s radio show (and check out his label too!). You can listen to archived shows here:
Extra special thanks to Jon Meyers at The Vinyl District for hooking us up with Mike and BBiB.
It’s Record Store Day! Hopefully you’ll find the list below “better late than never”. These are the RSD titles that were cut at Masterdisk. As you’ll see, some of them were mastered at the excellent Airshow, Kitchen and Welcome to 1979 studios, and sent to us for cutting. We often partner with other mastering studios in this way. I hope you find something below to seek out and add to your collection!
Artist,Title,Label,Cutting Engineer,Mastering Studio,Format
Big Mama Thornton,Jail,Vanguard,AlexDeTurk,Airshow,LP
Brendan Benson,Diamond,Readymade,Alex DeTurk,Welcome To 1979,7″
Buddy Guy,Hold That Plane,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Country Joe and the Fish,Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson,Rattlin Bones,Sugar Hill,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
The dB’s,Revolution of the Mind,Orange Sound,Andy VanDette,Kitchen Mastering,LP
Various Artists,Blues at Newport 1963,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Various Artists,Newport Folk Festival,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Willie Nelson,Crazy: The Demo Sessions,Sugar Hill,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Dave Matthews Band,Live Trax Vol 1 Box,Bama Rags Recordings,Scott Hull & Alex DeTurk,Masterdisk,4xLP
Free Energy,Girls Want Rock b/w Wild Life,Free Energy,Jeremy Lubsey,Masterdisk,7″
The Atlas Moth/Wolvhammer,split 7″,Init,Jeremy Lubsey,Masterdisk,7″
Tift Merrit,Markings,Yep Roc,Andy VanDette,Kitchen Mastering,12″
If you’ve been following along this blog since week one, you now have a pretty good picture of how music gets recorded onto vinyl.
This seems like a good time to talk about record players and especially phono cartridges. I won’t even try to tell you what turntable is right for you; there are many factors to consider. But I can say for sure that you really do get what you pay for.
Not all records are “challenging” for the stylus. The least expensive cartridges will play back non-challenging grooves just fine. A $30 cart on a $150 table will probably have problems with higher levels and with high frequencies, whereas more expensive cartridges almost always provide much truer playback. But (there’s always a “but”) cartridges and turntables built for DJ use – even though expensive – are not the best at reproducing crystal clear music. It’s because the DJ cart has to be sturdy. It doesn’t give as easily and is weighted more; as a result it can distort on high frequency material. My favorite cart is one that balances all these issues. And since I don’t have an endorsement deal, you’ll have to ask your hi-fi shop what equipment suits your style and wallet best.
It’s interesting to note that the distortion we hear on sibilant vocal “esses” and cymbals is almost always NOT in the cut or the groove of the record. The distortion heard when playing back is a function of the quality of the cartridge, the condition of the record, and how squiggly the groove is. It’s the mastering engineer’s job to find the right compromise between level, brightness and playability. And it is always a compromise.
For example, I was once asked to restore some solo trumpet music. The masters had been lost. The client made transfers at a pro studio from mint vinyl before bringing me the digital files to clean up. The record noise was not the worst issue. The main problem was the horrifically bad ripping distortion on the muted trumpet. By the way, Harmon muted trumpet is a big challenge to cut cleanly as it has tons of high frequency content.
I tried everything I knew to reduce the distortion to acceptable levels, but I wasn’t getting anything I could use. It was a mono recording played back by a stereo cartridge, and I was working on just one channel at a time. But when I played back the stereo transfer, my ear immediately recognized the source of the clipping. What was thought to be peak distortion was actually caused by stereo “splatter.” It sounded like the trumpet suddenly went from mono to stereo and back but only on the bright passages. I knew that only stereo splatter could make that sound. The cartridge they had used for the transfer was unable to track those high frequency waves accurately.
I stopped what I was doing and contacted the client, asking them to send me their vinyl copies so that I could try a transfer myself. They were very hesitant, as they had spent a lot of money already to transfer and clean these recordings. (I forgot to mention it was a multi–disk box set!) But I insisted. When I played their vinyl on my best cartridge it was a beautiful thing. There was absolutely zero distortion. It sounded perfect. I played that same passage back on my cheaper setup and not surprisingly that ripping distortion was back.
So if you hear sibilant esses and a sort of glassy sheen on most of your vinyl, you probably could use a better or newer cartridge. Also, turntables need to be setup properly to achieve optimal results. Your record store turntable guru can help – or if you want to do it yourself, get this very good DVD: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up.
It is often frustrating for our clients and for my cutting engineers when a producer gets their test pressing and doesn’t like what he or she hears. We have to wonder, “How old is their cart? Was it setup properly? Is the stylus clean? Is the turntable causing rumble or interference? Has the turntable been listened to regularly or was it dusted off and plugged in this morning to play back this one piece of vinyl?”
The fact that each turntable and cartridge sounds different makes it very hard to quality control masters and pressings. If you use a very expensive cart and turntable then nearly everything sounds perfect. If you use a very low grade consumer turntable as your measuring stick, then everything sounds distorted to some degree. Somehow you need to determine what level and how bright to make the music.
In my opinion, the best results are achieved by looking at both extremes. Then I try to determine what a typical listener will be using for playback. Then we come up with a compromise that fits our music and our listener.
Yes, it’s more work and costs more money to give a cut this kind of attention. But like I said — you get what you pay for.
(Read all of the “Scott Hull on Vinyl” articles here.)
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)
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
My 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.
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.
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.)
Tomorrow is Record Store Day and today Scott’s final blog post at The Vinyl District went up. We really hope you’ve enjoyed the series. If you haven’t gotten enough about vinyl over these weeks, we have a few spots left open in our upcoming (May 4) FREE hands-on vinyl event at the Masterdisk studios. Details about that are here.
Week 13: Changers, oddities, and good-bye for now.
What can make a mild-mannered mastering engineer bend lacquers into a V-shape over his knee in anger? What has thrown many a sane mastering engineer into a foaming stupor? Find out in Week 7 of Scott Hull’s guest blog at The Vinyl District!
It’s week three of Scott’s guest blog series at The Vinyl District, and it’s a good one! This week Scott starts getting into the geometry of the record groove, aided by some photos from the new camera we have installed on our lathe’s scope. Hope you enjoy it!