Masterdisk Remembers Lou Reed

Lou Reed TransformerI joined Masterdisk in 2010. A lifelong musician, I had also been working as a marketer in the staffing industry for 10 years. Joining the Masterdisk team was a move I was very excited about. I knew the legacy of the studio, the work of the engineers, and the parade of stars whose music had passed through the Masterdisk mastering consoles.

In my first week on the job full-time — it might have been the first day — I’m going into the men’s room, and who’s coming out, but Lou Reed.

LOU FUCKING REED.

I had that amazing sense of being in the right place (the studio, not the men’s room.) He looked older and frailer than I expected, but he had not been in great health for a while. He still looked cool though. On that occasion he was working with Scott Hull on a video soundtrack. I would see him again a number of times over the next few years.

I think I saw him once around the time of his Metallica collaboration, “Lulu,” that he mastered with Vlado Meller. Same Lou, maybe moving a little slower, still cool.

And then in the last few months I saw him a few times again, as he returned to the studio to do some extensive remastering work with Vlado. One day I was working in the back lounge of the studio, which was then next to Vlado’s room. Lou came in one day, walking very slowly. He made it to Vlado’s room, the door shut. After a little while some of the most iconic sounds in all of rock and roll started vibrating out of the walls. A famous bass line. Vocal lines that have become part of all our DNA. It was an eerie feeling knowing that the creator of those sounds was in that room next door, reviewing them. Revisiting them. Full songs were played all the way through. Some were played a few times in a row. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a very intimate moment.

Later that afternoon, after Lou left, I popped in to Vlado’s studio. “What happened in here today?” I asked. “Lou’s very happy,” Vlado said. “He said he thought his CDs sounded like shit, and he wanted it done right. We got new transfers off the master tapes, and they sound great. You want to hear an A/B?” Yes I did.

Vlado played me “Walk on the Wild Side.” The old CD against the new transfer. And the difference was astounding. The old CD sounded so thin compared to the vastness of the sound in the new transfer. The bass sounded like a BASS. It sounded like a Miles Davis or Mingus record. You could hear fingers on the strings. You could sense the size of the instrument and the size of the room it was in. It had physical force, air and space around it.

This new version sounds incredible, beautiful, startling. It choked me up. Apparently it made Lou tear up himself as he says around the 4-minute mark in this video:

I asked Vlado about his experience working with Lou.

“Lou was gracious. He had a sense of humor too,” Vlado said. “He was appreciative. He thought the sound was amazing and he was so happy. He said ‘nobody will probably buy them but I don’t give a shit.’ He was a true artist.” A&R man Rob Santos was in attendance on at least a few sessions and Lou was very appreciative of him, and the label as well, for putting up the funding to get the records to sound the way he wanted them to sound. He had a lot of appreciation and thanks to go around. Lou Reed remastered fifteen albums with Vlado over the past few months.

Scott Hull worked with Lou on a number of projects over the years as well, starting with the “Mistrial” album in 1986. Scott at that time was primarily a digital editor — that’s before DAW workstations when digital editing was an extremely specialized skill.

“The call came in in the afternoon that Lou wanted an editor, and it needed to be done that evening. He had been working on the record at another studio and they had made a digital copy of their edit. Lou listened to the original edit and the copy, and was hearing a difference in the tone. The engineer insisted that it was impossible that there was a difference, because the numbers were the same: there’s no degradation and no difference in a digital copy. Well, Lou didn’t agree. He heard a difference. And that was the end of that working relationship. He called us that day and he finished the record at Masterdisk with Bob Ludwig.”

“It’s not that Lou was so stubborn, necessarily,” Scott said. “If he felt something wasn’t right, you weren’t going to convince him that it was otherwise. He trusted his perceptions completely. He trusted his team, and if he didn’t have a very strong opinion about something he would take other people’s input. But once he knew something, that was it.”

Lou Reed New YorkScott said that over the course of his 30-plus year career, there aren’t many artists he encountered with that same level of confidence. “It’s interesting, because their music is so different, but Lou and Donald Fagen are alike in that way. So confident. So familiar and deeply in tune with the music. Donald’s emotional reaction to his music is similar to Lou’s.

The next record Scott worked on was “New York” (1989). “For Lou, it was his guitar tone,” Scott said. “It was everything. Lou’s acoustic reference, for years after, was the first minutes of ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Just like an engineer has a reference recording you bring to a new room, Lou had that. He only needed to hear a few seconds of the guitar part and he understood the room he was working in.”

The last major project Lou worked on with Scott was the remastering of “Metal Machine Music” (2010). Scott remembers, “he was passionate about it. There was nothing arbitrary about it at all.”

The project was remastering the album in both stereo and quad formats. “When we compared the new transfers to what had been released we realized that so much of the low frequency information had been eliminated when they cut the record. For whatever reason. So it was a new experience with all this low frequency energy. What do we do with it? Is it good? It certainly changed the impact. So we spent a fair amount of time going over how that change in tone impacted the listener.”

“The original was stereo,” Scott continued. “Lou and Bob [Ludwig] had worked on a quad master way back. The thing is that Metal Machine Music was a live two-track [stereo] record, so there were no other assets to put into channels 3 and 4. So what they decided to do was to take the entire recording and record it backwards, and THAT became tracks 3 and 4. We manipulated the relation between these channels quite a bit when we did the quad remaster.”

Lou Reed Metal Machine Music“What I remember most about those sessions,” Scott said, “is how emotionally draining it was to listen to the album at a decent level. Even Lou wasn’t really able to listen to the whole thing with intese focus. It just took so much energy as a listener. It’s taxing. The QC [quality control] guys had to listen to it all the way through — two passes. It wasn’t easy work. You had to stay really focused. But when you did, it took you on a journey, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime journey.”

“Lou knew that nine-tenths of the population would dismiss MMM as noise,” Scott continues, “but he opened a lot of listeners to new concepts in music. Minimalism. Maximalism. The avant-garde.”

“I got the chance to work with Lou through several different phases of his career,” Scott said. “When he was deeply into his solo career. Then when he was more focused on performance art and avant-garde music. He reminds me a little of someone else — John Zorn — in the way that most people have a singular idea about him. People have an image of Lou that he’s this ONE WAY, that he makes THIS kind of music. But he was very multi-faceted.”

“I remember when we were working on Laurie [Anderson’s] album “Homeland” (2010). Lou attended the sessions. It was a more relaxed Lou, but he was really involved in the process. It was clear that Laurie and Lou worked well together. I remember around that time their dog was having some medical problems and it was really stressful… and so there’s another completely different side of Lou. Collaborating, offering support. Worrying over his dog. He was a three-dimensional guy.

The sadness around the Masterdisk offices, and the city, and the whole music world has been palpable in the weeks since Lou’s death. There’ll never be another one like him, but we can be glad he was here. And we can continue to listen to the legacy he left behind — listen, feel and learn.

Sting’s New Album “The Last Ship” Released Today

Sting’s new album, “The Last Ship,” his first full-length album of new material in ten years, is released today on Cherrytree / Interscope / A&M Records. The album was produced by Rob Mathes, and mastered by Scott Hull. Here’s Sting and Scott at the mastering session.

Photo of Sting with Scott Hull

The album is inspired by Sting’s forthcoming play of the same name, scheduled to debut on Broadway in 2014. It will explore the themes of homecoming and self-discovery, drawing upon Sting’s memories of growing up, with reminiscences of universal truths – the complexity of relationships, the passage of time and the importance of family and community. (Wikipedia)

Artwork of Sting The Last Ship

The album is available in multiple formats: a standard 12 song version (also on vinyl — get it at Elusive Disc), a 2-disc version with 5 extra tracks, and a super-deluxe edition with special packaging and 20 tracks available from Amazon.

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New Linda Thompson Album “Won’t Be Long Now” Set for October 15 Release

Linda Thompson banner

British folk-rock legend Linda Thompson’s new album, “Won’t Be Long Now” is set for release on October 15.

Photo of Linda Thompson, Scott Hull, and Ed HaberThe album features Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Eliza Carthy, Sam Amidon, Amy Helm and a host of Thompsons. All three of her children and one grandchild form the group on a cover of Anna McGarrigle’s “As Fast As My Feet.” Ex-husband Richard Thompson provides lovely guitar accompaniment on Linda’s “Love’s for Babies and Fools,” a song that can stand with the best of their classic output.

Produced with her long-time collaborator, Edward Haber, mixed by Tom Schick (Wilco, Mavis Staples, Ryan Adams), and mastered by Scott Hull, “Won’t Be Long Now” is not to be missed.

(The photo of Linda, Scott, and producer Ed Haber is from the mastering session for “Won’t Be Long Now.”)

Coincidentally, it was 7 years ago today that Linda’s last album, “Versatile Heart” (also mastered by Scott Hull), was released!

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Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Eleven

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All About Deadwax and the Origins of the Independent Mastering Studio

Record Store Day may be past, but the vinyl keeps spinning. Welcome back for a “bonus round” of vinyl trivia! It’s time to talk about “deadwax.”


If you look at your records very closely you will see a variety of symbols cut into the lead-out or terminal groove. This area of the record is nicknamed the “deadwax.” The numbers in the deadwax go by a lot of different names. These are the main ones:

The Scribe Number: the cutting engineer uses a sharp pointed tool to cut the numbers and letters into the lacquer.

The Matrix Number: essentially a “part” number. It’s called “matrix” because the metal parts that are made at the plating plant are referred to as a matrix. It’s an older term from the molding industry.

The Catalog Number: reflecting the record label’s catalog system.

Other marks and symbols are sometimes in the lead out area of the disk. The technical ones can tell you a little something about the quality of the pressing. But to understand their significance you need to know a little more about the history of the mastering process.

Masterdisk Deadwax

In the 50’s and 60’s, lacquers cut for a major label project were cut by a technician. Literally he was a white-coat lab tech. They might not have known much about the music (of course some would have known more than others) but they weren’t there to change anything. Their job was to take the tape and cut it on the masterlacquer disk. Hence “mastering.”

If there was a technical problem, like the record skipped or distorted too much, they would either turn the level down or apply a filter to the highs or lows to allow the disk to be cut. Also during this early vinyl age, when an artist and producer went into the studio to record a song they could only hear the master when it was played in the studio. No one privately owned master playback decks — they were as large as a washing machine. A few people had low-speed 1/4″ analog tape decks at home, but for the most part they could only listen to their work when it was cut onto a lacquer.

Most recording studios and all labels had a mastering room. In the mastering room tapes from that day’s sessions would be transferred to record. These weren’t for mass production — they were take-home references. That was how the producer could listen to the final mix outside of the studio. That’s also how the label would hear the record. And the mastering engineers in these rooms, most of them anyway, were not known for taking extra care with these “dubs.” They were just like cassette copies, made so that the music could be more portable. Occasionally you will find some of these in the collectors market. They are often called acetates (though they stopped making them from acetate years prior).

But as the music business evolved an interesting thing happened. People began to notice that records cut by certain mastering engineers not only sounded better, but they were less likely to skip. And — most importantly — they SOLD more copies. So now not only did you need a great song, producer, band and studio, you needed a killer recording and mix engineer and the right mastering engineer, too.

This was truly the golden age of mastering. I got to see the last 10-12 years of it and it was remarkable. Independent mastering studios popped up in every major music market. And even though the major labels all had their own mastering studios and engineers, they would always send their important projects to Masterdisk, or Sterling Sound (both in NY), Kendun or The Mastering Lab (in LA) or other notable houses in Nashville, London, etc. Forgive me because I am leaving a lot of names out, but you get the idea that this new independent mastering business was off and running.

Album art for Sting Nothing Like the Sun

Some labels devoted enough resources to their engineering departments to make high quality cuts. CBS, A&M, Capitol, Atlantic and others had great engineers and some of the best equipment, but their livelihood rarely depended on being the BEST. Whereas the independent mastering engineer was constantly in competition for any new release. There even used to be “shoot-outs” (and still are, often). A record company or producer would make a few copies of the master tape and send one song to different mastering studios. When the different lacquers came back, they would then compare the results, and only one engineer would win the job. It wasn’t about price: they were looking for the sound.

Artists and producers would come from all over the globe to work with their favorite mastering engineer. My mentor, Bob Ludwig, had a very consistent relationship with Hugh Padgham from the UK. Hugh produced many wonderful recordings, but the projects I remember best records by The Police, Genesis, Sting and Phil Collins. The production team would finish their mixes in England and that night would fly “across the pond” on the Concorde. They would master their record with Bob that day, and that night, with reference disks in hand, they would return on the Concorde. Wow. And it had to be perfect.

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Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Four

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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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