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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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

Art in Odd Places with Harvey Loves Harvey and Masterdisk

Art in Odd Places GraphicWe’re excited about a crazy event we’re participating in tomorrow. It’s called Live! From 14th Street! An Event from Harvey Loves Harvey. I’ll link to all the info below, but in a nutshell, there are 4 bands playing live at 14th St and 10th Ave, NYC. The audio is being beamed up to us here at the studio, and we’re going to cut it live to lacquer. Then, the lacquer disc will be sped downtown to be played on a turntable for everyone at the band site. Yeah.

http://7inches.blogspot.com/2011/10/live-from-14th-street-with-art-in-odd.html

Facebook Vinyl Giveaway: Javelin’s “Canyon Candy” EP

Head on over to the Masterdisk Facebook page to enter to win a copy of the limited edition vinyl 10″ release of Javelin’s Canyon Candy on the Luaka Bop label!

Photo of the Canyon Candy label
Canyon Candy Side B
Photo of Scott Hull with Canyon Candy
Mastering engineer Scott Hull with Canyon Candy in the Masterdisk back lounge.
Photo of Alex DeTurk with Javelin's Canyon Candy
Cutting engineer Alex DeTurk with Canyon Candy in front of the lathe.
photo of the Canyon Candy runoff groove with Masterdisk stamp.
Note the MASTERDISK stamp in the deadwax and Alex's initials to the right.

The Cuddle Magic All-Analog Vinyl Project

Here at Masterdisk HQ today Scott Hull has been mastering the all-analog LP version of Info Nympho, a new album by Brooklyn/Philly band and songwriting collective Cuddle Magic.

This is the real deal – the old school way to make an LP.

As you can see from the photos below, Scott first spliced together the master from the original 1/4″ tape in his mastering room. Then, once the master was edited together, Scott took the tape to the cutting room, where he and Alex DeTurk got it ready to go onto lacquer. They then listened closely, familiarizing themselves with the program and taking note of any adjustments they might need to make during the cut.

Alex did the cutting once all of the mastering decisions were made.

While hanging around documenting the process, I’ve happily heard many of the songs, a few times each. It’s a beautiful recording and the LP is going to sound fantastic.

I should mention that Info Nympho is a Kickstarter project — one that successfully raised its funding goal on September 1. Sweet! Check out what they did here. Find more about Cuddle Magic at their website: http://www.cuddle-magic.com/

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You’re Not Dreaming! We’re Giving Away a Great Tzadik LP!

Photo of Dreamers LPWe have a copy of the gorgeous John Zorn/Dreamers LP “The Gentle Side” to give away here at Masterdisk HQ! This is a 180 gram, picture disc, tip-on sleeve, limited-edition release from the Tzadik label with beautiful artwork by Heung-Heung Chin of Chippy Design.

Head over to our Facebook page to enter to win. All you have to do is:

1) like our Facebook page! and
2) name a song with “dream” in the title and an artist who recorded it.

We’ll randomly choose a winner out of all participating dreamers tomorrow, September 21, at 5pm (NYC time). Good luck!

Scott’s Guest Blog at The Vinyl District, Wrap Up

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.

Week 12: All about deadwax, part 2.

Week 11: All about deadwax, part 1.

Week 10: How many grooves are there on a typical record?

Week 9: An interview with master cutting engineer Tony Dawsey.

Week 8: What happened to my masters?

Week 7: How quiet are your records?

Week 6: Is your turntable cartridge doing a good enough job for you?

Week 5: All about the RIAA EQ curve: the standard that made the LP possible.

Week 4: All About the Groove, Part 2: the stereo cut explained.

Week 3: All About the Groove, Part 1: a really close look at some grooves.

Week 2: An appreciation of the vinyl aesthetic.

Week 1: Introduction: the basics of cutting records.

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