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Q&A - How to Balance the side times for Vinyl?



Q:


I'm mastering a double Jazz album,10 piece band recorded live…The Producer has given me 2 options for the running order/ Side splits. What do you recommend? Would there be much difference?


option 1 option 2

Side A. 20:00 Side A 21:30

Side B 23:49 Side B 23:49

Side C 22:15 Side C 22:46

Side D 25:15 Side D 24:05

A:


There are a lot of factors to consider here. Determining the ideal side times is part science and part art. There is no one - correct or general answer. There are several variables - all interrelated. And they all have stylistic intentions.


Here is just a synopsis.


  • If the music is Bright! Then the maximum level will be determined by what can be cut and not distort - the length of the side might not even matter at all.

  • If there are moments on any side where the groove deepens more than it should ( a whole other topic in itself) then that will determine the max level on the side.

  • If there is significantly more bass on one song than another - that song will use more disk space.. even if the bass content is mono.

  • Stereo panning ( stereo phase relationships ) affects the groove depth. The more extremely wide the stereo the deeper the average groove is. Even stereo mic'd piano can have an impact on the groove geometry.

  • In jazz and classical music, dynamics play an enormous role. A long side with a quiet movement - can be cut at a louder level.

  • Compression and peak limiting have a detrimental effect on cutting levels. But, the effects of compression and or limiting may be desired... However, most often there is no net gain in apparent level - as the louder average level causes every groove to be wider and that requires lowering the level post compression.

  • Cutting level is important but not for the same reasons as Digital mastering. When you cut a vinyl record at a loud level - the surface noise of the disk will appear to be quieter. Said backward…; If you cut a record softly - the surface noise of the vinyl record will be more noticeable.



Any one or more of these "limiting factors" can be the reason to lower the level of one side relative to the others. In general - we usually like to cut the same apparent level on all sides - but that doesn't necessarily mean we have to, and there are sneaky ways to bleed off level on a long side - where it will be barely noticed, but that will allow for the side to have the feeling that it is louder.


Custom Mastering for vinyl


Sometimes - just mastering the longer side slightly differently, can make the difference. For instance - would the listener notice that the longer side had 1/2 db less Sub bass on 1 or 2 songs? That might be enough to let it fit at the same level as the shorter side. Mastering for vinyl needs to be accomplished by the cutting engineer. Only the cutter knows what the impact of those decisions will have on the record. Don't pre-master for vinyl by rolling off bass or de-essing unless you are certain it will be needed. For instance - on a long side ( over 22 mins ) the level will need to be reduced compared to an 18-minute side. When the level is reduced - there is less distortion from vocal sibilants and fewer phase issues from low-frequency instruments. So, if you were to mono the bass and de-ess - before determining the cutting level - you might find that you don't need to process the audio " for vinyl". This is a hard concept to grasp - and that is why cutting great records takes several years to " master".


Usually, one side sets the limits. We dry run the longest side - or sides to see if they fit and at what level. Music varies so much from song to song - that we can not apply standards - or averages... we have to test cut each side to see if it will fit.


I can not answer your questions without analyzing the actual audio.


Where are the high-energy songs?

Where are the songs that have more bass content?

Are there any songs with electric bass? And what role do the drums have in the mix?

On the longest sides - are there 5 mins or more of quiet passages?

The sequence - is usually determined by the content and the message( story ) but sometimes for vinyl, a song needs to be moved to balance the duration and “energy”


Without hearing the music - I'd opt for the one that has the shortest, long side.

So that would be OPT 2.

But the difference is only one minute.. and if the 25 min side had even 2 minutes of " quiet " or no bass or no drums.. then it would be equivalent to the 24 min side.. Or at least it could be.


The bottom line is - I cut 24-25 min jazz sides every day. :).

Average cutting studios will tell you - Don't go over 20 mins.

Their response is such - because that makes it simpler to cut - and faster to wisk your project through the process.

When has faster and cheaper ever turned out to be Better quality?


A great cut takes time. Time for analysis, experimentation, and careful execution... just like the music itself.


That was easy.. right?




Scott Hull

Chief Engineer / Owner


Masterdisk Studios - NY

Mastering and Cutting Vinyl Records Since 1973


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