Is custom mastering for vinyl necessary?
More and more people asking me about the need to get a dedicated master made for vinyl releases.
May 8, 2012
Why custom mastering for vinyl isn’t necessary
There is more and more people asking about the need to get a dedicated master made for vinyl releases –
But I’ve got news for you – you don’t need to. It’s a myth.
A great master for CD can be a great master for vinyl, too.
Regardless of what you may have been told, most vinyl these days is cut directly from a CD production master – and it’s been that way for years.
Vinyl masters will probably use a higher-resolution file format, for example 24-bit and perhaps 48 or even 96 kHz sampling rate, but if the CD has already been mastered these will probably be available from the original mastering engineer for little or no extra cost.
And even if hi-res files aren’t available, a great CD master will give decent results, even at 16-bit 44.1 kHz.
So where does the myth come from ?
Why do people think a separate master is needed for vinyl ?
The main answer is (yet again) the Loudness War – but not for the reasons you might think.
I often read people saying that you can’t cut super-hot “loudness war” audio to vinyl, for fear of the needle skipping and jumping off the record.
But that’s wrong. In fact, the exact opposite is true !
There’s no technical reason that you can’t put “loudness war” style music on vinyl – except that it will sound even worse than the digital original – to use a well-known example, the vinyl and CD releases of Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” sound very similar indeed.
But very dynamic bass can cause this problem – and the solution is actually more compression – to reduce the dynamic range.
The original reason George Martin first started experimenting with overdubbing and heavily compressing Paul McCartney’s bass (on “Paperback Writer”, for those that are taking notes) was to stop the needle jumping, so they could match the “louder” sound of American releases of the time.
Yes, you read that right – The Beatles were part of the original loudness war.
Hang on, though…
Now, it IS true that if the digital signal feeding the lathe is heavily clipped or limited, the record will almost certainly sound substantially worse than it would with a more dynamic source, because of extra distortion introduced when the stylus can’t track the excessively jagged groove. In some cases the lathe may even be damaged, and it’s for this reason that the average level (or “loudness”) determines how “hot” the record is cut, rather than the peak level.
But that means that with “hyper-compressed” loudness-war music there’s ironically plenty of unused headroom left above the average signal on the vinyl for peaks and transients, which is why some people choose to make more dynamic masters for vinyl release. And of course it’ll sound better as a result.
But it’s only necessary if the original master was stupid-loud in the first place.
If your CD master has what I consider optimal dynamics – DR10 or more overall with DR8 as a minimum – then it’s quite suitable for a flat transfer to vinyl. And DR14+ may sound even better… At least, assuming you don’t have any wild sibilance, hugely out-of-phase content, or all the bass panned to one channel !
And even if you do, a decent engineer will take account of that as a matter of course during the cut – it doesn’t require a separate mastering session. Some engineers may make a few other subtle tweaks, if you agree, or even make it sound different, if you ask them to – but it’s NOT a technical requirement.
The optimal level for a vinyl cut depends on the RMS or VU level, and on the running time and speed (33 or 45 rpm) – whereas on a CD, the only absolute technical restriction is the peak level.
The short version is – there’s no requirement to get a separate vinyl master done, but it’s an option if you’d like to. The main advantage will be to get a cleaner, more “dynamic” sound – but a separate master is only mandatory if your CD master is “loudness war” loud.
The most cost-effective way to get a great-sounding release on vinyl is simply to send the hi-res master files – making sure that they aren’t over-cooked – directly to the cutting engineer. They will choose the best settings to get good results from the vinyl format based on the sound of your material, as part of the normal price. For a well-mastered album, it’s simply a case of choosing the correct level and perhaps a few minor tweaks – no extra mastering is required.
And in fact, it works backwards, too ! If you master with a great vinyl release in mind (using a VU meter?) then the chances are your music will sound superb on all the most advanced 21st-century formats, as well.
How’s that for irony ?
Getting well-balanced dynamics in your music is one of the keys to great sound – and you probably need to use compression to achieve it.
In mastering, multi-band compression can be an invaluable tool