The world of HiFi is shrouded in many myths and untruths that continue to trigger debate and controversy. Vinyl records, particularly when considering the mastering and production process, are certainly no exception. To uncover the truth behind an array of common vinyl mastering myths, we discreetly interviewed a mastering engineer who will remain anonymous – lest we unleash an angry Twitter mob in their good name. For the purpose of this article, we’ll call him/her “Max Level”.
Max can boast a wide range of artists and titles to his name, including many albums now regarded as classics. In no particular order, here are our top ten vinyl record myths, along with Max’s comments.
Myth 1: Most new vinyl records are just CD pressed to wax.
“As with most myths, there is an element of truth in this. The reissue market is most likely to do this, but there are many factors to bear in mind. In the 1980s, studios and mastering rooms started using early digital systems called F1 (a hybrid of Betamax video machines and a digital processor). We then moved through to DAT. CD masters were made using professional U-Matic video machines and improved digital encoders. This means that the mixed masters only exist in a digital format and those digital formats may now be unplayable. Either the tapes have degraded, or working machines are no longer available.
Labels will make every effort to find the best source they can, but sometimes the best format is the commercially released CD.”
Why not go back to the multi-tracks?
“Generally, it is simply not commercially viable to do that, also unless there are comprehensive notes about how the track was mixed, it is unlikely that the new version will sound the same.”
Myth 2: Vinyl records are pointless if the recording and mastering is digital.
“Not true. The deficiencies attributed to digital may have had some relevance in the early days, but not now. If the sound is not right, it will be because it has been engineered that way, not because it has been recorded and mastered in digital.
Almost everything these days is recorded and mixed digitally, albeit using analog outboard equipment. In mastering, audio is generally delivered as digital files, which would require converting to analog, then passing through a chain of processors and ultimately conversion back to digital. There is the potential for data error with each conversion and for distortion, noise and phase errors with the analog chain.
So, analog isn’t the holy grail, but for the right track at the right time, it gives something special. In the same vein, digital shouldn’t be despised, as it too offers a unique essence on the right track at the right time. The skill is knowing which is which.”
Myth 3: You can’t press a ‘squashed’ loudness-war master to vinyl.
“Yes you can. And we have to all the time. Record companies worry more about having 24-bit masters for vinyl than they do about having a version without the extra limiting for digital release. When all is said and done, cutting from squashed files is possible, but it won’t sound as good.”
Myth 4: A Fine Line or Shibata stylus will eliminate end-of-side distortion.
“Different styli give different results. For example, DJ styli do not give a great “audiophile” performance, because they are built to have heavy tracking weights so that they do not skip when playing, or scratching. The arm on which the stylus is mounted has to be robust enough to withstand the weight, which means it is less able to follow the groove. This is called poor compliance. Distortion is more likely to occur throughout the side, especially sibilance, as well as inner groove distortion.
When a record is cut, the cutting stylus travels along a radius toward the center in a straight line from the outside – passing right through the center of the disc. (In practice that isn’t possible as the cutting stops at the locked groove at end of side). When we play a record the arm is pivoted outside of the turntable. As the playback stylus moves toward the center, the stylus twists in the groove (imagine the audio from one channel arriving slightly before the other). This misalignment causes cancellation of high frequencies, and therefore a loss of top-end.
For a given period of time, more distance is covered at the outside of a record, than at the inside. The speed of the disc does not change; 45RPM at the outside is 45RPM at the inside, only the distance covered changes. At the inner diameter, more information is being recorded per centimeter covered, than at the outside, and it is this that increases distortion.
Changing styli may help to mitigate the distortion, but a parallel tracking turntable will help to reduce the top-end loss.”
Myth 5: A1 stamped in the dead wax indicates the first pressing.
“Not true. It indicates the cut number. If an A1 lacquer fails at the manufacturer, an A2 lacquer will be cut. The resultant disc will still be a first pressing. When vinyl was the major release format, we would cut five sets of lacquers (A sides then B sides). Each were marked A1 to A5, B1 to B5. All of the records manufactured would be first pressings.”
Myth 6: 180g records sound better
“Only so far as the record is less likely to warp, but they’re definitely more satisfying to hold.”
Myth 7: The mastering for vinyl records is better (or sounds better).
“Vinyl is a musical format, anything that sounds bad, will probably distort on vinyl. With digital, anything goes. Therefore I would suggest that engineers trained to master vinyl have a different approach to mastering. Also, they will take away the extra limiting used for digital when cutting. If a record sounds better, maybe it’s because the audio isn’t overly squashed?”
Myth 8: Vinyl masters need to be mono in low frequencies.
“Yes-ish. Mono audio makes the cut groove wiggle from side-to-side. Stereo audio makes the cut groove wiggle up and down. High frequencies are little wiggles, bass frequencies are sweeping movements. Stereo bass results in big sweeping movements up and down. Unchecked, it is possible for the cutting stylus to lift up off of the surface of the lacquer, or cut so deep that it cuts through the lacquer coating and into the metal disc below (ruining the cutting stylus in the process). By test cutting and watching how the cutting lathe reacts during test runs, the engineer can determine how much (if any) correction is needed to control the vertical movement. A device called an elliptical equalizer is used to progressively mono the bass from a threshold determined by the engineers. From a cutting point of view, it converts a vertical movement to a lateral movement, which can be more easily managed.”
Myth 9: Analogue sounds better than digital because digital sampling rates result in a ‘stair step’ soundwave.
“With the higher sampling rates we use these days I don’t believe this to be the case.”
Myth 10: Remastered albums sound better.
“Not always. If the album masters have an error – dropouts, clicks, noise, etc, these can be delicately correct, so the reissue should sound better. The improvement may simply be that the listener prefers a new, more contemporary sound.
Alternatively, the remastering engineer may decide to make a name for themselves and make a dramatic change. I have heard many squashed flat reissues. Some vinyl reissues where the cut is done at a factory result in a disc that is significantly quieter than the original release made many years earlier.”
Got a vinyl record mastering myth you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments section below.