If your track comes in from the vinyl press sounding like shit, what would be your first reaction? Bad mastering, right? Wrong answer geeza.. Guess what – I’m blaming it on you. Mixing for vinyl ain’t your everyday walk in the park. Looks like I’ve got a bit of explaining to do while you glimpse at the mirror.
The truth is that in most such cases there were problems with the premaster that prevented it from being cut as it is. The mastering engineer had no choice but to compromise the sound and make the necessary changes in order to be able to cut it in the first place.
Mixing for Vinyl – The Art of Noise
So I hit the Masterpiece studios in London recently with Loxy to master and cut our album “Burning Shadows” (out now on Exit Records).
Let us make one thing clear from the beginning: these guys know what they’re doing. The list of their clients is impressive. Besides just about every respectable label in DNB, they have worked with artists/bands such as: Deadmau5, Enter Shikari, Lady Gaga, Skrillex, Laurent Garnier, Eric Prydz, Noel Gallagher… You get the picture.
I never actually attended a vinyl cutting session before, even though my music has been released on vinyl for more than a decade now.
It was a wicked chance for me to go in and do some heavy learning. And so I did – thanks to drum&bass mastering legend Beau Thomas who was happy to answer all my questions and share his wisdom (I hereby want to recommend his services to anyone. I know I will be reaching for him again in the future).
Vinyl mastering is an artform of it’s own. The last vinyl cutting lathes were produced in the early 80’s. It’s quite amazing that we are still running this equipment if you think how much the world has changed in the past 30 years.
Appreciation aside – while the cutting lathes are truly magnificient machines and properly maintained stand the test of time beautifully… The format itself was not made to reproduce the kind of loud and often distorted music we have today.
Vinyl is an analogue format and sounds great. But with that come some physical limitations. Digital formats like CD and MP3 can reproduce anything where as vinyl is more unforgiving.
This is where your skills in mixing as well as the mastering engineers skills come to play. You have to make sure the track is engineered and mixed in a way that allows the mastering engineer to cut it without changing it too much.
The mastering guy is not going to run the risk of damaging the cutting equipment. He will play safe and make the necessary changes on your track if it’s not good enough to cut as it is.
It is important to understand that the sound of your track will be compromised if there are problems with the mixdown.
Next up let’s find out more about the main problems areas when mixing for vinyl. Read on to learn how to avoid the biggest traps and make your mixdowns perfect for a vinyl cut.
Put your highs on a leash
Loud high frequency sounds are dangerous to the cutting equipment. They may also not play correctly due to physical limitations of the system. You MUST understand this when mixing for vinyl. Treble distorts before bass on vinyl. The stylys has problems tracking extreme high frequency content.
Two common things that cause mastering engineers headache are loud fx noises/sweeps and vocals with loud sibilants. Tame the highs on those. De-ess vocals if needed. If the sibilants are too loud the mastering engineer might have to chuck a de-esser on top of the entire track. He won’t enjoy doing that, and you won’t like it either, but it might happen.
If you have loud high pass filtering going on, it’s best to counter the high pass filter with a lowpass one that starts to kill some of the highest frequencies as the band narrows. This way you won’t end up with your filtered drums replaced by distorted white noise on the record. Check out the Brainworx BX_Cleansweep V2. It’s a free plugin that comes very useful in situations like that.
Tracks with tons of loud high frequency content or fixed high frequency sounds may have to be cut quieter or heavily EQ’d. It is not very uncommon for mastering engineers to encounter tracks that are simply impossible to cut on vinyl because of this.
There was a track on our album with this exact problem – loud drums with a constant high frequency distortion running all the way through. Beau went in an extra mile and we were quite surprised to be able to salvage the situation and achieve a good cut in the end. We were in luck though as it could have gone either way. We were already considering our options in case we had to drop that track. A valuable lesson learned there.
Every groove is different
The distance around a groove on the inside of a 12″ record is about half of an outside groove. As we know the record plays at a fixed speed. What does this mean? It means that the outside grooves of a record can store more information per second and thus sound better. In digital terms you could think of this as gradually losing resolution as the record plays on.
You will start to lose treble and definition as the needle progresses towards the inside of the record. The inside is also more prone to distortion. This is why most engineers prefer to keep the grooves as narrow as possible, allowing to cut on the outside of the record only, leaving the poorer quality inside untouched. With really long tracks or records with several tracks on the same side this may not be possible of course.
If you are putting several tracks on the same side, you should consider the sequence. If you want maximum sound quality, you should put the hottest and loudest tracks on the outer side and leave the inner grooves for the tracks with less high end.
Keep the track lenght reasonable. The shorter the track, the louder it can be pressed and the better it will sound. I would recommend a maximum track lenght of 7 minutes for drum&bass or dubstep music.
Center the bass
Make the bass mono when mixing for vinyl. Always and absolutely. With bass I don’t only mean the bassline. I mean all low frequencies – the bassline, the low end of your drums, percussion, any bassy effects, etc. No panning, no stereo effects. Make it mono.
With stereo bass content the needle has to do big vertical movements which easily results in skips. Also the record will have to be cut quieter.
While mixing, use m/s monitoring and a spectrum analyzer to spot any low frequency stereo content. Put special attention to any percussive sounds, bass stabs, bass guitar and such.
Arrangement wise, the place where a record is most likely to skip is the drop. The needle is put to a test as the record quickly switches from a soft part to full mayhem. Watch out for any stereo percussions and such in the drop.
Making everything under 100Hz mono should be pretty safe. There is not much to lose anyway in doing this – our ears are very poor in picking up directional information from low frequency sounds. Everything below of about 70Hz is completely non-directional to us.
Mixing for Vinyl: Quick Tips
- Watch the distortion. Don’t get me wrong… I love it dirty. Just be careful as digital distortion easily becomes more apparent when transferred to vinyl.
- Don’t limit the mixdowns too much. While limiting makes the average level of a digital track louder, it will cause lots of trouble at vinyl mastering. A heavily limited premaster will actually cause your track to be cut quieter in most cases. Let mastering engineer worry about loudness.
- Don’t let anything get out of phase. Even if you think it sounds cool. Check the mix in mono – out of phase material will cause cancellation of frequencies. Steer clear of psychoacoustic stereo enhancers. Phasing results in cancellation of frequencies. The cutting equipment is unable to reproduce that. Out of phase material makes the cutting head try to pull in two different directions at the same time. The result is a the result is a the result is a [nudge] skip.
- You can always provide alternatives. In doubt on how a particular mixdown translates to vinyl? Send two versions. Let the mastering engineer decide. Just make sure to let him know what the deal is.
- Have the track titles, running order and other documentation ready. The mastering engineer will need this info so that the pressing plant will get everything right.
So there you have it… Mixing for vinyl in a nutshell. With these points in mind you should be able to roll out good mixdowns and make your tunes translate well to vinyl. Maybe you’ll spare the mastering engineers from some grey hair too and everyone wins.
Beau, if you’re reading this, thanks again for the advice!