If you’ve poked around the indie music scene at all in recent years, you’ve no doubt seen an increase in music being delivered on archaic media such as cassettes and vinyl records. Although one well-known band tried using cassette tapes to foil illegal file-sharing, the majority of artists release records and cassettes for commercial or sonic reasons, or some combination of the two. Listeners I’ve spoken with think these vintage formats sound great, particularly because they’re inclined towards the audio artifacts each one presents: Anyone who has compared a song played on CD or MP3 to the same piece on one of the older formats can attest to the differences in audio quality.
In an earlier blog, I described how a cassette can be thought of as a non-linear filtering device, offering a timbral quality that is difficult to achieve with digital plug-ins alone. A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to hear that records were also being used to
“process” a mix: Arcade Fire’s mastering engineer created a master lacquer for each of the 16 songs on the band’s recent Grammy-winning album, The Suburbs, and then re-digitized them for release on CD and digital distribution. Mind you, the materials used to make a master lacquer — an aluminum disc coated with a hardened, nail-polish-like substance — are different than a mass-produced vinyl disc. Yet, as records, the two types of materials have similar sound qualities as well as physical limitations.
For example, records don’t tolerate active panning in the lower frequencies, so mastering engineers will pan bass instruments to the center before committing the project to lacquer. By essentially making the low-end mono, you mitigate certain types of tracking problems for the stylus. Each mastering house chooses their own crossover frequency for centering the low-end, determined by their experience, the gear they have, and the projects they’ve done in the past.
But bass isn’t the only problematic frequency range. Exaggerated high frequencies, particularly from sibilants in the vocals or from over-compressing the mix, will likely cause distortion during playback. In addition, the quality of high-frequency reproduction gets progressively lower as the needle approaches the center of the disc, primarily because there is less surface area per rotation. As John Golden of Golden Mastering told me in “Mastering Vinyl”, “Most people don’t realize that the distance around the inside of a 12-inch record is about half the distance than around the outside. As the distance around each revolution decreases, the high frequencies become harder for a playback stylus to read.” And, as it turns out, progressively boosting the highs in a mix to try to compensate doesn’t fix the problem, but only increases the distortion.
Fire in the Groove
The Arcade Fire production team were able to work around these issues by giving each song its own master lacquer. For example, this allowed the band’s mastering engineer to use as much of the record’s surface as possible in order to maximize playback levels.
I asked the man who mixed the project, Craig Silvey, if he had to approach the album differently considering the unusual way they planned to master it.
How did you decide to use vinyl as a step in the mastering process?
We had discussed when we were mixing the record that we wanted to have an analog stage in it. But for time reasons, and because it was a gargantuan project collecting all the mixes together and making final decisions on things, it made sense for us to do the mix digitally, in stems, so that we could recall it later.
We realized that we needed another analog stage, and they wanted something very physical to represent the album. I remembered that George Marino at Sterling Sound, who I use regularly for mastering, had mentioned that he’d done this before; where you take the process of putting it to vinyl, basically, but each song gets its own lacquer and gets played once, back into the computer, to make the CD release or downloadable version. Each song gets maximum groove width, so you can get it nice and loud on the vinyl. The record is cut and played at 45 rpm, and the playback is, of course, on the lathe, so it’ll be a super-stable playback. It’s the best the vinyl could ever possibly sound.
After George suggested it to me, I mentioned it to the band as a possibility, but I’d never actually heard it, myself. And everyone was really skeptical. But when it came back, it was very noticeable, really: It really opened up the bottom end. It was well worth it.
Did you have to do anything to the mix itself to prepare it to be transferred to vinyl?
We made the mixes how we liked them. Because there are 16 songs, we decided to digitally master the whole album to get the EQ right first. The mastering took a period of a few days, where people were deciding that, oh, we should have an extra dB of 16 kHz or whatever.
We didn’t want to waste all these lacquers [during this step], so we mastered it digitally until we were all happy with it. And then in one broad stroke, George did the entire vinyl process for it. He says that you can get it pretty loud at the kind of groove width you get when you’re running 45. But you only have about 7 minutes that you can put on a 12-inch, at that maximum ability. There are some potential issues with stereo low-frequencies, but it didn’t ever really seem to be a problem.
The only problem was that two or three masters came back that had a bit of static or a little crackle or pop on it. So those had to be redone.
How long did it take you to mix the record?
With a few breaks, three months. Technically, it’s a double-album, so it was like mixing two albums. The mixes were done at 24-bit, 96 kHz.
Was the entire band at the mix session?
They tag-teamed me, two at a time. They’d go out and take a rest, and another two would come in. Of course, there are lots of parts, and everybody has a different angle on it. So we were trying to satisfy everybody.
Do people create different masters for compressed file formats or music destined for online distribution?
I don’t think so, no. We used the same master that we used for the CD.
You sometimes do a different master for a single for radio play. When the pluggers are trying to plug their songs to the radio, they have to play them something that sounds really loud. So there are a lot of times when you do singles where you hit them hard at mastering, but then the album isn’t [mastered] that way.
The records I’m generally working on are by people who are trying to resist the dynamic wars. For the album and for the downloads, it’ll be mastered pretty calm. Generally the way I mix is calm, as well. We’re always trying to preserve the dynamics.
The Vinyl Frontier
After my talk with Silvey, I contacted George Marino by email about the final steps in the mastering process. Starting with the 24-bit, 96kHz mixes from Silvey, Marino went through his “normal mastering processing” before creating a master digital file.
From that file he created a single lacquer master of the entire project, which was used to cut the commercial vinyl album that was released. Then he used the digital master to cut the individual master lacquers for each song. Each one was played back form the lathe and re-digitized at 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution for CD release and digital distribution.
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