It was written off at the turn of the millennium as old-fashioned and outgoing, it has a host of technical limitations, yet vinyl has managed to re-establish itself as perhaps the most romantic and fashionable of today’s music playback systems.
Disc records were the main music release format of the 20th Century.
The whole industry of recording, distributing and playing back music was orientated towards making a disc record sound as good as possible, within its inherent technical limitations. From shellac to vinyl, from live takes onto wax to multitrack tapes and consoles, from mono to stereo, the format evolved into something really quite special.
From the 1980s onwards it was supplanted, first by the Compact Cassette, then by CD and ultimately by digital distribution and streaming.
By the end of the century the transition from an all-analogue music industry to a digital music industry was pretty much complete, with only a few small pockets of musical subcultures still regularly releasing music on vinyl.
Yet today this once-forgotten format is back in vogue. Many small record labels are releasing music on vinyl and digital download only, major record labels often release vinyl alongside the mainstream formats, and of course no ‘deluxe’ remastered release of a seminal album from the past is complete without a beautifully remastered record cut from the original tapes.
There’s a high noise floor of hiss, clicks and crackles (increasing towards the centre of the record), increasing distortion towards the centre of the record, low tolerance of bass frequencies being panned off centre, low tolerance of any frequency being out of phase, over-sensitivity to sibilance on playback, high crosstalk between left and right channels and, obviously, the whole thing pressed onto the surface of a fragile piece of vinyl that can scratch or break easily.
Add to these the technical limitations of the tape machines, analogue desks, analogue outboard gear and physical reverb units available to the industry at the time, along with the foibles of the general public’s turntables, hi-fis and jukeboxes, and it’s a small miracle that any of it worked at all!
Despite the limitations people made some incredible-sounding records over the years.
Playing back one of the great recordings of the 1950s, 60s or 70s, from an original pressing, on a very good sound system can be a profound, immersive musical experience that is very difficult to replicate with modern digital systems. Obviously you have to ignore the hiss, crackles and distortion, but the human brain is very good at that if you let it.
Firstly, all the great records of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were cut directly from completely analogue sources. The whole chain is analogue, from the mic to the desk, the multitrack tape, the desk again for mixing, the ¼” or ½” master tape, the lathe, the pressing plant and, finally, the turntable, amp and speakers.
The music on those records has never been digital, it’s never been quantised into a stream of numbers then reconstructed into an audio signal that the amp and speakers then turn into music. It’s been analogue from when the musician played or sung it until the listener plays the record. And there is a certain magic about that pure analogue sound.
Obviously, used well, digital recording technology sounds fantastic - we love how powerful, easy and flexible it all is. High res modern A:D converters are very good, the surgical work we do with algorithms - re-tuning, de-noising, spectral analysis and repair, dynamic EQ, look-ahead peak limiting - were unimaginable just twenty years ago. And of course we all love instant and total recall of saved projects.
However there is something special about a great album on a purely analogue record played on a fantastic sound system, something that’s hard to describe. It’s more of a subconscious feeling of being closer to the musicians and more emotionally involved with the music, rather than a specific sonic effect or frequency thing that you can point to.
There are many reasons why believe this is so, not least that vinyl almost went extinct and most of the equipment and technical expertise is no longer around. Very little new equipment is being manufactured, which leaves a shrinking vinyl production industry struggling to cope with increasing demand for the product resulting in six month lead in times for customers of pressing plants.
Additionally, because vinyl is no longer the primary release format for music and no longer the central focus of the music recording industry, the physical limitations of vinyl are no longer second nature, or even common knowledge, to today’s recording engineers. Digital recording systems have no such limitations so we can record as much bass or sibilance on a as we want to and we can pan it wherever we like.
As a result most modern recordings are not inherently suited to the vinyl format like they would have been 30 years ago. They sometimes have to be re-worked in order to be conveyed well onto vinyl and even then there can be compromises.
Budget is a big issue for modern artists but taking a conscientious approach to vinyl really can get great results.
In this world of decimated music sales and shrinking incomes, we must respect that many artists and small labels have no choice but to choose budget options when it comes to production.
With vinyl, there are significant sonic disadvantages to the budget approach of sending a CD to a distant pressing plant where it will be cut to vinyl as part of a package deal.
Conversely there are significant sonic advantages to getting an old-school cutting engineer involved, to make sure your 21st Century album gets onto a record sounding as good as it possibly can.
Before you even get to the cutting stage you can ensure that the recording and mixing work you do is geared towards a vinyl release, e.g. high pass everything at 30Hz, jump on any sibilance as soon as you spot it, keep everything below 100Hz panned dead centre, and don’t make your sides too long - ideally 20 minutes or less.
At Mastering World we’re very proud to have John on our roster, one of the best cutting engineers in the business.
He runs the classic Neumann cutting lathe in his Aladdin’s Cave-like studio in Taunton, England, and he still cuts records meticulously and conscientiously, like he always has.
John has been cutting vinyl since the early 1790s. He cut many of the early records of Bob Marley, Nick Drake, The Smiths, Tom Petty, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Motorhead, and he’s still cutting chart-topping records today.
His old-school approach to cutting vinyl includes: sourcing good quality lacquers to cut onto; having a comprehensively-equipped studio and maintaining his equipment at its best; cutting a test lacquer then playing it back on a turntable before making his final decisions and cutting the production lacquer; and checking test pressings to ensure the high quality of the final product from the pressing plant.
We highly recommend hiring a seasoned professional like John Dent to make sure your modern record sounds as good as it possibly can.