We see inquiries from folks wanting tips on how best to mix for vinyl record releases, and we have a number of suggestions based on my previous experiences cutting vinyl masters.
- As far as peak levels – remember that digital dBFs does not equal analog dBVU!! The cutting engineer will still need to set the levels that are actually sent to the lathe. In general having your digital masters peak somewhere around -6dBFs is fine as it gives a little headroom and it’s possible the cutting engineer won’t have to attenuate it as much as if you have it maxed out – but in general as long there are no overs or clipping you can set your digital levels where ever you want them as the cutting engineer will set the levels to the lathe regardless and should be able to easily deal with it.
- Center the bass frequencies – if you have things like two different simultaneous bass lines panned left & right or stereo chorusing or flanging effects on the bass it will make it extremely difficult to have your record cut with a hot level because if bass freq’s aren’t phase coherent the groove will actually become narrower in these parts leading to the potential for a skip.
- Tame sibilance – it’s a really good idea to run a de-esser on any vocal tracks that have a lot of sibilance. esses and t’s can produce a burst of high frequencies which will just distort when played back on vinyl. The solution the cutting engineer can do to make sure this doesn’t happen is to just put the whole mix through a de-esser – but it’s a lot more transparent if you can take care of this during the mix instead.
- Avoid excessive high end! – ultra high frequencies above 15kHz tend to just cause distortion if there is a lot of them and if there are way too much of them will actually smoke the cutting head! Avoid boosting any of the highs above somewhere around 10kHz on your mix. If you are looking to add “presence” or brightness focus your boosts in the upper mid areas somewhere around 2-6kHz.
- Don’t clip your wave forms! – clipped wave forms with squared tops will often break up really really quick when transferred to vinyl master at a hot level. There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to clip your wav forms on a pre-master destined for vinyl. While it’s a popular way to achieve extreme average levels for a CD master it will actually make the cutting engineer cut your record quieter than if you’re wav forms have nice natural rounded tops. I’ve seen lots of people introduce clicks and pops into their master because they clipped their audio way too excessively and didn’t notice it because of their crappy monitoring – so I think it’s best to completely avoid this problem and make -0.3dbFs your output ceiling.
- Go light with the limiter! – while a little peak limiting to tame the big transients can actually be a really helpful for keeping even levels the current squash settings used on a lot of digital masters will actually make things distort more quickly because in overly limited material instead of the peaks on the vinyl master being nice round bottom transients all the upper mids are forced to the top too . Remember dBfs does not translate into dBvu!!! – the levels that go to your vinyl master are actually set by the cutting engineer – so if you’re questioning how much limiting or compression to use communicate with the cutting engineer and let them apply what they see fit to do.
- Keep it “clean” – any distortion in the digital realm tends to become more noticeable when transferred to vinyl.
- Sequence thoughtfully – the inner grooves will always be more susceptible to distortion than the outer ones – so it’s always a best idea to keep the cuts you want to be the hottest for the 1st or 2nd tracks and have the last track on the side be an instrumental or acapella or quieter passage.
- Keep the side lengths realistic. For max level (around +6dbVu) on a 12” “competitive” dance single keep the side length to around 12 minutes max for 33-1/3 and 9 minutes max for 45rpm.
For LP sides I’d say make 26 minutes a side your very maximum unless you want to possibly encounter problems with scuffing and low signal to noise ratio when the records are pressed. With long sides remember that the cutting engineer must make a compromise between bass response and level in order to fit more grooves onto the side – so if you want a really long LP side remember that you’ll probably have to sacrifice some of the low end.
- Make sure the heads and tails on the tracks in your pre-master are clean and have good fades, and unless you want sound in your “spirals” (the wider grooves that are placed between tracks so that dj’s can see where the next track is) leave at least 2 seconds between each track. It’s also best to leave at least 10 seconds between tracks at the side break or provide the pre-master for each side on separate discs or reels.
- Communicate any requests or questions with the cutting engineer! This I’ve found is often the key to having you end up really happy. I also recommend getting an acetate or DMM reference disc made prior to having your masters cut so that you can be sure that you are happy with how your master sounds before incurring the expenses for plating and test pressing.
- Provide good documentation – make sure you include a track list including track number and side and length of tracks and sides. If you’re providing a data disc make sure that the names of your files on the disc match the names you have listed on your track sheet (or just name them something like A1.wav, A2.wav, B1.wav etc.).