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The Complexity of Vinyl

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

While vinyl has been lauded as perhaps one the best-sounding mediums on the market, fleshing out some avid vinyl saviors who will refuse to listen to anything but, to the audiophile community who will spend more than a luxury car's value on merely a turntable, in some circles it's arguably one of the most inaccurate representations of music's absolute fidelity. This is, of course, an objective consensus not a subjective one.

If you dig deep into the medium of vinyl, how vinyl is cut, and the limitations it exhibits you might come to the conclusion that vinyl is rather crude. While the avid listener will swear by the fidelity and pleasant warmth of vinyl the truth is that vinyl is an old medium that's far past its prime and will likely never recover fully.

Vinyl has some very real limitations

1. It's frequency response is degraded by slower speeds and the closer the needle gets to the center of the LP record.

2. Rumble and vibration is a problem. This is certainly one primary reason audiophile turntables are so friggin' expensive. 3. Most very deep bass or bass transients must be centered or risk cut grooves in the vinyl to cross, causing skipping.

4. You can only play the vinyl so many times before it degrades. This is largely dependent on the needle and needle pressure.

5. It scratches very easily, and even a brand new record might come with artifacts that are heard during playback.

6. It's expensive and time-consuming to produce.

Now, before any purists get angry with me, let's take a step back and replay the very first line in this blog entry: "lauded as perhaps one of the best sounding mediums on the market".

Perfection isn't 'Perfect'

Subjectivity is quite frankly the crux of all music enjoyment! Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. That's RIGHT! When CD's first hit the consumer market, listeners quickly discovered how cold and sterile digital music was, or more importantly, how lifeless and unfulfilling the digital medium was--in many ways, still is.

Ok, so why is vinyl still out there? Because it sounds beautiful. On a good turntable vinyl is so pleasing to the ear for most that the listener simply doesn't care about limitations.

Is this still in high demand?

Yes. Nearly every mastering engineer will tell you they still frequently see requests for an album to be mastered for vinyl. Back to the title: What's so complex about vinyl?

Vinyl isn't like any digital medium, where a mastering engineer can simply export a master and upload it to a drive, or export a DDP to upload to a CD duplication plant. Vinyl is a delicate and precise art form. It's not something easily rendered. Here's what I mean:

1. Audio is mixed and mastered. The mastering is done so that the audio will translate as best as possible to vinyl and vinyl only (although some mastering engineers will just master to the best of all mediums). This is the pre-master. 2. The vinyl pre-master is then sent to a lathe shop where the original acetate or lacquer is first cut by a professional cutter. Few mastering engineers do this directly, because the equipment is rather expensive to purchase and maintain, so there are even fewer actual vinyl cutters out there--especially good ones. The cutter is very skilled in cutting the original acetate or lacquer vinyl by hand in most cases. There are some computerized services, but the best out there are still human. The best are ones good at specific genres as well.

3. After the original is cut, it is carefully processed, packed up and sent to the press where it will be duplicated into mirror imaged electroplated father, positive image mother, and negative image stampers. From here, the press can start.

Each of these processes is time-consuming and done well, expensive. There's no way around that for a great quality vinyl record. It's just the reality. If you'd like to learn more about the process, seek out a book from Bobby Owsinski, called The Audio Mastering Handbook. For the impatient, try this link.

So, Soundporter only does Pre-Mastering?

That's correct, and it's not very expensive, especially if the artist/client is going for a bundle deal. That said, there's work that goes into, not only the audio, but into the sequencing, quality-control/professional listening, and documentation. This is largely what you're paying for. Although the audio is adjusted to perform well on vinyl, such as de-essing, brightening, or even perhaps tweaking the EQs so that a song translates better on the inner or outer ends of the playback surface, there's a significant amount of time preparing the audio for sending to the cutter.

Because there are only so many great cutters around, and the lathe equipment is hard to find, expensive to purchase, and expensive to maintain it's almost certain you will have to go directly to the vinyl cutter for that service.

1 - pre-master ($90-$3,000)

2 - cutter ($150-$1,000)

3 - press ($2,000-$4,000)

All of these depend on the hours required, quantities, and options. They also highly depend on the talent used for each stage, and there's no arguing that you get what you pay for! Are my rates low? Yes, because I almost never see requests for only vinyl. Pretty much 100% of the time, the request is part of a package deal, or simply an add-on format. Since I know what needs to be done for vinyl of an already mastered session, I can back off the limiters and quickly take a different path to best suit the audio for vinyl.

Is it worth it?

While vinyl is still valid in the world of music, and since there's still a market for vinyl I can suggest it's worth looking into. If you're an artist who's very serious about putting out a record and you're certain you'll tour relentlessly to promote it, go for it! You'll love to see people walk out of your shows with a new record that's going to be loved for decades to come! Vinyl records aren't typically ripped and tossed, not that you can't include a digital download card as well.

My band, Random Conflict has done just this. We knew we could sell 500 copied of yellow-splatter vinyl to collectors, so our label spent the $3,200+ on the album, while we spent months preparing the mixes. There's a very serious commitment here, but if you're serious, it's worth it in the long run. Ben Blackwell (Third Man Records) once said, "I listen to and keep every piece of vinyl I receive. If you want to show how serious you are to a label in the hopes of being picked up, put out your own record. Don't send me a CD-R with Sharpie on it, because it's only going one place."

Conversely, if there's any doubt that you'll be able to tour or that your band might not last past the next year, forget it! I'm serious. There's nothing worse than to sink thousands into an LP release, to receive it in perfect and thrilling form, only to have it sit in bulk boxes in your closet, never to be more than something you can barely give to your cousins at family reunions.

To summarize

Vinyl is valid, vinyl is desirable, vinyl is still in demand, and it's beautiful to listen to. However, it's probably one the most complex mediums you can sell music on. This is entirely because it's not something a 3-D printer can spit out in bulk (not yet, anyway). The complexities are in cost, practicality, and fidelity. While vinyl is a really awesome way to show an achievement, let me forewarn you that it's also one of the biggest risks of any medium. Even cassette is less risky and easier to mass-produce--and that's sort of making some sort of comeback! I'm ready to see 8-track tape again, or maybe even reel-to-reel!

Whatever medium you choose, I'll give it my undivided attention and you'll be truly satisfied with the results!

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