I’d like to think I’ve been around the block a few times as far as cutting records is concerned. I’ve sat in on hundreds of cutting sessions for my tunes on Hydraulix, Stay Up Forever, Eukatech and so on over the years. It was always an interesting experience and I picked up some tips from engineers at the time.
However since starting work as a cutting engineer myself, some of my tips and tricks are going in the bin, and some are still valid.
Shit In – Shit Out
Yep, a bad mix will still sound bad, doesn’t matter what expensive gear you put it through. You can repair things to an extent, but ultimately, make sure your music is the sounding best it can possibly sound before sending it off to be cut. That’s the first thing before anything else. Once you start a cut there is NO TURNING BACK.
Mastering for vinyl is not the same as mastering for digital, you don’t want to be using brick wall limters, and you want to try to preserve the dynamic range as much as you can. it’s not the internet, it’s not a loudness competition, so don’t ram it through Ozone thnking it’ll get a loud cut, it’ll actually (probably) end up being quieter because of all the saturation.
In more detail. cutting engineers are at the mercy of their equipment. It is old, mostly pretty rare and always very expensive, so naturally everyone who cuts records is super careful about what kind of audio signal they send to their cutting machine (lathe).
The cutting process involves your music being sent to a pair of amps, which boost the signal in a specific way and send it to the cutting head. The cutting head as the name suggests contains a sylus that vibrates and scores your music onto a laquer disc. The sylus has to move extremely quickly to catch all the frequencies, it moves up and down and side to side to reproduce music accurately across the frequency spectrum. Incredible really.
Cut the high freq – Drop the bass
So here’s the thing. The higher the frequency, the faster the head has to move. More high frequencies means much more energy and energy produces heat, too much heat and….well you can guess what might happen. So let’s imagine a track with some high frequencies in it. Now if that frequeny is coming and going, on-off like a hi hat in a techno track, or an “S” in a vocal, or occasional crash cymbal, the amps will spike a little at that point. More HF and you get a bigger spike. So we have to watch that, we don’t want to overload, and we don’t want to distort the audio. So what happens if the frequency goes up high and just stays there for a long time? Like some white noise, or a heavily distorted guitar for example, Well then you get a bit of a problem. if the amps spike continuously for an amount of time things start to heat up and at that point we have to do something about it.
The first thing the engineer will do is to turn the audio signal down. Back it off until the level is acceptable for the amps. Now this sounds simple but in reality it might not be, if you are cutting jazz or classical then yes a quieter cut will most likely sound better, cleaner to a point, but don’t forget vinyl has some surface noise of it’s own, so you have to cut at a reasonable volume to get around that. but if you are cutting dance music you will almost certainly be asked to cut it loud for playing in clubs.
So…..too much top end, but they want it loud……hmmmmm what to do?
First thing for me, is to use some kind of filter/limiter. We have a great one made by Ortofon, really high quality will catch HFs and tame them dynamically, but… you can hear it working, it’s shaving off that top end sparkle and over a certain level will be noticable. So we can only do so much with it. Another way is to use a plug in such as a Dynamic EQ to help tune into the exact frequency that’s causing the issue and tame it that way, often I have to use both, as gently as possible of course, but sometimes you have to protect the gear above all else.
Another thing to take into account is space on the record, louder cuts mean wider grooves, wider grooves need more space so they have to be spaced apart more, so they don’t crash. Volume equals physical space on the record, if you want a loud cut and your tracks are bright and banging all the way through, you’ll need to keep them to a reasonable length. We get sent stuff to cut that’s 20+ mins long, totally crushed and limited, loads of top end, and they want it loud. It’s just not going to happen.
So back to mastering. You’ve got our track finished, you want to cut it, how should it be mastered?
We’ve established don’t over limit it, this will allow high frequencies to “breath” a bit, it won’t crush everything together, giving the head more time to recover between bursts of HF and giving the cutting engineer an easier time of setting up levels and limiting. I would say as a rule of thumb put your music though a spectrum analyser and look out for anything over about 9Khz, that’s the danger area, too much of that high stuff and things can get tricky, above 15Khz and you really need to be careful. You CAN use a limiter, just keep it sensible and have at least 7/8 db of dynamic range between your RMS and your Peak values.
Mid frequencies from 2K down to about 360Hz are easier for the machine to handle so as long as there’s nothing crazy going on you should be OK with a fairly flat mid band but do look out for loud spikes in the mids. Also, not just in the frequency spectrum but in the track as a whole, remember the loudest part of your audio will become the cutting level of reference so try to even up the mix as best you can if at all possible. Using limiters within the mix is a good way to keep this under control.
For the Bass 250Hz and below Take care over phasing, tracks with phase issues in the low frequencies will also cause problems, they create grooves that go from very wide to very narrow, too much of this and playback can skip, listen to the side information using a plug in like ADPTR A/B or Fabfilter Q3 or something similar and check that there is no bass in the sides, Put your bass tracks into mono, also, listen to your whole track in MONO and if anything disappears, fix it. Stereo wideners can cause problems as well as some synths which use stereo phasing as a way to make them sound wider. Phasing in the upper frequencies is not so bad, for a cut to a point, but lower down it’s a big problem.
We will always put the low frequencies in mono anyway, but it’s best to make sure your mix is already good at this point, otherwise things might sound different to what you expected. Anything below 250Hz should be mono as a rule. The only exception might be Classical music or Jazz
Organise your music
Probably the biggest lesson I learnt myself when I started cutting is about organisation. Tracks need to be trimmed to a reasonable length and levelled. The easiest way to set your release up for vinyl is to get your masters and put them on a single track of a DAW, laid out exactly how you want them on the vinyl, with enough space between tracks for a track marker (which is a short spiral of wide grooves showing you where one track stops and another begins) and bounce them out as one continuous file. Labelled properly this is a failsafe way of ensuring your music goes onto the vinyl as it should.
It also gives you a chance to see the waveforms of the tracks, is one track louder or quieter than the others? Even it up if so, Try to get everything in the same ball park as much as possible. If one track is super bright and the others much duller, go back to the mastering and sort it out as best you can. Try to get everyting working together. Easier for an artist LP, more difficult for a compilation.
Then I just load the whole file into the DAW at the studio and I know the tracks are in the right order, that they have had their levels checked and I can immediately start setting up without having to do extensive checking, shuffleing about, and possibly EQing. I can only do so much before things become creative, which I cannot do, so if something is off, that is what you are going to get back.
Of course you can just send individual tracks, in a folder and I will compile the record like that, but if you do make sure they are LABELLED CORRECTLY, A1, A2 – B1, B2 etc so I know what side and in what order. Normally people provide a tracklist document for this purpose as well. But DO make sure this is right, Once a cut is done it is done, recuts are costly and time consuming.
Make sure you have asked for the correct speed, 33 or 45, the size of the record 12″ 10″ 7″ and your music is trimmed to time to fit on a side at the desired level and speed. My cheat sheet below shows a rough starting point.
Levels – Cheat Sheet
If you look at this table you can see at 33rpm you can cut a record of 14 mins at roughly +3db, the depth setting of 90 will result in wider grooves to handle the extra level, the pitch setting of 9 will spread them out a bit more so they don’t crash into each other and the VTM can be as long as 2 seconds for extra space for easier cueing.
Simple….BUT of your track is totally rammed, overloaded, heavily limited or just tons of constant top end, or just very busy music with no breaks, I might have to turn it down considerably for the sake of the cutting head, to prevent distortion and also to simply get it on the vinyl. If all the grooves are wide and the ptich is always at max, then it won’t physically fit over a certain level or time so this is a table for music that is still fairly dynamic, ie: with loud sections and quiet sections, doesn’t have too much high freqency and is well produced without excessive limiting.
Generally with techno and dance music I nearly always have to back it off about 1db from these settings, due to the nature of the beast, but occasionally for more “softer” sounding record you can get away with this sometimes even a little more. For HIp Hop the big enemy is often sibilance in the vocals, for rock it’s often thrashing guitars and cymbals, techno it’s white noise, high frequency filter sweeps and hi hats. each genre has it’s quirks.
I hope you found this guide helpful, if you want to book a cut, or get your tracks mastered, head over the curve pusher website