Recording on Vinyl: The Ultimate Guide To Mastering & Making Your Own Records
Written by Jaron Lewis
The music shops may have shelves stacked with CDs, and the market may have moved to mostly online digital purchases, but that doesn’t mean vinyl is dead and gone. It doesn’t have the mass market potential it used to, but vinyl still has fans enough to keep the format alive and kicking. In fact, it’s currently enjoying somewhat of a resurgence.
For many, the smartphone or MP3 player provides portable convenience for the gym and the car, but vinyl is reserved for enjoying peak audio performance at home. There’s nothing quite like immersing your aural senses in the warm soundscape that only an analog signal can produce.
If you’re a talented musician and are looking for a way to distribute your music with a more authentic voice, then recording your tracks to vinyl presents a compelling option. Read on below to find out you can create your own vinyl masterpieces.
What Is A Vinyl?
Vinyl is a type of plastic made from combining ethylene and chlorine. The resulting substance is called Polyvinyl Chloride, or vinyl for short. Vinyl records are created from a master disc, which creates a track or groove to guide a tiny needle.
The groove contains tiny variations that cause the needle to vibrate and create sound waves which duplicate the sounds produced during recording. The vibrations are converted electronically and amplified so they can be heard through speakers.
The sound signal produced by the needle is an analog signal with infinite values. This contrasts with the sharp precision of a digital recording. Many people consider vinyl recordings to represent the truest analogs of the original sound waves. Words like “fullness,” “warmth,” and “lossless” are often used to describe the vinyl listening experience.
During mastering, you should endeavor to create the sound you want to hear from the vinyl. You will also need to be precise about the timing between songs. If you have the budget, a master track created in analog all the way (which is referred to as AAA for recording, mixing, and output) would be ideal.
However, home-based vinyl producers will still get a warmer sound out of a vinyl created through digital means. This method is referred to as DDA for digital, digital, analog.
You need to be careful with bass when planning to cut your music to vinyl. Low bass needs to be panned to the center of your stereo mix to prevent the needle from skipping. You can use your level meter to correct any errant levels in your track.
Vinyl records are designed to be run at 33 1/3 RPM or 45 RPM. You can fit about 18 minutes of music per side with a 12-inch 33 1/3 vinyl, and about 6 minutes per side for 7-inch 33 1/3 record. A 7-inch, 45 RPM vinyl will hold about 4 ½ minutes per side.
Trying to fit too much music on one side will lower your sound quality, while also increasing the potential for the listener to damage the needle. Also, if your tracks are bass-heavy, you will want to reduce the number of tracks per side.
More About RPM
When you cut your tracks for 33 1/3, you can fit more music onto a record. However, many vinyl enthusiasts believe that 45 RPM produces superior sound quality. If you were to use 45 RPM, then you might consider adding an extra LP to your distribution as a compromise for the reduced time available per side.
The genre of music can also influence the RPM you choose to press. For drum ‘n bass, techno, and other typically bass-heavy musical styles, it’s recommended to press tracks on 45 RPM single discs. Faster speeds can tend to push the bottom end out and jump the needle.
Getting Your Tracks Pressed into Vinyl
There are several options for those wishing to create vinyl records. A purely DIY option can be expensive to set up, but it is within the realms of possibility if you have the funds. There will also be quite a learning curve and a lot of experimentation if you take this route.
In addition to your home studio recording equipment, you will need a vinyl cutting lathe and a digital to analog converter. The most exciting thing about doing the entire process yourself is that records can be cut on just about anything. Enthusiasts have been known to cut tracks into Perspex, brass, chocolate, and even ice.
Unfortunately, vinyl lathes start at expensive and go up from there, but there are still plenty of options for those wishing to make vinyls which won’t break the bank.
There are machines on the market called Dub Plates, which will record tracks directly to a vinyl blank. The advantage is that you can quickly produce one-offs that are reasonably durable. Like lathes, Dub Plates are expensive but could be a worthy investment for a DJ who needs to be able to create fresh discs with new tracks.
Vinyl Pressing Services
A vinyl pressing service is a budget option if you can’t afford all the equipment needed to mix and cut your tracks at home. Many will also provide a mastering service – either as a part of the cost or as a paid extra. If you don’t have the skills, software, or equipment to master your tracks, then this service could be a viable option to ensure you get the desired quality and sound.
There are quite a few pressing services to choose from, and they all have different pricing for volumes and one-offs, so you will need to find one that can accommodate your needs. The bigger your run, the cheaper each vinyl disc will be, but you will need to factor in the size of your market. Remember, even though vinyl still has a market, it’s quite small compared to CDs and digital.
Just about all pressing services will send out a test pressing before they finalize your run. The best strategy is to listen to all your tracks all the way through, and on a few different devices. You can’t control what your customers will use to play your record, but you can at least get an idea about how it will sound.
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