I’ve been getting a lot of questions from you guys about the differences between digital and analog when it comes to the final mix. As you may or may not know, it’s really a bad idea to use your masters that were mixed for digital for vinyl. Admittedly, I’m not much of a studio guy, so I asked someone who does know the details and differences. The following article about mixing and mastering for vinyl records is a guest post from Adam Williams of Sonics60. Thanks Adam!
There is an age old argument that vinyl records sound better than CD or uncompressed digital audio. This is a very subjective argument that to this day, I believe, is impossible prove. However, I believe that a good quality vinyl record played on a high quality sound system produces a fantastic sound with a character and warmth that provides a completely different, and to me, a more pleasurable listening experience.
The reason I’m writing this article is that there is still demand for vinyl. Yes, not only are we still buying it, but reports indicate that sales are gradually increasing. A lot of what I’ll say in the article may seem obvious to an older generation of engineers and producers; however, there is younger generation of digital natives that may have never experienced the glories that vinyl can bring. If you’re a band, engineer or producer working on a vinyl release, there are a few techniques you can apply to get the most out of your recording. In my opinion, a mix is always subjective; however, we also need to work within the constraints of the technologies we’re using. Hopefully, the following will assist you in achieving a better sounding mix for your vinyl release.
It should be recognised as one of the main differences between an analogue vinyl recording and digital audio is the dynamic range. CD quality digital audio will have a dynamic range of about 150dB, where a vinyl record can produce anywhere from 70dB to 90dB. It is possible for vinyl to go higher, but these figures are a good starting point. It is good bare this in mind when handing over the mix to the mastering or cutting engineer. If the levels are too hot for the medium, the engineer will need to attenuate the signal, therefore possibly severely altering the sound of your mix. I want to keep this article about being creative however; it is worth noting that digital signals are measured in dBFs, whereas analogue signals are measured in dBVU. More information on this can be found here. It is also worth talking to the mastering engineer as he/she will be able to advise you.
There are areas within the frequency spectrum that need to be treated differently with vinyl. In the digital domain it is common to add compression or add limiting to the high frequencies to increase the perceived loudness. This method does not translate well to vinyl. If you can visualise the stylus in the groove of a record, it is moving through a series of peaks and troughs, narrow and wide, which causes the head to vibrate. These vibrations are then converted to an electrical signal which is then amplified and the passed through the chain until the sound is reproduced through the speakers. Again, if you can visualise the grooves as sound waves, higher frequencies are smaller and more frequent and cause more vibrations to the head. This can then cause overload from the amount of work the head needs to do and therefore compromising the sound quality by adding distortion, and potentially damaging the equipment. I’m not saying don’t use compression or limiting on the high frequencies, but be aware of what overdoing it can do. The cutting stage is the opposite of what I just described, where the cutting head is vibrated using an electrical current to cut the corresponding grooves into the record.
Low frequency content needs to be tackled differently. Try to centre the low frequency element to your mix. I understand it may be a creative choice to have two simultaneous basslines panned left and right, but this can cause phase problems when cutting the disc and render the disc unplayable, or at least unpleasant to listen to. There are ways around this at the mastering stage by cutting the low frequency content however; this will again alter the sound of your mix. It is better to recognise this at the mix stage and achieve a result you’re happy with before it is sent to the mastering engineer.
With the influx of music production and technology tools and software, and the constantly increasing power and affordability of processing power, it is easy to get creative with whole load of processor plugins on your mix. This is fine, but I suggest taking a step back and taking a different approach when mixing for vinyl. It is easy to add a compressor to the kick drum to give it that extra punch however; there are other ways to achieve similar results which translate better to vinyl. It is also advisable to be very aware of clipping. In the digital domain, clipping can be masked and dealt with, but it does not transfer well to vinyl.
Vinyl is a great medium for dynamic music and I’m a believer that great dynamics and EQ can be achieved at the tracking stage with good mic placements and performances. However, sometimes this is not possible due to lack of resources and time. In addition, as a mix engineer, it is common to be handed stems that have been recorded elsewhere by someone else where you have no input on the recording process. Instead of loading up that compressor to achieve the punch or volume to get it to cut through, try using EQ and balancing with the other instruments. Listen out for the harmonics and a little notch here and there can make all the difference. Careful panning and reverb can also bring instruments out in the mix. One thing to be very aware of is the length of your tracks as the vinyl disc is limited to how much information in can hold at good quality. Make careful decisions about the running order, or sequence of your tracks on the disc. The outer grooves a less susceptible to distortion so place your killer and loud tracks here, and your softer and quitter tracks towards the centre of the disc.
The best thing to do is put yourself in the mindset of your potential audience. The majority of vinyl junkies I know invest a lot of money in their audio systems. Some even build special, acoustically treated listening rooms. Don’t worry too much about achieving loudness at the mix stage. Try and achieve a good balance and level for the mastering engineer to work with but remember, your audience probably has a sound system that’s very capable of going very loud, at their preference. A lot of DJs still use vinyl as well as digital, but most club systems will run through compressors which will level everything. The difference between highly compress digital music and more dynamic vinyl in this environment is that the digital files may sound flat through the club system, whereas the vinyl will have that natural punch which sounds fantastic at high volumes.
I’m not dictating that you shouldn’t be creative with the tools that are available to you. However, by being aware of the constraints of the medium and the preference of your audience can yield some great results and deliver a product that is of extremely high quality.
P.S. Another thing to remember about your vinyl release is the packaging – but that’s another story……
Adam added that he is open for any questions you may have. He is most easily reached via Twitter: @sonics60 or you can ask your questions in the comments below.