How to Vinyl (2015)

A guide to not screwing up your first record (Part 1)

When I began looking into information on how to get vinyl pressed for this label, I quickly realized I was out of my depth. The information I found was incomplete, disjointed and sometimes even conflicting. Key bits of information were missing and some of the sites with the best information look like they were posted in the days of free AOL CDs and the sliver of time that All4One were relevant.

Luckily I had made plenty of contacts over the last 14 years of recording in bands, and I was able to reach out and learn quickly. But even then this process can get overwhelming, as if you needed more anxiety on top of attempting to herd the cats corral musicians into something marginally resembling a group of responsible adults in between their jobs at *insert dive bar name here*.

I am certainly no expert, far from it. But I figured that if I got my experiences and thoughts down now, and kept it up over the next few years, I might eventually have something comprehensive that someone else can use. I'll make corrections as I find them out or as I inevitably get emailed about how terribly wrong I am. Or whatever. I can take critical input, sorta :-)

There is quite a bit of good information at www.piratespress.com, but you might have to dig for it.

Basic vinyl process summary

In general, once the masters are ready, it is still a 4-6 month process until you get the final pressed copies. Much of this time is largely dependent on how busy the pressing plant is. Wait times can be as low as 2 months if you are lucky, all the way to over 6 months. Blame the douche canoe in moccasins that only wants his jaw harp to be listened to on vinyl.

The process follows something like the below:

  1. Get your shit together
  2. Plan and/or start artwork
  3. Mix and master for vinyl
  4. Get quotes and place the order
  5. Submit masters and artwork
  6. Wait for goddamn ever
  7. (Maybe) Approve acetate
  8. (Always) Approve test pressings
  9. Wait more
  10. Get vinyl in and do a quality check


Yeah, there are exceptions. Yeah, that order isn't necessarily correct. Yeah, there could be a step to send the lacquers somewhere to get plated. It is a general list!

Depending on who you go through, you could end up working with each vendor separately or through a single point of contact. Don't be taken aback by the costs of single source houses like Pirates Press, sometimes the additional price is worth the integration and smooth operation. If you decide to take the risk and additional issues, then you might have to find:

  • Lacquer* cutting engineer (like Saff Mastering)
  • Stamper plating house (like MasterCraft)
  • Vinyl pressing plant (like Archer)
  • Jacket printing house
  • Polybag/accessories distributer

*Assuming lacquer and not DMM, which is talked about later.

A rant about vinyl

Is vinyl really what you want to do? Generally, it is my experience that vinyl is the most expensive, has the longest lead times and can go wrong more often. Honestly I find CDs to be just fine, unlike all of the hipsters who complain about the "lack of warmth". Anybody that says that vinyl is "the only way to go" is drinking the Kool-Aid of today and may not understand the entirety of the process.

First off, any shitty music played back on anything is still shitty music. It's a principle called Junk In, Junk Out. Does your band sound like a chicken being strangled to death? Great. Vinyl will not fix that.

Secondly, CDs get a bad wrap for being compressed or sounding "cold". CDs (.wav, .aiff, etc.) are uncompressed, and sound much better than mp3s. Yes, CDs are digitally sampled versions of the source. But at 44.1kHz and 16 bits, they are pretty damn good versions. And, chances are you recorded digitally anyways, unless you recorded on tape and never passed the songs through a digital format (or got high dynamic range files from the studio)*. The "cold" sound is only when played side by side with the vinyl version. For audiophiles that have a keen ear, maybe they can hear the harmonic distortions that give the vinyl sound its warmth. But is your audience of a couple dozen alcoholics really able to make that distinction, or are they just listening for the pop and crackle of a turntable? It's ok if the latter is true, vinyl is still a wonderful format for many other reasons.

Third, fidelity (accuracy of playback to the original) requires all analog treatment from recording to cutting the lacquer. The "warmth" that vinyl is known for is just a byproduct of the process and not some magical leprechaun gunk that gets mixed in at the plant. It does make it sound different, don't get me wrong, but so does mixing/mastering the tracks a different way, using a Denon vs a Dual turntable and a million other subtleties.

Getting down to brass tacks**: do you want a big piece of plastic that you can only play at your house or possibly in public with your local DJ friend who recently got dumped and is starting a new "adventure" making his own scarves? Great, do it. But let's not make it sound like vinyl is the savior of music in an era that produced dub step and Rascall Flats. Junk In, Junk Out.

It's all about how you want it to sound when you play it back, and more importantly how it feels to have it in your hand. That is why I like vinyl - it is a bigger format for badass artwork, it takes way more effort to create it, and it is a solid piece of work that makes all the months of writing, playing and recording worth it. CDs just don't have the same feel - they are usually cheap and the artwork is on such a small format that even Michael J Fox could create a more legible print.

My suggestion: include a CD version and digital download card in with the vinyl, they are cheap and practical.

*That's not a knock on tape recordings - you can get a really interesting sound out of it even if you do turn them into .wav's before mastering, but that is not the point.

**There are several more arguments about vinyl vs. digital, like how long the recordings will last (sorry, but if you've stumbled upon this site I don't think you are fucking Bach, so take that giant head and remove it from your ass).

Getting your plan together

It might seem like a waste of time, but don't be a jackass. You will quickly find that issues will stack up and cause headaches when they could have been easily avoided by making a plan and communicating it to the appropriate people.

Get artwork done sooner rather than later (more on this 'later' heh). Artists are notorious procrastinators and can't be trusted to do anything on time ever (I know this sentence is redundant, but it was worth the repetition). Artwork has a way of sneaking up on you and has become the gating factor for most of my projects. But before even finishing a draft of that awesome bear eating a snake riding an eagle fighting a panther killing a horse, you may want to get an artist on board and understand what is required to get the artwork to print.

Decide on the format

Besides the obvious size differences in artwork (and no, DO NOT simply blow up your CD artwork to 12" format), you should decide ahead of time on whether there is an insert, or a gatefold jacket, or whatever else on which you can print that one good tattoo your drummer keeps showing off.

More critically, the length/order of the songs will play a role in what you can actually fit on each side and the diameter of the record.

The volume and quality can be impacted by how much music you try to cram in. The grooves that are cut into the lacquers have to be carefully configured and there is only so much room to work with. Groove spacing and depth/width of the groove will determine how loud it can be cut to, and I'm assuming you don't want your tracks to sound like that soft-spoken wacko muttering about his red stapler (yes, we've ALL seen Office Space!! It's not fucking funny anymore!!).

Here are the suggested playing times from Pirate's Press. Stick to the "high/loud volume playing times" for the best sound. Technically, you should also order the songs that you want to sound best first so that they exist toward the edge of the vinyl, but I know how rough it can be to try to change the song order. Wouldn't want to upset those hyper sensitive guitar players who matched the keys of every song in a specific order!!

33 RPM on a 7" sounds worse than at 45 RPM, but less music can fit on a 45 RPM 7". Don't be cavalier with the times, you definitely don't want the mastering engineer to come back and tell you he had to drop the volume (in dBs). Click on that link and it will show that reducing by 3dB is 50% of the power and 70% of the amplitude. I'm not entirely sure if that translates exactly to audio engineering, but it doesn't Bode well. If you're like me, you want max volume. If you're not like me...stick with max volume anyways. Quiet records sound like garbage because of Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR).

DMM vs. Lacquer

There's another (sorta) key decision to make before getting quotes: is DMM acceptable (i.e. Europe) or are you going to stick with the lacquer process (available in the U.S.)?

Don't know the difference? Don't worry, I had pressed several albums before I even bothered asking. Lacquer mastering cuts the tracks directly into a piece of lacquer and is then coated with silver nitrate to protect it. Then, a master stamper is created and is what actually presses the vinyl. Lacquer being the soft material it is, actually allows the needle to cut a little deeper creating a "fatter" sound than DMM. This combined with the multiple step transfer process adds noise and impurities, creating that warm ambience to the vinyl.

DMM stands for Direct Metal Mastering - and was created by ze Germans presumably to avoid frequency perturbations caused by Opa stamping around putting on his Lederhosen. DMM is cold, calculating, and used to have plans for world domination before being stopped by the Americans declining market for vinyl. It is closer to an exact replica of the recordings, but here's the kicker: to my knowledge, it is only a European service. As far as I know, only European companies kept DMM equipment around, and are the only ones still using it. Shipping to the U.S. is a major problem with this technology, but there are ways to defray the costs (check back for Part 2).

Yes lacquer is more appealing, but DMM seems to have less technical issues crop up and is used by some pro companies to produce high quality product. In summary.......SCIENCE!!!! If you were looking at that picture of Kelly LeBrock instead of reading this, good job, you passed.

When I find some more time, I'll get to Part 2 where we can see what happens when artwork goes bad and pixelated and just how we can mix the bass player all the way out (shhh don't tell him/her).


Cheers,

Austin

::CADRE::