Mastering and the vinyl revival

Is vinyl making a comeback? Jim Evans speaks to industry experts on how the format’s rising popularity has affected their mastering approaches.

Vinyl sales are at their highest level for 15 years, according to figures from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the Official Charts Company. Just over 780,000 vinyl albums were sold in 2013 – the largest number since 817,000 were sold in 1997. The 2013 figure is likely to be overtaken when 2014’s statistics are revealed at the year-end. It’s all good news for the noble order of disc cutters.

“The upsurge in mastering vinyl is fantastic,” enthuses Barry Grint. We [at Alchemy] have recently bought a second VMS80 lathe, which is quite something as they are pretty rare – Neumann stopped making lathes in the late 80s, I think. I was a young mastering engineer when vinyl was the main release format and Matt [Colton] has won the Music Producers Guild Mastering Engineer of The Year Award for his mastering and cutting skill.

“Vinyl demands a musical approach to mastering – centring the EQ on the top end of the kit and adding gain gives a brashness that doesn’t sound good and translates poorly to vinyl. Mastering engineers with a vinyl background can always master for digital; that is not always the case the other way around.”

“Phil Kinrade masters for digital here, but has a wealth of experience, so there are no issues with cutting anything he has put together. I guess vinyl sorts the men from the boys; sticking a limiter in and cranking up the gain won’t cut it for vinyl – excuse the pun.”

John Webber comments: “Our room [at AIR Mastering] was originally built with vinyl very much in mind. Vinyl mastering is a different approach from CD/digital mastering because often CD masters don’t translate well to vinyl.”

Alexis Bardinet at Globe Audio Mastering reports: “Actually I almost do at least one vinyl mastering per week. I use the same monitoring system but the approach is radically different. We decided to change our mastering desk and go for a Maselec MTC-1X to better respond to the vinyl demand.”

“The mastering engineer really started to be recognised when he was able to cut vinyl discs at a higher level than his anonymous predecessors,” says David Hawkins. “When a record was played on juke-boxes or on radio programmes, if it was louder than the rest, it stood out. Levels which almost – but not quite – made the pickup needle jump out of the groove were highly prized.”

Andy Munro sums up: “Vinyl has a special requirement for groove modulation control and track capacity so there are special skills needed to cut a great disc. In my opinion a true mastering engineer should have acquired cutting expertise because it enforces habits which translate well to digital formats. Frankly, it is more skilful by a mile.”