I am writing to shine a light on a compromise some of our mastering clients are unwittingly making. They order a vinyl cutting master from Sterling (EQ’d .WAV file), upload it to the record pressing plant for cutting and are shocked when their records come back sounding limp.
So why are these clients bypassing us, where did this new workflow come from? Record pressing plants are offering “free” cutting as part of a pressing package. They sell the idea that once all of the creative decisions are captured, cutting a master is a simple “transfer” process. “Just upload a cutting master from your mastering studio and we will take care of everything”. Of course I understand the appeal of convenience and savings. But great cutting has never been about simple transfers. With all the enthusiasm around the resurgence of vinyl, many of our clients are unaware of the hard-won lessons from the 1970’s and 80’s on what it takes to make great sounding records. In fact, this exact dynamic is how the modern mastering studio was born. Up until the late 1960’s, all cutting was done at the pressing plants and artists and producers got fed up with their records not sounding like the master tape.
Why is vinyl different? Vinyl can sound incredible, but it’s a lossy format. Cutting vinyl masters is a battle against the formats limitations to retain and enhance the elements of a mix that create excitement and impact on playback. Great cutting engineers push the format to its limit. This takes multiple passes and often means “blown lacquers” which are expensive. When cutting is optimized for efficiency the engineer is more cautious. Caution in cutting translates to lower level, less high-end, less low-end, more noise and less stereo separation.
One large and otherwise excellent pressing plant touts an automated system they developed that analyzes the audio and generates safe lathe settings, allowing them to run around the clock. They use Neumann DMM lathes that cut on copper blanks which they market as making better sounding records. We know DMM lathes, we had two at Sterling for decades. DMM was invented for one reason, it saves time in the manufacturing process, but it’s much less forgiving than lacquer. Put another way, you have to be much more cautious cutting DMM sides than lacquer.
Head to head we will beat the “in-house” free cutting services every time, as will Bernie Grundman, the ex-Masterdisk guys, Abbey Road, Metropolis London, and others.
Vinyl is quickly becoming the only discreet music release consumers pay for (outside of subscription services). After years of justifiable anger about consumers not paying for music, is this the place to cut corners?