Vinyl Guide

Things to Consider for Vinyl Pressing
So you want to put an album out on vinyl? That’s great! It’s a really cool release for you and your music. But don’t get too carried away just yet. Many times, I’ve had projects come through with hopes of putting the project out on wax, but only with intentions and not ironed out details. I highly recommend you take a few minutes to read through the information below regarding vinyl releases. With a solid grasp on what the final product is expected to be, the studio release can be directed to achieve the best results possible. I hope these points help break down some things you may or may have not considered and help shed some light on any grey areas regarding a vinyl release.

What format?
No matter what factors or variables you bring into the equation, vinyl production is generally expensive. If you’re on a small label that wants to help put out a 7″ or full length, that’s great, but if you’re a small band or artist planning on funding a vinyl release independently without any “label support” or financial backing, I would recommend doing a 12″. If you don’t have enough content for a 12″ yet then you may want to consider waiting when you consider the costs. There are exceptions to this. If your punk band’s 15-track release only runs 11 minutes total, then maybe a 7″ is a good move for you, but I would recommend against spending a ton of money to only get 2 or 3 songs pressed to wax. The costs between getting a 7″ and a 12″ produced are not that different. The majority of your costs lie in things you might not consider. These will be addressed in the points below.

I would also highly recommend against getting a 10″ pressed. Not many people get 10″’s made, so they are always a “custom” job for pressing plants because the plates need to be switched out. As a end result, they can take a lot longer to get manufactured. This is also true for getting 10″ record jackets pressed. Unless you plan on going with a total self-assembled packaging, most manufacturers will need to swap out their die-cuts and run your 10″ jackets as a “custom” job. This will increase your production time. On top of the additional production time, the amount of money you save getting a 10″ pressed opposed to just doing a 12,” is incredibly minimal. Considering the additional time, you may have to wait. I personally don’t think it is worth it. Unless you really want to push for the aesthetic of the 10″ record with your release, I would avoid this.

What are the length of songs and how much can a vinyl hold?
This is a copy/paste from United Record Pressing:
“Determining how much music can fit on a record is based in minutes and is not set in stone. We have our suggested maximums – what we know to be the range where you will generally have the best quality. These are as follows:

Per Side 33 RPM 45 RPM 78 RPM
7″ 6 minutes 4.5 minutes
10″ 12 minutes 9 minutes 4 minutes
12″ 18 minutes 12 minutes

These recommended maximums become more crucial with bass heavy music, and you may want to lower the max per side if your music is very bass heavy. The volume of your record is directly linked to the total time of each side. When the side length of a 12” record is less than 9 minutes, the loudness will be at the maximum for 33 1/3 rpm cuts. However, in most cases, you lose about one decibel in volume for each minute over 13 minutes per side. Loss of output volume is the most common issue, but pops, skips, and distortion/loss in the frequency extremes can also occur.”

Despite these suggested maximums, I’ve heard people push close to 30 mins on one side of an LP. Depending on your master and style of music, there is some wiggle room. I would say this chart from URP is based on the current “industry standards” of compression and maximized outputs. This shorter amount of audio is a result of the recent loudness wars, where mastering typically means smashing all the dynamics out of a mix. This results in the audio taking up a lot more ‘sonic’ space, which means it will take up more space on vinyl. The two photos below should help explain.. The first is a master with light compression and limiting, fitting for a vinyl release. The second is mastered with settings for a digital release. Notice how much more space (blueness) the second is consuming.

WAV Vinyl Master

WAV Digital Master

If you’re going to be pressing vinyl, I suggest that you read about mastering here. If you’re considering both a digital and vinyl release, I would recommend you get two different masters made. Many times, I have witnessed bands use the digital masters for a vinyl pressing and the results are not as good as they could have been had the mastering been correct for the format.

What cutting speed should we use?
Typically 12″ are cut at 33 rpm and 7″ are cut at 45 rpm, but as seen on the chart above, you can do whatever you want on either format. The only exception is on the 10,” where you have the option to cut something at 78 rpm, but that is an outdated process. Most record players manufactured today won’t even play a 78 and any 78’s have been heavily manufactured since the 1950’s.

Does style of music affect length/amount you can put on album?
Based off the URP chart above, the recommended maximums they list become more important with bass heavy music and music that fills the whole frequency spectrum. The lower the frequency, the more sonic space it is going to consume. You may want to lower the max per side if your music is pretty bass heavy.

What about volume?
The volume of your record is directly linked to the total time of each side. When the side length of a 12” record is less than 9 minutes, the loudness will be at the maximum for 33 1/3 rpm cuts. However, in most cases, you lose about one decibel in volume for each minute over 13 minutes per side. Loss of output volume is the most common issue, but pops, skips, and distortion/loss in the frequency extremes can also occur.

Does the weight of the vinyl affect it?
The claim that 180 gram weight is “better sounding” is one of the biggest myths in the recent vinyl craze. Contrary to common misconception, groove depth is set during mastering. As long as the biscuit that the record is pressed from is the minimum weight needed for good fill (easily achievable at 120 grams), then the weight of the record has no effect on quality. Heavier records simply wear less easily.

The quality and care put into the mastering, pressing, and plating has substantially more to do with the sound of a record than the weight of the record. One thing to note: pressing plants will sometimes put more effort into the quality control of their heavier weights because they realize anyone ordering 180 gram or above is looking for an audiophile-oriented product. The standard, which is around 140 grams, is more than enough to make a great sounding record. Some of the best sounding records I own are standard pressings; just solid transfers of the master audio files.

Does color affect it?
Some people may argue this, but color has no effect on the sound of a record. The only exception I have come across would be glow-in-the-dark vinyl. The phosphorus in the wax used to make the record glow creates an awful surface noise.

Another style that some people believe is that picture discs affect quality. I have a couple picture discs that sound phenomenal and a couple that don’t. It has more to do with the source material and steps taken prior to pressing the record, than the color or image on the vinyl.

Track listing considerations?
This is super nerdy territory, but it is still something to consider. Because the record rotates at a constant speed (No, it doesn’t speed up as you get closer to the center.)The circumferential length of the inner groove is less than that of the outer grooves. This means that the physical wavelengths (ripples) pressed into the grooves are shorter in the inner grooves than at the outer ones.

With this in mind, you should consider track order when laying out your pressing. Since you have more wiggle room for volume dynamics on the beginning of each side, it is a good idea to have your “heavy hitters” closer to the beginning and reserve your less dynamic tracks for the ends of each side. Depending on your band’s particular style of music, this may not be entirely possible, but it is something to consider because of the science that goes into how records work.

Also consider the needle on your player because it has a certain size and shape. It fits more comfortably into the ripples into the outer groove than it does in the inner ones.  For this reason, higher quality pickup cartridges use elliptical or “line source” shapes that have a very sharp edge. The edge actually touches the groove and is less affected by the smaller size of the ripple towards the center of the record.  Cartridges with spherical needles tend to sound pretty gritty as they move toward the inner grooves. Also, if the cartridge is not aligned correctly, it can contact the groove at an angle, which sounds worse the closer it gets to the center.

What about mastering?
As mentioned above, a vinyl master is different than a digital master. With vinyl, there is less of a need to push the entire mix to its loudest possible volume, a more controlled and shaped lower frequency range, and an understanding of how the higher frequencies are going to translate onto the record.  Having a properly mastered album makes the cutting engineer’s job easier. Proper communication between you and the cutting company is important to consider. If a problem is discovered during the process, good communication will help you to resolve the issues so that you don’t end up with problems that could have been prevented. Don’t be afraid to ask the pressing company questions if you’re unsure of anything. They are there to help. For more information on mastering, go here.

Does vinyl sound better?
Music is extremely difficult to quantify because it is an art form in which everyone has their personal preferences. It is the same with sound. It’s both an art and a science. So there is no real or easy answer to which (analog or digital) sounds better. Here is a cool article that sheds some light on the arguement if you’d want to explore this topic deeper:

Any other considerations?
If you want to put your music out on vinyl, take the extra steps to make the product actually worth the effort.

Aside from the physical album itself, put some serious consideration into how the album will be packaged. Sometimes getting the jackets and sleeves manufactured can cost just as much as getting the records pressed, and that will knock you on your butt if you aren’t prepared. I think that is one aspect where producing a 7″ can be significantly cheaper in the end because it ultimately uses up less paper and less ink to make sleeves for 7″ records than 12″ records. Also with a 7″ record, you can use a lighter weight stock; sometimes even standard printer paper for a DIY release. With a 12″ release, you need thicker card-stock to ensure your packaging holds up over time. This stuff isn’t cheap. Especially in the quantities that you’ll probably be pressing your record in.

If you don’t think you can move at least 100 records fairly quickly to cover your costs/recoup your losses, you might want to reconsider the vinyl thing… unless you or your label is okay with being in debt for a while.

In the end, vinyl is a great physical release for your hard work. If you decide to get your music pressed, take the extra time to ensure everything is done properly and that you aren’t cutting any corners. Remember, this isn’t like a digital release where when something needs changed, click, click, boom, it’s done. With vinyl, once it’s committed to wax, it’s done for good. Do it once, do it right.

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