The process of pressing vinyl is just that – a process. From recording to mixing, to mastering, lacquer cutting and pressing, there are many steps, each playing a vital role in quality. We’ve written about lacquer cutting here and in this article we are taking a closer look at mastering audio specifically for vinyl. We reached out to Mastering Engineer Matthew Gray to get a better understanding of the process – what it is and why it is important.
Hi Matt, thanks for answering our questions. Let’s start at the top – how would you describe the role of a mastering engineer?
A mastering engineers role is as a final quality control check for your project before it gets released to the public. It ensures consistency across songs in terms of dynamics and tonal balance and therefore helps it to translate across a broader range of platforms, listening devices and playback systems irrespective of the format the music is being delivered to. i.e. vinyl, CD, digital.
How did you become a mastering engineer?
First I was a musician (drummer), having played and recorded in many bands over a two decade period. My love for all things music lead me to a passion for sound engineering. Starting off as a recording and mixing engineer, then later switching roles to mastering which seems to suit my OCD style of personality very well. It’s all about the ‘details’. I’m fastidious about ensuring any music that crosses my desk leaves sounding balanced, enhanced, professional and ready for release.
What is something every artist should know if they want to mastering audio for vinyl?
Vinyl is a very mechanical process with lots of things to consider. First would be to ensure that they aren’t trying to put too many songs on each side. For a 12″ ideally it’s best to keep it no longer than 20 minutes per side. Technically speaking it’s also better to put acoustic or more dynamic songs at the end of each side in the track order of things to minimise distortions that occur towards the center of the lacquer. It’s also preferable for mastering and cutting engineers to receive mixes that aren’t push too hard for level, there is no benefit from limiting or clipping peaks too heavily when it comes to cutting a record. Leave a reasonable level of dynamics for the mastering or cutting engineer to work with.
What are some of your favourite projects you’ve mastered for vinyl during your career? Why?
One of my favourite jobs that I mastered for vinyl was Giorgio Moroder’s Déja-Vú album. Every aspect of the production from start to finish was top notch. It was released on the thicker 180g vinyl and the album was spread over two x 12″ records for maximum quality and loudness. Another LP I did more recently for a local duet called ‘Lontano – Depending On You’ was done very well and cut by Scott Hull at Masterdisk in NY. It’s Suitcase Record’s choice of using Scott Hull for cutting all the lacquers for the jobs you press that drew me to recommending you guys to my clients. Scott has a real consistency to his work, has one of the best Neumann VMS80 lathes and has many years of experience cutting vinyl under his belt. This gives me a lot of confidence when I’m listening and approving the test pressings for my clients.
Why do you think vinyl has become so popular again in recent years?
I think there’s something special about the format. Having a physical product of that size makes the artwork a real feature of the release and the whole listening experience something special. I think a lot of vinyl consumers like that aspect of it tremendously. There’s also something very beautiful and organic about setting aside some time to just sit and listen to your favourite record in your lounge room. Modern formats and devices just don’t give you the same type of experience but still have their place, like when you’re on the go and it’s more of a background thing. Having a dedicated listening room to play a record is a whole different experience entirely. It transports you back in time to how everyone used to listen to and enjoy music.
What is the difference between a mixing engineer who would typically work on a record as it’s being recorded and a mastering engineer, which from my understanding, doesn’t usually work on a track until the very end of the recording process?
Mixing is focused on the balancing of individual elements within a song i.e. instruments and vocals whereas mastering focuses on the big picture as a whole. If I’m supplied a stereo mix to master, I can’t adjust individual levels within the mix, what I focus on instead is ensuring that the EQ and dynamics are even and that wherever it’s played, whether it’s on streaming devices, clubs, cars, home systems, phones etc. It’s going to sound consistent. The better the mix is though, the better the master will sound. I like to use the analogy that mastering is the ‘icing’ on the cake. Without it, it’s pretty boring… haha.
You can find out more about Matthew Gray Mastering via his website here.