With music piracy rampant, today’s CD sales are lower than ever. It would seem that the only medium that is not only maintaining it’s sales levels, but growing rapidly is the trusty vinyl LP. Almost every major label and working independent artist’s music is being released on vinyl because of vinyl’s increase in popularity in the last few years. So, as professional audio engineers, we should be familiar with some of the techniques and standards of recording and mixing for vinyl!
SOME THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN MIXING FOR VINYL
Knowing how to mix for vinyl requires an awareness of what the medium can and cannot do, and a good audio production school will teach you this awareness. Unlike with digital, the laws of physics dictate the way we work with wax (wax is what many audio engineers and DJ’s call vinyl, referring to the original wax masters that audio was recorded to). The first thing to take into account with vinyl is playing time. Your standard, 33 1/3 rpm LP can fit approximately 23 minutes of program material per side. The 45 rpm 7” can fit around 4 minutes per side. Now you see why the length of a typical pop song is under 4 minutes!
Something else to consider when mixing for vinyl: the length of your songs per side dictates the loudness of your wax. In basic terms, the wider the groove, called the lateral excursion, the louder or stronger the signal is. This is why the 12” single became popular with dance music. One song, taking up the entire side of an LP, would have a giant groove and play really loudly with extended low frequencies.
Conversely, trying to fit 5 or 6 songs on one side of a 12” would make the grooves very narrow and therefore would make the sound quieter. Talk with the vinyl mastering engineer to advise you on level versus playing time to help you decide on song order and whether or not you need more than one LP for release!
When mixing for vinyl, you must also be careful with extremely high frequencies (HF). Vocal sibilance, cymbals, some brass instruments, and any aggressive high frequency EQ will cause real problems with cutting the wax. Prior to cutting the vinyl, the RIAA HF pre-emphasis is added to the audio and, if the signal has HF that is too high, there is a chance of damaging the disc cutting head or a least creating a very unpleasant effect on the record.
Low frequencies (LF) will present a different set of problems, in particular equal levels of opposing phase information. This will make the record player (typically with cheaper cartridges) unable to properly track the vertical movement while the vinyl spins and the groove changes form shallow/narrow to deep/wide. Usually, a LF crossover system is employed to make sure that low frequencies are reordered and and cut so LF is equal in both left and right channels.
These errors can be caused by improper mic technique that cause phase issues, over panning of LF instruments (this is why your kick drum and bass instruments are typically best in the center of a mix), effects that create extreme out of phase conditions (like flangers and too much reverb), or over equalization of low end. All of these recording and mixing errors will make the vinyl uncuttable.
When learning how to mix for vinyl, also keep in mind that the vinyl disc doesn’t have the full range that digital media has! Keep this in mind when mixing and mastering. Don’t make your mix levels too loud or use a brick wall limiter too aggressively when mastering.
If you approach your mixing with these basics in mind, the transfer to wax will be a successful and great sounding process. But if you don’t, you will leave your mixes up to the skill of the cutting engineer, who will use whatever processing needed to protect their equipment and get your mix to play on vinyl. This leaves no guarantee that your mix will sound like what you had envisioned once it hits wax!
LEARN HOW TO PRODUCE MUSIC YOURSELF
Before you can be a music production professional, you’ll need a quality education from a good audio production school like F.I.R.S.T. Institute, one of the best audio engineering schools in Florida. There you’ll learn what you need to get your new audio production career off the ground. You’ll get hands on experience, in real studio settings, with small class sizes. Faculty at F.I.R.S.T. Institute are working audio engineering industry professionals who have a passion for mentoring the next generation of audio engineers and producers. Check out the Audio Engineering and Music Production program at the F.I.R.S.T. Institute audio production school today.