We’ve had several jobs recently remastering audio for vinyl, so I’ve written a short article about why it’s important, explaining the difference in mastering for digital vs vinyl, and answer common questions such as “Can I use digital masters for vinyl records?”.
Releasing a vinyl record is an expensive business. It’s tempting to cut corners where possible to save money, and inevitably at some point the question gets asked… “Is a separate master really necessary for vinyl? Or can I use CD masters for vinyl music?
Short answer = You should really use a separate vinyl master for the best results.
Your Masters that are created for digital use (Streaming/download/CD) are the no-compromise, perfect sound quality version you as the the artist wants. On digital platforms, and on CD there are virtually no creative limitations to what can be achieved in the stereo mix and master, as digital playback systems can deal with it.
It’s not the same on physical vinyl. If you try to use the digital master on a vinyl cut, suddenly you might find that awesome bass effect sounds quite different, or worse makes the needle skip. You may find the sparkly upper midrange now sounds a lot more harsh. You’re sure the digital master sounds punchier, more vibrant, more alive. What’s up?
Often masters for digital are accepted by the vinyl pressing plant, as they are technically OK to press on vinyl, but the end result could be disappointing sound quality which may sound less vibrant than the same masters listened to on digital streaming platforms like Spotify or a CD.
Using masters optimized for digital use to press vinyl can result in a slightly flatter sound, less dynamic range, various levels of distortion, skipping needles when playing back, and less overall “life” than on the digital masters – a shame after spending so much money on getting the records pressed!
Why Does Dynamic Range Matter So Much When Pressing Vinyl?
What is dynamic range? = a measurement of the difference between the absolute quietest sound, and the absolute loudest sound that something is able to represent.
An unplugged electric guitar can play very quietly, but can’t go very loud at all, so it has a low dynamic range. A drum can play just as quietly as the guitar, but of course can go way louder, hence a large dynamic range.
Related to mastering: A slammed, super-loud EDM Pop master would usually have much less dynamic range than a space-jazz epic.
Different mediums have different dynamic ranges too. CD, vinyl, cassette and digital files all have different limitations of dynamic range.
In contrast to what you might expect, the louder and heavier the digital master is, the flatter, quieter and generally more-rubbish-sounding the vinyl will usually be! Why? Because the dynamic range on vinyl is massively less than is available on digital formats, so compromises must be made at the pressing plant to compensate for your massive digital master.
So although many people feel vinyl sounds “better” it is scientific fact that in terms of dynamic range, digital can handle louder-louds, and quieter-quiets.
Without getting bogged-down into too many boring academic details and variables like dithering which can skew the measurements, let’s quickly check out the difference in the dynamic range of 3 common mediums:
24 Bit WAV digital audio (common “studio” quality for recording and bouncing final mixes pre-mastering): a dynamic range of 144dB, which goes from really-bloody-quiet, right through to thunderously loud!
16 Bit WAV (CD quality): dynamic range is 96 dB, so you see there’s dramatically less possible volume difference between the loudest sound and the quietest sound. 48 dB is a lot of difference.
Vinyl: Can vary dramatically, but it averages out around 80dB dynamic range, with some wriggle-room. That’s much louder-quiets, and quieter-louds available on vinyl!
You can see that only taking into account the factor of dynamic range, there are big differences that should be accounted for when mastering for vinyl.
If you are absolutely in love with your existing fat digital master, we can adjust it for you to suit the vinyl medium specs and translate beautifully in the way you want and expect.
Mastering for vinyl records is a very worthwhile part of the process. For a comparatively small extra charge, you can have faith that your tracks are represented as well as possible, and you won’t ever be wondering if your record could have sounded a bit better if you’d got the additional pre-vinyl mastered versions…
Case Study – Preparing Digital Masters for Vinyl
A client wanted to use his CD masters for vinyl pressing, and sent them to us, as the pressing plant warned them the cut would have issues because the masters had been pushed quite hard, and had some low-end phase issues. He didn’t have the unmastered mixes anymore, so needed to use the existing CD masters.
Often CD masters have been pushed hard for volume at the expense of dynamic range, and this could lead to a compromised vinyl cut sounding flat and lifeless. Of course, they are also at 16 bit too.
So we did a little restoration: We restored the dynamic transients from the original CD masters, increasing the dynamic range, restoring life, bounce and natural energy, and ensuring a stomping vinyl cut!.
Look at the picture: Blue waveforms = original masters, Orange ones = after we restored the dynamic range.
Notice how the lower waveforms look more open and natural now. The transients have been delicately & naturally restored. You can see how the natural subtle energy has been given back, and the life breathed back in.
He was happy with the overall sound of the original masters, so we were careful not to mess with the tone and only adjust the technical aspects, including increasing dynamic range and transients, ensuring there was no low-end phase problems, checking the upper-mids and high-frequencies carefully to ensure they wouldn’t sound harsh on vinyl, and providing some extra headroom.
To the listener it sounds very much the same as the previous masters, but the new files are much more suited for the vinyl medium. Mastering for vinyl specs will give a better quality cut, and generally soundbetter.
Using Digital Masters For Vinyl – A False Economy
So to answer the question “can I use digital masters for vinyl records?” = Maybe, but why risk making the vinyl sound rubbish to save a small fraction of the overall cost? It’s like buying a house but not a bed.
If your test pressings come back sounding bad, and you realize it’s the digital masters at fault, you will have to order (and pay!) for more test pressing next time around. PLUS the cost of getting proper pre-vinyl masters done next time around too!
Vinyl pressing plants have long lead times already (6 weeks is pretty standard), and small delays can cost extra weeks in the real-world. We dipped our toes into being a vinyl broker once and it was a nightmare with the ever-changing lead-times, so it’s important to send everything off right first time and save yourself time, money and hassle in the long run.
Make Your Vinyl Sound Fat As Funk!
Fat As Funk has been mastering for vinyl since 2006. Whether it’s remastering old recordings for vinyl, getting fat digital masters with proper pre-vinyl masters made at the same time (for a massive discount), or remastering already-mastered material to be optimized for vinyl – come to Fat As Funk!
Our mastering for vinyl price is the same as for digital if that’s the only format you want, and if you want an alternative master for digital use done at the same time, we can do this at a huge discount.
Cost example: If you get 10 tracks mastered for digital it’s £230 all-in. You can get proper pre-vinyl masters done at the same time for only £10 each/£100 – a saving of £130 when bought at the same time!
You can try our online mastering free, just upload a track. When you are ready for full mastering, consider getting pre-vinyl masters done at the same time if you are getting vinyl pressed, or even just a few custom vinyl record dublates.
In this day of the disposable digital-only single culture, the release of a proper, full album is a thing of beauty. An album remains the best place to showcase your musical works and demonstrate who you are as an artist.
Our album mastering service is where we really demonstrate our skill too. Mastering an album requires subtlety, intuition & a certain sprinkle of black magic that can only come with plenty of experience.
Even if you have a mixture of soft & heavy songs on the album, the end result must make them flow perfectly together, & smooth out any discrepancies between mixes. This must be achieved while keeping your original preferences & ideas in mind.
Highly dynamic, subtle music must be blended flawlessly & sensitively into an understated work of art. By contrast a bass-heavy, banging album needs to hit the listener hard and loud all the way through. The skill comes in minimising the compromises needed on each track to join-up different tracks naturally. A compilation album is the most extreme example of this problem, but most albums have some variation that needs smoothing out.
Be Beyond Binary – Feel The Music In All Stages
Whatever the music needs, an experienced mastering engineer can intuitively make it happen – they must feel the vibe first to know the best approach to master an album!
The best album mastering service is a human expert. Mastering an album is not a “1-size fits all” task that can be properly achieved with technical metering alone. It’s important to trust your gut – where the music is felt.
No A.I. online mastering service (like eMastered or Landr for example) can actuallyfeel music in the same way as you the artist did when creating it – by definition A.I. automatic mastering can only ever see it as digital binary code. Musicians think and feel beyond binary.
A.I. online mastering is getting better, but there’s a big difference between an unfeeling computer algorithm making decisions based only on maths, Vs a human music lover with soul thinking “that 2nd guitar riff is fu**ing wicked – I’ll bring that out!”.
Analogue hardware is another essential part in achieving next-level sound quality across your album. Especially if the track was produced 100% “In the box” as so many are these days, a lovely mastering-grade analog tube EQ for example, can enhance it sweeter than any plugins could, and bring a certain “magic” to the sound that is still not-quite “there” yet with even the best plugins.
Your finished album should sound cohesive, level matched & with appropriate pauses between tracks (or seamlessly if you prefer). Softer songs shouldn’t feel overly pushed, and banging tracks should feel fat and hefty – and most importantly should both sound “right” when played together. This is where experience comes in.
Dynamic range won the loudness wars – celebrate!
Mastering in 2022 is a little different to a few years ago. Physical CD releases are less common every day, and streaming services are using sophisticated auto-volume levelling to even out playback between songs.
This means that trying to max out your tracks to compete for the ultimate perceived volume blast is not as important as it used to be (although we are fully equipped to max out the volume if you want).
Depending on the genre of music, you may prefer the sound of a more dynamic, quieter master which can sound punchier and more dynamic on streaming services than a super-compressed crunched master. Most music sounds better with more dynamic range. Also with services such as Spotify Loud, listeners have a certain amount of control over the perceived loudness of playback.
Of course many electronic genres and heavy rock styles just sound fatter with a more pushed, louder master – and it is what’s expected from the listener. There is a lot of well-meaning pressure from some places not to push your music to an extreme level, but in the real world a heavy dance track finished to the suggested -14LUFS will simply sound weak in comparison to similar tracks, even with volume levelling. This is a slightly controversial opinion, but a realistic one. Looking at the vast majority of big dance and heavy rock tracks released, they are finished much louder than -14LUFS, and everyone loves it.
So really the best choice is what is right for your genre of music AND your intention as an artist. As an experienced mastering engineer I know immediately what is the best LUFS to master an album.
These auto-volume levelling systems are only going to get better, so it really makes sense to master your music for ultimate sound quality for your individual album and genre, not just maximum volume for the sake of it OR stick rigidly to a LUFS number without taking into account the needs and expectations of your genre. We recommend this approach – if you have other ideas, we are happy to oblige you.
It’s important to finish the album slightly differently for a vinyl press run too, so the vinyl version translates well in keeping with the version finished for digital. There are a few key differences in the mastering finish if it’s going to be pressed on vinyl to avoid problems with the cut, and make it sound great. Often using masters that have been finished for digital use will lead to a less dynamic vinyl cut, and not “kick” as hard as you’d hoped. We recommend getting dedicated pre-vinyl optimised masters in the same session (for only £10 each).
If you are having a CD run made, you can then optionally deliver a DDP file to the pressing plant. A DDP is like 1 special zip file with everything needed to make a CD, with all your ISRC codes, credits and title metadata embedded. This is not essential, but some pressing plants request them, and it is the neatest, most secure way to deliver your album.
Let’s Go Far Out For A Moment
Loz (our mastering engineer) is a zen practitioner and generally esoteric chap. He uses barebow archery, meditation and other ways to clear his headspace when the computer gets too much, and comes back to the job with fresh perspective and clarity.
We feel this gives us an edge which, in our opinion, helps make us one of the best mastering services around (especially when you consider our highly competitive rates). These visceral approaches really come into play when finding the correct natural point in an album to start work from, and in the final levelling and “tying it all together” thus making the final result flow together beautifully (spoiler alert: you can’t just rely on a LUFS meter to level out an album properly).
Trying not to be too much of a hippy about it, but perhaps music is a tangible expression of the living, all-connected energy of the universe, and when musicians are totally buzzing during a recording, they are channelling that energy during their flow state – reflecting their synergy with the universe at that time. That’s when a track turns from good to awesome.
When the hairs on your neck stand up and you feel your blood run cold from hearing your great new song on a fresh head, or you just know that this take is “the one” while you’re recording it – that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what needs to be channelled during mastering an album. Why throw all your magic to an A.I. tech company’s cash-cow, (essentially just running your music through a meter-adjusted plugin preset chain) just to save a small amount of money right at the end of your creative process – one of the most crucial stages. Get a human expert instead who can feel your music.
Fat As Funk – Est. 2006. – Album Mastering Experts
Fat As Funk offers great rates on album mastering, & you can order with confidence knowing that your carefully crafted studio mix will stand up as a complete work you can be proud of.
You can try our online mastering free. Upload your track today for a free stereo mastering demo!
If you want to test our stem mastering before committing to a full analogue mix+master, you can buy some stems and try it at a greatly reduced cost! (Stem mastering is like a mini-mix+master).
We usually hit the sweet-spot first time, but rest assured that if you feel any adjustments are necessary, we will gladly tweak our work for free. We insist on our clients being thrilled with their masters, as we want you to tell your friends how pleased you were with all aspects of our work. If you’re happy with your album, we’re happy.
We would love to transform your recordings into a record! Try us today and level-up your sound!
Humans are the natural choice to master your music – A.I. bots are getting better all the time, but they can’t feel the rush of a hot performer, or the anticipation of a bass drop. An A.I. bot will never shed a tear when the violins rise up, or a surge of energy deep within them from a wicked riff. You can… We can.
Mastering bots don’t have the soul that your music does. Hire a human for this crucial last stage.
You cantry online mastering for zero cost (from a human expert), with no obligation to buy. We want to make your music sound amazing.
There’s nothing to lose, and the potential to make your music sound nice and expensive, for free!
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