Session Notes 4 - The Vinyl Frontier (Part 1 an introduction)
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Leaving the CD behind us for a while, I want to focus over the next few months on what is undoubtedly the most toxic plastic on the planet: VINYL... or to give it its full name, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Unfortunately often the ‘right on’ people who want to save the planet from plastic (myself included) are in a lot of cases the same ‘right on’ people who espouse vinyl LP records, and the hellish, crude oil and chemical processes needed to realise them. Hey ho.
I will refer to these products as ‘records’; the full name is actually phonograph record. Referring to them as ‘Vinyls’ is silly, as is referring to a CD as a ‘Polycarbonate Aluminium Sandwich’. So ‘records’ it is.
This is an introduction to what will be a lengthy description over the coming months of the whole process, from mastering audio destined for records, to cutting the lacquer, making the stampers, test pressings, labels and playback issues. The cutting and subsequent pressing of records is in my opinion one of the most inexact sciences I’ve ever encountered. It is a scientific process for sure but the results will almost certainly be different every time. I’m actually writing this listening to my Record Store Day purchases: Frank Zappa and Swervedriver, one of which I mastered.
One of the strange phenomena I’ve encountered recently is that a lot of people buy records to use as decorations for their homes: the covers look snazzy used as art posters! I know quite a few people who buy records but do not possess a turntable. The resurgence of records in the last five years in particular seems to be fetishistic as far as I can see. The dedication to vinyl some folk have borders on rabidity despite its inferior sonic and technical performance when compared to Hi-Def digital formats. Let’s face it: a needle wiggling around in a dust filled plastic groove is a pretty archaic form of technology these days. But people love the sound that results from this almost comedic playback method.
I have the luxury in my studio to make direct A/B comparisons of records I have mastered with the digital master that they were created from. I can tell you in every case the digital master sounded superior to the vinyl record. In some cases the difference is quite shocking. Preparing masters for record cutting is a very different process to preparing masters for CD. I have accumulated over 40 years of knowledge trying to get the best cut for a record, having talked at length to cutting engineers along the way to achieve the optimum cut.
The current formats available for records are 12”, 10” & 7”. The playing speeds can vary from 78 rpm (revolutions per minute), 45, 331⁄3, 162⁄3, and yes, believe it or not, 81⁄3. Playing a record will wear it out. The stylus comes in direct contact with the groove walls and with every play erodes them slightly. Incidentally the average groove length on a 12” @ 331⁄3 is 1500ft (460 m) and the relative speed of the record in relation to the stylus is about 1mph. Its relative speed is faster at the outside edge than the inner grooves, which is where we encounter another problem: ‘inner groove distortion’ (more on that in a later issue). CDs on the other hand play from the inside out and the rotational speed of the CD is altered over time to provide what is known as ‘constant linear velocity’ (CLV). Also the CD does not wear out from having a laser shone at it.
One other amazing fact about the vinyl disc: RCA developed a format called CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc). It was a short lived video format. Yes, that’s right: video on a vinyl; it actually existed for a few short years in the early 80s.
Next month I’ll get into the nitty gritty of preparing audio for records.