Mastering for Vinyl – Why It’s Different Than Digital

Mastering for vinyl is a different process than when you intend to release your music digitally or on CD. Digital masters work just fine for a CD release (they are what are used when making the DDP creation). Vinyl has certain limitations which you don’t run into with a digital or CD release, so let’s talk about them now.

Mastering for Vinyl

First, let me get a quick plug in (plugin?) and mention that I do vinyl mastering at my sister site, I was inspired to write about it here because it’s interesting how the process is different. That and demand for vinyl projects has exploded in the last few years versus when I started (imagine that).

But yes, there are a number of things you can get away with with a digital/streaming/CD version of a song versus vinyl. This all goes to the limitations of the physical medium of the record itself.

mastering for vinyl

Do You Need a Separate Master for Vinyl?

Let me preface all of this by saying the following points aren’t black and white rules across the board.

In many instances, a digital master CAN work just fine for a vinyl release.

So DO you need a separate master for vinyl? Oftentimes, no.

Would the vinyl ultimately sound BETTER with a separate set of masters which are specifically intended for vinyl? Oftentimes, yes.

It’s really a matter of how much the artist cares.

You don’t need a separate master for vinyl, but typically some things would sound better when accounting for vinyl.

Let’s get into them.

Too Much Limiting

Because of the “Loudness Wars” which began decades ago and still rage on today (even with the ushering in of the Normalization era), artists want their releases to be as loud as possible.

Our ears perceive louder as having more energy and being more exciting. All things being equal, the louder instance of a song will always beat its quieter counterpart.

Limiting is a type of extreme compression used particularly in the mastering process to push a mix’s volume to, well, the limit.

It’s a compressor set to an extremely high compression ratio along with a ceiling to prevent it from going over 0dB and clipping.

The lower you set the threshold, the more of the level of the track essentially is reduced to the same volume by virtue of that extreme ratio. For instance, if you have a ratio of 100:1, this means every 100 dB over the threshold, it gets reduced to 1dB. With a ratio this high (as is the case in limiting), it doesn’t matter if you exceed the threshold by 1dB or 20dB, it’s all going to sound about the same on the output.

This reduces the dynamic range of the song, technically prevents clipping, and makes the overall song louder. This also produces distortion as you can hear the limiter squishing much of that song’s dynamic range to be the same volume.

You can get by several dB on average of gain reduction by way of a limiter on a digital or CD release without the distortion becoming too noticeable.

On vinyl, this distortion becomes exacerbated, particularly in high frequency rich songs. This is especially true as you get closer to the center of the record and the grooves get smaller and more compressed.

Too much limiting is arguably the biggest difference in mastering for vinyl versus digital.

LUFS for Vinyl

I get this question sometimes, or what’s the best LUFS for vinyl.

LUFS, or loudness units full scale, is essentially a measurement for the perceived volume of a piece of music. This can be measured in the short term or to measure an entire song (see my LUFS vs dB explanation for more information).

Average volume in LUFS doesn’t matter so much as ensuring that the limiter has little to no gain reduction occurring.

In other words, the best LUFS for vinyl is whatever the number is with a limiter at the end of the chain showing less than a dB on average of gain reduction.

This will make your vinyl as loud as it needs to be without any issues of distortion, virtually regardless of frequency information.

Not a sexy answer, I know, but it’s the truth.

The good thing is that with vinyl, there’s literally no reason to limit your masters to the point of gain reduction.

With no back to back playback with another album in quick succession like you get on a streaming playlist, differences in average volume with other records aren’t noticeable. When someone puts on a record, they adjust the volume as necessary and move on. It’s just a part of the act of putting on and playing that record in the first place.

The other good thing is that most people who invest in vinyl aren’t as interested in insanely loud sounding records. They buy the vinyl because they love its unique sound, and those dynamics are a huge part of it.

Ironic how the “limitations” of the medium actually make it sound better and more natural by keeping those dynamics intact.

Wide Bass on Vinyl

EDM can sound great on vinyl, but it’s one of the genres you may need to do the most adjustments for. Wide bass, meaning bass which isn’t limited to the center of the mix, is a hallmark of EDM and electronic music in general.

There’s a bit of a misnomer that wide bass, meaning stereo bass, is a problem for vinyl.

It’s partially true in that sometimes wide bass comes with phase issues which can through the needle out of whack. Especially loud stereo bass can eat up a lot of space on a groove, something I’ll talk about in a moment.

Too much bass in general can make a needle jump out of its groove, but we’re talking extremes here, and I digress.

It’s a common practice to mono all frequencies below a certain point with the bass in mind. Obviously I’m just talking high passing 100Hz or maybe 200Hz on the sides at most. You want to be conservative here as there are likely instruments on the sides which have important frequency information in the low mids, so we don’t want to lose those.

If the mastering engineer doesn’t do it, the cutting engineer may do it themselves if they deem it necessary. It’s a case by case basis.

As an aside, panned bass doesn’t make a lot of sense as our ears have difficulty determining location when it comes to low frequencies.

This means oftentimes at best you don’t get the benefits associated with wide bass unless you’re using headphones, and at worst it causes issues in the vinyl.

De-Essing and Low Passing

It’s not just the low end which can be a problem.

As I mentioned earlier, high frequencies are the most likely to cause distortion on vinyl.

It’s important to attenuate sibilance in a vinyl master and go easy on boosting those highest frequencies.

Some engineers recommend low passing as low as 18k, meaning cutting everything above 18k in your mix.

Once again, while it’s something to keep in mind, there’s no hard rules to this. Oftentimes this should just be left to the cutting engineer responsible for creating the physical vinyl itself.

Vinyl Dynamic Range/Sequencing

A lot of times when you buy the vinyl copy of an album you already know well, you might be surprised to see that the tracklist is different. This is done out of necessity because of how records play.

Most records play from the outside in. The grooves of the record themselves are wider the farther out you get on the record. This allows for more dynamic range and bass in a piece of music.

The closer you get to the inside of the record, the less bass and dynamic range that record can accommodate.

This is why sequencing is so important on vinyl.

Louder, more bass heavy songs should go on the outside of the record. As the needle works its way inward and the grooves get narrower, the energy of the record should calm down as you get into your quieter, less dynamic songs. Flip the record over and you can repeat the process, putting your loudest songs first.

Louder and bassier songs and genres in general tend to take up more space, so it’s not uncommon to see an album in a genre like metal or EDM take up two records for one album on average versus a singer songwriter.

Sequencing can be a touchy subject with some artists, and understandably so. You make an album which is your baby, and part of that is carefully constructing the tracklist. When you’re faced with the reality of the limitations of vinyl, it can be a bummer, but a necessary one.

Mastering for Vinyl Reviewed

  • Mastering for vinyl specifically isn’t always necessary. Sometimes the CD/digital masters will work just fine. Oftentimes a vinyl specific master will yield better results.
  • Little to no limiting, meaning little to no gain reduction, is ideal for vinyl mastering.
  • Wide bass can cause phase issues which affect the balance and groove depth on vinyl. Too much boomy bass can cause the needle to jump from its groove. Both should be considered when mastering for vinyl.
  • Sibilance and high frequencies can cause distortion in vinyl. Special attention to de-essing and low pass filtering are sometimes recommended to get a better vinyl master.
  • Vinyl records typically play from the outside in. At the outside edge, the grooves are the widest which allows for louder and wider information.
  • With that in mind, sequencing needs to be considered. Louder, more bass heavy songs should go first on each side of the record and vice versa.

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