Make Your Album Sound Great on Vinyl

If you’re planning to release an LP, it’s helpful to plan ahead. It’s important for your mixes to sound good when they’re played back from a record. Mix techniques that may sound great on headphones can cause trouble during the record manufacturing process. Time limitations of a record side will affect the volume and the amount of bass that can be cut.  If your record has vocals, special care needs to be taken with sibilant consonant sounds like “s” and “f”, especially for songs that will be on an album side’s inner tracks.

While a lathe can cut any reasonable audio signal without a problem, the limitations of vinyl are playback limitations. These tips will help you make sure your album will play as you intended.

Pay Close Attention to Time

The longer an album side gets, the less volume and bass can be on that side. For a 12” album that plays at 33 RPM, almost anything can be cut on a 16 minute side.  When album side length exceeds 20 minutes, the cutting engineer may need to alter the sound for the record to be manufacturable and playable. If you’re releasing an album with long sides, it is critical to optimize your mixes for vinyl playback.

Keep the Lowest Frequencies in the Center

When panning tracks to give a mix space, make sure that low-frequency sounds, like kick drum, bass guitar, or keyboard parts with low bass, are in or close to the center, especially if they are loud in the mix. Something as simple as a hard-panned floor tom can require additional processing so the album side is not cut at a lower volume. Subtle low end can be placed anywhere but a loud, hard-panned stereo keyboard bass can cause the playback stylus to jump ship.

In addition to hard-panned bass, room mics or reverb effects can have stereo difference at low frequencies. It’s helpful to high-pass these tracks, or high-pass just the sides, if there is a lot of energy below 200Hz on the sides.  Some effects, virtual instruments, or recording techniques purposely have out-of-phase content on the sides, and it’s especially important to manage the sub-bass for these sounds.  

To avoid having undesired sub-bass on the sides, when cutting a record, a special tool called an elliptical equalizer is used.  At a frequency set on this equalizer, sound below this frequency is combined from the sides to the center, to have the sub-bass only in the center. Some cutting studios always insert an elliptical equalizer into the signal path, even for mixes that are already appropriate for vinyl playback. We only add this processing when it is necessary.

Carefully Shape High-Frequencies

Treble overload is the next most important challenge when mixing for vinyl. For example, in a mix with vocals, sibilant consonants like “S” and “F”, will introduce challenges when the mix is played on a record. It’s important to deal with these quick, harsh sounds, either during tracking or mixing. For electronic or instrumental music, the same frequencies in percussion tracks can also cause this trouble, so their levels and equalization need to be carefully managed during mixing. One common mistake in mixing is to have the lead vocal bright, with a dull instrumental track behind it. If everything in a mix is dull, high frequencies can be added during mastering, and our Sontec and Dangerous Bax EQ are great for this job. If the vocal shatters glass and the drums are dull, then the mix can’t be fixed in mastering. These issues apply to all release formats, not just records, but vinyl can make these simple problems in a mix stand out. Because recorded groove moves slower for the last track on a side, managing high frequencies becomes more important for songs that will be near the end of each album side.

Side Lengths

When cutting a record side below 18 minutes, level and top end amounts are the main limitations to manage. When a record side is longer than 21 minutes, the amount of sub-bass and hard panned low end becomes the most important factor. For record sides past 23 minutes, volume and bass frequencies will have to be turned down. We’ve cut albums with fine sounding 28 minute sides, but to achieve this length, the mixer needs to be aware of the limiting factors in advance, and be careful with mixing choices. If you have questions about how your mixes will translate, send us a link to some sample material. We can evaluate this right away and tell you how it’s going to sound on vinyl!