The vinyl album – few musical experiences come close to the physical, aural and mental pleasure that holding and playing a vinyl record gives. From the initial handling of that 12” square package and the feel of extracting the album from the sleeve, the placement on the turntable on the platter and the slow, damped lowering of the cartridge onto the record, it’s a feast of senses that is unmatched by any other playback format.
It’s the culmination of many different but closely linked creative processes, curated by a number of highly-skilled experts in their fields, and you may not know just how many of these there are.
So, here’s our guide to making an album, from start to finish.
Without the creativity of the artists, there is of course no album! Whether it’s self-penned original music, new material provided by others or a cover version, it’s the artist that delivers the passion, feeling and emotion that engages the listener, telling the story.
Their musical proficiency is what brings the music to life.
The recording engineer and his team are the ones who know how to capture every ounce of emotion, making sure that the right equipment is properly configured, mics placed properly and the best possible recording is captured, take after take if necessary. Mic choice will vary from artist to artist and it’s the engineer’s job to get the best source recording – it can’t be made ‘better’ later.
This role knows when to add processing to a recording or equalization, or to leave the processing for mixdown. It’s taken years of learning the craft, being mentored and experimenting with ideas to get to this point.
This is the sound equivalent of the film director, coaching the artist, making production suggestions on what could be added where and working with the audio engineer to capture the artist’s personality.
The Mixdown or Balance engineer
Usually this is the recording engineer, taking all the multiple recorded parts of the material and blending them together to make a sweet-sounding piece. The role involves adding effects such as reverb, dynamics (compression, de-essers etc.) to create what’s known as the balance.
Sometimes the mixdown will be done in a separate studio from recording (or tracking).
The mastering engineer’s job is to prepare the sound files for transferring to disk (or CD in the old days 😊) and create or ‘cut’ the master lacquer or metal disk from which the master ‘stamper’ will be made, which will then be used to press the final vinyl.
This where the music takes on the look of a vinyl record.
Cutting is where a lacquer master disk is ‘cut’ using a special lathe using the audio – essentially the inverse of a record player where the stylus makes the grooves rather than reading them. The original method used an acetate or lacquer disk, but more modern techniques cut directly to a metal (usually copper) disk. This latter method is known as DMM or Direct Metal Mastering.
It’s a highly-specialized skill which takes many years of experience in physics, electronics, computer programming and vinyl manufacturing technologies to perfect.
This engineer has to control the cutting head on the ‘lathe’ to provide the best sound quality while ensuring all the audio fits onto the disk – it’s those wiggles you see on the record. Too close together and you lose quality and risk distortion, too far apart and the music won’t fit and you risk damaging a record player’s stylus. Since the cutting level (volume) on the record is dependent on the length of the program, accurate timings are critical. The time for each track, and the total running time, including spaces between songs, must be provided for each side.
Of course, 2 master disks are needed for an album, one for each side.
The Stamping producer
The lacquer or copper disk now goes to create the metal stamper which will be used to press the final vinyl.
First, the master is coated in metal, or electroformed. This is then peeled off and forms a ‘negative’ of the disk, having ridges instead of grooves.
That will then be electroplated and that is peeled off to create a positive version (with grooves, like the acetate.
Finally, that too will be electroplated and peeled to create the final negative (with ridges) which will be our stamper.
Needless to say, each process is carefully controlled and mistakes cannot be made, or any spec of dust or dirt allowed to contaminate any of the negatives or positives.
Once the master stampers have been produced, it’s time to press the actual records.
The stamper needs to be trimmed to fit the record press mold, and precision is vital here.
- The center hole must be EXACTLY centered, any deviation will be obvious in the final records.
- The back of the stamper must be absolutely smooth to avoid any imperfections affecting the press. This is usually a manual process, polished by hand, and so is another highly-skilled profession, taking many years of practice and patience.
Once the stampers are fitted to the molds, the pressing machine can start. Into each mold is fed pre-heated vinyl pellets, the molds themselves also being pre-heated.
Vinyl is often recycled, but this also means that some label paper may be included. SoundScapes uses only virgin vinyl so there are no potential impurities in your records.
The stampers, top and bottom, converge to press the vinyl into shape and ‘transfer’ the grooves from the positive. The center labels are simultaneously pressed into the vinyl so the record is completed in one hit.
The vinyl is allowed to cool before being removed from the press.
Test pressings will often be made before a full production run, to ensure all interested parties, including the artist of course, are happy with the end result.
Once more, these are all arts which are gained from experience and skill.
The sleeve your album comes in is all part of the experience of buying and owning new vinyl. Holding that 12” square folding package gives you a feeling of value that a CD case simply cannot. It contains artwork, images, photos, sleeve notes and is something that looks great on your wall too!
The graphic designer has spent years honing their skills. They have an eye for what looks good and it’s their job to interpret what the music means, and how to express that visually.
There are many designed and printed components to consider: Of course, the outer jacket has to be top-notch, this is the vehicle that first speaks to the customer and contains the music art. But as we consider the entire package, there is so much more: inner sleeve, center labels, maybe a poster, and of course, the “hype sticker”. Decisions like matte or glossy, weight of the paper, number of colors and a plethora of other details come together to make the package worthy of ownership, preservation and celebration.
Those sleeve notes didn’t get there on their own. The copywriter slaves for a long time to perfect the words that not only list the various artists and specialists involved in the recording, but maybe a history of the artist, the rationale behind the lyrics.
It’s something that vinyl lovers’ treasure, the first port of call once that new record is safely on the platter and the stylus is making its first excursions into the grooves.
The people who deliver the final package are also artists in their own field. The know the best way to take the finished vinyl and complete the experience. They are experts in the printing process and take care to get the colors correct, the folds in the cardboard are perfect and everything is trimmed correctly.
Added up, there’s probably well into 300 years of experience and skill that goes in to making an album, so $25 for a lifetime’s enjoyment is pretty darned good value, right?