Excerpted from our new guide The Musician’s Guide To Vinyl, this post is a quick study of the science behind the magic of the vinyl record
Vinyl records are back. Of course, they never really went away, but the resurgence of vinyl means that manufacturing, releasing, and distributing an album on 12″ and 7″ vinyl is – once again – a viable option for your independent release. We’re thrilled to be part of the return of this medium; vinyl harkens to the origins of Disc Makers, after all. And renewing the debate over analog vs. digital recording in an age obsessed with technology and expedience is what we audiophiles live for.
Whatever your reasons for releasing an album or single on vinyl, there are realities to come to terms with, particularly the fact that the “art and science” of mastering and manufacturing has a lot more to do with art when it comes to vinyl records.
Producing quality records on vinyl requires experience, skill, and know-how, and ultimately means more compromises when it comes to reproducing your source material. It’s also important to understand that vinyl manufacturing relies on unique production facilities, which currently translates to much longer production schedules when manufacturing vinyl records, compared to CDs.
How does vinyl work?
Sound is the vibration of particles across a medium – air and water, for instance – in the form of waves. In 1877, Thomas Edison first developed a way to imprint this information onto tinfoil by etching the electrical signal of a sound wave with a needle. Then, with another needle connected to an amplifier and speaker, he was able to read that recorded information and create sound waves.
A decade later, Emile Berliner used the same principles, recording to a rubber disc, and then shellac – the predecessor of the vinyl used for modern-day release.
While Edison originally envisioned the phonograph being used as a recording device for dictation and teaching, Berliner’s gramophone introduced the era of the recorded musical album, providing a way to mass produce recordings for people to play on systems in their homes. The process is similar to how records are enjoyed today.
A stylus, or record needle, is one component in a transducer – a device that converts electrical energy into mechanical energy (or vice versa). In the case of a record player, this transducer is a cartridge – composed of a stylus, cantilever, magnets, coils, and body – which converts the mechanical energy of the recorded vibrations into sound waves, which are amplified and broadcast through speakers.
A stylus is cone-shaped and typically made from diamond or other gemstone or hard metal. The stylus fits into the grooves of the record, picking up and sending the etched vibrations through cartridge, which converts the information into an electrical signal, sent to an amplifier that boosts the signal’s power, and then to the speakers, which broadcast the sound.
The stylus’ job is to read all the information in the grooves, which were originally created using another needle as part of a transducer – in this case, converting the electrical energy of the sound waves into vibrations etched into the record grooves. In a stereo record groove, the right channel is recorded on the right wall, and the left channel is recorded on the left.
While mastering engineers preparing a recording for transfer to vinyl will adjust the groove pitch to account for dynamics in the program (i.e., louder and softer sections of your music), there are maximum and minimum depths permitted. Too much low frequency information combined with a lot of information spread across the stereo field can result in the stylus jumping out of the groove and skipping. Too shallow and narrow a groove, and the recorded sound can lose its stereo image and suffer from low volume.
Furthermore, a record only has so much space to contain the grooves. The length of your program – as well as the levels and frequencies contained in your recording – will affect the depth and width of the grooves, and ultimately the quality of the playback. This is one reason why mastering a recording for vinyl release is an important step in creating a high-quality end product.
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