One of the most common
advice and often a necessary requirement when it comes to vinyl mastering is
monoing the bass frequencies. What it means, is that mastering engineers and
pressing plants will firstly advise you to master your music with everything
below 150, 200hz or 300 hertz in mono for a smooth transition to the vinyl
format. Indeed, stereo low-end may cause serious difficulties to cut a master
disk, it may also cause playback issues such as a skipping record. But is this
always the case?
Simpson, Hicksville High School, class of 1961
RPM Records spoke with
Richard Simpson, cutting engineer for RCA, Contemporary and Erika Records.
Holding a solid 50 years’ experience in record cutting, winning a number of
Gold Records and working within the most professional mastering environment,
Richard shared his insights of the record cutting craft and drew a clear picture
of what it takes to cut stereo low-end explaining why you may want to take a
risk in doing so.
I started working for RCA
RECORDING STUDIOS in
My first record as a
mastering engineer or cutting engineer was John Denver – Take Me Home Country
Roads. The record was already released but not doing as well as expected. I
approached Milt OKUN, Johns producer and suggested re-cutting the lacquers
adding level and slight EQ changes. A lucky break for me, the record went on to
become a smash hit selling millions of records. I was rewarded with my first
Gold Record which turned into 10 more and a ten-year relationship cutting all of
John Denver’s hit records.
Along the way I was cutting
records for The Monkees, Guess Who, David Bowie, Kinks, Lou Reed and Elvis
Presley. The eighties came with cutting lots of dance, hip hop N.W.A, ICE-T,
Warren G. The nineties brought electronic sounds, my favorite being drum ‘n
bass, I was cutting records for artist producer Eric Hull” E-sassin”, Sound
Sphere Records. Cutting the loudest records possible, competing with levels
being cut at the Exchange UK.
For many years all the
records I cut went through a standard EQ process involving the low-end vertical
roll-off (VRO). A combining network centering the bass later on newer systems
had the elliptical equalizer (EE). I used one or the other for many years,
that’s the way I was taught. Using this low-end EQ allowed the cutting of
safer and louder records.
The two major problems that
can arise in the mastering of records is phase issues that cause the groove to
narrow to the point the playback stylus can not track the groove. Often the
groove being cut would cause the cutter head to lift off the lacquer causing the
groove to no longer be a continuous groove. This would also cause problems in
plating, since the groove wasn’t continuous it would tear or pull apart when
separating the stamper from the mother. The use of the EE made it easier to cut
a good, safe-sounding record.
Sibilance is the second
problem. The heavy “Sssss” sound or hissing sound not corrected in the
recording or mixing stage will cause problems when transferred to the master
lacquer. Such as tracking problems and distortion of the “Ssss” in playback
of the finished record.
It wasn’t until I started
working with Pete Lyman in early 2000 that my approach to cutting the low-end
changed. Like I said, the low-end EQ roll-off or monoing the bass was the norm.
Pete questioned this practice and didn’t think we should cut all records using
elliptical equalizer (EE), instead to try using a more or less EQing of bass
frequencies and not just rolling off and monoing the overall bass frequencies.
For the most part, the sound
was a fuller more pleasing sound when bypassing the use of VRO or EE in the
transfer from a source to a master disk. To the other extreme, while cutting at
RCA Hollywood in the mid-seventies, we were cutting all the Motown releases
using a graphic equalizer called the Motown filter, we had a standard practice
of cutting off everything below 70 cycles and everything above 12khz. They
wanted a loud punchy sound for radio air play.
To me, stereo bass was
recording the bass guitar or other low-end instruments using the A/B stereo
recording technique to create a sense of width in the recording. Another
technique called Blumlein Pair will capture a greater portion of the room sound
and adds a bit more ambience to the stereo image. The use of 2 bi-directional
mics with figure 8 pattern placed 90 degrees so that their capsules coincide at
a single point will give you this effect. In general, recording the bass in mono
works better. Many believe our ears are not good at obtaining directional
information from low frequencies, so it makes little sense to create a stereo
image for any low frequency instruments.
Again, that’s not always
the case and many believe that stereo low-end adds to the overall sound
experience. I myself agree with that statement. For example, listen to the band
Dire Straits or records produced by Mark Knofler. When the music is heard on a
record or streaming, the low-end surrounds you with a very full sound. That
spaciousness of sound is the stereo low-end.
The cutting of stereo
low-end will continue as it has. It comes down to if the recording is done right
along with good mixing, the master lacquers will be cut and sound as close as
possible to the source material. DMM is affected the same way as conventional
mastering. The DMM process cuts directly into a copper disk skipping the lacquer
mastering step. In theory, the noise level should be lower and the issue of pre
and post echo should not occur.
When I first started cutting
at RCA, the releases were cut in mono and stereo. The first Monkees album is a
good example of mono versus stereo. If you can find a mono record, you can hear
a big difference in level. The mono was cut 3 to 4db hotter than the stereo
version. After this release I was told to cut the mono and stereo at the same
I cut a lot of Jazz records
right after RCA closed its studios in
Daily, I would compare a
record to the master 2-track tape before cutting the master lacquers, making
sure the sound and level matched the original pressing. Again, the mono records
were louder than the stereo. Lester stated that his cutting engineer during the
period when mono was being replaced with stereo found it hard to cut stereo at
the levels of the mono records. This was caused by the placement of instruments
the same as in the mono recordings. Bass off to one side, drums off center,
piano centered and sax off to right of center. Cutting in mono had no problems,
but stereo was a problem. I couldn’t cut the same levels, too much vertical
action, along with lateral groove swing and changes in the mix were needed.
Centering the kick drum and bass helped solve the cutting issues.
Over the years, before I
started working for Contemporary Records, several major figures in the music
business worked for the label. Among them were Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi
Ertegun, writer Leonard Feather, recording engineer and studio designer Howard
Holzer, engineer Roy Dunan, and mastering engineer Bernie Grundman, and myself,
honored to be among the names associated with Contemporary Records.
Some of the best sounding
jazz records were produced at Contemporary. Again, an example of stereo low-end
feeling of the room size and shape can give you that spaciousness sound;
perceiving sound as coming from a multidimensional space. This low-end sound
creates a shift from sounding like it is in your head to arrival from all around
The use of equalizers,
stereo widening plug-ins, compressors, limiters, spacial enhancers, multi-band,
and so forth in the mastering or pre-mastering stage for vinyl as well as
streaming is a sensitive subject. My approach goes against the grain. From my
experience, in the cutting of records over the past fifty plus years “LESS IS
BETTER’. When the artist, producer and engineer begin the recording process,
the INTENT is to make the best sounding record possible using the best studios
and gear available.
Once the final mix is ready
for the cutting of the master disks, little or no change to the sound will be
needed unless the above mentioned didn’t do their job. Not to say that a touch
of EQ wouldn’t help in the final stage of mastering. It is my job to make sure
the cutting system is reproducing the sound accurately (in a way that is correct
in all details, exactly). This is my intent or purpose when cutting the master
lacquers. I can’t imagine producers/ engineers like Bob Simpson, Phi Ramone,
Bruce Swedien, Al Schmitt or present day producer/engineer F.Reid Shippen
handing over their final mastered files and telling me to do whatever I want or
think should be done when cutting the master disks!!
We, as record cutters, can
give our opinion, suggest minor EQ changes that might benefit the overall sound
of the record. This is what a reference disk is used for- to cut one flat and
another with a touch of EQ and let the artist, producer, and mix-engineer to
decide which one sounds the best.
I must say – all bands or
artists and engineers don’t have the funds to take advantage of the best
available when recording their projects. They do the best they can and rely on
the numerous pre-mastering/ mastering rooms to also do the best they can do in
the final mastering for records or streaming.
and Listening Experience
By doing some research, I
realized that my definition of stereo bass is kind of wrong and, in some ways,
right. I have been talking about the imaging or placement of instruments across
an imaginary sound stage. Low-end bass is not about our ability to place the
apparent location of an instrument at low frequencies, it is about a sense of
envelopment or spaciousness at low frequencies. When the effect is present, it
is what allows bass to sound like it is coming from outside of our heads.
This spaciousness creates a
shift from sounding like it is in your head to a feeling of sound all around
you. This is a better definition of stereo bass (taken from an article written
by David Griesinger – one of the leading advocates for stereo bass). The room
or size of the studio has a great effect on the overall sound experience. For
example – the Count Basie sessions mentioned earlier.
Another process where you
will hear stereo bass is the direct to disk recordings. I was involved in many
over the years. My best memories come from a recording project involving three
cutting systems: my AM32B Lathe with SX74 head, a VMS70 with custom Ortofon
head, and a Westrex Scully system. The three of us – myself, Stan Ricker,
George Piros, and John Meyer in charge of microphone placement in the vast hall.
John had the scientific ability to place a few microphones in strategic
locations, using acoustics to create a feeling that the sound was coming from
all around you.
Three days of recording/
cutting along with eating whole lobsters… What a treat!!! The following week,
all the involved parties got together to listen to all the test pressings from
the 3 days of cutting. All the disks sounded great, but the Ortofon head won out
for the most part because of its low-end response. Or maybe because of its name
Ortofon that comes from the Greek words, meaning ORTO (correct) FON (sound).
With the VINYL REVIVAL
we’ve been experiencing over the past 10 years, maybe it’s time to get back
to the fuller, more dynamic sound. A
lot of great records are being produced on vinyl by the major labels and popular
artists. Also, many projects that don’t sound that great, due to excessive EQ
compression and less dynamics, have become the norm. The mastering of music
changed some time ago when digital replaced analog, with the decline of records,
and CDs became the way we heard our music. Present time CDs are no longer the
way consumers hear music. Streaming has become the choice of the masses along
with the revival of records, finding a whole new generation of vinyl fans.
What’s next? For me,
cutting records has been a lifelong involvement in music and the recording
process. Maybe going back to the way music was produced during the hey days of
vinyl is the answer! Artists, producers, and engineers recording and mixing the
project and then working closely with the cutting engineer. Get away from brick
wall mixing, use less compression, bypass the overuse of plugins, get back to a
natural and more dynamic sound!!!