If you’re planning to release your music on vinyl, I highly recommend hiring your own lacquer cutting engineer to cut your lacquers before sending your project on to the pressing plant of your choice to be manufactured. It’s also important to have your original digital mastering engineer prepare a quality vinyl pre-master to use as the master source for lacquer cutting. I’ll explain in more detail why this is important later in the article.
As a mastering engineer, I cringe when I see clients send their projects directly off to pressing plants and leave the lacquer cutting in their hands. It’s a recipe for mediocrity.
Here are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to use a dedicated lacquer cutting engineer for your vinyl project, rather than sending your digital audio directly to a pressing plant or vinyl broker and leaving the sound quality up to fate.
If you hire your own lacquer cutting engineer, you have an open line of communication with the person cutting the lacquers, which most agree is the most important part of the vinyl manufacturing process regarding sound quality.
You wouldn’t consider sending your unmastered mixes directly to a CD manufacturing plant hoping they master the songs to your satisfaction, and have them start pressing copies without hearing the mastering results first. Sending your audio straight to a vinyl pressing plant and letting them handle the lacquer cutting is essentially the equivalent of that.
Transferring your digital vinyl pre-master to a lacquer is an extremely critical process, and has a major influence on how your vinyl will sound. It’s also the most ideal place to catch any problems that may arise before getting too deep into the vinyl production process.
With most 3rd party lacquer cutting engineers, you can order a reference lacquer to listen to with test cuts at different levels to get the most loudness and quality out of your recording. If there are any issues with your digital vinyl pre-master from your digital mastering engineer, or you’re unhappy with the results of the lacquer cut itself, it’s much quicker and cheaper to fix the problem at the lacquer cutting stage rather than after your project has gone on to metal plating and test pressings.
Typically when you work directly with a pressing plant and let them handle the lacquer cutting, you don’t get to hear anything until the test pressings are made, at which point, nearly all of the work has been done when it comes to the sound quality of your record. Any necessary changes at this stage are costly and can significantly delay the completion of your order. Unless the pressing plant is somehow at fault when there is an issue, you will be paying the extra cost to recut lacquers and make new metal plates/stampers so a new test pressing can be made.
Typically, pressing plants will not accept blame for bad sounding lacquer cuts that they do, or other “subjective” issues and concerns. For a pressing plant to take responsibility for a problem, it usually needs to be a clear mistake like using the wrong audio source, altering the song order, or something else that is factual and not opinion based.
3. Cut from the Team
Often times when you send your digital audio directly to a pressing plant for vinyl production, the lacquer cutting is farmed out to a random lacquer (or DMM) cutting engineer that you have no communication with, and is on the plant’s “team” for lack of a better term and not yours.
If the pressing plant is handling the lacquer cutting for you, they often cut the lacquer at more conservative levels as a quick and easy way to avoid pressing and playback issues, rather than taking the time to get the most out of your lacquer cut and really getting it dialed in.
They may also blindly apply default filters to the high and low frequencies to help avoid playback issues, rather than take the time and care to dial things in as well as possible. Pressing plants are busier than ever, and they usually do anything possible to streamline projects to avoid redoing any work, causing delays and backups, especially on their dime. Some plants do decent in-house lacquer cutting, but using a dedicated lacquer cutting engineer ensures that your record will sound great, and just the way you want it, before expensive and time consuming processes take place like metal plating and test pressings.
4. Cost and Speed
When you submit your audio as approved lacquers to your pressing plant of choice, you’ll often find that the actual manufacturing cost at the plant is equal to or less than if you send them a digital source, and your project may move faster through their production process because they’re not dealing with having to cut lacquers from your digital source. The total cost to you typically evens out by the time you pay your own cutting engineer, and then the pressing plant separately for the metal plating and pressing.
The advantage to doing it this way is that your record is much more likely to sound great when using your own cutting engineer. If you do some research, you can probably find a few cutting engineer that have cut albums that you like the sound of and go from there.
5. Vinyl Optimization
There are many variables to consider when releasing your music on vinyl, so it’s especially important to provide a special digital vinyl pre-master to your cutting engineer to work with that is optimized for the vinyl format.
You should use a digital mastering engineer with experience preparing vinyl pre-masters. Most professional mastering engineers that master audio for the digital realm will know how make an adequate vinyl pre-master for your project. It’s important to let your digital mastering engineer know you are planning a vinyl release so they can plan accordingly.
While it’s technically possible to transfer audio from a CD to a lacquer for vinyl pressing, it’s not a particularly good idea for a number of reasons. I recently had a client decide to release their album on vinyl a few years after the CD/Digital version was done, and not knowing any better, they used a CD as the audio source for the lacquer cutting — an unopened replicated CD. This is often a terrible idea. Using the loud digital/streaming master for vinyl is also rarely a good idea.
Each mastering engineer has their own workflow and methods for archiving projects, but I know that if this client had contacted me even years later, I could have rather easily recalled their project and prepared a good vinyl pre-master for them to work with, rather than using the CD master as they did.
6. Loudness and Length
A loud digital master that works for compact discs and the digital realm usually does not translate well to vinyl, and doesn’t mean that you’ll end up with a loud vinyl record. In fact, usually the opposite occurs. The actual loudness of your vinyl will be determined by the cutting engineer based on the length of each side, low frequency content, and other variables. Sibilance and other high frequencies (like hi-hats/cymbals) can also be problematic if not properly managed in mixing and mastering and tested for during the reference lacquer stage.
Lacquers can also be cut from audio files that are higher resolution than audio CD which is limited to 16-bit/44.1k sample rate. If your project was recorded, mixed, and/or mastered at a higher sample rate than 44.1k, be sure to communicate to your mastering engineer that you’d like the vinyl pre-master to be at least 24-bit, and at that higher sample rate.
Some argue that 16-bit is fine for vinyl because the dynamic range of vinyl is less than 96dB but my suggestion is to keep your vinyl pre-master at 24-bit or better yet, 32 or 64-bit floating point if the cutting engineer will accept it, in case the cutting engineer needs to apply any digital processing before cutting the lacquers. There is no need to reduce the audio to 16-bit and lower sample rates prior to the cutting process, and maintaining higher bit-depths and sample rates before the cutting process can yield better sonic results if any processing is applied prior to the cut, which happens quite often.
Each pressing plant and cutting engineer has their own recommended maximum length for each side of a record depending on the size (7”, 10″, or 12”) and speed (33 1/3 or 45 RPM), but the general rule is that the shorter the side, the better it will sound.
As you push the recommended time limits for a side, you’re likely to hear some distortion, loss of high frequencies, and general graininess near the ends of each side.
The final result is all dependent on the source material and who is doing the work, but when you’re planning your vinyl release, try to make the two sides as even and short as possible. Hiring your own cutting engineer also allows you to push the boundaries of those time limits when absolutely necessary (even though I don’t recommend it), something that the plants won’t risk with the services they farm out to for lacquer cutting because it’s a risky proposition.
If you’re using a vinyl broker or middle man for your vinyl order, be proactive and ask questions about who does the lacquer (or DMM) cutting, and how involved you can be to make sure it sounds how you want it to sound.
Many vinyl brokers will be able to negotiate a deal for your vinyl project with the audio delivered as lacquers which you can have complete control over.
It’s a little extra work but well worth the time and effort. If you’re going to invest a few grand into pressing vinyl, make sure it’s the best that it can be and something you’ll be proud of for years or decades to come.