Have you ever wondered what makes an audiophile vinyl record? In this Expert Advice, we will help you understand the people and technologies behind audiophile vinyl records. Also, we have included a comparator that allows you to compare with your own ears. Enjoy!
The Human Touch
Bernie Grundman is one of the most prominent names in the Mastering world. He has been directly or indirectly, through his team of studio engineers, behind hundreds of gold and platinum recordings. He has personally mastered some of the industry's landmark recordings, such as Carole King's "Tapestry", Steely Dan's "Aja", Michael Jackson's "Thriller", Prince's "Purple Rain" and Dr. Dre's "The Chronic". In addition, he has worked with recognized artists of the music industry, such as: The Carpenters, Herb Alpert, The Doors, Joe Cocker, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Supertramp, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, Janet Jackson, Quincy Jones, Outkast, Mary J. Blidge, Jack Johnson and Macy Gray.
Chris Bellman began his audiophile interests at an early age. He developed an appreciation for music and theater through classical piano. Listening to many records stimulated his interest in the recording process. Soon he was listening to as many different musical genres as possible. His musical journey continued in college with a dual major in music and electronics. In 1984 Chris joined the new Bernie Grundman Mastering Studios. Joining the Grundman team allowed him to work with artists such as: Neil Young, Carole King, Duran Duran, Van Halen, Elton John and many more. Chris has evolved his talents to deliver the best possible mastering.
Doug Sax was more than the greatest mastering engineer in the world; he is also the father of modern direct-to-disc recording, as well as stereo direct-to-disc recording. Before the advent of magnetic tape, all recordings were direct to disk (and mono). But two decades after the widespread adoption of tape in the late 1940s,, Sax resurrected this lost art and built a record label, Sheffield Lab, around the technique. He recruited his high school friend, Lincoln Mayorga, to be the musical half of Sheffield Lab. By bypassing the tape and recording a musical performance directly into the main lacquer in real time, Sax thought he could make higher quality records. These direct-to-disc LPs from Sheffield are now legendary for their sound quality. How many sound systems were sold in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to a demonstration by Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker? or the Harry James’ King James Version? These records, and others in Sheffield's catalog, are still stunning reminders of the quality of direct-to-disc sound today.
In addition to his longtime position as Vice President of high-end cable company AudioQuest, Joe Harley is perhaps best known for his production work for various labels over the past 17 years, including AudioQuest Music., Telarc, ECM and GrooveNote. To date, he has produced over 100 acclaimed blues and jazz tracks, including Robert Lockwood Jr.'s Grammy-nominated "Delta Crossroads" in 2002. He has worked with top jazz and blues musicians, including Charles Lloyd (who gave him the nickname "Tone Poet"), Bennie Wallace, John Abercrombie, Anthony Wilson, Brad Mehldau, Grover Washington Jr., Diana Krall, Mike Stern, Ry Cooder, Hubert Sumlin, Susan Tedeschi, Terry Evans and Mighty Sam McClain.
Keith O. Johnson
‘Prof.’ Keith Johnson has spent over 50 years developing a reputation for innovative thinking, technical achievement and musicianship wich has elevated him to a position in the audio industry occupied by only a handful of visionaries. He is a true audio legend, having designed and patented many innovative products in the professional and consumer fields. He has been Technical Director of Reference Recordings since 1980. Early on, he applied his proven recording methods combined with half-speed mastering to spawn exceptional phonograph record releases that have received numerous awards and continue to be the best of its kind. He also collaborated with Alan Parsons to create an expressive polyphonic sampler, the "Projectron". His exceptional imitations of instruments appeared on popular albums, created controversy and ultimately helped launch a major industry. The "Parsons Project" albums made during their collaboration became huge best sellers.
At the age of eighteen, Kevin Gray was the youngest mastering engineer in the United States when he began cutting records at Artisan Sound Recorders in 1972. Over the next five years, he recorded hit after hit for artists such as America, Paul Anka, The Beach Boys, Donald Byrd, ELO, The Grateful Dead, Freddie Hubbard and Billy Joel. Over his forty-year career, Kevin has mastered music from every major label in every genre, including pop, rock, jazz, classical, punk, heavy metal, new age, gothic, world ethnic, disco, dance, soul, blues and rap. He has, to his credit, more than a hundred top ten and Grammy award winning records, and dozens of RIAA certified gold and platinum albums and singles. In 2010 Kevin opened his own mastering facility, Cohearent Audio.
Ryan Smith began his journey in the world of audio when he moved to New York City in 1995. In the late 90’s he moved through various recording studio gigs and other “audio odd jobs” around New York City. This eventually led to a job as an assistant engineer at the Manhattan’s Right Track Recording, where Ryan had the opportunity to work alongside legendary engineers. In 2002, Ryan made the move to mastering. He joined Sterling Sound where he’s been for more than 15 years. During the current resurgence of vinyl, Ryan has become one of the most in demand vinyl specialists around.
Steve has worked on 180 gram audiophile vinyl record releases from Tom Petty, Donald Fagen, The White Stripes and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He remastered the classics "Fragile" by Yes and "Blue" by Joni Mitchell. Additionally, he has also mastered, on vinyl, the classic Van Morrison "Moondance", James Taylor "Sweet Baby James", Frank Sinatra and a host of others. Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray have remastered some of the greatest Blue Note albums of all time for Music Matters' definitive 45 RPM Blue Note Reissue series. For Analogue Productions, Steve remastered the back catalog of Creedence Clearwater Revival and over 100 of the greatest Jazz and Blues albums at 45 RPM. Steve's remixing and mastering of Nat King Cole's important works on 45 rpm vinyl was the most challenging of Steve's career, over a year of work. Steve has also remastered LPs for British label Pure Pleasure Records.
Where Things Get Done Right
Abbey Road Studios
Abbey Road Studios is the most famous recording studio in the world. Originally a Georgian townhouse built in 1831, Number 3, Abbey Road was purchased by the Gramophone Company in 1929. They constructed the world’s first purpose-built recording studios in 1931, that same year, following a merge with the Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries, EMI Studios were opened. Since the engineer Alan Blumlein patented stereo at Abbey Road in 1931, the studios have been famed for innovation in recording technology. The studio's most notable client was the Beatles, who used the studio as the venue for many of the innovative recording techniques that they adopted. In 1976, the studio was renamed from EMI in honour of their final recorded album, Abbey Road.
Cohearent Audio, is a relatively new facility with vintage roots. It is the realization of renowned mastering engineer Kevin Gray. Kevin has turned 38 years of experience and proven equipment into the “dream facility” he has always wanted to build. Their famous, all discrete Class-A, transformerless, all analog disk mastering system is matched with the very best digital gear for CDs, SACDs and the latest High Resolution Digital formats; a fine blend of old and new. Their client list are the 3 major labels (Sony, Universal and Warner), Acoustic Sounds, Concord, Impex and Music Matters, to name a few. Reissues for the Audiophile community are a specialty.
Optimal Media began life in 1991 as a CD pressing plant with a 12 person team. Today with a staff of over 700 people Optimal, located in Germany is a high capacity optical media producer (CD and Blu-ray discs) as well as a print media publisher of books, magazines and brochures. Approximately 20 years ago, Optimal correctly decided to open an in-house vinyl record pressing plant, which today has the capacity to annually press more than 25 million records. The combination of print and record pressing allows Optimal to produce high quality box sets like The Beatles mono box, among others.
Karl Neumann founded Pallas GmbH as a vinyl record pressing plant in 1949. The industry has changed a lot over the years, with Pallas being at the leading edge of many advances in the record pressing industry. In the 1960s, Pallas invested a lot of time and money into automating the record pressing process. Creating a more consistent and stable pressing environment has allowed Pallas to produce high quality vinyl records. Prior to this innovation, records were pressed manually, so cycle times varied from record to record, as did quality. The company never gave up on the vinyl format even during the lean years.
QRP (Quality Record Pressings)
They put a lot of thought into how best to name their pressing plant, but in the end the decision was to side with a simple, declarative statement: Quality Record Pressings. Their entire focus is towards the goal of pressing the finest records the world has ever known. They improved the standard for vinyl pressing machines and rebuilt their presses equipped with the best and latest technology in the record pressing industry. The first title pressed at Quality Record Pressings was one of the all-time most classic audiophile records, Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman from 1970. All of the Analogue Productions reissues are pressed at QRP and the pressing plant also handles the jobs of several other record labels, including Reference Recordings.
RTI (Record Technology Incorporated)
Is a renowned pressing plant for vinyl records located in California. 12″ records have been manufactured there since 1974. RTI has a good reputation for very good manufacturing quality as well as quality control. The audiophile LPs of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, for example, are pressed there. They also produce the Ultradisc One-Step releases from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, or the 1step series from Impex Records.
Since 1968, Sterling Sound has been home to some of the worlds most talented and experienced mastering engineers, including the renowned Ryan Smith. Each year Sterling's engineer's master hundreds of projects, including ground-breaking projects for artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Coldplay, Green Day, Maroon 5, Arcade Fire and Adele.
The vast majority of 12-inch records that were pressed in the 20th century weigh between 120 and 140 grams. The 180 gram vinyl, on the other hand, is significantly thicker and heavier, creating a product widely considered to be "audiophile grade". But heavy records aren't capped at the 180g limit. Some new releases are pressed weighing up to 200 grams. There is an implied quality standard associated with audiophile grade vinyl that simply does not exist when it comes to conventional weight vinyl. In short, record companies that take care of releasing an album on 180 gram vinyl also pay attention to overall mastering and manufacturing procedures, tending to use better source materials (like original master tapes) and improved processing techniques.
- 180 gram vinyl records are stronger and more durable, so they tend to last longer and resist breakage.
- Because they are stronger, 180 gram vinyl records also resist warping better than records of conventional weight.
- Heavier vinyl provides a more stable platform for both stylus and cantilever suspension providing extra protection from unwanted vibration that can cause sound degradation at the micro-level.
The slower a record spins, the worse the sound. For this reason, in order to provide the best sound possible, the record must spin faster (45 RPM). However, when a record spins faster, the amount of information it can hold is reduced thus having a shorter playback time. This is because more information pressed into the vinyl is played back in the same time period. The desire to improve sound quality, while providing adequate playback time, is a problem that persists to this day. As awareness of the sound-quality difference between pressing at 45 RPM and pressing at 33-1/3 rpm has grown, so have the vinyl products designed to take advantage of this "new" knowledge. The main evidence of this new awareness is the availability of new vinyl records in the 12-inch 45rpm format that has accompanied recent years' renewed interest in vinyl. Obviously, the "convenience" drawback is not an issue when you are willing to pay more and get two 12-inch records instead of one in order to enjoy music mastered for higher fidelity.
Most sound recordings before the 1950s were made by cutting directly onto a master disc. Magnetic tape recording became the industry standard around the time the LP format was created in 1948. To make a direct-to-disc recording, musicians typically play a 15-minute "live" set in a studio for each side. During the performance, the analog record cutting head engages the main lacquer from which sides of an LP record are ultimately derived and is not stopped until the entire side is complete. Technically, direct-to-disc recording is believed to result in more accurate and less noisy recording through the elimination of up to four generations of master tapes. The method method bypasses problems inherent in analog recording tape such as tape hiss.
DMM (Direct Metal Mastering)
Direct metal mastering is an analog audio disc mastering technique jointly developed by two German companies, Telefunken-Decca (Teldec) and Georg Neumann GmbH, towards the end of the 20th century. Unlike conventional disc mastering, where mechanical audio modulation is cut from a lacquer-coated aluminum disc, DMM cuts directly into metal (copper). Since the groove is cut directly from a sheet of metal, this eliminates a number of plating steps in the manufacturing process. It gives rise to more upper frequency levels and less surface noise. The bass is generally tight and well defined, even described as more precise.
Half-speed mastering is a technique sometimes used when cutting the acetate lacquers from which phonograph records are produced. The cutting machine platter operates at half the usual speed while the signal to be recorded is sent to the cutting head at half its normal playback speed. The reasons for using this technique vary, but it is generally used to improve the high frequency response. By halving the speed when cutting, very high, hard-to-cut frequencies become much easier to cut since they are now mid-range frequencies.
One Step Mastering describes the process of LP manufacturing in which the pressing stamper is produced in one step. To understand what makes it so special, let's compare it to the usual process used in the mass production of records. For regular LP productions, the lacquer is made into a first father stamp with an inverted groove structure. This is then transformed into a mother stamp with the correct groove structure. Only in the next step is the actual (very hard) press stamp made, which is now used to produce the LP. The One Step Mastering process is completely different. Here, the steps after cutting the lacquer are omitted, and the lacquer itself is directly converted into a press stamp. Technically, the result would be a record that sounds closer to the master tape.
UHQR (Ultra High Quality Records)
Audiophiles still remember JVC Japan's UHQR pressings from 30 years ago. They were the pinnacle of high-quality vinyl, and the UHQRs remain among the most collectible and valuable LPs ever pressed. Today, Quality Record Pressings revives that long-gone name of excellence and adds an even higher standard. With QRP's UHQR, they've applied all of the most innovative, ear-approved ideas ever introduced in vinyl LP manufacturing to create the ultimate LP. Each UHQR is pressed, using hand-selected vinyl, on a manual press with attention to every detail. The 200 gram records feature the same flat profile that helped make the original UHQR so desirable. From the lead-in groove to the run-out groove, there is no pitch to the profile, allowing your stylus to play truly perpendicular to the grooves from edge to center.
Vinyl Reissues For Audiophiles
Acoustic Sounds Series
Acoustic Sounds Series is an audiophile jazz LP reissue series started in 2020, supervised by Analogue Productions' Chad Kassem. LPs are mastered from the original analog tapes, cut at 33 ⅓ RPM and pressed on 180g vinyl by Quality Record Pressings.
Blue Note Classic Vinyl Series
The Classic Vinyl Reissue Series is the continuation of their acclaimed Blue Note 80 Vinyl Reissue Series, which was created in celebration of the 80th anniversary of Blue Note Records in 2019. The series presents affordable, high-quality reissues in standard packaging that are mastered by Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio and manufactured on 180g vinyl at Optimal Media in Germany. The pressings are all-analog whenever an analog source is available, with Gray mastering directly from the original master tapes. The series reissues the best-known Blue Note classics from the 1950s and 60s, but also goes deeper, exploring the many different eras and styles of the legendary label’s eight-decade history with the aim of telling their story and fully representing the Blue Note motto: The Finest In Jazz Since 1939.
Tone Poet Series
The Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series is Blue Note’s top-of-the-line vinyl series. Produced and curated by the “Tone Poet” Joe Harley, the series presents all-analog, 180g audiophile quality vinyl reissues from the Blue Note Records catalog and their family of labels which also includes Pacific Jazz, United Artists, and Solid State. Tone Poet vinyl is mastered by Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio directly from the original analog master tapes and manufactured at RTI. Every aspect of these Blue Note releases is done to the highest possible standard.
Compare With Your Own Ears
This comparator should only be used with a pair of good quality headphones.
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The materials under this comparator are used for education and criticism purposes, also quoting the sources and the names of the authors. Less than 10% of the original work is being used.