The Recording Process – my 2 Cents
I have always had a preference for the sound of well recorded vinyl records and direct to disc recordings, especially when played back on an audiophile stereo system.
Their level of realism and involvement is often difficult to improve upon. I cannot say that I am a vinyl ‘junkie’ as I still find many digital recordings made on DVDA, SACD, Blu Ray and some CD’s to be of exceptional quality. Those mediums have the capacity for a flat frequency response, fundamentally high signal to noise ratio and a dynamic range that can exceed that of vinyl.
Having spent a significant part of my professional life in both the Music Recording and TV Broadcast industries and seen what goes on in getting that pristine studio performance to the final distribution medium, I have come to learn that all things being equal (and they rarely are), a minimalist approach often provides the finest of recordings.
Electronics and microphones are now ‘state of the art’ in most facilities, as are the analog or digital mixing consoles. So the musical experience comes down to production, performance and microphone techniques. Yes, there are audible differences between analog, digital, solid state and valve but if the signal chain and production is ‘complex’ those subtle differences are lost…forever.
One of the culprits for the loss of transparency, imaging, impact, frequency response etc. is the storage medium, the tape machine, be it analog or digital. As an engineer I have worked on many of the high-end multi-track and stereo tape machines from Studer & Otari (2” 24 track analog), Otari (½” & ¼” analog stereo mastering) and Mitsubishi & Sony (24, 32 & 48 track digital), and all have their limitations.
This is not to say that skilled production and well-maintained recording facilities, plus a good mastering house and a great pressing facility cannot produce outstanding modern analog or digital recordings because they certainly can. There are many commercially mass produced records that can attest to that, and many that I shall be reviewing.
My point here is that a minimalist approach and correct microphone techniques can produce a record that is sonically outstanding and provides a level of realism rarely found in most of today’s modern pop recordings. Many of which are just loud with little dynamic range, lots of bass and treble for the ‘boom and tizz’ brigade, a non-existent depth perspective and poor stereo imaging.
Enter the Direct to Disc process.
Direct To Disc (D2D)
Audio Recording – A Potted Brief History
Audio recording started with Direct To Disc (D2D) transfers. Those original cylinder recorders invented by Thomas Edison were D2D and existed from 1877 onwards, so D2D is not a new phenomenon. The incoming sounds were engraved directly onto rotating, aluminum, cardboard and wax cylinders. These were eventually superseded in about 1900 by hard plastic cylinders and eventually in 1929 all cylinder production ceased as flat records became more popular. The invention of the flat disc record is attributed to Emile Berliner in 1888. However, the quality of these flat records was originally poor when compared to the cylinder but by 1900 the acoustic differences were overcome; and so started the ‘vinyl wars’.
Over the years much effort was put into the development of the vinyl material, lacquers, stampers and of course the electronic equalization of the signal in order to get the best dynamic range and signal to noise ratio from the vinyl, resulting in the current standardized RIAA record equalization curve.
For those wanting a little more basic historical information and background on cylinder and disc recording click on the following links:
- Audio Engineering Society
- Record Collectors Guild
- The History of Audio and Sound Recording
- Wikipedia – The Cylinder
- Wikipedia – The Tape Recorder
With the advent of the magnetic tape recorder around 1930 and its general use by 1948 it no longer required a performance to be recorded direct to disc. It could be recorded to tape and later edited and re-recorded to fix performance errors etc. Modern analogue and digital tape machines are not without their own technical issues that affect sound quality. However, this is not the place to review them. Needless to say that even the very best of analog or digital tape machines imparts its own, sometimes significant limitations, to what is recorded with the attendant changes to the sound quality.
For years many skilled design engineers continued to improve the electronic signal chain to the recording medium, the tape machine’s electronics, head designs and tape formulations, with significant improvements to the resulting sound quality. Also much work was done on improving the mastering and stamping techniques and vinyl formulations.
However, the financial needs to mass produce inexpensive records, record many songs on one side of a disc and multi-tracking resulted in multi generation recordings, loss of original studio fidelity, and restricted dynamics and frequency range. Not to mention the elaborate signal processing often employed for ‘special effects’ and trying to get ‘my’ record louder than ‘yours’.
Slowly but surely vinyl seemed to lose its audiophile way in favor of corporate profits, the cassette, the 8 track and, of course, the ubiquitous CD. A vain attempt to maintain quality recordings was continued by a small band of performers and studios but in the end corporate greed won out. Enter, Sheffield Lab and a few other labels that came to vinyl’s rescue.
Sheffield Lab, named after the street where the early orders were fulfilled, had its foundation in Los Angeles in 1959 by Doug Sax, Sherwood Sax and Lincoln Mayorga. As far back as 1956 these individuals noted a significant difference in audio quality between the direct cut 78’s and vinyl LPs transferred from their original analog master tapes. After investigating these differences, much research and almost going broke, they ultimately opened The Mastering Lab in Los Angeles in 1967, which was the world’s first independent mastering facility. Here Doug Sax honed his cutting skills, and his team created innovative improvements to the signal chain electronics and cutting process, providing a range of D2D recordings which have stood the test of time. Their story and rise to fame is well known among D2D and vinyl aficionados and is available from several related web sites:
These three individuals started and spurred on an entire industry of high quality D2D recording from studios around the world, to include the following labels, from each of which I own at least one album:
- Toshiba- EMI
- The American Gramophone Company
- Direct Disk
- JVC Direct Disk
- Nippon Phonograph – Direct Cutting
- Nimbus – Umbrella
The Sheffield Lab team developed unique signal chain electronics and cutting amplifiers (mostly valve and in use until the recent closing of the Lab), custom designed their cutting lathes, and developed their mastering skills to get a single continuous performance directly to the lacquer. All with minimal signal processing, broad frequency response, high dynamic range, and low distortion, noise and rumble. Limited pressing quantities, and the use of high quality vinyl and quality pressing plants, generally ensured low vinyl surface noise (almost no 180 gram vinyl here). They still utilized a tape recorder but this was only for backup, and as would be seen in later years these tape recordings were used to create additional copies of the original performance as ‘second best’; the Sheffield Treasury series. Each performance and lacquer was UNIQUE so once the pressing limit was reached it could never be re-released unless of course the entire session was repeated and a new lacquer cut.
Although the Mastering Lab eventually stopped the production of these D2D projects, I assume in order to concentrate on more lucrative main stream mastering, Lincoln Mayorga still runs the Sheffield Lab web site and its sister web site Town Hall Records. Both of the sites concentrating on the sale, preservation and production of high quality audiophile music CD’s.
In 2015, the Library of Congress gave special commendation to Sheffield Lab in the registry of historic recordings, for raising the bar of the quality of records.
As an audiophile I started collecting Sheffield Lab and other labels D2D recordings when I was 21 years old, when I first purchased Sheffield Lab S10. I am now lucky enough to own all of the vinyl recordings from S9 to LAB 24 plus a number of other well-known original D2D labels listed above.
D2D discs are still produced today by a small number of labels (and growing) to include:
- Acoustic Sounds – APO Records/Quality Record Pressings
- Analog Productions
- Chasing The Dragon
- Grove Note
During the last few years that has been a significant increase in the popularity and sale of vinyl. Even Sony in 2018 will start vinyl production again. This demand has resulted in the resurgence and re-release of many old recordings. These recordings had been committed to tapes which are now being pulled out of their dusty storage and being carefully restored and recut to new lacquers. Many of these recordings claim to be Audiophile quality and are pressed on vinyl weights up to 200 grams!! Unfortunately you can’t make a ‘silk purse out of a sow’s ear’. So while many skilled and highly talented cutting engineers do wring the last bit of fidelity out of the tapes, if it wasn’t there to start with, it won’t be there in the end product. However, using modern cutting electronics and techniques, what these engineers achieve is to get the closest representation into the vinyl of what was on that master tape.
Over the course of the forthcoming months I will provide a review of all of the Sheffield Lab recordings that I own, plus a few other labels, and compare them to some well-known recent audiophile recordings that have been re-released from the original master tapes.
DISCLAIMER NOTE: Any comparisons are strictly my opinion, on my system, based upon my experience. They are not a comment on the expertise or engineering skills of the associated Mastering, Pressing or Engineering/Production teams.
For those who would like to own the original Sheffield vinyl recordings and later CD versions there are several sites that are worth visiting, these include:
- Discogs (my absolute favorite vinyl disc site)
- Sheffield Lab (only CD’s from the original vinyl or analog/digital tapes)
- Town Hall Recordings (only CD’s)
- Music Stack
- Audiophile USA
And for those of us who have truly entered the age of digital downloads please visit HDtracks to download a selection of Sheffield Lab albums.
Note: Doug Sax, the founder, CEO and owner of The Mastering Lab died in April 2015, which resulted in the sale and closure of this iconic Mastering Facility. It was one of the premier mastering and D2D houses in the world being purchased in 2015 by Acoustic Sounds. – (see Quality Record Pressings – QRP)
One of the Famous Mastering Lab Scully Cutting Lathes
For additional technical information on these lathes and some of their custom modifications please visit Vintage Hi-Fi Club.
Click here to see Doug Sax with his famous custom Neumann Lathes.
Further information on Doug Sax and other highly respected Mastering and Cutting facilities and engineers can be found here at Mix.
Recent Pressing & Mastering Developments
There are now a number of mastering houses and record pressing plants that specialize in audiophile grade mastering and pressing and have developed electronics and techniques that significantly improve the performance of the mastering chain in order to create a faithful representation (and enhancement) of what was on tape. These include:
- Mobile Fidelity
- Bernie Grundman Mastering
- Sterling Sound
- Acoustic Sounds – APO Records/Quality Record Pressings & more
- The Mastering Lab (now closed)
See the following link for more high-end Mastering and Cutting Studio information:
Even if a lacquer is directly cut from the studio there are still significant shortcomings in the pressing process due to the number of steps required in creating the final vinyl album:
Step Disc produced Disc Image
- Lacquer + image
- Father – image
- Mother + image
- Stamper – image
- Vinyl Album + image
The final stamper, step 4, can then used to press many, many, thousands of discs.
At each of these steps a generational loss of fidelity occurs and additional noise is added to the copy. Mobile Fidelity is one mastering house that has developed several techniques to improve the disc mastering chain to include Ultra High-Quality Record (UHQR), GAIN2 Ultra Analog and the recently developed, and highly regarded, UD1S Ultradisc one step process shown below.
Step Disc produced Disc Image
- Lacquer + image
- Convert – image
- Vinyl Album + image
The convert is then limited to typically 3000 copies or less.
AT Music has recently adopted a similar three-step process to Ultradisc UD1S for the production of records; Lyn Stanley The Moonlight Sessions. In this case the Father is used to produce a very limited number of pressings; up to 1000.
Unfortunately, many of these audiophile pressings come at significant expense due to the low volume and extra care that is taken in the process together with high quality, heavy weight, virgin vinyl and upscale packaging. I must say here I have yet to be convinced on the necessity for heavy weight vinyl. Sheffield Lab used mainly 120/150 gram and I have yet to hear a better recording on a different label just because the vinyl is heavy weight. I can only assume that it helps reduce warping and resonances. Every D2D disc I own is still ruler flat with no observable warps…. but maybe a few scuffs and minor scratches!
Please see my Sheffield Lab and other D2D reviews here.