Scott Hull is one of the top seasoned professionals of the trade — a skilled, sought-after engineer that has transitioned through musical, technological, and economic changes within our industry. Beginning as an intern at Masterdisk in 1983, his talent catapulted him through the ranks to become Bob Ludwig's assistant by '84, chief engineer by '94, and owner since 2008. Having started his career in the era of vinyl's dominance, he retains a rare level of expertise and insight into the art of bringing a vinyl record to market — a skill that's part art, part science, and very often misunderstood. As I was sitting down with Scott to have him master an LP project for me, I turned on a recorder and asked some questions that I hope will give some insight into the daunting task of releasing great-sounding vinyl as an independent artist or producer.
Vinyl's popularity is still increasing, but most independent artists don't know much about bringing a record to market. On a very basic level, can you overview the entire process, from mix approval, through mastering, plating, and pressing?
Well, to a lot of people, the process of making a record seems like a gigantic black box. But, in fact, there are many different steps — each with its own quality control issues. Making a custom master specifically for vinyl is similar to the process for a CD master, but it's done by an engineer that's a specialist in vinyl, and in a studio that's equipped for vinyl. Once you have an approved cutting master, the audio is fed to the lathe through the console, where any necessary compensations for volume, tone, and phase are made so that the record plays well and is technically of high quality. A reference disc is cut that looks just like a record; some people call these acetates, but in fact they're cut on lacquer discs. This will be listened to on a turntable in real time, and a trained ear will listen for distortion, excessive noise floor, and any issues with tracking or other disturbances in the playback. The mastering engineer, the producer, and the artist all listen and comment. Adjustments are made, if necessary, and then master lacquers are cut. Master lacquers cannot be played without damaging the disc, so we have to be really careful to document our settings from the reference in order to repeat them precisely after it's approved. The finished master lacquer is put in a box and carefully and quickly shipped to the plating facility where plating begins and metal parts are made. When the metal work is done, the pressing plant cues up to make test pressings, which are then sent back to the client for approval. After test pressings are approved, a production run is made, and the records assembled and shipped. Then boxes and boxes of records show up, and you have to figure out where to put them! [laughs] But each part of this process has important QC [quality control] steps, and if you have no touch points along the way, chances are high that not every one of your records is going to turn out great.
With a process that has so much room for error, how can an inexperienced producer or artist get top quality results?
Well, they really have to align themselves with people who are known for quality. It was a standard quote from the heyday of Masterdisk vinyl cutting — I'll attribute it to Bob Ludwig, but I'm sure it was passed down from someone to him — "perfect is close enough." When it comes to disc cutting, that's almost the only place to be. Spending enough money and time is one of the big requirements. If you're setting out to make an inexpensive record, that's okay, but you can't expect that to be an amazing piece of vinyl. The music's still going to be about as cool as it was ever going to be, but there's a higher likelihood of defects and those sort of things.
Between mastering, plating, and pressing, does it make sense to cut corners in one area, if you must, over another?
You don't have to go to the most expensive plant on the earth to get a record that plays when you put a needle on it. Even some of the least expensive places will make an average-sounding record, and will do it fairly quickly. Knowing your audience is really important. Are these audiophiles that are buying the record because they love the sound of vinyl? In that case, it'd be kind of silly to make them a cheap record — they'll turn off from your project, as opposed to being turned on by it. But if it's for the 7" crowd, and all about the attitude and the vibe, you might be wasting your production money on a really precision cut and [pressing]. Not to say that that wouldn't sound better, but whether or not your customers are going to care... To try and answer your question a little bit more directly —...