Read this before getting your album pressed onto vinyl!
The vinyl industry is stronger than ever now. In the last decade my own music has made it to vinyl more times than I can count on all my cats' paws. For a while there in the 90s and early 00s, it was much more rare to find records around town. It was mostly underground DIY labels doing small runs and lathe cuts via mail order in zines.
It's a running joke among punk, experimental, and other smallers music communities that "vinyl is making a comeback" or "cassettes are back in style." We see these headlines all the time, popping up in Huffington Post and Forbes and all that. But the truth is- it's kinda true!! At least when looking at the industry as a whole. Sure, records and tapes never died out completely, and they remained common in some circles, but these days you'll find Taylor Swift LPs in Target. Boomers, God bless them, can't seem to wrap their head around that after living through the CD revolution.
Now we could go into specifics about how 16-bit CD audio is actually more compromised than audio on a vinyl record, discussing waveforms and bits and stuff, but we'll skip that for now.
Additionally, we're going to skip going down the rabbit hole of mastering for vinyl. We are mostly going to discuss the relationship between how much material will physically fit on a vinyl disc, and how much material you should attempt to fit on a vinyl disc.
So how much audio should you try to press onto a record?
My personal recommendation, if you want to maintain optimum quality, is to not exceed 21-22 minutes per side. Problems may arise if you go over that. Which is ironic, because the album I just released has 24 minutes per side. However I knew what I was getting into, and I planned accordingly. The truth is 24 minutes isn't *that* bad. Especially when I put priority on the digital WAV downloads almost always.
But I still want to talk about the risks. They are as follows...
Decreased audio quality
Vinyl records are basically slabs of analog audio storage. The available space on each side of the disc has its limits. The more audio you try to fit onto one side, the narrower the grooves in the disc have to be. This reduction in groove width can lead to a decrease in audio fidelity. In this case the stylus has less room to accurately track the groove and reproduce the music.
You may be thinking "well my album is intentionally lo-fi. I make signal-wave and I often sample old warped VHS tapes." Even still, you should be weary of cramming too much material onto a disc. I generally recommend that you save the audio degradation processes for the recording, production, and mixing stage. You still want your master to perfect the sound you're going for, and you still want your physical medium to reflect that as much as possible.
Now feel free to do things how you choose, but I would much rather make a nasty, purposefully wonky piece of music and have a mirror image of it available on my records. Of course there are traits inherent in the vinyl medium that will color the sound to some degree, but you wouldn't want your digital download version of the album to sound the way you intended it, only for people to buy the record and hear something much different, much more degraded.
Increased surface noise
With too much audio material, and therefore narrower grooves, the signal-to-noise ratio (aka noise floor) worsens. As a result, surface noise, such as hiss, clicks, pops, and crackles, becomes more audible.
This is especially an issue for quiet music such as ambient, drone, folk, etc. It may not be as apparent with aggressive styles, but there is no avoiding it completely, especially if you're cramming 25 minutes of material on each side of the disc.
Groove distortion and skipping
The narrower the groove, the more susceptible the vinyl is to distortion. It will be more apparent in complex musical passages or louder sections.
This distortion can manifest among the inner-grooves where the stylus is struggling to accurately track, leading to artifacts or even skipping to other sections of the song.
Yes, records can skip just as easily as CDs! It sounds different, but it's just as disruptive.
The physical stress on the vinyl itself increases as more music is squeezed onto a single side. This leads to accelerated and increased wear and tear in the form of groove damage, increased surface noise, or even rendering the record completely unplayable over time.
The only plus to this is that the record may turn into a cool sound source for making experimental sample-based music! But I digress...
As the grooves become narrower and more tightly packed, there is an increased risk of pressing defects during the manufacturing process. These defects can include warping, off-center pressing, or surface irregularities.
Mastering and cutting problems
In this context, mastering is referring to the physical process done by the manufacturer after the audio engineer (that's me!) is finished with it. For this reason I try to refer to what I do as mastering for vinyl rather than vinyl mastering.
Cutting and vinyl mastering engineers face challenges when trying to fit a ton of music onto a single side of a record. They may need to make compromises, such as reducing the overall volume of the audio, or altering the frequency response to some degree, which will accommodate the playing time needed. This will effect the sound quality and dynamics of the music.
Limitations on album sequencing
It isn't so much this way anymore, but historically vinyl records have followed a specific sequencing to create a cohesive listening experience. It used to be normalcy for a record to have a different track order than the cassette or 8-track. The record may even omit a song or two.
This does still happen, but in my experience what I see more often is labels investing in double or even triple LP sets. However if that is not affordable to them, they will alter the sequence accordingly.
Pressing longer sides on records sometimes requires specialized mastering and manufacturing processes, which can lead to increased production costs. This can impact the affordability of the record for the consumer, especially for independent or smaller-scale releases. And especially for small production runs.
Hit me up if you need some mixing or mastering work done. I'll make it sound lovely.
Angel Marcloid at Angel Hair Audio, LLC
When you purchase through links on my site, I may earn an affiliate commission.