Paul Gilby visits SRT Records & Tapes to unearth the 'inside views' of its managing director David Richardson, whose profound words shatter some of the illusions and myths that surround the record manufacturing industry.
The series that takes a behind the scenes look at companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology.
Managing Director of SRT Records & Tapes
SRT are one of the major UK record, album sleeve and label manufacturers who press records for companies like Virgin, RCA, WEA and hundreds of independents. Paul Gilby spoke to David Richardson to discover the truth about many of the record pressing myths and also managed to pick up a few tips on how to prepare a master tape for cutting.
"If we start at the beginning and question what making a record entails, you should really look at the whole project and consider the end result. Most people go into a studio with a song or an idea and get it down on tape and then afterwards, conceive the idea of releasing it as a record. Perhaps at that point they should ask themselves whether or not what they have produced is in actual fact only a demo recording."
So, the problem musicians face is knowing when a recording is good enough to press. How do they know that?
"Well, there are two different types of musician. The first is the musician who has bought his own recording equipment and is producing his own master tape. He knows what is acceptable within the equipment's technical limitations and his own recording abilities.
The second is the musician who is being recorded in a professional studio. The only way for him to know what he's getting is right, is to make sure the people doing it have some experience. So, picking the right studio is important.
Now that doesn't necessarily mean you only have to use expensive London studios. You should consider regional studios that have had some successful records that you may well have heard on the radio. It's a fairly safe bet therefore that the guys there are experts and know what they are doing."
Do you feel that recording engineers should hear a client's pressing so that they can improve their own future results?
"Certainly. I used to be a recording engineer myself so I know that everybody makes the same mistakes on their early recordings. You need to hear the records pressed from your recordings so that you can say, 'well next time I'll do it a bit better'.
It's like anything, getting it right first time is very difficult, it takes experience. From an engineering point of view, I think the short cut to that is to listen to the professionals."
"For the musicians, if they attend the record cut, they should do so without any pre-conceived ideas, just with an open mind. Due to a myth in the recording industry that the cut is where a record is spoilt, many people go along with a slightly aggressive attitude expecting the cutting engineer to make a bad job of it. When you think about it, the logic behind that attitude is ridiculous. If you go to the cutting room at the EMI Abbey Road Studios, or wherever, and there's a room with probably a quarter of a million pounds worth of equipment in it and a guy who has cut hundreds of hit records, the thought that he is going to put your tape on the machine and ruin it is silly.
The reason for the myth is that so many people have been disappointed with the results of their recordings which were probably due to themselves or the studio. It's always very difficult to blame yourself.
This situation always reminds me of a woman who's not happy with a photograph of herself, saying that it's been taken from the wrong angle. But famous photographers, like Lord Lichfield, spend a lot of time setting a picture up and the final result has got nothing to do with clicking the button. It's the subject, the content and the preparation. Lichfield could probably take equally as good a picture on a £100 camera as a £500 camera, it's his concept of what he is actually photographing that makes the difference. You wouldn't get Lichfield saying that the processors had ruined his pictures if they were bad and he had used a respectable developing lab...
It's a big blow to the ego to play your record after listening to something like Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms, only to hear that yours sounds awful. Then you say to yourself, 'well, it sounded as good as Dire Straits when we were in the studio, the problem must be with the cutting or the pressing'.
The cut, in fact, is only a passive process to get the tape transferred onto disc. At somewhere like Abbey Road Studios there's a guy who has a mountain of tapes to cut and he will set up the equipment and then let the tape transfer. More often than not, the jobs are marked only with reference numbers, so how does he know which tape is yours in order to pay it extra special attention and mess it about? He doesn't! And it's ridiculous to think that. These people are experts and do their jobs to very exacting standards, day after day.
So to answer your original question, I would say that a person can judge the suitability of his master tape by comparing it to the hit records of the moment. They are the standard!"
What amount of manipulation is possible at the cutting stage?
"I think the first concept should be that the recording should try and be perfect. The ideal recording is one that can be cut immediately to disc and you should look upon anything which needs equalising as a correction process more than an enhancement.
Every cutting engineer I know is more than willing to help if somebody walks in and humbly says, 'this is my first record and I'm very worried about it, can you please give me some advice?'. Unfortunately there are some clients who arrive with completely the opposite attitude and say things like 'you won't lose the top-end and you won't try to ruin it will you?'. The engineer will say 'no problem, we'll do it just as it is' and will then follow the customer's exact instructions and won't offer any advice. When the guy gets his test pressing back and doesn't like it, the aggression starts and back it goes to the cutting room for A-B listening tests."
"That's the next point that everybody gets wrong. What people don't realise is that their Sony or Amstrad hi-fi tower that they're listening on isn't A-B weighted; you can't do an accurate listening test between your tape and the record.
So the first assumption is that your Dire Straits record sounds alright but your own pressing sounds terrible, although the cassette tape is OK. Most people think it's the same medium but, in fact, in professional fields it isn't.
Recording studios themselves very often have lousy record playing equipment. It's not unusual for people to have a cheap record deck plugged into the back of the mixer and then on the other side of the control room, have an incredibly expensive tape machine. Believe it or not, they are actually surprised to hear that the tape and the record don't sound the same! A professional would say, 'why do you think it should ever sound the same if you are not playing it on comparable equipment?'
I've known many people travel to a London cutting room and listened to the A-B test only to be horrified when they discover that their record pressing and master tape sound exactly the same.
They become very embarrassed and the cutting engineer says, 'we did try to tell you and save you travelling all this way'. But why is there still this idea that EMI or us (SRT) would be telling them something that isn't true?
There are faulty cuts, no one can deny that, and there are various reasons. For example, bits of the lacquer coming off in the processing, but these cause what we would refer to as 'mechanical noise' like clicks and pops. It is rarely the sound element of the cut that's wrong.
The next point to bear in mind is what sort of quality you should expect from the pressing process. When you consider that a cutting lathe can put almost anything onto a record, then the audio aspect of cutting is well proven.
What you have to realise is that records are made from a blob of plastic that's heated by steam, pressed by hydraulics and cooled by water, and the pressing quality of the resulting mass-produced record has to be taken into account. It is, after all, a product of heavy engineering techniques."
"It is not ideal, for example, for a pop recording to have a huge dynamic range because it may well be that surface noise becomes apparent, and that problem has nothing to do with the cutting engineer.
If you study most pop singles, you will find that they sound very loud. The reason for this is because they don't have a very wide dynamic range. That brings us to the next misconception of loudness.
People think that the more dynamic they make their recording in terms of the use of dynamic range, the more startling it will sound. That's totally the wrong way around, because for a record to sound loud and powerful it needs to have less dynamic range. I get people saying to me that they have just listened to their test pressing and it's not loud enough. You check the tape box and it might say 'when cutting, please maintain maximum dynamic range', which we would have done, but their notion of loudness is back to front. What they wanted was something that sounded 'dynamic', meaning loud and exciting, rather than with plenty of dynamic range, meaning a big difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the music.
In the professional sphere there's a huge difference between pop and classical recording. Nearly all pop records have a very limited dynamic range and the art of making that sort of record has been developed over the last twenty years by the professionals and they know all the tricks that make pop records sound loud and punchy.
It was very rapidly learned by the industry, that people wanted to be able to hear all of a song when the volume of their radio was turned down low, as well as when it was played loudly. This was all to do with maintaining a sort of aural excitement for the listener, for if they could hear the song all the way through, it was obviously more memorable.
The listening environment of pop music is, therefore, an important consideration when making a recording. These days people listen to music in all sorts of places - in factories, in cars, at home or maybe in a quiet office. Whatever the location, the music must be audible. If the music has a huge dynamic range and you're listening at a low level, you may only hear the loud parts and it would sound very boring because one minute you would hear the music and the next you wouldn't. You try tuning into a classical programme on BBC Radio 3. Sometimes you think they've gone off-air because it's a quiet passage in the music!
To get back to what I was saying earlier about people making a recording, because they aren't aware of or haven't studied how music has developed, there are certain things they don't understand.
Classical music has always been about loudness and softness, the expression is in the dynamics. Pop music isn't related to that idea at all.
The pop record, which is a cheaply produced piece of plastic, is quite remarkable when you consider what comes off it and the enjoyment it provides. That's why records continue to sell in millions despite the arrival of the compact disc with its superior sound quality.
When the CD and digital recording first arrived, it was the obvious medium for classical music because of its lack of background noise and greater dynamic range. For years and years in the record industry, classical records have been an absolute pain to manufacture because people wanted a large dynamic range.
It's quite possible to achieve this, but so much caution is required that such records don't really suit the nature of a high volume mass production situation."
"Now what is happening in the pop field is that people are latching on to digital recording and in fact the Sony F1 is becoming a very popular mastering format. However, what some people are not recognising is that the Sony 1610 system, and not the F1, is actually the accepted professional format. If you're going to produce a CD then it's probably fine to use an F1 tape, but for the limited dynamic range of pop music it would be more cost-effective to make a reel-to-reel tape copy of the digital F1 master and cut from that.
The signal-to-noise ratio of the plastic it's pressed on is far worse than that of the master tape anyway, so you don't need to worry about quality loss at the copying stage. If you are going to produce both a CD and a vinyl record, then you should possibly consider two different mixes of the music. One mix should be kind to the nature of the plastic record in terms of dynamic range and the other to the CD."
"An interesting experiment for people to try is to get out some of their favourite records and monitor the signal level on their tape recorder or mixer. They'll see that very few of them have anything more than a 20dB dynamic range. In fact, some of those that have a very punchy sound may only have a 6dB dynamic range - the meters are almost stuck at one level all the time!
Now if you hadn't observed that, you may well have described the record as having a good dynamic range. So with that in mind, if a pop recording was made which utilised the 100dB or so dynamic range that a CD is capable of giving, it would probably sound awful and would demand a large power amplifier to reproduce the peaks at such a high level so that the quiet sections were audible as well!
Therefore, by definition, the dynamics of a record are determined by a consideration of the lowest and highest level of sound that can be tolerated in a given environment. It's no good having to turn the volume on the radio up and down as the music varies just so that you can hear a song all the way through. So the dynamics of the recordings are controlled with compressors and limiters.
Pop records are designed to be listened to at any level and still sound good. It is, after all, a mass consumer orientated product. Most of the small recording studios don't consider compressors and limiters very important and they're often way down on their list of gear to buy. If they are serious about making recordings to be turned into mass-produced records, a limiter should be one of the very first things they buy.
Some people are confused by level and loudness and we often get clients saying their record hasn't got enough level on it. What they actually mean is that it isn't loud enough. Level is set so that the single loudest point of the recording is reproduced at the maximum loudness the record pressing will allow. Therefore the average level of the music is obviously somewhat below that peak. By compressing the dynamic range you still have that maximum peak level but the rest of the music is at a higher average level if it is only varying by 20dB or so. The brain also has a habit of averaging out the varying level and so the overall impression is one of a louder sounding record.
These are the sort of tricks that separate the amateurs from the professionals and the best way to become a professional is to sit there and watch every move they make. Unfortunately, too many people learn from hearsay and not from professionals, that's why myths about the recording and record pressing industry seem to get blown out of proportion."
If the process of transferring the audio to disc is no real problem, what problems can occur in the pressing?
"The most difficult aspect of moulding records is getting an acceptable signal-to-noise ratio. It is also impossible to check the quality of every record that comes off the press, you can only do one in every hundred or so and even that can't be played all the way through. These are the basic limitations of a mass-produced item. On well-recorded material with a fairly constant dynamic range, there are usually very few problems.
I can't think of one faulty record that's been returned in the last two or three years by any of the major record companies - that's quite astounding really. But an awful lot of records come back from small studios or musicians. This really reflects the level of professionalism and the thought that goes into a recording in the first place."
So the lesson to be learned is that more care should be taken over the original recording?
"That's right. All records that we produce go through exactly the same process, so there is no difference between the big record company jobs and the small customer's; all the metalwork and plastic is exactly the same. The only difference in the final record is the quality of the original recording.
Another myth that people talk of is that the pressing of the record loses all the treble. So we find that many engineers cram loads of top onto the master tape hoping that the final record will sound OK. The next thing they know is that on the actual record they've got terrible sibilance problems because of the excess of treble. One of the great tales is that the treble gets polished off at the metalwork stage. That's a really silly notion but I can see where the idea comes from.
You see, when the actual metalwork is made, there's a process that smooths off any roughness by polishing and it is this process that seems to worry people. They think the top-end is being polished off! However, the treble element of the sound is actually at the bottom of the V-shaped groove, not at the top where the polishing is taking place. The top surface is the low frequency element of the sound.
It's a shame that all of these various myths give people the wrong ideas and attitude towards record manufacturing."
What about the trend towards very thin records, is it all about keeping costs down?
"That's another popular myth - when a record is pressed, the time it takes to mould it is relative to the groove modulation. So, for economic reasons, every company wants to press a record at the fastest cycle time. About the very quickest you can press a single is 14 seconds, an album around 17 or 18 seconds, and the pressing time often has to be extended to cope with various problems. Recordings that have wide dynamic variations and phasing cause the cutting head to move around in a different way and this creates sections of a groove which become difficult to press.
When a record is pressed, the plastic flows from the inside to the outside and these difficult sections are often not pressed properly, which can result in audible crackles that most people write off as dust in the groove. It isn't, it's actually the pressing and the problems usually occur at the edge of the record.
In order to overcome the problem of pressing heavily modulated grooves, you have to extend the pressing time. The more you increase the pressing time the more you squeeze the plastic and it oozes out of the side of the mould making the record thinner. The problem the pressing engineer has is that by increasing the pressing time to achieve the correct audio quality, he is producing a very thin record, and people think that because the record is thin it must be cheap and inferior. Ironically, it isn't.
A fast cycle time results in less energy being used and a thicker record, whereas a long cycle time is expensive, uses more energy and produces a thin record, and the biggest cost element in manufacturing a record is not the plastic but the pressing process. You can therefore see that the cheaper record to produce is the thick one, not the thin.
If you are considering having a record pressed soon, you should bear in mind a few points about the track order of your recording. Most problems occur at the edge of a pressing and so you should avoid fade-ins or quiet instrumental starts on the first track. Also anything with phasing or flanging effects isn't going to help the situation. The more in-phase a recording is, the better it will press. That's why many professional recording studios have phase meters to keep a check on the situation.
If you aren't satisfied with the thin records which are produced from modern recordings, you can always pay that extra cost and use more expensive plastic that results in a thicker record. Some companies specialise in manufacturing 'direct cut' records which started a craze a few years ago. In fact, the main difference is the plastic used and the pressing time. The 'direct cut' name was an extra selling point because the buying public wouldn't have been very impressed by something that said 'long cycle time, stiff vinyl', would they? Any pressing plant can manufacture records like that if they wish."
"Commercially, the creators of anything that is going to be manufactured in large quantities have to find a means of getting the best out of those production limitations. Records are about creating something that can be produced easily and cheaply. Musically, pop records are about simple and memorable things - tunes that can be sung after only a couple of listenings.
People need to sit down right at the start and ask themselves what they are doing. The artistic attributes are, of course, obvious, but the second they consider producing a record, they are off into the commercial world and need to consider the requirements of the medium. I think you need to latch on to the philosophy of why you are doing a certain thing. Once you recognise that, you can focus on producing a more successful record."
Feature by Paul Gilby
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