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RSR035 – Cameron Henry – Vinyl Mastering

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR035 - Cameron Henry - Vinyl Mastering Engineer

My guest today is Cameron Henry a mastering engineer at Welcome to 1979 Studio specializing in vinyl mastering. He has mastered over two-thousand LP & 45-single releases, including Bela Fleck, John Mayer, Sturgill Simpson, Bonnie Raitt, JD McPherson, Spiritualized, Steve Earle, Dinosaur Jr., John Prine, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, and many others.

And since Cameron's mastering room is located in a full-on recording studio, Cameron & studio owner Chris Mara have been able to record direct-to-disk releases for artists such as Pete Townshend, Josh Hoyer, and a handful of others.

One of the very cool things that Cameron also does here is to host a "vinyl camp" at Welcome To 1979 Studio, which is focused on teaching the basics of disk cutting, with hands-on demonstrations, using attendee's music, & a chance to participate in an actual direct-to-disk recording session. The goal of the camp is to provide knowledge to mixing engineers & producers so they can have the foresight to properly prepare an album for a vinyl release.

“Vinyl is heavy, bulky, & takes a lot to manufacture, but it has seen the birth and death of every format that was intended to replace it.” 

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The Process of Creating Vinyl Records

Neumann VMS70 Cutting Lathe

In the room I have a Neumann VMS70 cutting lathe which is a giant spaceship looking machine which cuts a lacquer and that's the first record. The process of making a vinyl record starts with a machine like mine. The music is pumped into the amplifiers of the machine it vibrates the cutting stylus on the cutter head and it just literally, in real time, cuts the groove onto a lacquer.

The cutting stylus on the lathe cuts the groove and is vibrated by the music so that when you put the playback needle on your turntable into that groove it vibrates the same way. A record is cut in a midside fashion where all of your center information is causing a lateral, horizontal groove to be cut on the record. And anything stereo is happening vertically.

A lacquer looks a lot like a record. It’s an aluminum disc with a coating of like nail polish on it. That gets sent to a manufacturing plant where it gets nickel plated. When they peel off the nickel from the record that has grooves on it the metal part has ridges on it, it’s the opposite of a record. That goes into the press which is a complicated looking waffle iron and hot plastic sits between the two stampers and just presses out every copy. So whatever record I cut in here is going to be identical to every record copy that's out on the market.

Record Pressing 

When a record is pressed, there’s a hot hockey puck sized piece of plastic that goes between the two stampers. The stampers push down with a bunch of pressure and the plastic spreads outward, much like waffle batter.

How should you Mix and Master for Vinyl?

Basics - Make sure your music sounds good. If you’re music sounds good, it’s probably going to translate well to vinyl. Listen to the low end and make sure its in phase and actually in the middle, also listen to the sibilance. Those are two frequency ranges that cause the most trouble in a record. 

Mastering for vinyl is completely different then it is for digital. Mastering has a chain with a starting point and an end point. The end point is whatever format it’s going to be so if it's a cd it's making a cd. There’s a point maybe three quarters of the way through the mastering process where vinyl could take a completely different path from digital and a lot of that has to do with dynamics and overall volume. Digital music is way louder than vinyl it’s a totally different reference point.

Dynamic music fits on a record better. The physicality of how a record works is you have a disc and there’s a spiral going around and around. The more that groove deviates and moves around then the more space of each groove is required so you can only fit so much time. So, the louder the music is the more space the groove is going to use up. The quieter it is, the less space. When you have dynamic music, in the quieter moments you can cram the grooves together. So over time with the less compressed master you have an overall higher volume output.

“A vinyl master and a digital master aren’t optimized in the same way” @Welcometo1979

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Check Out Cameron's Vinyl Record Label 

Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - One of my biggest things was thinking that if only I had the ability to go into a real studio to make a record I would totally do that. I grew up in Toledo, OH and had a port-a-studio and two mics and would make records on that thing. At the time I didn’t realize that what I was doing was super awesome and important to understanding how recording works, by just working with semi-pro equipment. There were times where I thought we could do this song, but we might need this other piece of gear to do it, and that’s the wrong attitude to have.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- Since I worked on the port-a-studios it would be me recording in my garage, I’d be focused on how close do I get the mic to the guitar or this or that, and somebody told me once, why don’t you just sound good in the space you’re in and put a microphone in the space and it should sound good. Don’t worry about where I’m going to put the mic first, worry about what’s happening musically sound good in the space that it’s in.

“I think opportunities are born out of failures” @Welcometo1979

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.

A - I give this tip to a lot of people who ask me, ‘I’m mixing for vinyl what should I do?’ Once you think you’re mix is good put an EQ on your mix bus and put a high pass filter at like 60 or 70 hertz and a low pass filter at like 13k. Take that away, walk away for 15 min and then go back and listen to it and does it still sound like music to you? If it does, you’re probably ok. Those frequencies are the ones that you’ll trick yourself into thinking are good. The sub sonics and ultrasonics are great for fidelity purposes, but you got to realize the song needs to stand alone even coming out of an earbud

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
A- A fun hardware tool is actually a unit by Behringer called the Combinator. It’s this multi-band limiter, equalizer, compressor that was actually intended for live purposes so you could shape music to the room you’re in. It’s an awesome piece of gear.

“If you looked at a record groove under a microscope, it's a “V” shape” @Welcometo1979

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Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A - I really like BrainWorks plugins. I use their BX control which is a mid-size “mastering” console. It’s got a great device called a monomaker on it which is emulated off of a elliptic equalizer that was intended for cutting discs. Its got a threshold point where everything below is subbed to mono everything about it in stereo. 

Q - Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - Having a good invoicing software. I use this company called invoice-to-go. I can easier and daily download the whole backlog and it generates reports in real time so I can easily say how much did I make? Who hasn’t paid me? Who has paid me? Etc.. It’s great to just keep track of all that, and I can do that no matter where I am.

“Don’t use a turntable that’s plastic” @Welcometo1979

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Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - I would find the bars musicians are playing in and start hanging out and got to know them personally by being there all the time. Over time they’d find out I’m a recording engineer and we’d starting talking about making records. Find if there’s people to record and cater to that. 

“Vinyl is a really weird medium because there’s no definition of what anything is” @Welcometo1979

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - Record things. Everybody’s bad at one point. Best way to get good at recording is to record things.

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Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!