why some vinyl records sound better featured

A vinyl record can sound better than others because of:

  1. Original master recording quality
  2. Mastering/cutting technique + equipment
  3. The vinyl material quality and pressing
  4. Audio setup, EQ amplifier

In this article, I’m answering why some LPs sound better than others. I do this by exploring all significant determinators. For example, when the record was pressed, how it was mastered, what material was used, etcetera.

If you’re interested in specific ones, you can navigate to them using the table of contents below.


Old vs New Records

I interviewed Graham Jones, the author of The Vinyl Revival And The Shops That Made It Happen, about the vinyl resurgence. One thing we discussed was the price difference between older records and modern records.

When I asked Graham about why vinyl record re-releases are more expensive today, he told me the following, “Vinyl in the ’70s was pressed in quantities of 5,000 plus. Today it can often be just 1,000 so is clearly going to cost more. It is a quality product as it is now pressed on virgin vinyl. In the 80’s it was all recycled.

So newer records are created using newer ‘virgin’ vinyl where older ones would have used recycled materials. That makes them sound different from each other, and in itself would give me the impression that new records are better, but it’s not that simple.

Even though new records use higher quality materials, people still consider older records to be of higher quality. This can be explained by considering the mixing, production, and mastering techniques used to produce these vinyl records.

By the way, if you’re interested in vinyl record recyclability, check out my other article. (opens in a new tab)


Original Master Recording – Analog Tape vs Digital

The original master recording is the result of all the recorded and mixed components. These are either stored on tapes or stored digitally. An original master recording likely refers to the multi-track instead of the 2-track of an album.

original master tapes

A multi-track is all the separate components of a song, like the bass-line or the vocals, on their own track. These components are then turned into the 2-track for stereo, or 1-track for mono, during the mixing process.

The difference between stereo and mono is the number of audio channels a recording has. Stereo has 2-channels and mono has a single channel. Stereo can be used to give a sense of realism and direction to audio, by using a different channel for each ear of the listener.

Check out this other article I’ve written about stereo and mono in relation to vinyl. (opens in a new tab)

There is a distinction to be made between the analog tape and digital master recordings. Joe Chiccarelli, from Mix with the Masters, explains it perfectly.

To summarize, analog tape recordings aren’t inherently better than digital recordings. The touch of compression with analog tape softens transients and bumps lower frequencies, which can actually be an improvement of the audio quality. The digital recording will not lose any data, but it can sound ‘cold’ because it’s missing the softening and bumps.

The skill of the producing and mixing engineer is much more essential for determining the quality of the original master recording. After this recording is created the mastering and pressing processes still need to happen, these also influence the quality of the vinyl record.


Mastering/Cutting

For vinyl records, mastering is the process of cutting a disc using the master recordings to create the stamp for vinyl record pressings.

A disc is rotating on a cutting lathe while the master recording tapes or files are being played at the same speed. The recording stylus cuts into the vinyl master disc to reproduce the recorded and mixed audio as analog grooves.

Using either a digital or analog master recording isn’t inherently better for this process either.

Sometimes the cutting is done at half-speed which is called half-speed mastering. In theory, this produces higher fidelity vinyl masters and eventually vinyl records.

In reality, half-speed mastering comes with its own issues like sibilance, a lost octave, and issues with the elastic lacquer. If these aren’t dealt with properly then half-speed isn’t necessarily better than full-speed masters.

Check out my other article going over the advantages and disadvantages of half-speed mastering for vinyl. (opens in a new tab)


Vinyl Material – Pressing

Vinyl, or polyvinyl chloride, is a synthetic plastic polymer used in all vinyl record recipes. Next to this ingredient, most vinyl pallet producers have their own secret recipes. Each recipe has its own properties, which affect the record’s audio quality.

Records are made of vinyl because of its chemical properties. When vinyl is heated, it’s easy and cheap to imprint the grooves into the material. Next to that, records made with vinyl don’t break easily because the material is flexible. Even though vinyl is flexible, records don’t warp easily.

Check out this article I wrote on why vinyl records don’t break easily. (opens in a new tab)

As long as you keep vinyl records away from high temperatures and undistributed weight, they shouldn’t warp. Check out this vinyl temperature guide I wrote. (opens in a new tab)

infographic vinyl temperature guide

Most LPs are pressed from a mix of virgin and recycled vinyl. Recycled vinyl is generally considered of lower quality because of impurities causing sound artifacts like clicks and pops. Moderns records have a higher percentage of virgin vinyl.

A heavier vinyl record is generally considered as higher quality as well. This doesn’t mean heavier records necessarily sound better, it’s mainly about the durability of the record. When vinyl records are created extremely lightly it might actually cause audio issues because the groove can no longer have sufficient depth.

I’ve also written an article on vinyl record weights, which also covers heavyweight records. (opens in a new tab)


Audio Setup

The last determinator of the quality of a vinyl record is the record player, amplification, and speaker quality + placement.

A record player has a lot of components affecting the audio quality. When I asked Pat from Cinderblock People about the most important component of a record player, he told me, “A clean record and a clean stylus is just the best combination for great sound and longevity. For audio quality itself, of course, each component will ‘color’ the sound in its own way.

Pat also added, “… The trifecta of stylus/amplification/speakers are where you should focus your time and budget, once you’ve got yourself a sturdy, well-built table.

Read more about the importance of stylus quality here. (opens in a new tab)

Finally, speaker placement greatly influences the capabilities of a vinyl record. This is because the acoustics of the room can either interfere with the playing music or add to its dynamics.

  1. Place speakers at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from the turntable.
  2. Place speakers on a separate surface from the turntable’s surface.
  3. Speakers should have at least 6 to 9 feet (2 to 3 meters) between them.
  4. Speakers need to be removed at least 6 feet (1 meter) from your listening position. Try creating an equilateral triangle.
  5. Speakers should be placed so that their tweeters are at the same height as your ears while you’re in your listening position.
  6. The ideal distance between speakers and the wall is anywhere between 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters).
  7. For a record player audio setup you generally only need two or three speakers.

Check out this article I wrote on ideal speaker placement. (opens in a new tab)


Thanks for reading, I hope I fully answered your question. If anything isn’t clear you can leave a comment and I’ll respond. Finally, take a look at my other articles on vinyl or consider subscribing to my newsletter below.

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Sources

  1. Graham Jones, Author of The Vinyl Revival And The Shops That Made It Happen
  2. Joe Chiccaerlli, Mix with the Masters
  3. CP Lab Safety, https://www.calpaclab.com/pvc-polyvinyl-chloride-chemical-compatibility-chart/
  4. Pat, Owner of Cinderblock People

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