AAA/all-analog mastering process

Vinyl Me, Please Goes The Extra Mile For Its All-Analog Releases

There’s nothing inherently evil about using digital tools to make vinyl records — although for some collectors, the mark of the beast will always be a CD’s bitrate.

While it’s true that a high-resolution digital master made to take advantage of vinyl’s dynamic range will result in a very nice-sounding LP, a record that’s been cut directly from the master tape and then carefully pressed more often results in unfiltered magic.

The process is also more difficult, more expensive, and more nerve-wracking. But for Vinyl Me, Please, the extra effort is worth the end result, and the vinyl subscription service will expand its catalogue of records that are AAA, the code used for recordings that are recorded to tape, mastered from tape and released on vinyl.

Two of May’s VMP reissues are AAA. Al Green’s Call Me, a classic of physical and spiritual yearning, is part of VMP’s Classics subscription series. And this month’s Essentials series offers Experience Unlimited’s Free Yourself, a lost classic of Washington, D.C.’s go-go scene.

VMP’s Cameron Schaefer is quick to point out that VMP isn’t turning into an audiophile label. It’s simply trying to be the best possible version of itself. “I think we’re unique from other clubs or reissue labels in that our main customer base is younger and generally approaching it more from a music discovery angle than an audiophile/collector lens,” Schaefer said. “With that said, we know that how the record is produced and all the details around that process impact how the record is experienced at the end of the line, so we’ve been working hard the past several years to push the envelope on quality.

“Experience Unlimited and Al Green were some of the first records we really highlighted the AAA angle in the marketing, even though they weren’t the first AAA records we’ve done. Some people were very excited by this, others didn’t care, but all agreed that the sound quality on both was excellent, which is ultimately what matters to us.”

For those who do care, there’s even better news: From this point on, all Classics series LPs will be AAA, while the Essentials series will be catch-as-catch-can. VMP’s Levi Sheppard said the Classics series was the sweet spot for AAA, because it will focus on jazz, blues, and soul  titles, all of which were originally recorded during the glory days of analog.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Gospel Train

Upcoming AAA releases for June include Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Gospel Train (Classics) and Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Essentials), and the Classics series is booked up with AAA releases through the end of 2019.

“It’s one of those things where, for a certain kind of person well-versed in high-end audio, an AAA release has a lot of value,” Sheppard said. “For others it’s more of a value-added kind of thing.”

For analog guru Michael Fremer, it’s all of the above and then some. The founder of Analog Planet and longtime writer for Stereophile is a staunch advocate for AAA — when done correctly.

“The primary advantage is that the listener experiences the source as it was created, not digitized,” Fremer said. “The claim that digitization is transparent to the source is nonsense, I don’t care what the resolution. This is easily demonstrated. There are some advantages to digitization depending upon the tape’s condition but generally the sound is worse and I rarely have difficulty identifying the source when I play a reissue cut from digital regardless of the resolution.”

So how does this all work?

For an all-AAA release such as Gospel Train or Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the mastering and pressing is nearly identical to records that aren’t AAA. There is one crucial difference. Following is the process in a nutshell. Think of it as mastering for dummies.

Step 1: Only original master tapes are used. The tapes represent the first “A” in AAA. Ideally, the tapes will still be in as-new condition.

Step 2: Here’s the crucial step. For decades, it’s been common practice to make a digital master recording from the tapes, and the digital master is then used to cut the lacquer. It’s easier, less expensive, and when done right will make a really nice sounding record.

Many mastering engineers use tape playback machines that have a digital delay built in. As the engineer listens to the tape to make sure all is well, the delay is being used to cut grooves into the lacquer.

But true AAA releases cut the lacquer directly from the master tape. For its Classics series, VMP will use Sterling Sound’s Ryan Smith, who utilizes a cleverly modified ATR-102 playback machine that allows him to monitor the tape via an analog preview tape head while cutting the lacquer directly from the master tape.

That’s the step most often skipped. When a hype sticker claims “mastered from the original analog tapes,” Fremer said that it often means an ADA chain: tape, digital master, vinyl. It should be noted that hype stickers are, you know, hype.

Step 3: The master lacquer is then sprayed with silver and given a nickel bath, which is way better than a Nickelback. The electroplated lacquer is now a metal master, and when the metal master is peeled apart we’re left with two sides: one with grooves and one with ridges.

Step 4: The one with ridges is our stamper, and that’s what makes your LP. A biscuit of vinyl is pressed onto the stamper, and when popped off we can see that those ridges have become grooves, which takes on a double meaning in the case of Call Me.

Easy, huh?

Fremer added that the AAA chain is “only as strong as the weakest link,” and that’s where the condition and availability of the master tape comes into play. Sheppard said that finding tapes and getting permission to use them is the hardest stage of AAA, admitting that many labels see the master tapes as “sacred.”

Schaefer concurred, but seems to appreciate the adventure involved. “In many cases, the master tapes for some classic albums are literally priceless, so it’s understandable the anxiety that comes with letting them leave your hands,” Schaefer said. “Sometimes we have to get creative. In the case of Ayalew Mesfin, an Ethiopian funk legend, we bought him airfare so he could hand transport his master tapes on the plane with him to United Masters in LA. He literally didn’t let the tapes out of sight.”

This article was produced in partnership with Vinyl Me, Please.

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2 Comments
  • Jun 7,2019 at 14:52

    “Many mastering engineers use tape playback machines that have a digital delay built in. As the engineer listens to the tape to make sure all is well, the delay is being used to cut grooves into the lacquer.”

    I think this is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the digital delay.

    There is no point in the engineer listening to the tape two seconds before it goes onto the disc. If the engineer were to notice a problem, there would be no way to correct it before it was cut to disc and the disc would have to be recut anyway.

    The purpose of using a delay in the record cutting process is to implement variable groove spacing. The idea is that you can fit more music on a disc by packing the grooves closer to each other when the music is quiet and giving them more room when the music gets loud. The traditional implementation of such a system is analog — a special tape recorder is used with two heads separated by enough distance to create a delay equal to one revolution of the disc.

    The first head is used to detect the volume of the music and increase the speed of the cutter head motor when the music gets louder, and reduce the cutter head motor speed when the music has been quieter for at least one revolution.

    The second head is used to actually transfer the music to the cutter head and cut it onto the disc.

    When the system is working correctly, this allows the engineer to increase the amount of music on each side of the disc without losing musical fidelity. The grooves are spaced widely when they need to be and they are spaced narrowly when they aren’t.

    What I think you are describing is a modern implementation of variable groove spacing where the tape is played back on a regular tape playback machine with a single head. The signal is immediately sent to the variable groove spacing circuitry in order to properly control the movement of the cutter head motor, but a digital delay is used instead of a second playback head to send the audio to the cutter head at the right moment.

    This makes sense from a technical standpoint. Dual-head tape recorders are not a standard item — they would have to be custom built for the record cutting machine. Also, the analog method reads the master tape twice, as opposed to reading it once.

    Of course, using a digital delay in line with the cutter head sort of defeats the entire purpose of the all-analog exercise, and it’s something I hadn’t really considered. If your mastering chain is going to be implementing groove pitch spacing with a digital delay, then why not start with a digital master in the first place?

  • Jun 2,2019 at 06:43

    I appreciate the conversational style of this article: it made understanding the AAA process much easier. I look forward to investigating Vinyl Me, Please and their catalog. Thanks.

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