RPM’s Vinyl Blog

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50 Years of Record Cutting and Stereo Bass for Vinyl

7 min read
record cutting

Vinyl production. RPM Records

One of the better known rules in vinyl mastering is monoing the bass frequencies. Indeed, stereo bass may cause tracking issues, and at worst a skipping record. But is this always the case?

I spoke to Richard Simpson, a mastering engineer for RCA, Contemporary and Erika Records to find out. Mr. Simpson has 50 years experience with vinyl mastering and several Gold Records. His extraordinary catalog spans from Elvis Presley to David Bowie to Dr. Dre and many more.

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Record cutting lathe “Neumann VMS 70”

Early Days at RCA

I started working for RCA recording studios in New York in 1966. First, in quality control where I obtained a good background about technical problems in the recording process. Next step was learning to cut master lacquers and assisting recording engineers.

Early on I realized that microphone placement was the most important step in the recording process. I was lucky enough to work with my father Bob Simpson, the mastering engineer and Grammy winner. I was seeing first-hand how the minor change in mic placement effected the sound on a Count Basie session.

He would have me come out into the studio and listen to the band go back into the control room and listen. If the sound in control room didn’t sound as good, he would make slight changes until the sound matched. Studio work was great but my interest leaned more towards cutting records.

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Richard Simpson at the cutting lathe

My first record as a vinyl mastering engineer was John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads”. The record was already released but not doing as well as expected. I approached Milt Okun, John’s producer, and suggested re-cutting the lacquers with more level and slight EQ changes.

A lucky break for me, the record went on to become a smash hit, million seller. That was my first Gold Record which turned into 10 more and a ten year relationship – cutting all John Denver’s hit records. Along the way I was cutting records for The Monkees, Guess Who, David Bowie, Kinks, Lou Reed and Elvis Presley.

The eighties came with cutting lots of hip hop N.W.A, ICE-T, Warren G. The nineties brought electronic sound, my favorite was drum and bass. I was cutting records for artist producer Eric Hull ” E-sassin”, Sound Sphere Records. In competition with The Exchange Mastering, we were cutting the loudest record possible.

Record Cutting Issues

One of the two major problems in record cutting is phase correlation. Negative phase forces the groove to narrow to the point the playback stylus can not track any longer.

Often, the narrow groove would cause the cutter head to lift off the lacquer surface. And the groove would no longer be a continuous spiral. This causes problems in plating too as grooves tear apart when separating a stamper from a mother.

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Richard Simpson working in the studio

Sibilance is the second problem. The heavy hissing sound not corrected in the recording or mixing stage will cause problems on the master lacquer. Such as tracking issues and distortion in playback of the finished record.

For many years I cut records with a standard EQ process involving the low-end vertical roll-off (VRO). A combining network centering the bass on newer systems had the eliptical equalizer (EE). I used one or the other for many years, that’s the technique I learned. Using this low-end EQ allowed safer and louder records. It also made it easier to cut a good sounding record.

Cutting Stereo Signal

It wasn’t until I started working with Pete Lyman in early 2000 that my approach to cutting the low-end changed. The low-end EQ roll-off or monoing the bass was the norm. Pete questioned this practice and didn’t think we should cut all records using eliptical equalizer (EE). Instead, to try EQing of bass frequencies. For the most part, the sound was a fuller more pleasing sound when bypassing the use of VRO or EE in the transfer from a source to a master disk.

On the other extreme, at RCA Hollywood, we were mastering Motown releases using a graphic equalizer called the Motown filter. It was a standard practice for rolling off frequencies below 70 hertz and above 12 kilohertz. They wanted a loud punchy sound for radio air play.

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Richard Simpson, the vinyl master.

Stereo Bass in Recording

To me, stereo bass means a low register instrument recorded using the A/B stereo recording technique. That creates a sense of width in the recording.

Another technique called Blumlein Pair will capture a greater part of the room sound and adds a bit more ambience to the stereo image. Using 2 bi-directional mics with figure 8 pattern placed 90 degrees so that their capsules coincide at a single point will give you this effect.

In most situations, recording bass in mono works better. Many believe our ears are not good at obtaining directional information from low frequencies. Thus, stereo image for any low register instruments is trivial.

Yet, that’s not always the case and many believe that stereo low-end adds to the sound experience. I agree with that statement. For example, listen to the band Dire Straits or records produced by Mark Knofler. The low-end surrounds you with a very full sound. That spaciousness of sound is the stereo low-end.

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Richard Simpson’s Vinyl Mastering Studio

The cutting of stereo low-end will continue as it has. If the recording right along with good mixing, the master lacquers will sound as close as possible to the source material.

When I first started cutting at RCA, the releases were in mono and stereo. The first Monkees album is a good example of mono versus stereo. If you can find a mono record, you can hear a big difference in level. The mono was 3 to 4db hotter than the stereo version. It is because stereo signal occupies more space on the disc.

Cutting Engineer at Contemporary

I cut a lot of Jazz records for Lester Koenig, the owner of Contemporary Records. He wanted to re-cut old jazz records from the catalog.

I would compare a record to the master 2-track tape before cutting the master lacquers. Making sure the sound and level matched the original pressing. Yet, the mono records were louder than the stereo. Lester stated that his cutting engineer found it hard to cut stereo at the levels of the mono records.

The placement of instruments the same as in the mono recordings cause troubles. As a rule, bass off to one side, drums off center, piano centered and sax off to right of center. Cutting in mono had no problems, but stereo was a problem. I couldn’t cut the same levels, too much vertical action, along with lateral groove swing. I need to do some changes in the mix and centering the low-end solved the cutting issues.

Over the years, major figures in the music business worked for Contemporary Records. Among them were Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi Ertegun, writer Leonard Feather, a recording engineer and studio designer Howard Holzer, engineers Roy Dunan, Bernie Grundman and myself.

Contemporary produced some of the best sounding jazz records. And stereo bass played a role in the spaciousness of sound you hear. A sound that is multidimensional and perceived as coming from all round you.

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A legendary cutting lathe VMS70 from Richard Simpson.

Tips For Better Mastering

The use of equalizers, stereo widening plug-ins, compressors, limiters, spacial enhancers, multi-band in the mastering for vinyl as well as for streaming is a sensitive subject. But from my experience over the past fifty plus years – less is better.

The artist, producer and engineer intent to make the best sounding record possible. Once the final mix is ready for the cutting, there should be little or no change to the sound. Unless, the above mentioned didn’t do their job.

Not to say that a touch of EQ wouldn’t help in the final stage of mastering. It is my job to make sure the cutting system is reproducing the sound in a way that is correct in all details. We, as record cutters, give our opinion and suggest minor EQ changes that might benefit the sound. That is usually done with 2 versions of a reference disc – one flat and another with minor EQ changes. The production team will choose the one that suits them better.

Not every artist and engineer have funds to take advantage of the best in their projects. They do what they can and rely on mastering rooms to improve the final sound for records or streaming.

Listening Experience

By doing some research, I realized that stereo bass is not only about the location of an instrument at low frequencies. It is about a sense of envelopment or spaciousness at low frequencies. When the effect is present, it is what allows bass to sound like it is coming from outside of our heads.

This spaciousness creates a shift from sounding like it is in your head to a feeling of sound all around you. A definition of stereo bass by David Griesinger – one of the leading advocates.

All in all, the room or size of the studio has a great effect on the sound experience too.

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Richard Simpson cutting a record.

What’s Next for Vinyl?

With the vinyl revival over the past 10 years – it’s time to get back to the fuller, more dynamic sound.  A lot of great records are being produced on vinyl by the major labels and popular artists. Also many projects that don’t sound that great. For the major part due to excessive EQ, compression and little dynamics becoming the norm.

Going back to the music production during the hey days of vinyl is the solution. Get away from brick wall mixing and use less compression. Bypass the overuse of plugins, get back to a natural and more dynamic sound. And finally, work with the cutting engineer not against him.