HOLLYWOOD, CA—Much has been written in the trade and mainstream media about vinyl’s comeback and its role in helping to keep the record industry afloat in this era of digital downloads and streaming. With 50 years of experience working the lathe, mastering engineer Bernie Grundman, currently enjoying the uptick in cutting business at his Bernie Grundman Mastering facility, is well placed to offer some insights on the rise, fall and resurgence of the format.
“When this all came back in the mid-’90s, it started with the audiophiles, and then somewhere in the mid-2000s, it really started to crossover into the mainstream,” observes Grundman. “I thought, we’re really in for a lot of headaches, because it really is difficult to make a good vinyl pressing, because of all the steps and stages involved.”
The vinyl production process is as much an art as a science, Grundman observes, and requires a great deal of expertise. “But we’ve all been around this kind of equipment and this way of doing things about as long as anyone. We have a lot of experience and we know all the pluses and minuses,” he says, looking around at his 20,000-squarefoot Hollywood-based facility, which houses six mastering suites, two production rooms and other amenities. Grundman opened his facility in 1984 after 15 years at A&M, relocating it to its present site in 1998, one year after opening a second mastering house in Tokyo, Japan.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl sales hit a new revenue peak of $416 million in the U.S. in 2015, five times the revenue from five years previous and the highest since 1988. Sales of LPs and EPs have been on an upward trajectory since 2009, growing 260 percent through that period, according to Nielsen, which also reported a 53 percent increase in catalog albums and a 37 percent increase in current releases during the first quarter of this year compared to 2015.
Mastering may be an art, but head technical engineer Beno May, who joined Grundman from A&M, has been steadily improving the science over the years. “He’s in the engine room, really seeing to it that we are better than we used to be,” says Grundman, referring to the facility’s 1,200-square-foot tech shop and R&D and maintenance staff.
For a rerelease on LP of several West Coast jazz titles on Contemporary Records, May modified the label’s lathe, simplifying the signal path and improving the tube circuitry. “We took the Westrex cutter head and had Lenny Horowitz from the History of Recorded Sound take it apart and implement a Neumann torque tube [instead],” explains May. “It changes the response of the head and the whole low frequency area. There’s much less EQ needed so you have a little bit less phase shift. We’ve also redesigned the front-end electronics to better match up with what we’re doing.”
According to mastering engineer Chris Bellman, vinyl work is split roughly 60/40 between catalog—records that are 18 months or older— and current titles. That matches industry- wide data from Nielsen, which reported that Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and the Beatles were leading catalog sales in Q1 2016.
Earlier this year, Bellman remastered Alanis Morrisette’s multi-million-selling Jagged Little Pill, which was originally released at a time when vinyl was secondary to CD, and which he originally mastered. “Now they’ve decided to put it on vinyl again,” reports Bellman. “I did have my original CD, so I was comparing a lot to that. I definitely beat it.”
There is often a difference between catalog material that was mixed for a vinyl release and for CD, says May. “Engineers back then had a feel for this going to vinyl. There are challenges with a lot of the new stuff that comes in.”
Consistency during all stages of the pressing process has improved since earlier days, says Grundman, and lathe computers can ensure that a disc will mechanically track. “But it doesn’t tell you how clean it’s going to be,” he says.
“One of the biggest limitations is how it can be played back. If you don’t have a really great cartridge, probably the majority of records you play really aren’t as clean as they could be. You’re not hearing them as well as we want you to.”
There can be a significant advantage to doing a new reissue, adds Bellman. “It’s almost a win-win just doing the transfer again with a better set up and the latest equipment. Our tape playback is so much nicer than probably what it was back in the day; we can extract a lot more information.”
The vinyl resurgence has also helped stimulate business in an unexpected way, says Bellman. “A lot of the other mastering engineers got rid of their lathes, so we tend to cut a lot of product for other mastering studios as well as our own.”
As Grundman notes, the basic principle of the format goes back to Edison. “It has become very sophisticated in some ways, because it’s full frequency response, two channels in one groove. That’s doing a lot with a very primitive medium, so it’s amazing how good it really is. It’s come a long way.”
Bernie Grundman Mastering