I consider myself pretty experienced when it comes to the audio recording process. The only stage of which I am quite ignorant is the final stage: mastering. This is where you transfer your final mix to whatever format on which you are going to issue your music; vinyl, CD, 8-track, etc. It sounds easy enough but it is a bit more complicated than that. Each format has its own recipe of sorts that needs to be followed in order to create the best transfer for that particular format.
This especially true for vinyl. If you add too much treble, the needle will jump out of the groove. If you add too much bass, the needle will jump out of the groove. If you have too much of some element in one channel, you guessed it, the needle will jump out of the groove. In order to compensate for this, you have to calculate how much space there should be between the grooves. For a ≈40min 33 RPM LP you’ve got to squeeze those grooves together. The closer together the grooves are, the more the audio quality suffers to the decrease in the sound to noise ratio. Still with me? OK.
To be honest, most audio and recording engineers are only conceptually knowledgeable about the process. This goes for me as well. All that mumbo jumbo I just spouted is just what I can remember off the top of my head from school. It is a very specialized field. Ever heard of Bob Ludwig? Chances are, you have something he mastered in your music collection. He and a few other guys are the best in their field and master most of the high-profile big name stuff that the major labels release. You need really good ears, experience and lots of expensive and properly calibrated gear to do it well.
In this digital day and age the straight transfer from analog master tapes directly to vinyl is a rare occurrence indeed. However this is exactly the route taken by Matador when re-mastering the vinyl rerelease of Mission Of Burma‘s^ old LPs. Matador has started a video series on their site documenting the process. There is only one clip up now, but there should be more to come. Check it out. It’s cool.
I like how that particular master tape playback machine (Studer) has 2 playback heads. The first one sends the audio signal to a computer in the lathe one second before the actual signal to be recorded arrives. Based on the computer’s analysis of the first signal, it determines how to cut the grooves when it recieves the second. Crazy.