I distinctly remember being 12 years old, on my bedroom floor watching the record spin under the needle. I would wonder to myself “How in the world is this even possible?” There is still an almost magical quality to those tiny grooves that hold all that sound. I cared far less about sound quality back then, but over the years I’ve become more interested in questions like, “Why does this particular pressing of a record sound better than this one over here?” “Does this record sound noisy because it’s lime-sherbert-swirl color or did they just do a bad job?” “Why does this thin and flimsy pressing of Avalon from 1982 sound so much better than this ultra thick 200g virgin vinyl pressing of Evening Star from 2014? The more I dove into this question, gathered anecdotal evidence, consulted some professionals, and immersed myself in the process – from the humble PVC pellet, to the sapphire or diamond stylus’s microscopic bouncing along the groove, the more I came to realize that there are as many answers to questions of vinyl audio fidelity as there are ears to hear. In trying to simplify the questions surrounding vinyl sound quality variations and anomalies, I found two fundamental factors that influence the sound of your record far more than vinyl color – the quality of material (polyvinyl chloride) and the mastering of the music itself.
Not all vinyl is created equal.
There are many different formulations of PVC, and they have changed greatly over the many years that records have been in production – quite a few companies have developed their own proprietary “secret” formulas. PVC in it’s natural state is clear, and any color you wish to make, from traditional black to translucent or opaque colors across the spectrum must be added either prior to pelletizing – resulting in colored granules – or a small quality of dye powder mixed with clear granules. Already at this stage, the decision when to add the dye can affect sound quality, as it’s generally considered better mixed and more consistent if the dye is added prior to pellitization.
So why black?
Vinyl has been pressed using different colors for longer than many people realize. In the 1960’s translucent red was a standard color for Japanese albums and singles, and many of those records – especially The Beatles on red vinyl – are highly collectable and generally renowned for their excellent sonics. Black has always been the most popular color used largely because of it’s inherent ability to hide imperfections, and to allow for the use of recycled vinyl – since the 1970’s energy crisis, some pressing houses use as much as 30% recycled vinyl in their projects, which can sometimes result in a lower quality product than using 100% virgin vinyl. Interestingly, most colored vinyl must be virgin for obvious reasons, but you’ll find many audiophile presses that make a point to use 100% virgin vinyl in any color to avoid impurities in their pressings. Black has also allowed for more experimentation with additives to alter the various properties of a record, a notable one being the addition of “carbon black” that, although hotly debated, claims to add tensile strength and resistance to abrasion, extending the life of the record. Carbon black or not, with proper care and cleaning of your vinyl, along with quality components on a properly tuned turntable, the added life is arguably negligible. Not only is the vinyl itself important, but the cleanliness of the machines in use, the accuracy of the temperatures used in production, the skills of the operators themselves, and the level of the quality control at that particular facility. Undeniably, color pressings are more labor intensive, and therefore more expensive to make. Imperfections are impossible to hide in most non-black pressings, so cleanliness and consistency of mix and materials are paramount. Without exception, pressing houses and engineers I talked with stated the rejection rate for colored records is far higher.
The Magic of Mastering and the Engineer as Musical Merlin.
Regardless of the format for music distribution, the final mastering stage of the whole process is critical to the overall quality of the sound you hear through your speakers – far more important than vinyl color, weight or whether or not the vinyl itself is virgin. The most beautifully sterile facility with the cleanest machines, run by the most talented people in the world, using the very best virgin vinyl money can buy cannot fix bad original recordings or a bad master. Garbage in, garbage out as they say. Mastering is essentially taking an audio mix and using EQ, compression and limiting to prepare the music for distribution in a particular format – making it sound consistent across the whole album and maintaining/enhancing the character of each of the tracks to present the most professional and dynamic sounding replication of what the artist intended. With increased demand of late for vinyl pressings of new and old music, many pressings receive what is known as a “vinyl-specific master.” This is simply an engineer who works specifically within the possibilities of the vinyl format to maximize and elevate the presentation on that format. It requires a high level of skill, and the top mastering engineers are well paid and are, in some circles, as famous as the artists they work with. Specialized pressing techniques such as Direct Metal Mastering, and Half-Speed Mastering can also elevate the sonics of music on vinyl, as well as avoiding placing too much music on one side of a record – engineers will sometimes opt to spread a single LP over 4 sides during a remaster to allow for wider grooves that can more accurately present greater dynamic range and overall volume.
The Picture Disc.
Picture discs predate the Great Depression and throughout their history have generally been plagued with inferior sound quality mainly due to the techniques used in manufacture and the quality of materials. It is certainly not a guarantee that a picture disc will sound poor – there are some notable exceptions of some surprisingly good pressings in the picture format – but generally speaking they are not the choice if your primary goal is fidelity.
Interestingly, the anecdotal evidence I gathered mirrored the evidence I tried to pull together – that bad sounding records AND great sounding records can and do exist in every color, and every thickness of vinyl. The choices made every step of the way, from the final master tapes to the wax in your hands affect how that particular record will sound. Some notable takeaways: Vinyl thickness doesn’t affect sound quality specifically, but it is more durable and warp resistant. Vinyl color doesn’t affect sound quality specifically, but it does require more skill to press cleanly. Good and bad pressings were made in every genre of music since the invention of the long-player record and good and bad pressings are made to this day. Finally, keep that stylus clean, your turntable properly calibrated, and own the best quality turntable, pre-amp and speakers you can afford. None of the above matters at all if your stylus is dirty, and your components are poor.
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of The Technical Corner, by Joel Andrews here: https://vinylwritermusic.com/the-technical-corner-archives/
Originally from New Brunswick, Canada, Joel started to really collect vinyl at a time when people were practically giving it away as they moved their collections over to CD. It became clear that he had a strong penchant for how things work when his father arrived home one day to find four-year-old Joel had completely disassembled the family turntable! Joel purchased a turntable when there were only two models left on the shelf, which is still in use today! Joel is into a wide variety of genres, everything from Jazz to Metal and everything in between, and his love for how things work has never faded; it led to an electronics path in college and then computers. His focus has always been on: how do things work, and why? What led to design decisions, how were things improved upon, why did some formats fade while others remained? These days, Joel works as a cloud consultant in Toronto, Canada but still finds time to tinker with electronics and electronic repair when he can.