Why are so many vinyl records I buy from bandcamp low quality?
August 18, 2017 5:46 PM   Subscribe

It goes like this: I find a rad artist on bandcamp, I buy their (physical, vinyl) record, and I end up with a pressing that sounds terrible. It's happened three times now. I've compared songs, digital stream vs. physical vinyl, and there is a hugely noticeable difference, with the vinyl sounding muted, dull, lower quality. Almost like a 64k mp3 file, with a bad EQ.

I'm assuming this is a pressing issue. Or maybe it's a mastering issue. But now I'm curious: what is going on? I love vinyl, and I love supporting independent artists, but damn I've been burned 3 times in a row now.

For the record (heh): I've compared digital streams of lots of other albums I own in both digital and vinyl form, and none have had the discrepancy that I've seen in recent albums I've gotten via bandcamp. I know bandcamp isn't the problem (I think?), and I'm assuming this is something like "a new vinyl pressing company just opened to meet demand and they suck" or something. Or maybe it's "bands don't know how to master for vinyl". Or possibly it's "bandcamp provides LP pressings via this company with band QC standards".

Swear the goodness, I've heard higher fidelity from a dinner plate on a record lathe.

Music industry people, please help!! Thank you!!
posted by juice boo to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (crap, typo in my question. "bandcamp provides LP pressings via a company with bad QC standards" was the intended presupposition)
posted by juice boo at 5:49 PM on August 18, 2017

Not a music industry person, but as far as I'm aware/can confirm Bandcamp doesn't provide anything beyond a front-end for sales and hosting for downloads. From their FAQ:

Do you make t-shirts, press vinyl or duplicate CDs?

Sorry, no.

I think your hypothesis that a new pressing plant, or mastering engineer(s), serving the new rise in demand might be assing it up is a definite possibility. Were these all from different labels or artists?
posted by Merzbau at 6:36 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Is it possible this is an RIAA curve issue? If you're listening to an MP3 / streaming, it's equalized differently -- and the problem may be that the album isn't equalized to the RIAA curve, but your phonograph is, throwing it off the other direction.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:02 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Without knowing the particular label, pressing plant, person doing the mastering for vinyl, or your home setup (which is probably fine, because it sounds like you listen to other records that sound fine), it sounds like the current vinyl revival boom is biting you in the ass.
It takes work to make a release sound good in multiple formats, and a few recent articles have mentioned that the value proposition for a number of artists isn’t there, because doing all that work just isn’t worth it.

When vinyl was the primary format for releases, it had the attention needed because that was the format that artists and labels knew people would be listening on. Honestly, and I’m guilty of this at some points, a lot of people are buying vinyl as as display artifact or as something physical to point to as an album, while only using the bundled download code or bandcamp-included download. Some genres where people have dj’ed with vinyl consistently have releases particularly well-mastered, although pressings still get botched. I buy some of that stuff, and I occasionally buy a record I would have only downloaded because they listed who mastered it.

Is there a particular genre or artist you’re noticing this for? If so, I’d make note of who they had master it, and where it was pressed, and see if other artists list those things before making a purchase.
posted by mikeh at 7:29 PM on August 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Even if the source is the MP3s downloadable from the site, I would be shocked if the vinyl was not mastered with RIAA equalization. It would also be more obvious than "dull and muted," because it would sound like it has nearly zero bass.

I'd email the band! I have to think they don't know.

Another possibility is your playback equipment, such as an old needle, or if your turntable is plugged into the CD input or something that doesn't have RIAA eq.
posted by rhizome at 7:31 PM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly the cynic in me says that they know having a physical vinyl release is seen as a necessity in the current environment or their scene, and they used the most convenient route possible. I get the feeling there are some pressing plants that will take whatever files you send to them, stamp ‘em to vinyl, and send you them back in a box.
posted by mikeh at 7:47 PM on August 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's as you say. Smaller/indie bands doing their own recording and sending files to a cheap place that'll just press whatever to vinyl in suitable quantities for a small band (500 or 1000, etc). There's a lot of tricks to mastering specifically for vinyl that are not being utilized, leading to a shallow cut and less fidelity. A lot of my friends put out 7"s in this way - I've spent many a night helping fold the sleeves for them over beers.
posted by destructive cactus at 7:53 PM on August 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Rock & Roll Archaeology Project just launched a new podcast called Vinyl Snob, and their first episode is an interview with a vinyl mastering engineer from Capitol Records. They discuss the decline of vinyl in the '90s, which meant that once the resurgence in vinyl started about five years ago, many of the best facilities had closed and experienced engineers had retired.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 8:10 PM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

As for the “bandcamp pressing vinyl” bit, they most definitively have nothing to do with anything mailed to you other than payment processing. Anyone you buy from is still doing the fulfillment and products themselves. I know a couple labels I’ve bought from, it’s definitely the label head sending stuff from his apartment.

They’re disconnected to the point that when you have stuff from multiple vendors in your cart, it will charge them individually. International purchases even get the international purchase charge.
posted by mikeh at 8:18 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It's definitely not my equipment - other records sound fine, and when I compare digital vs. vinyl, I'm comparing it on the same equipment.

I don't think it's the RIAA curve issue either - this is more like a 64kb mp3 file, not a totally lifeless un-eq'd thing. But the RIAA curve is fascinating to learn about.

I agree that this is ultimately the "vinyl revival" biting me in the ass... which is super annoying. It makes me lose faith in a) new releases on vinyl, b) buying things from new artists, and c) the artist themselves, because how can they not realize this?

I'd be super interested in learning more about the specifics of what is going on, if anyone knows them. Any good resources on vinyl manufacturing? Or mastering? Or the vinyl revival itself, from an industry perspective?

Thanks for the great answers, ya'll.
posted by juice boo at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Try the bad records on someone else's turntable to make sure. If it's as bad as you say i really don't think the test pressings would be approved.
posted by noloveforned at 7:06 PM on August 19, 2017

Any good resources on vinyl manufacturing? Or mastering? Or the vinyl revival itself, from an industry perspective?

How LPs Are Made from Recording Magazine. (Read this right now, because rather than make this answer a link-fest/definition-fest I'm just gonna go ahead and use the actual names of things and processes, which might be impenetrable jargon if you don't read the article first.)

Vinyl Mastering from GottaGroove Records and their "About" page, which has more info & links. (obligatory disclaimer - I know these folks personally.)

Scott Hull, the mastering/cutting engineer from Masterdisk (one of the major mastering studios) has a blog - hasn't been updated in a while, but a poke through the archives should be informative.

Also searching through the archives of Mix Magazine, Pro Sound News, Tape Op magazine and the late Recording Engineer & Producer for "mastering" and "vinyl" should get you all kinds of interviews with engineers and producers.

The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls is a forum for both pros and hobbyists covering direct-to-vinyl recording and cutting vinyl masters - a bit focused on finding and repairing and restoring the machines, but worth a visit.

this is more like a 64kb mp3 file

IIRC from college classes and my own early experience as a recording engineer (and I may not be recalling correctly - we're talking about a time when vinyl was not a "revival" medium, if you know what I mean), this sounds like it could be a worn-out stamping plate. A problem with the manufacturing process, rather than the mastering/recording process, so you might well be doing the bands a solid if you contact them and/or their label and let them know.

Or maybe it's "bands don't know how to master for vinyl"

The thing is, (and here I'm drawing on not only my long-ago college classes and work experience, but the fact that the band I'm playing with just released a 7-inch in April, so the process is still pretty fresh for me) there's "mastering for vinyl" where you're taking your stereo master recording (these days likely a .wav file, once upon a time a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recording or a reel of analog magnetic tape) and doing some relatively minor equalization and audio compression and phase checking/tweaking as a final tweak before your recording goes to the cutting engineer, and then there's "mastering for vinyl" where a cutting/mastering engineer actually cuts grooves in a disc of acetate lacquer with a record lathe. It's this engineering skill/talent that was (is) in danger of becoming a lost art, it's here where the RIAA EQ curve is added in the manufacturing process, and if done poorly results in a bad-sounding record. But bands often aren't particularly involved in this process - cutting lathes are few and far between, and while you can hire a separate company to cut your lacquer, often it's "included" as part of the price of having a pressing plant make your 500 or 1000 records or whatever. In either case, the mastering lathe is likely hundreds or thousands of miles from where the band is, so it's not like they have their hands on it. And as noloveforned points out, once a lacquer has been cut the band/label gets sent a test pressing so they can approve what the final record will sound like.

So I dunno how much the blame rests with the bands, although of course it's possible, depending on how dumb or inexperienced the band is, that they're doing something dumb to the EQ/compression thinking they have to "compensate" for vinyl themselves, and then just shrugging off the bad-sounding test pressing or ignoring it entirely. But unless you're listening to some kind of over-the-top sludge metal or EDM, it's not really a big deal to make a good-sounding vinyl master to send to the lacquer cutter, and assuming the lacquer cutter is even fairly competent, to wind up with a good-sounding piece of vinyl.

I think more likely the answer is you've just run into a little cluster of bad luck, where something has gone awry with the pressing/manufacturing/QC process, and you've just gotten 3 in a row. And as I mentioned above, go ahead and contact the bands and/or the label about it - they may not know it's happening.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:10 PM on August 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Much of the merch sold by independent artists (on Bandcamp or elsewhere) is made in small quantities, on small budgets, by people who don't necessarily have any experience with the technicalities of the medium.

Most of these records are probably ordered from web-based, on-demand vinyl presses in runs of 100-500 discs. The audio probably wasn't mastered for vinyl beforehand - the band probably just uploaded files to a web form. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them literally did upload MP3s.

I don't work in this industry, but I've been around enough DIY stuff to know: most people don't have the know-how, resources, or care to do things properly. Let 'em create their own t-shirt, and they'll just upload a 3rd-generation low-res JPEG (and then wonder why it looks awful). Give 'em detailed specs for graphical assets (exact dimensions, specs for safe printable area with bleed, etc.), and they'll just provide whatever.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:44 PM on August 21, 2017

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