How to learn the Art and Science of Disk Recording/Mastering


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If you are new to Audio Engineering, you must prepare yourself for a very steep learning curve. Disk Recording is part-Science and part-Art, which is why it still survives as a profession. It is impossible to fully automate. The process is controlled by a highly skilled engineer and it is very time-consuming and resource-intensive, if decent results are to be obtained. 

Do you actually use a record player? And Records?

The first and foremost pre-requisite before anyone should even consider going any further, is to have actually listened to a lot of records and maintain an active interest in listening to music predominantly from records, on a high quality, revealing sound system, capable of resolving detail rather than simply sounding pleasant.

This may sound obvious, but we unfortunately do occasionally come across individuals who argue that they do not find it necessary to have experience listening to records before attempting to cut records! You need to become intimately familiar with the disk medium, what works and what doesn't, where the limits are, to become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. This can only be achieved through years of just listening. But listening alone is not enough. 

You also need to be able to compare what you are hearing with some kind of reference. Ideally this would be the same recording, prior to being transferred to disk. Now, this can be tricky. It actually means that you would have an advantage if you have spent a few years working as a recording engineer or premastering engineer, working on recordings that someone else cuts to disk. Then you can really compare the recording before and after the transfer. You will need continuous access to a quality turntable, fitted with a good tonearm and cartridge, hooked up to reference-grade electronics, driving big full range monitor loudspeakers, to be able to understand and appreciate what makes a good cut and what makes a bad cut. As an indication, if most of your records sound great, then your system is probably not detailed enough. You need to be able to hear things that do not sound good! 

The Science Part

Then comes the science part. You will need a solid background in Audio Engineering, understanding acoustics, signal paths, signal processing, recording technology, distortion, transfer functions, phase and polarity, and a lot more. To be able to make sense of the electronics specific to disk recording systems, you will need a basic grasp of Electronics Engineering. You know, Volt, Ampere, Ohm, Watt, resistance, capacitance, transistor, tube, potential dividers, filters, power supplies, impedances, amplification, feedback, and other scary concepts. 

Considering that the main component of the system you will be working with is a type of lathe, you will need a good understanding of basic Mechanical Engineering and preferably some practical experience with machine tools, screw-cutting lathes in particular. You will be machining records, which is far more difficult and demanding than cutting a 24 tpi tread on round steel stock. It makes sense to work your way up from the easier operations to the harder ones.

Fluency in Physics and some competence in Math, adequate to enable you to find your way around a scientific calculator, will also be required. 

By the time you have acquired all these skills, you will most likely be tempted to seek a much more generously salaried position in the aerospace or defense sector, which is what keeps our little industry from becoming overcrowded with skilled engineers.

Should you be foolish enough, ehm, sorry, I meant dedicated enough, to resist this temptation and insist on becoming a disk mastering engineer, politely rejecting the employment offer you just received from NASA, in favor of an uncertain future, then you totally deserve what lies in wait for you...! The art part...! 

Develop your unique Style

Now let us assume, we get together ten experienced disk mastering engineers, all of whom have the science part equally covered, and we give each one of them the task of cutting a master of the exact same recording, using the exact same disk mastering equipment. We would end up with ten versions of the record, no two versions being alike. Each engineer develops their own way of working, a unique approach which leaves a sort of mark on their work. They all try to achieve the same goal, but they have different ideas on how to get there. 

If we were to also give them the freedom to choose what equipment they would use, chances are we would have ten unique systems, as no two engineers would choose the same setup. Even more interestingly, chances are that if we would give the same task to the same engineers, ten years later, we would observe some differences in their approach compared to their earlier work. The moral here is that even after you have covered the science, you will need endless hours of hands-on experience on a disk mastering system, to develop your skills and good sense for the art. It is a lifelong development process and a long-term commitment.

We can offer education and training for prospective disk recording/mastering engineers, tailored to your requirements and needs. Please contact us for further information. 

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