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VOL. 36 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 21, 2012

Engineer: Vinyl still has the best sound

By Tim Ghianni

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Nashville ace mastering engineer Alex McCollough works in the digital and vinyl worlds in his daily duties for Yes Master in Berry Hill.

But he knows what he prefers. And he’s especially happy when his work calls for him to send a high-resolution audio file off, knowing eventually it will end up at United Record Pressing a few miles away.

“The entire experience of listening to vinyl is a more-fulfilling experience,” he says. “Everything from the ability to hold beautiful liner notes and album artwork in your hands.

“And we’ve almost gotten to the point, attention-span-wise, that people will put a CD on in their car or at home and skip around. With a record, you put it on and listen to a side.

“Vinyl comes from a time when listening to music was a legitimate form of entertainment rather than background music in the grocery or in the car. It came from a time when people had console record players, when listening to music was just like TV is now. And I still get a sense of that from listening to vinyl.”

No, he’s not bad-mouthing CDs; they are a big part of his business. But when the 38-year-old, who has been an audio engineer since he was 18, goes home, “almost 90 percent of what I listen to is vinyl,” he says.

Of course the “vinyl is coming back” story isn’t new. And digital music, which still accounts for most recordings, is not going away.

But McCollough appreciates what he sees in his daily work

“Over the nine years I’ve been doing this (at Yes Master), we do more and more releases for vinyl. Nine years ago, it was rare to do a master for vinyl. We didn’t do that many. We maybe did two a year.

“Now I would say that of the label projects we do, even a lot of the entirely independent projects, we maybe do a vinyl master on one out of 10, maybe 40 a year, which is a pretty big step up.”

Of course, he engineers for both the digital and vinyl delivery. And he’s proud of the result in either case. But there is a big difference.

“Music now is louder,” he says. “That’s the main difference between how we prep for vinyl and how we prep for CD. If it’s kind of a folk record or something that’s a more dynamic, not-as-loud kind of music, there’s really not that much of a difference.

“We don’t do a whole lot different between the CD master and the vinyl master.”

But there can be a difference in other forms of music. “The main issue is how loud something is. A CD can be a whole lot louder than vinyl… A really loud, really compressed audio recording doesn’t translate well to vinyl, which is one of the really encouraging things about the amount of vinyl masters we’re seeing now.

“It’s almost a kick-back against the volume wars that have been going on for years (on CD) and making them louder and louder and louder and less-dynamic.”

One who has used McCollough for both vinyl and CD is Jon Byrd, a top-notch pure country singer and songwriter just waiting for deserved national attention.

“Alex is passionate and fastidious,” says Byrd, 57, who decided he wanted to release his current album Down at the Well of Wishes (on Nashville’s on Red Beet Records) in both 12-inch LP vinyl and CD formats.

McCollough, an old friend of Byrd’s, isn’t afraid to tell the singer what he thinks when he is mastering.

“The worst thing I can say about Alex is he’s never wrong,” says Byrd, who gave in to McCollough’s insistence that the album was better with nine songs than the 11 that the artist had planned to include.

“He said Jon, two of these songs don’t fit on your record,” recalls Byrd. “My intention was to make a record that had continuity, musically and emotionally, all that kind of crap.”

When listening to the masters of both lengths, Byrd gave in to McCollough’s expertise that the nine-song, 43-minute record was the preferred brew.

“Alex is an artist at what he does,” Byrd says, of the mastering for both the vinyl and CD products. “He doesn’t mess around. I know what I’m doing on some things, and I know what to do about getting people around me who know what they’re doing. He made it right.”

There are two separate masters, both pleasing to the artist.

But he’s especially proud of the 180-gram vinyl record, which is sold along with a CD and poster in the package. Of course the CDs can be purchased separately as well.

“It warranted vinyl. It was worthy of it,” says Byrd, whose songs match the mood he hopes is displayed on the vinyl. “We just think of vinyl and we think of it in a certain way and what it conveys. It has gravitas. It has something to it that is more than sentiment. It has substance.”

The warmth on the vinyl record, which was pressed at United, better captures the instruments as well as the voices.

“If you’ve gone to all this trouble to use a grand piano, a Wurlitzer, a Hammond B3 and a Gretsch hollow body,” vinyl is the best way of bringing that sound to the consumer, Byrd says.

“It is symbolically substantive as far as conveying and communicating what you’ve recorded.”

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