Kevin Gray: Vinyl-Mastering Master Page 2

Matson: Have you ever cued up a recording to listen to and thought: "I can't fix this?"

Gray: Without mentioning any names, when I get stuff that is supercompressed, it's a challenge to cut that. You are basically trying to put squarewaves on the record, because everything is wave-top clipped. There are programs that smooth the edges a little bit, but that's the stuff that I really hate. The old '60s stuff that was loud and EQ'd for radio: You can massage that and get it sounding pretty good. I never complain about those records.

Matson: The dark days of early digital, the early '80s. What can you do with those recordings to make them sound better?

Gray: I have a proprietary EQ I use. I pull out a little bit of midrange and a little bit of the top at two particular frequencies, and I add a little bit of bass. That really makes a world of difference. I actually had that built into my system at home until they came out with better D/A converters.

Matson: Is this something you noticed at the time with early digital?

Gray: I thought it was so bad at first, I didn't think it was going to catch on! [Laughs.] I had a friend bring me a Sony CDP-101, one of the first early CD players. I had a bunch of Columbia titles, and I put them on and thought, "Nobody's going to buy this. A cassette sounds better than this." Then things improved a bit. Philips improved it from the European side. But digital didn't start sounding decent to me until around 1992, when we bought a Wadia 4000 A/D converter for the recording side. The difference was night and day. I can't say enough good things about that device for the time. When I played a comparison for Steve Hoffman, he said, "We've got to start all over again."


Matson: Your take on the sonic quality of digital now, in 2022?

Gray: Digital now is pretty good. 24/96 is pretty darn good with good converters. Not all converters are created alike. And if that's on the A/D side, you are fighting that when you are playing it back on your D/A, when yours is better than what was used to record. We are just now getting to the point where a computer can keep up with 176.4kHz or 192kHz sample rates. There were problems with home computers that were basically introducing noise. I think we may be kind of past that now, too.

Matson: What do you say to the people who claim that mastering for LP from 24/96 files can't possibly sound better than digital playback? You've done this for me, Kevin, and I think it sounds good!

Gray: I think a lot of what people like about a phonograph record are artifacts. Audiophiles don't want to hear that, but it's just a fact. I deal with digital and analog all day long, and I know what happens in the transfer to analog. And I know, with my system, how close I can get to the source. But there's always just a little extra added sauce going to vinyl, cutting it into a record groove. Maybe it's just the stylus tracking a physical analog groove. And it's the same thing with analog tape. Is it as accurate as digital? Probably not, but I love the sound of analog tape.


Sasha Matson conducts the Tight Lines orchestra (Photos: Joseph D'Alessio)

Matson: You recall the eccentric extra step I went with my Tight Lines album. We transferred the 24/96 digital to ½" tape, then brought that to you to cut the vinyl!?

Gray: You have to listen and decide that stuff for each project. There are times when the analog is an unwanted artifact, a buffer that's causing some rolloff, and there can be bumps in the bottom end. There's always third-harmonic distortion added by tape. It's part of the process. Same thing with phonograph records, though that is more second harmonic. Some things get augmented beautifully, other things not so much.


Kevin Gray (left) and Joe Harley at the Tight Lines mastering session. (Photo: Sasha Matson)

Matson: You started this for the Music Matters label, working with Joe Harley. Now it's directly for Blue Note's Tone Poet series. What do you hear when you cue up a Rudy Van Gelder recording?

Gray: Individual instruments placed in a soundstage, not crazy-wide drums or pianos that don't sound like they do live. I don't have a specific preference in terms of Van Gelder's earlier Hackensack home studio versus the later Englewood Cliffs studio. I like a lot of the earlier ones, just for the music performances. Lee Morgan! Once Rudy went to multitrack, I kind of lost him. For me, up through 1967, he got a consistently great sound.

Matson: Are most of the Blue Note tapes in pretty good shape?

Gray: Yes. They have been so well archived and cared for. I can only think of one or two tapes that we've had to reject because there were problems. That's unlike a lot of other companies. The condition of tapes from the '50s and '60s is fine. The older tapes are in way better shape. Around 1974, you start getting problems with sludge. Ampex tape in particular—they changed the formulation. Ampex later figured out that you could bake the tapes to help. I have a convection oven, and all those kind of tapes from that era have to go in the oven.

Matson: Sounds delicious! What do you do when you put up a tape and you realize you are dealing with something that is not a master, that is one or more generations down?

Gray: Record companies don't want that information out there. I was told as early as 2005 by the three big labels: "Do not reveal sources unless we publicize it, and then you can reiterate that." Because they don't want it to affect sales. People never know what they're getting.

Matson: What do you lose first when mastering from a copy? That high-end sense of air and presence?

Gray: Exactly. That's the first thing. And usually a little bass, too. It sort of puts a filter at both ends of the audio spectrum. Plus, more tape hiss. There's very little you can do without changing the sound too much.

Matson: What's the current supply situation worldwide for lacquers and vinyl? I keep reading about shortages and delay times for vinyl pressings.

Gray: There's no vinyl shortage that I am aware of. The lacquer thing is different. The largest lacquer plant in the world was Apollo Masters in California, and that plant burned down in 2020. I was lucky in that I was already grandfathered in with MDC in Japan. They are the only source of lacquers in the world at this time. I'm on an allotment. I get 75 lacquers a month, and that gets me through.


Matson: Describe the quality control needed from the time a lacquer is cut to when that recording is a pressed piece of vinyl.

Gray: On all the Tone Poet stuff, we ship overnight. So, we finish cutting in the afternoon, and it gets to RTI (Record Technology Inc.) at 8am the next morning. Dorin Sauerbier puts it in the plating bath there right away. A lacquer could probably sit for four or five days before being processed, but it's not going to sound as good as one that's processed within 24 hours. Lacquer is an elastic material: cellulose nitrate. It wants to go back to its original shape. What you can lose is a little bit of extreme top end air, 14kHz and above. And you increase pre-echo sound bleeding from adjacent grooves. Once you have "pre-plated" it, it's locked. It's not going to change. Silver it to make it electrically conductive, and then plate it with nickel.

Matson: You recently opened a recording studio in the house right next door to your mastering room. You have worked before as a recording engineer. How do you view this new project? Joe Harley described it to me as "Hackensack West." Does that make you mad?

Gray: Not at all. We are calling it "Cohearent Recording aka Hackensack West." I got this idea in 2005. I had been knee-deep in doing reissues for over 20 years, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be neat to have a record that you could hold in your hand that has vintage sound but with modern artists?" The idea was to create an all–vacuum tube system, from microphone all the way through to the cutter head. It took me 15 years. I had no idea it was going to take that long. Right now, we are recording on tape to a Studer C37, a valve machine.

The disc-cutting system is what took the longest. I started on that in 2009. I designed it from scratch, and I do my own machining. So, I built this chain, and the plan was we were going to use an existing studio. Then I got turned on to Richard Capeless's website "RVG Legacy." He covers everything to do with Rudy Van Gelder's world, including plans of the rooms. I took a look at Van Gelder's Hackensack studio and realized it was almost exactly the size of the living room in the house next to my mastering studio.

Matson: Will you be able to do "direct-to-disc" recordings?

Gray: You betcha. We are going to do that!


teched58's picture

This is a great piece of content. Reminds me of the stuff from the halcyon days of Audio magazine, Stereo Review, High Fidelity magazine et al that I first got turned onto as a teenager in the early 1970s.

It's so nice to hear something that's authentic and intrinsically about audio, and get away from the cable wars, audio woo, and oh you're just jealous of my non-performing $30,000 preamp.

Best of all, what Kevin Gray says in this interview means I am not crazy: real audiophiledom is grounded in the reality of how electronics works and how engineers -- whether recording, mastering, or the electrical engineers who designed the equipment -- apply science, real science, which starts from V=IR (though JA2 I would guess might say it starts with F=ma, and he would not be wrong. To that I say, may the force be with you!).

Thanks again, Mr. Matson, and I will check out your music.

DaveinSM's picture

Gotta admit, you have a good point. The quality of the original recording is so much more important that’s the equipment it’s played through.

Recording engineers and those who had a hand in making good recordings are kind of their own rock stars. Good to see that they’re being recognized as such.

Then again, I’m an old guy who also thinks that the breadth and quality of popular music peaked in the 70’s. The 70’s were a time of not only some of the best recorded music, it was a time of some of the best music ever, period.

Glotz's picture

Loved this. I would have preferred more commentary on DDA LP's from Grey's experience.

Ironic that a poster still got stuck in the mud of audio politics. Not sure this interview invalidates anyone's $30K preamp.

AnalogueFan's picture

Excellent interview.!

pwog's picture

I agree with above comment...we want more like this! Please!

tnargs's picture

He should also be putting out digital remasters of his work, as a greater service to the audio community.

Making us go through the travails and audible limitations of LP is tantamount to blackmail, ie we could be getting better sonics for 20% of the price of an LP. Just put out digital remasters at -23 LUFS and dynamically scaled for that, and everybody wins!

Instead, technical and sonic excellence is taking second place to using only the biggest-profit-margin format. Not good.

Fluff pieces like this vinyl promo simply divert attention from the big issue: getting more uncompressed music onto digital formats, starting with Gray’s own portfolio. Come on Kevin!

Archimago's picture

Well said tnargs.

For the sake of the legacy of the music and joy of hi-fi enthusiasts everywhere, it would be much superior to have the high quality mastering in digital available.

T.S. Gnu's picture

…because there are licenses issued as to the number of copies MoFi, APO, and Cohearent are allowed to press of either analog or digital (or both). Remember Kevin’s reply: Record companies don't want that information out there. I was told as early as 2005 by the three big labels: "Do not reveal sources unless we publicize it, and then you can reiterate that." Because they don't want it to affect sales. People never know what they're getting.
Who would bother buying a copy of crushed audio if there were digital versions of the HDR versions floating around.

Also, it’s gonna be interesting to hear the deafening silence of all them golden ears bleating on about how analog is closer to the original source (I.e. more accurate) when the actual mastering engineer says it ain’t accurate; it’s just euphonic 2nd (vinyl) or 3rd (tape) distortion that they like. It would be really nice if they would say, “Hey, we like how it sounds and don’t care whether it’s accurate because we just like the sound better.” It would certainly do more for their credibility than their current entrenched view of digital being less accurate; especially with the Atkinson footnote of the “all analog path.” OTOH, we haven’t seen any airborne pigs, either.

The reality is that euphoric distortion can be baked into a digital recording by bouncing through analog just like Gray and Hoffman do as a production decision, instead of leaving it to the inconsistent vagaries of various analog playback systems. The sooner that the writers in this ‘zine accept, acknowledge and admit that, the better informed and better of the readers will be. Porcine paragliders permitting.

tnargs's picture

I know, I know.

It's all entrenched, ingrained, and against the customer's best interest in getting access to the best audio.

Instead, we are expected to thank them for only giving us access to good mastering on a second-tier (I'm being generous) format at 5x (ish) the price per song. Disgusting.

Thank goodness that classical and jazz suffer less of this. But it just means that we know exactly what we are missing. :(