Quality Control for Labels – How To Check Your Vinyl
Releasing vinyl records is not an easy business. Each one is hand-made, so there are plenty of things that can go wrong. I once received a full run that had the wrong labels attached. And sending out defective records to your customers could financially cripple your label – the pressing plant may replace the vinyl, but they will not refund all the money you have already spent on postage.
I buy a lot of records, and have received a surprising amount of faulty ones over the years. But after 50+ releases over the last 18 years, I have sent very few defective records out to customers myself. OK a few have arrived damaged, warped, or even snapped in half by the postman, but they all happened during shipping so were out of my control. I often receive positive feedback from people about the quality of our releases. Of course this is partially down to luck, I understand some labels have had some bad fortune. However I do believe many of the faulty records I have received could have been avoided with better quality control. So I thought it would be helpful to share the QA process I always follow when doing a vinyl release.
- Unless your audio has been pre-mastered and you have requested the cutting engineer to cut flat, ensure there is no limiting/compression on the tracks. There should be plenty of headroom
- If your tracks are being mastered by anyone other than the cutting engineer, ensure they know what they are doing. Preparing tracks for vinyl is very different from digital mastering. An automated online digital mastering service, or a friend using Adobe Audition in their bedroom, is not going to cut it
- Check the tracks in full before you send/attend the cut. This is tedious (especially if you made the tracks so have already heard them 100 times) but worth doing. I once turned up to a cut and found a glitch had occured while copying one of the tracks to the USB stick. But I had a backup with me, so it wasn’t a problem
- If possible, attend your lacquer cut. This will eliminate 90% of needless mistakes like cutting the wrong tracks, or cutting at the wrong tempo etc. Remember engineers will be cutting many records each day, they are only human and will make mistakes
- While the cut is being done, pay attention. It’s nice to chat to the cutting engineer, or take photos/videos, but ultimately the blame will lie with you if a track skips during the cut and you didn’t notice
- Check the label and sleeve artwork for spelling mistakes, incorrect track information etc.
The test presses
- ALWAYS get test presses, it is worth the extra expense
- Give the records a visual inspection for issues (scratches, blemishes etc)
- Listen to all tracks ALL the way through. This may take half an hour for a 4 track EP, but is well worth it! And remember to concentrate, you really need to pay attention for skips, pops, distortion, channel drop outs etc
- Use headphones for your audio check, you may not notice things like left/right channel drop outs or minor distortion using speakers
- If you did not attend the cut, ensure the tracks and order are correct, you are happy with the mastering, and that the tracks have all been cut at the correct tempo (these are all really good reasons why you should attend your cuts)
- If you find a fault, check another TP to see if it was unique to just one copy, or if it is a fault with the metalwork. If the latter, a recut may be required
- It does NOT matter if your test presses are warped – this could be due to the cooling process, or it could have happened in transit. It’s frustrating, but will not affect the full run as it happens after the records are pressed.
The full run
- Spot check at least 5 copies from different boxes. Don’t rely on checking one copy
- Check the printed labels are the correct ones for the release, and on the right sides
- Spot check the audio. You don’t need to listen to it as carefully as the test presses, but you should scan all tracks as it is possible for things like distortion to appear on the full run even if the test presses were fine
- Check for warping. A small tolerance is acceptable, and pressing plants will not replace vinyl with very minor warping/bowling. As long as it is still usable for DJing, you should accept them. I very rarely receive 100% flat records from any labels or pressing plants, it’s just something you have to live with
- Check the records are not pressed off-centre (if they are, the tone arm will wobble side to side with each rotation, and it will affect the pitch of pads, strings and vocals.) This is one really important reason to spot check different boxes, off-centre pressings are caused by slipping stampers and that tends to happen gradually, so the start of the run might be fine while the later ones are unplayable
- There may be some oily lubricant on the vinyl, this is normal and a result of the pressing process. It should wipe off. However do check for more permanent blemishes, eg pressed in dust.
And finally, a few things for buyers to consider:
- Vinyl records are not perfect. If you have never seen how they are made, I highly recommend watching this video. They can have surface noise, physical blemishes, and pops and clicks, even when brand new. If you want flawless sound quality, buy digital instead
- HOWEVER if you have valid concerns about a record, eg bad mastering or a physical defect, do let the label know. They may be inexperienced, or not have noticed. Do this in private rather than in public
- As mentioned above, very few records are pressed perfectly flat. Obviously if the record skips when you are cueing up then that is not acceptable, but minor warps and bowls are considered OK (by all pressing plants that I have used anyway)
- No label deliberately presses or sends out faulty records. If you find there is a problem with your vinyl, the issue could have occurred in the post (especially warping) or it might be one dud out of hundreds of records, and no label owner has time to check every single vinyl they sell. So by all means ask for a refund/replacement, but don’t be too hard on the label about it as it might not be their fault. Also, again avoid raising issues in public unless necessary – reputations take a long time to build, but are quick to destroy!
- Running a vinyl label requires a large investment of time and money. It typically takes me six months to break even on each release, even with pre-orders. The majority of labels don’t do this for money, they do it because they enjoy it. So if you take the fun out of it by being a pain, they will simply stop and there will be no more vinyl.
I hope you find this guide useful, these are all my personal opinions and some may disagree with the advice, but it has served me well as both a label owner and buyer over the years. And if you are not familiar with our labels, you can check them out here: