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Vinyl records stereo image

Vinyl records are becoming more popular lately, but there is an ongoing debate on whether this classic format can handle the same sound quality as digital releases. There are a lot of differences and a lot of things to compare but one of the most known topics when it comes to the sound of vinyl is a stereo image. In this short read, we will quickly explain what a stereo image means and how good can the stereo image be on a vinyl record.

Binaular is the first stereo

The first “stereo” sound experiments were done back in the 1930s by Emory Cook who was experimenting with binaural recordings where one vinyl had two channels recorded separately and needed tonearm with two cartridges and needles to play “stereo” sound. Soon the music industry (mostly the biggest labels), predicted that stereo is the future and early in the 1950s they started releasing stereo versions of albums. When the vinyl records industry started it was all about mono. All the records were recorded on one channel which means that if you listen to those tracks today both speakers will play the same sound with no panning of different instruments or vocals on the left and right speakers. Some people still prefer listening to mono but the thing is that stereo gives us another dimension to experience music more widely and fully than before.

Binaural Record Demonstration

Out-of-phase stereo image

The first thing you need to know when we talk about vinyl cut (or press) is, that mixing and mastering for this format is different than the one for digital release. A vinyl record is a physical product with its limitations and we cannot get the same sound as we can get from a digital version. One of the problems that appear a lot when mixing and mastering are not done for vinyl record release is a negative correlation – the stereo image is out of phase. Stereo imaging may sound good on a digital record, but the image may be too wide for a vinyl record. A stereo-cutting head cuts center/mono information horizontally and stereo information vertically, so if the stereo image is too wide it can happen that the cutting stylus tries to cut over the limit and this can lead grooves to momentarily disappear. Playing such a vinyl record would mean the stylus skipping on the parts where recordings were out of phase.

So the digital is better?

Even if the vinyl record format has its limitations on stereo image this does not mean that the sound is worse than with digital formats. Yes, it cannot go as wide but the thing is that if mixing and mastering are done correctly for the vinyl record release, the sound can be great. There is another thing about stereo image – the records that are made for clubbing are usually recorded in mono as a lot of sound systems in the clubs are still mono. A bad stereo sound system in the club would sound pretty strange as you would hear some elements just on the right side of the club and others just on the left. This would be pretty awkward. Mono doesn’t mean that the record is not good it just doesn’t give that wide feeling when listening on a proper stereo Soundsystem.

Fixing stereo image

As we are specialised in vinyl cut we do a lot of things in our studio before we start with production. We always inspect the stereo image of the recordings we receive and we give feedback to our client to fix the parts where the image is too wide or we fix the recordings for them. The overall correlation of stereo should not exceed 90%. 0% – means mono, 180% – means anti-phase. The correlation of bandwidth below 200 Hz should be even narrower, and below 100 Hz should be 0% (mono).