Half-Speed Mastering: What's It Mean With Vinyl Records?
If you’re into classic albums, you’ve probably come across the term half-speed mastering. Half-speed mastering is a format for vinyl records, named after the way that they’re recorded. It’s trendy for both new vinyl enthusiasts and classics collectors, but if you’re new to the world of record collecting, you’re probably wondering what exactly it means.
This blog will give you a quick intro to what half-speed mastering is, why so many vinyl collectors love it, and what it could add — or take away — from your personal record collection.
What Does Half-Speed Mastering Mean?
Half-speed mastering is the process of creating a half-speed master record, which was popularized by Stan Ricker with Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs in the late 70s.
So what’s a half-speed master record? These records are copies of the original master recording cut into the blank lacquer at literally half the playback speed of the original to create a more detailed sound quality at some frequencies.
To break that down, let’s think about the process of cutting a vinyl record. The sounds produced by a vinyl record come from the record player’s stylus following grooves cut into the record with a cutting lathe. The more detail in the grooves and the more sensitive the stylus, the better and more detailed the sound quality of the record.
When a record is made, it’s literally copied over from a master recording using a record cutting machine. For a half-speed master, the master recording is played at half speed so that the cutting machine records the sound onto the vinyl copy using twice the amount of space than usual.
If you’re wondering if this means that half-speed masters play more slowly than original masters, don’t worry. Most of the time, the difference in speed is corrected by copying the original onto a different record size (for more information on that, check out our guide to record sizes).
Even if the original and half-speed master are the same size, there’s a solution. Because the speed of a turntable is adjustable, a half-speed master can easily be played at twice the speed of the original master recording. When the vinyl copy is played at double speed, the listener still hears the song at the correct tempo when they play it at home.
For music with a lot of instrumentation, like orchestras and big bands, or for music with a lot of small details in recordings, like a lot of classic rock and soul records, it can be hard to get all of the musical elements cut into a vinyl record’s grooves because of limited space.
Half-speed masters provide a solution to this by doubling the space that each track takes up. More space means more room for all of the little musical details, and more details mean a fuller, better sound in some cases.
What’s the Difference Between a Half-Speed Master and an Original Master?
Original masters are the best and most balanced versions of the artist’s original recording. They contain all of the elements of the original track — meaning vocals, instrumentals, bass, treble, etc. — at the best possible general quality. Essentially, they’re the version of the recording that the artist, the producer, and the label agreed fans should be able to purchase to hear at home.
A half-speed master is a copy of the original master at half the speed. Some of the musical information is expanded and contains greater detail when recorded as a half-speed master. Other information, such as bass notes and lower frequencies, are actually compressed or omitted from half-speed reissues, which makes them less suitable for bass-heavy genres of music like metal or hip-hop.
Why Do Some Audiophiles Prefer Half-Speed Masters?
The reason that some music lovers prefer half-speed masters is because some people think it improves sound quality. This is only partially true because of the range of frequencies present in music and on musical recordings.
What half-speed masters actually do is expand the range of sound copied onto the record, but only in higher frequencies. The process of cutting a half-speed master actually drops all the frequencies on the record down by an octave, which means that bass frequencies, and lower frequencies in general, can actually sound less complete on a half-speed master. However, the higher frequencies and treble tones can sound better, fuller, and more complete.
In short, half-speed masters are great for genres of music that are heavy on the treble but light on the bass. Think operatic sopranos, Mariah Carey’s whistle tones, and 80s electric guitar shredding.
These days, Miles Showell of Abbey Road Studios is known as the top mastering engineer of the half-speed master. He’s created half-speed vinyl versions for everyone from the Rolling Stones and The Who to Brian Eno and the Beatles.
Does Half-Speed Mastering Really Create a Better Sound?
We’ve already covered how half-speed mastering can improve the treble sounds on a vinyl record. The expansion of the space for complicated treble frequencies can create a clearer and more nuanced sound for records that have a lot of high frequencies.
Half-speed mastering can also create better instrument separation. This means that for instruments that have similar frequencies, the greater range of detail possible on a half-speed master means that listeners will be able to distinguish between similar sounds much more clearly, especially if they’re using high-end equipment.
If you’re a very serious listener with a fine-tuned ear or if you really enjoy instrumental music like jazz ensembles and classical orchestras, this can make half-speed masters very worthwhile.
What Are the Drawbacks of Half-Speed Mastering?
While some audiophiles love half-speed cuttings, others dislike them. This is because there are some quality drawbacks to the half-speed mastering process that are important to know about.
The first is that by recording a record at half speed, the listener loses an octave of musical information. By lowering the speed that the record is cut at, some lower frequencies simply flatten out over twice the space and essentially disappear from the recording.
Half-speed mastering can also accentuate certain sounds, especially in vocal recordings. Some sounds, like “s,” gain more resonance in half-speed, which is why some vinyl collectors complain that half-speed masters have more sibilance.
Half-speed remasters are also much more expensive than regular records. Some half-speed masters can be almost double the price of full-speed records. This is because they take twice as long to record and sometimes take up twice as much vinyl, too.
Are Half-Speed Masters Worth It?
There are some differences in the sound of a half-speed master, but on a basic level, half-speed masters and normal speed records sound essentially the same. You’ll recognize your favorite song in either format.
Ultimately, whether or not half-speed masters are worth the investment is up to the individual listener. They’re a format specifically created to change the listening experience of a record, though. For that reason, most collectors choose to only purchase their favorite albums at half speed, because they can be genuine collector's items in many ways.
If you want to see if your favorite record is available in this format, check out the half-speed masters section of The Sound of Vinyl shop.