Sunday, April 11, 2010

Commercial Recording Quality

I don't know if any of my fellow audiophiles out there have noticed this, but even the best recordings always seem to "lack" something. Uncompressed digital (even RedBook*), promises wide dynamic range, excellent frequency response and low distortion. It should be possible to make recordings so good that, given a halfway decent playback system, the musicians are in the room with you. It is technically possible and surprisingly easy to do this, but it rarely happens with commercial recordings. Why is it that still, in this digital age, audiophiles cling to performances recorded more than fifty years ago as the pinnacle of the recording arts? Recordings made in the late 1950's and early 1960's by such people as Mercury Record's C. Robert Fine, or RCA Victor's Lewis Leyton in the classical recording world, and Rudy Van Gelder of Riverside, and Impulse fame in the world of jazz are held in such high esteem, that even CD and SACD re-releases of their recordings still sell very well today. It's as if no progress has been made in the art and science of recording in the last 55 years or so.

I have found in building my stereo system that this has become a dog chasing his tail endeavor. My playback equipment gets better and better and yet the recordings to which I listen, ranging from terrible to OK never get any better than just OK. Even so-called audiophile recordings from labels such as Telarc and Reference and Naxos, to name a few, never sound quite as good as I think they should.

This started me on a quest. If I can't buy reference quality performances to play on my high-end audio system, perhaps I could make some. I didn't come to this decision in a vacuum. In a previous life, I was a semi-pro recording engineer who used to record a major symphony orchestra for their archives and for broadcast. I had also professionally recorded, for broadcast on NPR's "Jazz Alive" series, such artists as Hubert Laws, Dizzy Gillespie, Stepan Grapelli, etc. Needless to say, in most cases, I kept masters of these recordings. The client either received copies or co-masters recorded on a tandem analog recorder. I gave up this pursuit because of the weight and amount (not to mention the cost) of the recording gear that I was forced to schlep around, necessary, in those days, to make a truly professional recording. But, still, today, CD transfers of these 25-year old 15 ips 1/2-track stereo analog tapes are among the best sounding recordings I have.

Things have changed. Today, excellent quality recording equipment is not only plentiful, but cheap. It is possible to buy excellent mixers for just a few hundred dollars. Recoding devices capable of 24-bit, 96 KHz performance are likewise very inexpensive. It is even possible to purchase small, portable recording devices that will actually capture audio in Direct Stream Digital (DSD), the 1-bit recording method used for SACD. And this equipment is small and light. One can easily carry an entire recording studio (less the microphone stands, of course) on the passenger seat of the family car! The mike stands go in the trunk, of course.

On the microphone side of things, changes are even more profound. When I was recording semi-professionally, good quality condenser microphones were available from only a hand-full of suppliers such as Neumann, Sony, AKG and Telefunken and they were extremely expensive (especially the Neumanns and Telefunkens). Today, an excellent pair of big-capsule condenser mikes can be had from dozens of sellers for just few hundred dollars (Neumanns and Telefunkens are still tres cher, however). Companies such as Behringer, Audio Technica, Avantone, and Rode make microphones that have flat frequency response, low distortion and low noise. Today's microphone capsules use sputtered gold coated Mylar diaphragms which have such low mass that they move the microphone's fundamental resonance far above the audio passband. Back in the 1970's and 1980's most good mikes still used acid-etched brass diaphragms with frequency response peaks starting at around 6 or 7 KHz and peaking at 16 or so KHz. This worked OK with analog recording where magnetic tape self-erasure tended to roll-off the upper frequency extreme anyway, but when digital came along, it made for unnaturally bright and brittle-sounding CDs. This is, I believe, mostly where CD got it's bad reputation from audiophiles early-on.

In future posts I will discuss some of these issues and make recommendations for a really good starter recording set-up. One that can be easily carried from place to place and yet will yield recordings that sound so much better than anything you can buy, that it will make you wonder what the pros are doing wrong! We will also discuss how to get local groups (whatever your musical preference) to allow you to record them. We will also discuss various microphone techniques, and how to choose the best arrangement for the individual ensembles you will encounter.

We will also discuss playback equipment, of course. After all, this a two-ended process; capture and playback. Getting the most from good recordings requires a good stereo system. I think that we are going to have fun with this blog and I invite comments, suggestions and submissions from everyone.

*RedBook - the standard 16-bit, 44.1 KHz CD format.


  1. What a great blog! Lots of information there, quite a resource - I wanted to ask you - If the microphones made today are so accurate, why not just use 2 to do recordings? We only have 2 ears, don't you feel like multi-miking (London Phase 4, etc.) is intrinsically unfaithful to the accurate transcription of the music? Possibly it is necessary in studio to use more than 2 but at any concert venue isn't it more accurate to hear what a concert-goer would hear if he were at the concert? Does "tweaking" the individual elements of the sound corrupt the original experience? Also, doesn't adding additional mics degrade the sense of depth by adding a slightly out-of-phase signal?
    I think the most deliciously accurate recordings I ever heard were made with a binaural mic...


  2. You are right. Given an ideal venue a stereo pair is all you need. The problem is that venues which are ideal for listening, are often less than ideal for recording. In many cases, the hall sound overwhelms the direct sound from the group being recorded. In such a case, it is often necessary to use accent mikes in order to get the proper perspectives (otherwise the group will sound too distant). As long as the stereo-pair dominates, and the accent mikes are subordinate, this will not mess-up the stereo image, but will merely tip the direct/reflected sound balance in favor of the direct sound from the musicians.


  3. I am decidedly not an audiophile. I enjoy well recorded music and this blog is giving me a quick course in what it takes to make music sound "right" given the newer technologies. Keep up the good work. It is unusual to hear common sense explanations from a prominent audiophile/author like yourself. Keep up the good work!