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Why do so many great albums sound so bad?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by jononku, Mar 4, 2011.
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  1. jononku
    There are quite a few example of badly recorded/engineered albums out there, and I'm curious to know the reason for it.  Perhaps it is a money thing for new bands that can't afford better, and yes there are quite a few early recordings where the equipment was probably not the greatest, but that aside there are a number of modern era bands with poor recordings.  A few that come to mind are oasis, smashing pumpkins, velvet revolver, and the who (just to name a few).  Take something like melon collie from the pumpkins, amazing album, but it sounds awful.

    Do some bands just pick the wrong people to engineer the recording and/or do they not listen to what has been produced?  I find it very frustrating at times, especially when you get other bands (eg. Steely Dan) where every album they put out 'sounds' fantastic.
  2. poikkeus
    You're stepping into a potential minefield, believe it or not. I really couldn't tell you what distinguishes good production from bad, since it's bound up with musical preferences. Early recordings are typically simpler and more "genuine" (whatever that means), while later ones have a tendency toward over-production. 
    It's hard to remark about Steely Dan - not a favorite - though I won't begrudge tastes. 
  3. jononku
    Yeah, I know it's a loaded question, but I am not looking to debate whether one's ear perceives something to be better than someone else.  Rather, I am just curious as to how an album, particularly by a band with lots of money, can still be poorly recorded in this era of technical miracles.  Perhaps it is that the majority of the general public will listen to music on their 3 dollar ear buds or 10 dollar plastic speakers, in which case you can't really tell a good recording from a bad one. 
  4. Uncle Erik Contributor
    Have you read up on the Loudness War? That covers a lot of ground when it comes to bad recordings.

    Partially as a result of getting into audiophilia, I've gravitated towards genres with good recordings. Classical has been a longtime favorite, but jazz caught my ear in part because of the good sound. I've also been lucky that I grew up with uncompressed albums in the 1980s. I still listen to a bit of New Wave/alternative from back then. Most of it isn't brickwalled and since the genre isn't hugely popular these days, I've been able to pick up quite a few of the old CDs on the cheap.
  5. LFF

    It depends. I think it's mixture of many things.
    1) The Recording
    It used to be that when engineers recorded something in the golden age, they carefully mic'd each instrument and carefully chose a particular microphone for the job at hand, used tube preamps, tubed tape machines and the mixing was very natural but most of this mixing was done for mono. The stereo versions were mic'd in a minimalist fashion. Some of the best stereo recordings I have ever heard used no more than 4 microphones. Today, most engineers use more than 4 mics to record just the drum kit! This ties into #2 directly...
    2) The Mixing
    What we have today is what I like to call multi mono mixing. The stereo image is created by virtually placing all the mono recorded instruments in the soundfield. This can result in a convincing stereo image but it will never match a natural stereo recording in terms of naturalness, depth, soundstage and overall presentation. Why do they do multi-mono? Control! I guess it makes the engineers feel important and more involved. Problem is, this has been going on for the better part of 30 years or more. People have grown accustomed to this fake stereo sound and natural stereo recording is almost non-existent today. I have played natural stereo recordings for some people and they are often shocked at how realistic they sound.
    3) The Mastering
    I don't think I need to say much here! Modern mastering is a shame...a true shame. Look up "The Loudness Wars".
    4) Overall Goals
    Back in the day, the aim was to truly produce Hi-Fi albums. Although not all of them achieved this, that was the aim of many. Now, the aim is to produce albums that will sound good in cars, ipod earbuds and cheap stereo shelf systems.
    5) Other factors
    a) Musicians getting more control over sound: This can sometimes be good but for the most part, the last person you want fiddling with the sound is the actual artist. Why? Well, the artists hear the music from a very limited area. They really have no idea what they sound like to an audience. Most always insist they want the sound to be like what they hear on stage. Moreover, most musicians aren't very good at hearing subtle nuances in music due to many years of being blasted by PA systems. Sad but true.
    b) Studio big wigs getting more control: This is never a good thing. Most engineers out there actually know how to get a good sound from their respective studios and gear. However, sometimes the head honchos insist that the music be loud or have some fat bass and lots of high end. Bad idea!
    c) Society doesn't care as much: There is SACD available, DVD-Audio, HDADS, etc and yet the majority of music consumption is lossy mp3. People don't spend much on music anymore and in general, go for what is easier and cheaper to obtain. The album mentality has switched over to a singles mentality. Moreover, the vast majority of people simply don't own good equipment to reproduce music to properly.
    d) Boys and their toys: Instead of finding the most simple solution to a problem, most engineers will try to find the most complex in order to use more gear. Sometimes using a simple solution, like moving a choir back a few feet or using simple mic placement is seen as amateurish by some. The more involved the better! This is wrong in my opinion as the job of the engineer should be as passive and non-intrusive as possible. This circles back to #1 above.
    I'm sure there are more factors but these are the ones that stand out to me and this is just for modern recordings. There are other issues with re-issues!
    flaming_june and Modo like this.
  6. xnor
    Plus the engineers' hearing also deteriorates with their job.
    While it can sound perfectly fine on speakers I also think that some clipping or other noise can only be spotted with (certain?) headphones. I'm sure not everybody carefully checks the mixes / masters with decent headphones in their entirety.
    And another factor: time (is money).
  7. Tablo
    Okay, I get the loudness war, but some albums are just so clipped that it's audible even on Skullcandy Ink'd (i.e. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), and it feels like they use limiter for everything in loud albums/songs.
  8. xnor

    To support that point you made there. A comment on Death Magnetic by James Hetfield:
    "I don't know. Some people will always find something to complain about, and I realize that. They might not be used to the kind of sound that Rubin goes for — which is pushing the limits. We went back and forth with the sound of the record. I was one of the first ones to notice the compression was affecting the overall sound, but when we took it away, something was missing... some of the liveliness went away with it. So after comparing both directions, we said, "This sounds better." It's as simple as that. There's nothing technical about it. We didn't get into worrying what people will think. As far as the Guitar Hero tracks are concerned, those are probably very early versions, but I don't really know. It's so complicated these days. You never know where, how, and when your music is being released." ... plus some more excuses [​IMG]
    I'm sure some artists are different and have an ear for sound quality but those are rare, imho.
  9. Magnus Cromulus
    I'm glad someone brought this up.  Although I am, from a technical standpoint, an utter neophyte (meaning that if someone talks about ohms, hertz and decibels to me they may as well be talking gibberish), I do know one thing has changed drastically in the last half decade - namely an overwhelming switch from analog to digital recording.
    I'm pretty sure that almost all of my favorite albums were recorded on tape, by musicians who were using tube amps with a touch of spring reverb (in most cases), actual pianos and drums. For example, I very much doubt that the every cymbal on "Moondance" (listen to the Japanese remasters or vinyl to hear the incredible warmth on it) was recorded individually, or that the guitar was played through a solid state Line-6 amp, or going straight into a digital console.
    What LFF says about recording drums is so true.  One of the best rock drum sounds ever recorded (Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks") was recorded outside a bathroom door and with the microphone looking down a staircase.  That's a step away from the conventional studio recording technique and about 10 steps away from shunning real drums in favor of Pro-tools.  With all due respect to Neal Peart's lyrics, which state that "All this machinery making modern music / Can still be open-hearted. / Not so coldly charted, it's really just a question / Of your honesty", even if the music is honest, most of the time it's cold and clinical and sounds like it was recorded in a decontamination chamber.
    One more thing - and this is strictly a matter of listening taste, but a significant amount of bands nowadays simply shun "unconventional" instruments in rock music.  The sonic field on a Van Morrison CD or  is enhanced because the man won't stay away from using a saxophone, piano, harp, flute or what have you.  The same can't be said for The Ramones (for the record, I love both Van Morrison and The Ramones), so even if these people were recording in the exact same way, in the same studio, with the same microphone placement, Van Morrison is more likely to put out a more sonically adventurous (and therefore more sonically engaging) record than The Ramones. 
    Now granted, you can put out a sonically adventurous record and still have it sound like mud (it's actually more likely because more instruments are competing for the bandwidth), but the idea here is that if something is engineered well to begin with, a sonically adventurous record might sound "better" because at times certain parts of the sonic spectrum that are otherwise untouched, would be tread upon.  To make this clearer, a sensible analogy for what I'm trying to say is that you could be driving on a long, straight and uninteresting stretch of highway as opposed to driving on a twisty, engaging mountain road.
  10. Anaxilus
    Good thread topic.  As usual, nice post LFF.  [​IMG]
  11. poikkeus
    While this is an interesting topic, I'd have to say that my tastes in music aren't exactly conventional. In other words...could someone give me the names of supposedly great albums that are recorded badly? 
    For example (since a previous poster mentioned the Ramones), this band typically has very strong production - the first three LPs and live double-LP sound great to my ears. Ensuing efforts didn't have as much great material, but production was still quite good, all in all. 
    Could a brave poster name a few great albums with bad production/engineering? And what constitutes "bad" production?
  12. Cataphract


    The Hollywood Records Queen releases.
  13. LFF

    Bad production is just that - bad production...producing a result that is way below the standards set in the golden age of recordings. Too much compression, too much limiting, a much too narrow soundstage and plain bad mic'ing produce horrendous results.
    I think the epitome of a great album ruined by bad production and engineering is Californication.
    tmars78 likes this.
  14. Magnus Cromulus
    From a punk position, how about The Misfits' "Walk Among Us"?  That has some of the worst production I've ever heard.  It sounds like a sludge of mud.
  15. poikkeus


    I'm not sure about that. This LP/CD is a pretty accurate presentation of the Misfits' sound at this time - stinging guitars with power chord progressions. Interestingly, a demo version of this LP is comparatively dull and lifeless; in comparison, the studio recording has more bite, though the individual tracks vary considerably in consistency. (E.g., "Astro Zombie" and "I Turned Into a Martian" are classic; "Skulls" and "Vampira" are kind of forgettable.)
    The debut LPs by X-Ray Spex and Germs are exceptional pieces of production, and include some of their best studio work. On the other hand, the debut LP by the DKs was deliberately recorded so that the sound was less full; compare that to the DKs singles "Police Truck" and "Holiday in Cambodia," which are almost palpably alive.
    I know when a recording sounds good, but I'm not sure if I can narrow the factors in failed recordings. A track can be underproduced or overproduced, the songs can be mediocre, etc. 
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