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    Audio Recording Primer Part 1: Commercial Recording Quality

    Editor's Note: Audiophile Style community member George Graves has kindly allowed us to publish his five part series on high quality audio recording. This series is a primer that many audiophiles will find interesting and educational. It isn't a treatise, textbook, or master class designed to cover every detail in depth. As a music lover and audiophile I want to understand a bit more about recording, but I don't want to become a recording engineer. This series is right in my wheelhouse, and I hope it's in yours as well. - CC

     

     

    Part One: 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.

     

     



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    Not sure why Naxos is considered a "audiophile" label.  Naxos has always been a budget label with no emphasis on the performers unlike the other labels.

     

    it is kind of like a "generic drug" version of classical label.  Focusing on to repertoire rather then the star power of the performers.  It's principal is to broaden the discovery of new and less known music, and mostly avoid duplication of repertoire.

     

    I had the pleasure of meeting Klaus Heymann many years ago, he is true music lover.        

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    32 minutes ago, John Yow said:

    Not sure why Naxos is considered a "audiophile" label.  Naxos has always been a budget label with no emphasis on the performers unlike the other labels.

     

    it is kind of like a "generic drug" version of classical label.  Focusing on to repertoire rather then the star power of the performers.  It's principal is to broaden the discovery of new and less known music, and mostly avoid duplication of repertoire.

     

    I had the pleasure of meeting Klaus Heymann many years ago, he is true music lover.        

    I've been impressed by both the content selection and recording quality of Naxos recordings. 

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    Funny because I was just about to start a thread along the lines "what makes a good recording good". Looks like my question will be incorporated here.

     

    It has taken a long time since the dawn of digital but playback systems have eventually become very good. It is now the lack of similar quality recordings of mainstream artists that is the limiting factor. There are a small handful of people like Barry Diament making such recordings and I have also heard one of your excellent recordings. I think it is the crime of the century that this is not more mainstream. As you say, they did it better in the 1950s and 60s. Why have things not progressively improved since that time?

     

    The usual answer is that artists and engineers are making things to sound "good" over earphones, iPhones and the like and this is why such things as compression and the loudness wars exist/existed. I still really don't get it, and very happy to be shown why, but for me a good recording sounds better on every medium that I play it on. It certainly sounds better on my high-end system, it sounds better on headphones, it sounds better when played on my TV and small contraptions like phones.

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    6 hours ago, John Yow said:

    Not sure why Naxos is considered a "audiophile" label.  Naxos has always been a budget label with no emphasis on the performers unlike the other labels.

     

    it is kind of like a "generic drug" version of classical label.  Focusing on to repertoire rather then the star power of the performers.  It's principal is to broaden the discovery of new and less known music, and mostly avoid duplication of repertoire.

     

    I had the pleasure of meeting Klaus Heymann many years ago, he is true music lover.        

     

    Once spoke to him on the phone - my strongest memory is his thinking that the presentation of the Bose 901 speaker was what he thought was ideal for the music he had recorded, 🙃.

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    I recent years, some of the Naxos orchestra recordings are self-produced by the orchestras. I was told that they'll get a number of CDs and the international publicity of being on the label, but otherwise no compensation. Since many orchestras record for radio, I imagine it's a low-cost opportunity, so long as the players agree to it. In my experience, many Naxos disks sound pretty good.

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    10 hours ago, fas42 said:

     

    Once spoke to him on the phone - my strongest memory is his thinking that the presentation of the Bose 901 speaker was what he thought was ideal for the music he had recorded, 🙃.

    Yecch! Well at least that opinion didn’t seem to influence the way that the recordings were made! Frankly I’ve never heard a Bose product that I liked. I once bought a used pair of 901s figuring that they would be perfect for the rear channels of a surround system... Boy was I wrong! Sold them on just a couple of weeks after buying them. Of course, I finally decided that surround sound, in general was not my cup of tea, and abandoned it altogether (practical reasons, not sonic ones).

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    I have taken audio for granted. My son sings in a boy choir and they were part of an amazing ensemble performance of Carmina Burana in a lovely acoustic space which was recorded. We sat about 15' from the soloists and piano–what an experience. I thought the recording would be marvelous.

     

    I obtained a copy of the recording after a couple weeks. I wondered why it was taking so long, and after I got it, I was reminded why recording is a bit of an art itself. Despite hitting the wall a couple times in the beginning (Carmina's dynamic range is just too wide, I guess), the rest of the performance is a satisfying (if not a "pro audiophile") listen. I now own something like seven Carminas and none of them are perfect recordings and performances, but I love each for its own strengths.

     

    Finally, this reminds me of J. Gordon Holt reading his article about the characteristics of different microphones on Stereophile's first test CD where they switch the mics as he reads so you can hear the substantial differences. Looking forward to this whole series of articles here, thank you @gmgraves 

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    As one who has run live sound for both music and theater productions and has dabbled in recording, I am looking forward to this series with great interest, @gmgraves!  I've often wondered the same as you -- why so many older recordings sound marvelous, and so many newer ones sound comparatively lifeless. Arguments about the Loudness Wars and such find their place here, but even records that are not mastered to sound LOUD are still lacking a lot of that joie de vivre. I'm buckled in and looking forward to where you take us next!

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    2 hours ago, feelingears said:

    I have taken audio for granted. My son sings in a boy choir and they were part of an amazing ensemble performance of Carmina Burana in a lovely acoustic space which was recorded. We sat about 15' from the soloists and piano–what an experience. I thought the recording would be marvelous.

     

    I obtained a copy of the recording after a couple weeks. I wondered why it was taking so long, and after I got it, I was reminded why recording is a bit of an art itself. Despite hitting the wall a couple times in the beginning (Carmina's dynamic range is just too wide, I guess), the rest of the performance is a satisfying (if not a "pro audiophile") listen. I now own something like seven Carminas and none of them are perfect recordings and performances, but I love each for its own strengths.

     

    Finally, this reminds me of J. Gordon Holt reading his article about the characteristics of different microphones on Stereophile's first test CD where they switch the mics as he reads so you can hear the substantial differences. Looking forward to this whole series of articles here, thank you @gmgraves 

    Gordon was one of my closest friends and I miss him greatly. We spoke about recording often, and were pretty much of a single mind with regard or microphone technique. He was the first person I knew who recorded digitally. I was down in Sant Fe once and we recorded an amateur chamber group together. He had a “portable” VHS recorder and a Sony ADC hat had been modified by Apogee and a Yamaha mixer IRRC.

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    1 hour ago, Jeremy Anderson said:

    As one who has run live sound for both music and theater productions and has dabbled in recording, I am looking forward to this series with great interest, @gmgraves!  I've often wondered the same as you -- why so many older recordings sound marvelous, and so many newer ones sound comparatively lifeless. Arguments about the Loudness Wars and such find their place here, but even records that are not mastered to sound LOUD are still lacking a lot of that joie de vivre. I'm buckled in and looking forward to where you take us next!

    Actually, part 5 is the last in the series. But thanks for your kind comments.

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    41 minutes ago, gmgraves said:

    Actually, part 5 is the last in the series. But thanks for your kind comments.

    Ah, I've only read Part 1 so far! Looking forward to the rest (I do see them published already). :)

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    5 hours ago, Jeremy Anderson said:

    Ah, I've only read Part 1 so far! Looking forward to the rest (I do see them published already). :)

    Enjoy, and lemme know what you think!

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