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What I think Makes A Great Sounding Recording

Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection 
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of the Moon 
Yes Fragile
Les Mcann and Eddie Harris Swiss Movement
Allman Brothers Live At The Filmore 
As a teenager listening to these albums ( In my huge groovy Sennheiser headphones ) I was transported to another place. I would close my eyes and I was no longer in my room. Musically excellent but also sonically beautiful. For me it was the sonic aspect that moved me deeply. These records inspired me to become a recording engineer.
Below are my thoughts on the elements needed to make an excellent recording.
These items are listed from most critical to least important.
This list assumes all factors are reasonable, no defective equipment, or poor microphone placement.
1) A great song or wonderful arrangement.
Wait! Wait! this is supposed to be about audio engineering! frequencies, decibels and  phase! Op-amps vs. discrete circuits, analog vs digital! For starters, recording quality isn’t all about gear.
Years ago I noticed something odd. One day I was at the beginning of a tracking session and I was struggling to get what I thought were good sounds. As the band worked on the arrangement,  boredom set in and they started to play another popular song. Suddenly all the sounds changed, everything opened up and became clearer and punchier. Each instrument had it’s own space, and I was moved by what I heard. I had changed nothing, yet the sonic picture changed completely.
When I’m mixing I usually start with the bass, drums,lead vocal and a single instrument that has the chord changes. In this simple state it is easy for a song to sound powerful, but as more tracks are added if the song is poorly arranged it can sound smaller, not larger.
When I listen to really great recordings I am often floored at how simple they can be.  A good arrangement can give the impression that a song is large and complex when in actuality it is very simple. The key is that every note and sound is so well placed they conspire to move your emotions in a certain direction. For some reason it can be hard for the brain to unglue these elements when listening to a stereo mix. At the studio when clients come in to remaster old recordings and we get to hear the original multitracks we are always floored at how simple the tracks are when the sounds can be isolated.
Often less is more.
Back In Black…I rest my case.
2) The musician.
I can’t tell you how effortless it is to get a really good sound with a talented
musician. Knowing what to play and what not to play is huge, but most greats also have a skillful touch. Often they know their sound, their setup, and have good instruments. I find the best drummers have a firm and solid strike, but rarely bash the drums as hard as they can. This allows the fullness of the drum to ring and be close in volume to the attack. This gives a clear attack with a beefy sustain.
When I first worked at  Right Track I tuned the rooms with Frank Filipetti. We would listen to his reference tracks as we adjusted the speakers. He’s a phenomenal engineer and one area that I envy him is his Tom sounds. I asked his secret. His response ……..“ A great player “.
3) The instrument.
A good instrument is not always the most expensive instrument. Acoustic guitar is a good example. I’ll take a one that has been kicked around for 10 years over almost any guitar that is brand new. The tone just seems to balance out over time. I generally think a passive bass records better than most with active electronics. I’ll take a P- Bass anyday. If you find an instrument that records well hang on to it!
Ok now it’s the engineers turn.
4) The microphone.
I can usually hear right off the bat if a mic is right on a certain player. If I find myself eq-ing too much I first try to change the mic position, but usually I just go to a different mic. I drive assistants nuts swapping mics.
5) Mic placement.
Try placing your ear where you want to place the mic. Move your head around the instrument and it’s crazy how the sound changes. ( Of course you should not do this on a very loud instrument) If you are recording a player that has a lot of studio experience don’t be afraid to ask where he/she would like the mic. They’ve heard themselves recorded many times, and they may know what works and what doesn’t. I always ask horn and reed players because they usually are reading music in a tight group so they are going to blow where they are going to blow regardless of where you put the mic .
( I am going to assume that the signal chain is Mic pre, Compressor, EQ )
6) Compressor
A bad choice of compressor, or compression setting will do more to mash your sound than most EQ’s and mic-pres’. If you’re going for a Bonham drum sound and your compressor is too smooth it will just sound small and will be missing the pump. Conversely, if you are going for a clear vocal sound and you compressor is too extreme it will just sound like your mic is broken. I tend to steer clear of compressors I don’t like. My favorite compressor is a Neve 33609, but I also feel comfortable using a DBX 160X on just about any instrument.
7) EQ
For me there is only one real eq, the Neve 31102 as was fitted in the Neve 8068 consoles. I suffer with all the rest. Though the Massenburg is wonderful, the early Isa Focusrites, are sweet, and Pultecs can be fun. Equalizers are a very subjective topic. I’m a SSL guy, ( I don’t like the Neve VR Eq ) and so is Tom Lord-Alge, Andy Wallace and Bob Clearmountain, however some of the engineers I respect the most are Neve V fans such as Elliot Scheiner  Joe Ferla, Al Schmitt and David Hewitt.
So I’ll leave you with this thought.
If you eq isn’t good use very little or none.
8) The Mic pre
Most pre’s are acceptable, Some are wonderful. The Neve 31102 is my favorite, Jensen Hardy Dual Servos are sweet and Massenburgs with B&K mics are heavenly, but a mic pre will almost never prevent a recording from being steller. David Baker’s recording of Mediski Martin and Wood’s “Shack-Man”  done on a Mackie mixer is proof.
9) The Room
Well, a great room can really help. An Awful room can really hurt. Depending on the type of music and instruments one can usually minimize the negative effects. Well for pop music at least.
10) I’m done,
I’ll leave you guys to argue the importance of converters, clocks, and cables…I’m gonna go get a beer.
A few years into my career my friend Jim Boyer asked me to help him record a concert at the Smithsonian. The remote truck was nothing special. Old and a bit beat up, it had a Quad eight console, a few generic compressors and a limited mic selection. This truck also had an interesting bit of history. Tom Dowd with owners Aron Baron, and Larry Dahlstrom used it to record The Allman Brothers” Live At The Filmore” One of the recordings that inspired me to become a recording engineer.
If the music is good and the players are talented you should be able to pull off a fine recording.  Try to turn your limitations into your unique advantages.
Have fun with it and be creative.

6 thoughts on “What I think Makes A Great Sounding Recording

  1. We must have learned at the same school. I couldn’t agree more. One thing on eq: In the dark ages Ramone had his sweetly tuned EMT’s eq’d with Shure equalizers! He made those mutha’s sing with those $8 toys. So the only thing I would add is YOU — your ear, taste, and chops.

  2. Loved this response on my FB page from my friend and fine engineer Josiah Gluck
    “Yet another great post! I’m with you 1000%.
    Years ago I was overdubbing Ralph MacDonald on a Kevin Eubanks project. He told me that some aspiring percussionist had recently asked him: “How do you get your tambourines to sound so good? It never sounds like that when I hit it.” Ralph’s reply: “Well, for starters, I don’t hit it– I play it.”

  3. Michael Allaire says:

    And of those great rooms you’ve worked in?..If you were stranded on a deserted island with 100 island girls, what one room would you choose to have? (careful, careful..this is a serious question! 🙂

  4. A&R A1, without a doubt.

  5. Jim Hawkins says:

    Wonder if you might know how to reach Larry Dahlstrom or Arron Baron? I worked with them and Tommy on the “Fillmore East” recording. Coming up on the 40th anniversary next month. Thanks, Jim Hawkins jhawkins@mindspring.com

  6. John Venable says:

    @ Jim, Larry Passed few years ago, Aaron is retired last I heard…. I was the “Crew’ on that “Location Recorders” truck, it was sold to Albert Grossman. Larry, Aaron and I wired it into a Barn turned Studio on Alberts Turtle Creek Property for The Band. As for that truck being not so special, the year before it was sold it had recorded 10 of Billboards Hot 100 Albums, received a Grammy for recording Bernsteins Mass and was really the Pioneer Remote Unit in it’s day. Pre Record Plant, Fedco and all the rest. That board only had 16 faders and another external 8 Pots that had only a Hi and Lo cut switch. It was the First Audio Unit used by ABC for Tony Award and Kentucky Derby shows. It did alot of good stuff. After that project I joined up with Dave Hewitt at Record Plant.

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