What Makes a Good Recording?

The sound, of course, but here's a checklist of 16 specifics to consider when evaluating your own or somebody else's live-recording efforts.

One major difference between the sophisticated audiophile and a critical but inexperienced listener is the former's ability to analyze reproduced sound—to take it apart, as it were—and listen to each of a number of specifics aspects of it, rather than just to the entire fabric of sound. It is that ability to single out for aural attention certain details in the sound that gives some people what has come to be called (usually by those who don't have it) "aural memory"—the capability of recalling, accurately, as long as six months later, what a loudspeaker or a live symphony orchestra sounded like. And it is what allows a good recording engineer to listen for a few moments to what his microphones are picking up, and spot almost immediately what is good about the sound and what needs some touching up.

Below is a list of those things to listen for, in your own recordings or in anyone else's. A perfect score on the following points means a nigh-on-to perfect recording. It is assumed, of course, that the system on which you listen is impeccable in every respect.

1. Balance.
Also called "weight," this is mainly a function of frequency response, and pertains to the balance of the entire range below about 1kHz relative to the range above 1kHz. Live sound is usually rather light, which is another way of saying there is no awareness of bass until bass comes along. A brilliant recording sounds neither fat nor brilliant.

"Balance" refers also to the relative intensities of the sounds from the voices or instruments. Generally, these balances should be as close as possible to those heard from a good seat at a live performance, for a very small imbalance between two instruments can have a disproportionately marked effect on the tonal structure of the total sound. Correct balance is almost guaranteed when the performers are recorded with a single pair of mikes located a substantial distance from (and above) the group. With multi-miking techniques, instrumental balances are under the complete control of the mixer operator, whose judgement can make or break the recording.

2. Distance.
This, of course, is the apparent distance that a recording seems to put you from the performers. There is no "right" or "wrong" distance for a recording, only appropriateness or inappropriateness. If you are seeking a re-creation of a concert-hall experience, the instruments should sound no closer than they would from a good seat. If you are attempting to re-create what the conductor hears, miking should be very close—a risky business with most mikes, as the high sound pressure levels close to the performers can overload mike preamp stages and, sometimes, the mikes themselves. A small chamber ensemble, best heard in a large room rather than a concert hall, should be miked fairly close unless, again, you wish for some reason to convey the flavor of a concert-hall performance.

3. Lateral Localization.
(Or "stereo imaging.") This is self-explanatory. Instruments in a stereo recording should be heard from the same locations across the stereo "stage" as they would normally occupy physically during a performance. The smaller the performing group (and/or the closer the listening distance), the more specific the instrumental localizations should be. At greater distances, less specificity is observed even at live performances and less should thus be observed in the recording. Regardless of specificity, however, the localization should be stable, which is to say an instrument should stay put and not wander back and forth as it plays different notes. Neither should an instrument occupy more space than it could in reality. A 5'-wide piano is acceptable; a 5'-wide guitar is not.