Forget about the sound of the recording

Hello, and Happy New Year! I'm greeting you in October 2021—just before Halloween, in anticipation of Stereophile's publication deadline—but by the time this magazine arrives in your mailbox, it'll be after the holidays.

If I hadn't told you, you wouldn't have known when I wrote this essay—and you still don't know where I was when I wrote it: my office? In an airplane 36,000 feet up? Similarly, I don't know where you'll be when you read it, or when: Maybe in early 2022 in your listening chair; maybe you'll find it in a box in an attic many years hence and read it then.

What I'm getting at goes much deeper than the when and the where. It's also about the what: While we share a common language, the words I choose, alone and in combination, mean something slightly different to me than they do to you. And yet, when I write something, I want you to ignore the writing and absorb what it is that I'm saying. The analogy isn't perfect, but the relationship between reader and writer is much like the relationship between the listener and the recording engineer—and everyone involved in the recording, really, since recording music is a collaborative endeavor.

I should take a moment to introduce myself. I'm Jim Anderson, recording engineer and producer. I've been involved in audio, on the "pro" side, for many years. I say "audio" and not "music" because in addition to music of many genres, I've also recorded radio documentaries, film scores—even, I'm proud to say, the Muppets.

To me, Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis classic, could have been recorded last week, just as many recordings made today could have been made in 1959 when Kind of Blue was recorded. Kind of Blue is a perfect marriage of musicianship and technology, and in its many rereleases, both music and engineering stand up to scrutiny, thanks to the work of Columbia engineer Fred Plaut. There are plenty of other recordings like this, which don't tip you off as to when or where they were made. When you listen, what you hear is the music.

Of course, with Kind of Blue, there was a when and a where. The musicians entered Columbia's 30th Street studio on March 2 and April 22, 1959; they played together, and the total recording time was about 10 hours. The band was well-rehearsed, and the approach left room for enough spontaneity to keep the music fresh for more than 60 years.

Usually when we listen, we don't know much about a recording, unless we read about when or where it was made, or whether the musicians were together in the same room at the same time, or whether, instead, the music was overdubbed track by track in different locations on different dates. Some recordings don't even have a proper where or when.


Duke Ellington said, "There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. ... The only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds." Something like that could also be said about recordings of music—but who's to say what's good and what isn't? Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams said in an interview that he worked very hard on a particular album—Live at Fat Tuesday's—which then received only two stars in DownBeat. It was my first Grammy-nominated recording.

Audiophiles (and others) toss words around to describe how recordings sound: transparent, vivid, balanced, dynamic, warm (but not too warm), whole, present, mellow, with plenty of air and depth. To the audio-aware reviewer, most of the words in that list correspond to sonic virtues (mellow could go either way), but what do they mean to a recording engineer? Not much. There is no "Mellow" knob or "Vivid" button on the recording console (although pro-audio devices that contain buttons and knobs labeled "Warmth" do exist—and leave it to the late Rupert Neve to put a "Silk/Texture" control on several products).

In the studio, we speak in precise, quantitative terms. Decibels and frequencies and milliseconds are the vocabulary I teach students in my critical listening classes at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, along with some precise descriptive aural language. Sure, there's room in the studio for nebulous talk about "air" and "depth" and so on, especially when engineers speak to less technical folks (say, musicians and some producers), but if we want to get something done before the day ends, someone has to know how to turn a knob to change a level by X decibels at Y frequency, or set a delay at Z milliseconds or a reverb at K seconds with P predelay.

A good recording, like a good piece of writing, shouldn't draw attention to the work that went into it. If you enjoy thinking about recordings in terms of air and warmth and so on, there's no harm in it—but when I'm in the studio, my goal is to make you forget about that stuff. I don't want you thinking about my process, about how the sausage is made. I want my work to be transparent, although that word usually means something different to audio-savvy listeners than it does to me.

With my listener hat on, a great recording is one that, as I listen to it, I'm not aware of any recording technology. I don't want to listen to microphone placement, panning, reverb, compression, or equalization. I want to listen to music. My engineering success depends upon not letting you hear my struggles in the recording. I'd be happy if, in attempting to describe a recording's sound, you find yourself at a loss for words. My goal as a recording engineer is to disappear.

JRT's picture

For those truly interested in perfectionist audio, it would be very useful to know the reference monitor listening level used at the listening position by the engineer during the mastering effort, which would (arguably) be the best playback level at the consumer's listening position for best fidelity to that mastering effort, other considerations aside. In the absence of that information, a consumer listener is left guessing at which playback level best represents what might have been intended in the expert mastering effort.

The ISO 226 equal loudness contours clearly illustrate the nonlinearity of human hearing perception in perceived loudness relative to varied frequency and varied sound pressure levels. It follows that listening at a significantly different level from what was used in the mastering imposes a nonlinear distortion in hearing perception in playback of that material. That nonlinear distortion in perception cannot be properly corrected with simple linear equalization, and also does not have effect in perception similar to changed listening distance. I am quite sure that the author is very well aware of this, as are some of the readers, but maybe not so for those who are newer to the subject matter.

Audio engineers have been well aware of all of this since not long after Fletcher and Munson published on the subject in the 1930s. And since the monitor levels vary among the efforts, I would have expected the reference monitor listening level used by the engineer during the mastering effort would have been disclosed in published recordings attempting to yield higher quality playback soon after coming to the realization of the importance of playback level. That has not been the case, almost a full century after Fletcher's and Munson's efforts.

RichT's picture

That’s an interesting thought. If it were implemented, it would be better to capture the level it was mixed at rather than mastered. That would capture the intention of the artist (assuming the artist was involved in the mixing, if not, then all bets are off). The mastering engineer is unlikely to make changes big enough to make a serious difference to the optimum loudness.

I can see a few downsides. Mixing engineers don’t work at a constant volume. It depends on what they are doing and what they are listening on. They would have to choose some kind of representative volume. For example, when I’m doing final mixing, I tend to listen at a higher volume than at earlier stages of the process, and perhaps a little higher than I would normally listen.

Also if a recording was mixed at a very high or very low volume, I wouldn’t want to listen at those volumes.

supamark's picture

Nobody listens at just one level. Not the folks who record, mix, or master. Why? You pointed it out, the equal loudness curves. Any mix or mastering engineer worth their salt will listen at various levels to make sure the mix "translates" in as many listening situations as possible. From background music out of a bluetooth speaker to blasting from the car stereo, it's got to sound similar and all the important elements need to be audible. Also, a mastering engineer might make multiple masters too (1 for CD/mp3, 1 for vinyl, 1 for streaming/hi-rez) which will have different loudness (LUFS) and EQ.

The other problem is few people have the tools to properly calibrate their monitoring, and everyone's room will impose distortions in the bass that a good mastering room will have eliminated. If you really need a level, ca. 85dB (avg) at the listening position is a good place to start for popular music. A lot of mix engineers do the bulk of mixing around that level. Except Bruce Swedien, he was know to mix VERY loud on his JBL 4311s(?) in the nearfield as well as very queitly on Auratones.

Mark Phillips
Contributer, Soundstage! Network

RichT's picture

… and it’s also true that some mixing and mastering engineers have a ‘default’ working level at which they make most of their mixing / mastering decisions. But it’s a very personal thing and it doesn’t mean that everybody should (even if they can) listen at the same volume.

Jack L's picture

....... during the mastering effort would have been disclosed in published recordings." qtd JRT

So if such dB loudness data were published against the recordings as you suggested, how would YOU going to interprete & integrate such data into your listening environment ???

Just like "the cat & the rats" kids bedside story: who is going to hang the bell on the cat's neck !

Be real, pal.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Archimago's picture

Thank you Jim for an interesting article.

Indeed, the idea of a production that's essentially "timeless" and can be reproduced by a high-fidelity system in a way that conveys the musicality of the event that transcends generations is a fantastic goal!

Kind Of Blue is a great example of that.

My sense is that while audiophiles have been taught over the last few decades to speak in those subjective vague terms like "transparent, vivid, balanced, dynamic, warm (but not too warm), whole, present, mellow, with plenty of air and depth", we should also be able to talk in Hz, dB, ms as well with comfort.

Vague, subjective terms have a place I think in describing qualities we hear in that even if imprecise, they will convey useful general impressions. My concern is that too often equipment reviews (not music reviews!) do not go deep enough and fail to test out the dB/Hz/ms when those are the true units with which we must use to convey actual fidelity and metrics to compare with other quality hardware products!

Jack L's picture


Really ?

Yet Jim Anderson said above: "My goal as a recording engineer is to DISAPPEAR." He, while enjoying the music at home he recorded, does not want to know/hear any technicality he might have involed in his recordings.

Likewise, as a gourmet do we need to know the details of the food ingredients used & how the chef cooks them out into a fine dine you are going to enjoy in a restaurant????? So you would think knowing all those kitchen details should shoot up more yr appetite ????

Come on, pal.

Listening, not measurement data alone, is believing

Jack L

Jonti's picture

Not all engineers are born equal. I think your discourse applies very clearly to a traditional notion of the engineer unobtrusively facilitating the performing artists in the presentation of their art, but this ignores a large swathe of rich musical culture in more adventurous and experimental fields where the engineer is (or is on an even footing with) the artist, and where the console itself becomes an instrument of sorts.

This is particularly (but not exclusively) the case with musics such as dub and reggae, where the likes of King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry pioneered the use of console-as-instrument in Jamaica in the early 1970s, which in turn influenced the production, composition and engineering of everything from hiphop and house to techno and electronica.

RichT's picture

Jim is quite right. When mixing, at least in some genres, the mix engineer is trying to make it sound that nothing has been done to the music. Ironically, a huge amount of work may be necessary to achieve that. Volume and effects settings can change for each section, sometimes note by note.

To achieve clarity or warmth may involve many small adjustments to the mix - levels, panning, EQs , compression, reverbs, delays. The aim is for everything to be heard as it should be.

Jack L's picture


Sorry, I don't think so.

Recording adjustments (objective) to the mix in the studio get nothing to do what the listeners subjective impression, like "charity or warmth", of the same music recordings IMO.

Like a chef cooking fine dines for his restaurant customers. His job is to cook the food deliciously right per his cooking practice. How does he know or even care how would the diners enjoy the food ????

We are talking about 2 entirely different things: recording of the music performance vs listener's personal impression of the recorded music.

Listening is believing

Jack L

RichT's picture

…mixing and mastering engineers talk about clarity, warmth, depth and other subjective descriptions all the time. For most genres, the recording is just the start, and adjustments are made to volume, dynamics, space and tone to get things to work together properly. You’re right that they can’t predict how their music will sound on any individual’s system, but they do often try it out on a variety of systems to check how well it translates.

Jack L's picture


Recording a music event in the studio is pretty similar to a chef working in the kitchen. Every recording engineer get his own personal preference as long as it is done within the the recording protocol.

Like my recording engineer friend told me he prefers everything recorded/mixed should come out upfront clear & detailed as heard through the monitor loudspeakers. Of course, the final master got to be OK by the producer, recording engineer & the artists.

However the recorded music would sound at home is not the job of the production team any more !!

Jack L

shawnwes's picture

And others sat in on their classes.
RVG comes to mind as someone who often struggled to get his levels & mix right could have used a masterclass or two from Roy DuNann who got it right in every Contemporary recording I've heard that he was involved with - if there were duds I haven't heard any yet. BTW I have that Pepper Adams lp - it has good sound but it's not one of Pepper's stronger recordings.

JHL's picture

An interesting property expressed by very, very good playback - for which precious few systems qualify - is the sheer inoffensiveness of the recording. Since all recordings *are* recordings, in a self-confirming loop of logic the very good playback system - again, of which few exist - renders recording quality, which is better phrased *the sound of the recording*, automatically part of the sensory phenomenon of that particular reproduction.

It's a little like how very good vinyl playback puts surface noise in another place, away from the listener's primary focus, where it can be ignored. You'd have to want to witness it, the music being so clearly expressed by that system in spite of it.

So too very good systems playing the invariably compromised recording. The best of them extract the musical life and soul almost regardless of the artifacts of the recording.

Recently I heard Kind of Blue on a very capable system and was shocked at how good it is. It's clearly a recording, but it transcends its origins to span that six decades vastly better than you'd assume simply from the passage of time, replete with our assumptions of technology and subsequent advances.

The point is this. We spend more time than we must on "accuracy" from the majority of audio playback systems. Hear a truly great one - not in terms of frequency extension or dynamic range or distortion floor or the majority of the things we *think* matter - and the sound is real enough to simply suspend those intellectual constructs and conventions. Hear sound good enough to cross that intangible, immaterial realism threshold and suddenly you'll stop machinating on it. *You'll* know if and when even if you don't.

It's always struck me as a little odd that we spend so much time on what things should be, do, and technically evidence, and so much less on what they actually are at the ear. Put another way, If we don't trust our ears enough to know it instinctively when we hear it it may not matter if we actually ever do...

deckeda's picture

Listeners have several disadvantages given that we don't know the music until we hear it recorded and played back, and after we do, it's either engaging or its not. The tech and technique can indeed stand in the way, or as you say, get out of the way. We tell ourselves it shouldn't and therefore "it doesn't," but ultimately that cannot be true.

jimtavegia's picture

His work is vitally important to OUR enjoyment of a recording artists. I bought a number of Pete Malinverni CDs as a result of a "Phile" review and Mr. Anderson's work on a number of them is superb. I would not enjoy Pete's playing as much if it was recorded by myself...a huge difference in quality and engineering understanding.

I have too many LPs with poor engineering of the piano sound that makes some of them unlistenable. Is it the pressing, mastering, plating? I don't know, but I cannot enjoy them and the performances are superb. The sound would rate a 3-4 for me.

To me, Mr. Anderson has produced some of the most excellent sounding grand piano playing I own on any format. I am glad he does what he does for the industry and the artists he serves.