What makes a good classical recording?
January 23, 2008 8:42 AM   Subscribe

What makes a good classical musical recording?

I know all about the importance of DDD but it seems to me that some classical recordings I buy just lack realism. If I close my eyes with some records I can believe I'm in the audience at a performance. With others, I'm clearly listening to a recording. With some recording the horn or flute sounds fresh and real, while with others it sounds like it's coming from a synthesizer.

So what makes a good classical recording? Aside from using the Penguin or Gramaphone Guide to look up what's considered good (which I don't always agree with), is there any way of telling before purchasing.
posted by deeper red to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To give an example, I have this CD. The soloist, David Pyatt, is by all measures one of the best. But the recording sounds flat. I actually thought it was a mono recording when I first heard it, but it isn't. There's just no life there.
posted by deeper red at 8:50 AM on January 23, 2008

A major factor will be the "room" in which the recording was made... Recordings made in theatres and concert halls will have a natural reverb to them which will help make the recording come alive. A concerted recorded on a soundstage, or in a studio will either have no reverb, dead reverb, or artificially added reverb...
posted by benzo8 at 8:55 AM on January 23, 2008

Some of it is fashion...

I remember hearing something about Paul McCartney saying that he didn't want 'Mancini strings' when adding a string section to Sgt Peppers. What he meant by that was the string section mic'ed from a further distance, which gives it a more averaged, swooshy sound. So when recording the strings for Sgt Pepper they mic'ed the strings up close which changed the sound. Nowadays that is kinda par for the course.

Disclaimer: This is something I heard on the radio and is filtered through my pea brain, any or all of it might be mutated from the original info.

Also, you could sample CDs on Amazon.com and then buy said CD where ever you might normally do so.
posted by ian1977 at 9:14 AM on January 23, 2008

Great question! I have no idea, but do know that the science and mystery of sound recording and album production is vast.

What I do know:

DDD is not necessarily a positive. I can record myself playing my marching band clarinet in the bathroom with my laptop, feed it through Garage Band and burn it to CD, and it would be DDD. And it would sound like vomit. In the early days of CDs, the DDD, ADD, AAD thing was to assure the buyer that they weren't just getting a cd mastered off of an 8 track.

ian1977 makes a good point in that the Beatles are responsible for a lot in the area of music recording. They did a lot of technical and not so technical things to get the sound they were looking for. There are a lot of books out there on that subject, it might be worth a trip to the library. All of it won't be relevant to classical recordings, but it might give you an idea of the scope of the issue.

I also have some classical recordings that I suspect ARE in part synthesized. Just because it's called the Royal Mucketeymuck Symphony of Budapest doesn'nt mean some guy isn't playing a Yahama.

So, in the end, this comment is probably of little use. Carry on.
posted by gjc at 9:35 AM on January 23, 2008

As a classical ignoramus I am now considering that I tend to equate quality with the price of a CD - (like people apparently do with wine). I have no idea how strong the correlation is but I imagine there might be some relationship between price and the acoustic perfection of the recording venue, the sophistication of the recording gear and the enthusiasm of conductor, musicians and engineers to get the best possible sound.

If you forbid me from comparing on price I will go by the thickness of the sleeve notes brochure: here I am imagining that nobody is going to bother writing very much to go with a mediocre recording.
posted by rongorongo at 9:37 AM on January 23, 2008

There are basically two camps on this, a) mic everything separately, run half a mile of cables to a giant electronic mixing console, send the signal through all kinds of little electronic parts under the control of some guy who loves twiddling knobs, or b) place two excellent mics in the optimum listening positions, run the shortest possible cables directly into an unprocessed high end recording device. The second way is how most of those amazing Telarc recordings were made, and the simpler way can often catch much mosre complex information regarding intact phase relationships and such. It does need a good hall, and someone who knows good placement.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:47 AM on January 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I suspect ultimately the price of the recording is a good guide, but I know for a fact that many Naxos (ultra-budget) recordings are considered classics. I heard as much from a classical music critic talking on the radio on the very subject of budget recordings. Plus, many recordings of older (or deceased) artists are re-released on budget labels.
posted by deeper red at 10:00 AM on January 23, 2008

Seconding Naxos. I've got some good stuff from them. I'm no audiophile though.

On second thought...I do have one Naxos CD that is ridiculously quiet. I dont mean the music is quiet, I mean the CD is almost inaudible. Maybe it was just a lemon CD (is there such a thing?).
posted by ian1977 at 10:12 AM on January 23, 2008

How does the cliché go? Reading about music is like tasting architecture? Unfortunately, I don't think you'll find anything on the packaging to be a definitive guide to quality. Your ears are your ears and taste certainly plays a role.

Auditioning recordings can be burdensome. Especially if you don't have access to a quality playback system and a large music collection. Academic libraries - especially ones with reputable music schools - often have both. I've had some luck at public libraries, too. That's the surest way I've found to listen to recordings back to back before purchasing. Online, however, has been much more hit or miss. Though frequently slight, the difference between CD quality and online broadcast or download can make a noticeable difference - especially for nuanced classical recordings. Though, no doubt, some of that may be psychological.

In Houston, Joel, at Joel's Classical Shop, knows his stuff. I'm sure he'd be willing to give you an informed opinion and sell you some music.
posted by GPF at 10:28 AM on January 23, 2008

Response by poster: After a little thought about this, I've started to realise the difference between chamber music (quartets etc) and full orchestral music. My complaint is that orchestral music doesn't have the delineation between instruments. Solo instruments sound indistinct.

In contrast, chamber music is different because each instrument is mic'ed up. On several recordings I can hear the players' breaths and even the click of valves on instruments like clarinets. The sound from chamber music tends to be more direct, in my opinion, and it's therefore far easier to think that you're sitting in front of people playing. Orchestral pieces tend to sound like a mish-mash because, well, they are a mish-mash — what you hear is the end results of 100 instruments put through an auditorium's acoustics. Then there's the the positioning of the mics to take into account.

So I think in future I'll pay more attention to where things are recorded.
posted by deeper red at 3:03 AM on January 26, 2008

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