Betrayed by the sound engineer... Great songs, Horrible recordings...
March 11, 2008 4:53 PM   Subscribe

What are some brilliant songs that suffered from (or were totally ruined by) poor studio production?

...I'll take heat for this, but for my part I'll offer up [quite a bit of Joy Division's back catalogue, including] Love Will Tear Us Apart.

For clarification, I'm not really looking for subtlety along the lines of "Albini would've done a better job with 'Heart Shaped Box'..." or "Spector's excesses with 'Let it Be' were unfortunate."

...Instead, I'm looking for, like, something approaching atrocity. Something where the finished product comes close to a betrayal of the songwriter. Something that leaves you feeling that the engineer should be pistol-whipped for his artistic decisions (or lack of skill).

I thought this over for a long while and I couldn't pluck from memory many songs that fit the bill... but I lucidly remember having come across songs like this quite often in the past. The MeFi music folk tend to do a fantastic job with questions like these, and I've been awed in the past with the diverse styles and genre's y'all have hipped me to. Many thanks for your consideration and your input.
posted by cadastral to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe people should qualify their suggestions somehow.
posted by Evstar at 4:58 PM on March 11, 2008

What on earth is wrong with the production on LOVE WILL TEAR US APART?
posted by unSane at 5:01 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

All of Exile on Main Street immediately springs to mind, but I still like the songs on there so it's not unlistenable. Probably the stuff on Plastic Ono Band could be interepeted as being filtered through a lot more than Lennon and suffering as a result.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 5:11 PM on March 11, 2008

Blitzkrieg's "Blitzkrieg" featured some brilliant riffs, but it was hard to tell from the original recording. It was partly because they didn't play that tightly, but mostly because of the production. Metallica really brought out everything in it that was great and buried in it in their cover, as they did with a lot of NWOBHM songs.
posted by ignignokt at 5:13 PM on March 11, 2008

I think Eliot Smith's later albums were ruined by the hi-fi super-production. I like what he's doing musically but I can't stand to listen to them.
posted by tylermoody at 5:13 PM on March 11, 2008

to be honest, I'm not sure if this is possible. Maybe my also-musically-snobby significant other, aka wuz from wuzandfuzz, can give an example. My two cents is, if it's raw, it's raw. It's just another way to sound. If you really want to nitpick, there are some recordings of weezer and nirvana of their first hits that sound like they were recorded in a bathtub with a walkman, but I dont think using a lecture recorder to make a demo counts as bad engineering.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 5:16 PM on March 11, 2008

The production on The Fall's Wonderful and Frightening World Of The Fall is really sludgy and godawful (and not in a Dragnet/Totale's Turns kind of way), nearly sinking a bunch of great songs. Funny how they had a big studio behind them at the time.
posted by porn in the woods at 5:17 PM on March 11, 2008

Oh, also, Sepultura's "Necromancer" from their first EP, recorded in some shack in Brazil. I never paid much attention to it, or any other song on the album. Later, I heard a live (and well-recorded and mixed) version from Blood Rooted and holy shit! "NECROMANCERRRRRR! DEAD'S INVOKERRRRRRRR!"

Again, some of the kickassness of this version is partly because Sepultura are way more developed as musicians at this point in their career, but it is largely because you can actually hear the primitive and awesome riffing and feel their punch this time.
posted by ignignokt at 5:20 PM on March 11, 2008

Response by poster: (dersins: If it's the will of the community or of the moderators that this is "Chatfilter", then by all means, remove it. That said, as a long-time member well-versed in site-policy and dynamics, and as conditioned to loath out-and-out chatfilter as much as the next guy--this seems like a stretch as a callout. That something could degenerate into, or might draw contributions from a chatty-ish well isn't an indictment of the question. To my tastes [which can certainly be disputed], there's a grey-area where productive questions can still exist. My objective--the problem I am attempting to solve with this question--is to compile a list of songs ruined by poor studio production... if that'll allay some of your reservations.)
posted by cadastral at 5:20 PM on March 11, 2008

That Wikipedia link doesn't list the live version of Necromancer, but my copy has it. Weird.
posted by ignignokt at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2008

Vanilla Fudge's remake of "You Keep Me Hangin' On." A heavy-psychedelic-metal version of a Motown proto-funk classic? Really? Making a noisy sludgepile out of a song about a sudden realization that demands quick resolution?
posted by infinitewindow at 5:23 PM on March 11, 2008

I disagree - Elliott Smith's albums go through a wonderful change, from lo-fi to clean and more complex. I think we'd have lost something had he gone only one way or the other. A Basement on the Hill, though, suffers from a lack of following his real intentions.
posted by Camel of Space at 5:24 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

"The Long and Winding Road", a late McCartney tune, was smothered in the sweet and sticky glaze of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" treatment.
Some might also argue that certain late Elvis efforts were marred by committee.
Hope that helps.
posted by Dizzy at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2008

I'm not sure, but it's always seemed to me that Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Nights in White Satin both could have sounded a LOT better...but that's just me as a consumer, I have no musical training.
posted by forthright at 5:38 PM on March 11, 2008

Some of the Go-Go's songs sound like they were recorded in a coffee can in a miserable shack somewhere. See: the entire "Beauty and the Beat" album.
posted by mynameisluka at 5:48 PM on March 11, 2008

Mike Clink should be hung for the vocal mix on Gn'R's Use Your Illusion(s). Incredible vocal performances... but just try to understand a damn word.

Want songs? You Could Be Mine would be a start...
posted by raider at 6:01 PM on March 11, 2008

The new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album is bathed in distortion, like a bad CD rip. It's intensional, but in my opinion, intolerable.
posted by Sfving at 6:04 PM on March 11, 2008

The entire album Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges suffers from lack of bass.

I disagree with the Joy Division but even they, apparently, wanted a less refined sound.
posted by Max Power at 6:12 PM on March 11, 2008

I've always thought the mix for Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" was very weird. The vocals sound like they're on the other side of the room, behind something, and the drums sound like they're underwater.
posted by smackfu at 6:14 PM on March 11, 2008

I was just talking about this, as it relates to Willie Nelson's Stardust, a couple of days ago.
Well, bad mastering and bad overall sound engineering might be different things, so maybe you could clarify.
posted by Chuckles at 6:24 PM on March 11, 2008

The reason modern recordings sound all compressed and lacking range, is, well...because they are compressed and lacking range. Check the fascinating youtube video on The Loudness War for more.
posted by softlord at 6:34 PM on March 11, 2008

Yes - Nights in White Satin
posted by taliaferro at 6:34 PM on March 11, 2008

The Replacements' Tim, produced by a nearly-deaf Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone. Terrific album, but it's muddy as hell.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 6:50 PM on March 11, 2008

Phil Spector: The Beatles' album Let It Be was re-produced by Phil Spector and is cited as a famous example of his "Wall of Sound". Paul McCartney claimed that the production had ruined the work, particularly McCartney's composition "The Long and Winding Road", and a "de-Spectorized" version of the album was released as Let It Be... Naked in 2003.
posted by loiseau at 6:52 PM on March 11, 2008

This is a terrible thing to do with every CD you own, but when I worked in the music biz, the quick and dirty way to check the quality of production was to turn the song up pretty much as loud as you could stand it. With a great mix, the song will sound amazingly lush, crystal clear and you'll hear new elements. (It will also be really almost painfully loud, so turn it down quickly.) A bad mix played very loudly will just sound like really loud bad unintelligible noise.

An example of the former is the eponymous Garbage album. The Go-Go's album mentioned earlier is a good example of the latter. (Although it doesn't have to be super-slick pop to pass the loud test; Sleater-Kinney's All Hands On The Bad One is a great example of raw sound that works loud.)

I've never tried this with mp3s, and I don't think it would work nearly as well with such a lossy format to begin with--so if digital files are all you have, sorry for the useless tip.
posted by tyrantkitty at 6:59 PM on March 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

I don't know if this is what you are looking for, but here is my contribution:

- The shortened radio version of More Than Words by Extreme. Near the end, they try to cut things to make it short and they kill it.

- Fallin by Alicia Keys. At one point, the "engineered" harmony sounds so terribly out of tune. I can never listen to the song because of it.

- All for Love by Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and Sting. What a waste of talent! This sounded like a last minute arrangement, if one could even call it that.
posted by bitteroldman at 7:06 PM on March 11, 2008

The early Van Halen albums are absolutely wretched, despite some good performances.
posted by futility closet at 7:09 PM on March 11, 2008

So, interestingly, depending on who you ask, this could apply to X's first four albums, or the fifth, "Ain't Love Grand", or both. The first four sound like cheaply recorded punk, which kind of doesn't do them justice but at least seems like what they were going for. "Ain't Love Grand" sounds like they were trying to go hair metal, which to most of their fans was worse, but to fans of production values might be better.
posted by crinklebat at 7:17 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

The CD of Devo's "Freedom of Choice" sounds abysmal, compared to the LP. The mastering job is atrocious. The bass is weak, the highs are buried, and it's just annoying to listen to, especially since half of the record can be heard on various Greatest Hits compilations and such with PROPER mastering!
posted by SansPoint at 7:21 PM on March 11, 2008

Bowie's Loving the Alien was buried by an engineer pressing the "80's" button on the mixing desk for the original version and was rescued years later when it was stripped back to basics.
posted by merocet at 7:40 PM on March 11, 2008

A lot of Daniel Johnston's stuff is recorded with super cheap equipment. That may be part of the appeal to some, but I don't think tape hiss has ever improved music.
posted by sleslie at 8:23 PM on March 11, 2008

but I don't think tape hiss has ever improved music.

It really depends. For example, Muddy Waters' Folk Singer. Full of tape hiss.. Nonetheless, spectacular!

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't think removing tape hiss has ever improved music.
posted by Chuckles at 8:48 PM on March 11, 2008

From the incredibly obscure side of the tracks.....Head of David's "Dustbowl" was ruined by some muddy production from, believe it or not, Steve Albini. They later released their original recordings of several of the songs on "The Saveana Mixes," which sound much better to my ears.

Also, I have always wondered what might have been if Amebix's early work, particularly "No Gods No Masters" had received some decent production. That is one massive song there, but it sounds like it was recorded under a great big pile of stuffed animals.
posted by googly at 8:49 PM on March 11, 2008

Whenever people ask about bad production, I have to suggest "Little Red Corvette" by Prince, which has some nasty-ass distortion which always mars the track for me. Surprisingly for your question, it was produced Prince himself, although engineer Peggy McCreary is probably responsible for the distortion. More head-room, Peggy...
posted by benzo8 at 9:22 PM on March 11, 2008

I'd throw out there Jeff Buckley's posthumous release "Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk" double album. Most of it (well, at least one of the discs) has a lot of instrumental guesswork and embellishment. They were "sketches" recorded by Buckley for his next album "My Sweetheart the Drunk," so his band and mother took them into the studio and tried their best to put out something Jeff would have. I just know some of those songs would have sounded much darker and brooding (but lovely), like a lot of the more raw second disc is.

Iron & Wine's (Sam Beam) earlier stuff. It was music he recorded in his basement, to be fair, but as much as I adore the guy, I think it would be better music if it didn't sound like it was a 60 year old 45".
posted by Detuned Radio at 10:55 PM on March 11, 2008

Spot's engineering on Husker Du's New Day Rising (as with everything else he did that I've head) is almost unlistenably trebly and harsh, I've always thought, though I've gotten used to it over the years.

The muddy, vaseline-coated production on Crosby Stills Nash and Young's Southern Cross (a song I have a history with, and so guiltily love) annoys me almost beyond my ability to express. I assume the rest of whatever album it was on sounds the same way. I would forever be indebted to anyone who could point me at a remixed version of that song, if it exists.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:56 PM on March 11, 2008

Johnny Cash's version of Hurt. I don't know what they did to it, but it's mixed all wrong, and they just basically turn it all the way UP at the end - and the sound becomes utterly distorted. I love his cover of the song, and listen to it often, but the production quality always upsets me. ( I obviously know NOTHING about sound production )
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:10 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read Steely Dan's Katy Lied liner notes:
This is a hi-fidelity recording. Steely Dan uses a specially constructed 24-channel tape recorder, a "State-of-the-Art" 36-input computerized mixdown console, and some very expensive German microphones. Individual microphone equalization is frowned upon. The sound created by musicians and singers is reproduced as faithfully as possible, and special care is taken to preserve the band-width and transient response of each performance. Transfer from master tapes to master lacquers is done on a Neumann VMS 70 computerized lathe equipped with a variable pitch, variable depth helium cooled cutting head. The computerized logic circuits of the VMS 70 widen and narrow the grooves on the disc in accordance with its own bizarre electronic mentation for reasons known only to its designers; this accounts for the lovely light and dark patterns that can be seen on the surface of the pressing. Vinylite compound is used. For best results observe the R.I.A.A. curve.
And then read this interview with Denny Dias that explains what really happened. What a disaster.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:14 AM on March 12, 2008

Though I really don't listen to him, I've always been aurally disappointed with Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Going My Way". He works so hard to strike that 70's pose with the music, but utterly misses that warm, lush studio sound. Instead, he ends up with that typical, contemporary over-compressed sound we all know and loathe. Every time I hear that song, I hear all the traditional 70's hooks he's putting in there and shake my head as they fail miserably. It's one of the few songs I truly wish I could have been in the booth to oversee the engineering.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:53 AM on March 12, 2008

Billy Joel's first album, Cold Spring Harbor, was mastered at too fast a speed raising everything a half step. He sounds chipmunky. I believe that led Joel to flee his deal and hide out playing in piano bars where he wrote something called Piano Man.
posted by lpsguy at 6:10 AM on March 12, 2008

Most of The Kinks' early- to mid-'60s stuff.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:41 AM on March 12, 2008

Gary U.S. Bonds' hits, including his biggest, "Quarter to Three" have a live sound that sounds like they were recorded by a tape machine smuggled into a performance under someone's coat.
posted by evilcolonel at 7:48 AM on March 12, 2008

Detuned Radio nails it, I think. That album should certainly be picked up by anyone interested in Buckley, however. While some of it is a little iffy, there are some songs, such as "Opened Once" that are particularly haunting. Then there's "Nightmares by the Sea" which, in light of how he died, should be downright terrifying, but ends up kind of blegh due to the production/additional instrumentation.

lpsguy's point reminded me that a similar thing happened to Meat Loaf. It's funny, because Bat Out of Hell, as it stands, is spectacular (overlooking the terrible E Street Bandesque production of "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night") but when they made the transfer for the music video, the tape got distorted, causing some weird rapid key changes for the first minute or so. The video premiered, and Meat Loaf freaked and went on a bender.

As for my own contribution, I've always thought that U2's "Beautiful Day" was either their last good song, but I recognize that many view it as their first terrible one. Either way, I think the production/arrangement really fails to capture the potential strength of the chorus.

The important thing for us to agree on is that whenever it happened, U2 now sucks.
posted by SpiffyRob at 8:18 AM on March 12, 2008

Everything ever recorded by Husker Du.

Zen Arcade was the worst. Odd that the earlier Everything Falls Apart had far superior production. Flip Your Wig didn't sound too bad. Don't really care for the production on Warehouse or Candy Apple Grey much either.
posted by porn in the woods at 8:31 AM on March 12, 2008

Rush had used the same producer for its first 9 albums but "they felt dissatisfied with long-time producer Terry Brown's studio treatment of Signals and parted ways with him". Fan conventional wisdom (and I agree) is that it sounds very muddy and is a stark contrast from both earlier and later records. If you're interested, the Wikipedia page does have song samples from Signals other albums.
posted by turbodog at 10:03 AM on March 12, 2008

I've heard people say this about Apples and Oranges.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:50 AM on March 12, 2008

The first New York Dolls album

The MC5's Kick Out the Jams -- yeah, I know it's live and all, but the edits are just painful in places...
posted by AJaffe at 11:18 AM on March 12, 2008

One of the "classic" examples of this is the Johnny Thunders album L.A.M.F., where it was a mastering error. Aside from that, most of the answers in this thread are both chatfilter and wrong.
posted by klangklangston at 11:22 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Handsome's self-titled release. Drives me nuts.
posted by survivorman at 12:31 PM on March 12, 2008

John Mayer's Room for Squares album as originally released by Aware records was one of my favorite albums of 2001. The remixed, re-produced thing that Columbia put out a few months later is practically unlistenable.
posted by dizziest at 2:57 PM on March 12, 2008

"Handsome's self-titled release. Drives me nuts."

I've got to totally disagree with you on this one Survivorman! But to each his own I guess... I love that album. And on a slightly related note, this might interest you.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:18 PM on March 12, 2008

There are some Townes Van Zandt records where these lovely, sparse songs are just drowning in strings... but he recorded all those songs elsewhere in stripped down versions, so I guess it's nice to have both arrangements. I kind of like the syrupy versions, actially, though I can't always listen to them.
posted by Scram at 10:49 PM on March 12, 2008

The Extraordinaires must have the worst producer of all time to transmute their genius into terrible recorded material.
posted by tmcw at 12:42 PM on April 6, 2008

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