How can it be that some old recordings sound sublime?

How do some older records sound insanely great?

I'm listening to Bill Evans "Song for Debbie" on vinyl. The soundstage is palpable. This is a live recording from 1961.   How is this possible?  
Class A tube mastering amps, tube microphones, minimal miking and a real sound engineer with real ears doing the work.  Simple enough as opposed to most of the dreck of today.

Thank you!!

Im thinking many great albums that should good could sound amazing if this is what came out of 1961.  
Yes real sound engineers but also I suppose real producers who let those engineers work. And good engineer knows how to choose equipment and use it. 

Class A tube mastering amps, tube microphones, minimal miking and a real sound engineer with real ears doing the work. Simple
enough as opposed to most of the dreck of today

Celtic nailed it--no overdubs, heavy processing, etc.. But also minimal or judicious use of compression.  

A recording being mastered for home listening will not have the dynamic range compression of a recording that is anticipated for radio playback.  Heavy dynamic compression is used for radio playback because radio is often listened to in noisier environments--hence the need for "steady" volume levels.

I believe that your  assessment is on the mark,  simple high quality equipment used in a simple /minimalist signal pathway. Sound engineers who seem to strive for a natural reproduction and relied on their ears. The vast majority of my jazz recordings from that era (1950s-1960s) are very good sounding. 

I don't listen to  much pop, rock or Hip hop, so can't comment on them . I can say unequivocally that most modern jazz recordings are done exceptionally well. As a jazz devotee I'm very happy with this outcome. It seems that the tendency to "over manipulate " or process the sound is avoided for this genre. I will say  that modern jazz recordings seem to get a fuller scale or weight from pianos than earlier recordings. The earlier era stereo recordings do have an undeniable natural ease and flow of the music.  I think that in most audio applications, simplicity has a high correlation with good natural sound quality. 
Modern live recordings aside, you're talking about two very different things.  Once you get very far beyond two mikes and a live recording you're putting together pieces of a puzzle rather than taking a snapshot of an actual event.  Non-live with multiple overdubs makes for a tricky process that is not likely to result in a natural sound.  There's also a difference between recording/reproducing acoustic versus electric sounds.  I, too, am often surprised if not astonished at the great sound of some recordings from the fifties, mono and stereo alike.
The reason they used a simply recording techniques is because they didn't have any alternatives.  4 or 8 track recorders weren't in general use, so everything had to fit on two channels.  As a result engineers used a small number of microphones and ran them through very basic mixers.  The only sound processors available were EQ and compressor/limiters which were used across the 2 channel mix.  A decade later you would have 16-24 channels with individual EQ on each channel.  The drums could have 4 mics, the piano 2 mics and separate mics for the bassist and each horn plus dedicated "room" mics for crowd noise.  For this you needed a bigger, more complicated mixer with multiple gain stages.

German tube condenser mics and RCA ribbons were the microphones of choice back then and they are superb instruments that are highly valued in today's market.  But engineers from that time period thought they were finicky.  Their sound could change from session to session or even within a 3-hour session.  Transistor mics quickly replaced the better sounding tube mics because they didn't have this problem.
I concur w/ celtic66-
Agree with all of the above. Great tube equipment with people who cared about the sound. There is something very transparent about many of these recordings both classical and jazz. Like the Nelson riddle Capitol recordings from the late 50s. Fritz Reiner bartok recording from the mid fifties. But there are also great recordings being made now. The most recent Justin beiber record "purpose" is very beautiful sounding and I have a several great orchestral recordings of current composers music that sound transparent and beautiful. 

The point of the whole thing was different, too.  Getting a good reproduction of what was being played used to be a priority.  Getting the listeners' attention in a crowd seems to be more important now.  Different equipment, different approach, different priorities.
Say, wasn't that prior to the introduction of digital? No offense intended.  Lol
^^^ Its been said that digital bits completed the job started by transistors ... the ruination of reproduced music in the home.

Some of my most enjoyable (and best sounding) recording were never release in stereo. Good examples are Miles Davis' "Round Midnight,"and Brubeck's "Jazz Impressions of The USA."  Glorious sound and performances.  
Yes there are definitely very  good mono recordings. Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown is a prime example and one of my favorites.

All the above I agree with. But I am struck by the assumption implicate in the question, that newer recordings should sound better than older ones. In many fields, newer is almost always NOT as good as older. In Vintage Drums for instance, the most desirable and expensive snare drums are Ludwigs from the 1920’s. Not just because of their rarity and collectability, but because they sound better than newer ones. They were made in a way (I won’t go into the details here) that was expensive (they were over $100 in the late ’20’s, a LOT of money at the time), and the Great Depression brought an end to their production. No one has ever resumed making them the way they were in the ’20’s, certainly not Ludwig.

Microphones and other recording gear from the 1950’s and ’60’s is very desirable amongst recording engineers, and fetch high prices when sold. They often possess a sound quality rarely matched by newer gear, just as some (Many? Most?!) old recordings sound better than newer ones. Age or era alone is not the determiner of quality. I don’t understand the assumption that it is, could, or should be. A 1950’s and ’60’s Corvette was a far better car than the Corvette of the late 1970’s and ’80’s, when emission regulations forced a change in engine and exhaust design.

Contemporary recording equipment and technique is not necessarily about achieving sound QUALITY ya know. Not to mention the fact that recording engineers these days are too commonly somewhat ignorant practitioners in their field. I was at a session where a "school" educated young engineer placed an ambience mic right in the upper corner of the studio and recorded the sound emanating from it. The very spot we audiophiles put absorption because of the nasty sound that room corners produce! His "education" obviously did not include even basic acoustic theory or he would have known what that would sound like when recorded. Recording engineers of the ’50’s and ’60’s had learned their craft the old way---not in a "school", sitting in a class, but working as an apprentice, a "second" engineer, side-by-side with a master. They were in many cases radio engineers in World War II, and when they returned to civilian life went to work in early recording studios, before there was even such a thing as a tape recorder. By the time they were making those legendary great sounding 1950’s and ’60’s recordings, they were masters themselves. There is a fantastic documentary entitled "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music", in which Tom, engineer of many great recordings (as you will learn in the doc), tells us all about it. A MUST see, it’s available on DVD.

When lp records first hit, for many years great care was taken in regards to sound quality because it was a new and marketable thing and the sound is what helped sell as much as the performance.   The technology needed to make good recordings was not an issue even then.  

Over time  as the novelty wore off record product quality became more hit or miss much as it is still today.  

Also as mentioned recordings were all analog mastered largely with tube based gear which imparts a unique sound to recordings of the era preceding transistors. That makes most any recording from the time audio candy of a sort.  

Also so nowadays audiophiles have access to better playback gear than ever so you get the best of both worlds and old recordings that may have never had a chance to shine now can.  Remastered properly to CD and digital even. 
^^^ Agreed. Redbook CD's can sound wonderful if mastered properly ... as long at the hands are kept off of the reverb knob and the recording is EQed properly.  

On the early recordings from the mono era and the golden age of stereo ... I often wonder if the folks recording them really knew what they were archiving in those grooves. We have the high resolution systems to get the best out of the recordings, but did they? I know that many times after making an upgrade, I often wonder how much more information is contained in those grooves. We continue chasing it, don't we? 
The liner notes to the box set 'Sunday at Village Vanguard' where your set comes from (or maybe you mean "Waltz for Debby") goes into detail how the trio was recorded that day. The kicker is that it was done by a total amateur student. He knew nothing about recording, and it turns out he captured incredible sound. I'm also a huge fan of this set of recordings. May be the best sounding live stuff I've ever heard.
If ScottW is correct, his post makes this all the more intriguing because a student recorded this live work!

And yes, I'm talking about Waltz for Debbie. I must've been tired when I posted. Nonetheless, it is one of the best live recordings ever. 

In the 70’s I made some recordings of my Jump Blues/Swing band playing live, using a pair of omni condenser mics straight into a Revox A-77. No pre-amp, no mixer, no EQ, no compression, no limiting, no noise reduction---no nuthin’. Those recordings sound more like life music than 99.99% of my LP’s and CD’s. I use them to evaluate Hi-Fi equipment, especially loudspeakers. I also recorded solo speaking and singing voices, and those recordings are invaluable for ascertaining the freedom from vowel colorations of speakers. Electrostatics = excellent; magnetic-planars = very good to excellent; dynamics (cones and domes) = okay to very good; horns = not so good. Just kidding!

The sound on 50’s and 60’s LP’s are recording engineers of the time attempting to make "High Fidelity" recordings, capturing the sound of live music. The closer the sound of the recording to live sound, the higher the fidelity, of course. In the documentary I mention above, Tom Dowd is shown in the studio, walking around the musicians, stopping in front of each and listening. He then returns to the control booth, making adjustments to his recording equipment to make the sound in his monitors more closely resemble that of the live sound he just heard in the studio.

When I’m in the studio now, the engineer usually compares his recorded sound, not to the live sound in the adjoining room, but to commercial recordings, a/b’ing between his recording and a hit CD. It’s relative fidelity, not High Fidelity. The intent of engineers now is quite different than that of the guys who made the recordings "we" think sound so good. "Fidelity" is now a quaint notion, of relevance only to audiophiles. Hardly the target audience of the vast majority of record companies!

But the best recording engineers of today (Kavi Alexander of Water Lily, Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings, Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade, Barry Diament of Soundkeeper Recordings) are as good as any of the old-timers, maybe better!

Don't forget that recordings, starting about 1982, had digital involved.  Current digital might be much more acceptable, but I don't like most cd's until about 2000.
"How can it be that some old recordings sound sublime?"

How can it be that so many new recordings don't? 

Compression, auto-tune, Apple Inc......(insert long list here). ;-)
I think we can all agree that it's a shame.  I want to go back to some of my favorite modern recordings (I'll define that as those made north of 1990) to see if any compete with the one from the original post.  For instance, I always believed Clapton Unplugged was well done.  But I now need to go listen to see if it has the depth in soundstage, imaging, and if the notes/symbols, etc. hang in the air they way they do with the Bill Evans album.  

Unplugged  on vinyl does sound great exhibiting the attributes you mention. Cheers,
The problem on the early CD's was not the fault of the digital domain. It was the fault of the, I won't call them recording engineers ... let's call them "sound processing people."  I'm fortunate to have plenty of CD's cut from  master tapes with no added reverb and little if no EQ ... just flat recordings right off of the master tape. These include recordings that were made in the 1940's, '50's and 60's.  They are simply amazing. Comparing commercial CD's to these is like comparing a Ugo to a Ferrari. No contest.
Today I got a copy of Bill Evans’, Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Wow. This sounds amazing--not to mention it is just brilliant music all around.

The recording made me think that my system is just fine--if not fantastic (for me). I’ve been critical of my system recently, thinking it had some real shortcomings. The realism of this Bill Evans’ work makes me realize that it is possible my system is just revealing recordings for what they are--meaning so many are not well done and maybe my system is unforgiving with them.

When I listen to this recording, I think that I could take this hifi setup to a desert island and be forever happy as a clam.