Impact of recording/mastering studio?


Why is it that the recording quality varies so much?

Some are so consistently well engineered...Eagles, Joe Walsh, Pink Floyd, Allan Parsons, Tom Petty, Telarc, Robin Miles... but many are a crap shoot...sometimes good and sometimes poor.

Is it that some artists take a rigorous control of the sound of the final product while others allow each sound engineer/studio too much freedom? Or is time and budget pressures to get the recording out?
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Is it that some artists take a rigorous control of the sound of the final product while others allow each sound engineer/studio too much freedom? Or is time and budget pressures to get the recording out?
I'd say all of the above.

There is a saying in my business that is always true. Three adjectives can describe a project, but only two can be chosen: good, fast, and cheap. For example, the project can be good and it can be done fast, but it won't be cheap.

I'm sure this axiom applies to recording and mastering.
Some artists care more than others about the sound quality of the finished product. It may seem strange, but most pop/rock artists don't care at all. (for various reasons, I'm sure. Musician does not imply audiophile, to be certain). Neil Young, an artist that could easily rely solely on the quality of his songs, is a great example of an artist that really tries to get quality sound every time, too.
Three adjectives can describe a project, but only two can be chosen: good, fast, and cheap.

Tvad I could not agree more that this must definitely be part of the problem. Yet who controls this? Some artists,as TFkaudio points out, take control and simply demand quality ....no "fast and cheap", while others don't care.

What if it may be worse than a matter of care or speed?

I have heard that some studio producers deliberately mix for the "target" audience....FM Rock station radio for commuters (compress the music so the average playback will be louder)....nightclub music for the dance scene....or even simply styled for US versus European markets...or, perhaps worse, mixed to sound best on a mediocre car stereo!

How will it all sound on a precise audiophile system...is there any solution?
In my profession, there is a point of diminishing returns at which performance quality begins to get stale as one strives to improve production quality. There has to be a compromise, and many producers and artists will compromise technical quality for better performance quality.

Steely Dan is a good example of an excellent nexus between performance and production. Brecker and Fagan just wouldn't give up until they got it right, but even with these guys performance was paramount.

Of course, there are no absolutes.

or, perhaps worse, mixed to sound best on a mediocre car stereo!
When I was in college taking a course in recording techniques, we were instructed how to mix on cheap monitor speakers to better simulate the playback environment for television. Later, I did the same thing while supervising edit sessions for network TV. This was 15 years ago, however, and as audio has become a more important element in television things have changed in the approach to mixing for TV.
Go out a read a couple of issues of "Mix" magazine. You'll see that artists and engineers really do care about how their work sounds, it's just that they have different priorities than most audiophiles. Although it is not mutually exclusive it comes down to do you want to produce a hit record or something that sounds great on less than .01% of the music playback systems in the world? Don't applaud, throw money. Making pop/rock music is a business and the decisions made are made based upon shrewd, if sometimes cynical, business parameters.

BTW, there's no excuse for a bad sounding classical recording.
This may have been covered elsewhere, but what drives me crazy is the recent trend of unbelievably "Hot" mastering. Driving up the levels so much that their is little room for musical dynamics. But I guess it sounds better on the radio. I now that a lot of artists are asking for it to. "Why doesn't my CD sound as loud as the Futureheads?"

It may be hard for a mastering house to resist the temptation and it takes a savy artist to know that the end product will be better if its less hot.

-Karl
Although many valid points have been made, it is my opinion as a producer and recording engineer that the problem is that MOST artists, engineers, and producers do NOT know what the high end/stereophile sounds like. I do a lot of rock, pop, dance, and hip-hop, and I can tell you that the musicians and everyone associated with recordings really, really do care about the sound in almost every case. They slave for the best guitar tones, the most resonant drums, richest bass, fullest vocals etc., etc.. I find that they care very, very much about sound. But in most cases they are listening on mid-fi systems at best, and have never heard what a holographic soundstage with incredible amounts of depth, width, imaging, detail, and palpability are like. So it is like a person with blurry vision trying to paint a high resolution picture. Some of the aforementioned artists are known for their audiophile awareness, but they are the vast minority.

Often making an audiophile record does not take that much more time or money than making a poor one. It takes a little extra time and care, but mostly it takes an engineer or producer with audiophile ears to make the right calls with mic placements, choice of signal path, and mix decisions.

I believe that some artists are not even aware that there is a lot of variation in sound between their recordings. Heck, even Sir George Martin sometimes didn't meet his own standards with the Beatles: Strawberry Fields sounds awesome on a great system - listen to those cellos and drums! But other songs from the same time period or later are not nearly as well recorded (e.g. Penny Lane, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Hey Jude).

Everything I mentiomed is as it pertains to the recording/mixing stage. Mastering is another story.

Most mastering engineers are working with audiophile systems and want to make a recording sound its' best. But they can't take a stereo mix and add depth or detail where there is none. Also most are loathe to compress the hell out of a mix to make it louder (it's the subject of much consternation in the trade mags), but artists and labels with less than audiophile ears often simply just want it louder.
Great post Studioray. Thanks for the insider's perspective.

...it is my opinion as a producer and recording engineer that the problem is that MOST artists, engineers, and producers do NOT know what the high end/stereophile sounds like...in most cases they are listening on mid-fi systems at best, and have never heard what a holographic soundstage with incredible amounts of depth, width, imaging, detail, and palpability are like.

I believe this is true, and goes a long way to explain why some artist's recordings sound so damn good...recording after recording. Sting and Donald Fagen come to mind.

I have a hunch that these guys listen to music on very resolving systems.
Roger Nichols (Steely Dan/Donald Fagen sound engineer) own/use Meyer HD-1 monitors.

Hugh Padgham (Police sound engineer) and Sting own/use ATC monitors.