Recording quality by decade

As I've been listening to my records, a pattern seemed to emerge that prompted this question - did the recording technology advance significantly between the previous decades and the mid/late '70s? Most of the classic rock records I own pressed in the '60s sound like crap compared to the classic rock records recorded in the mid to late '70s.

My Cream, Doors, Led Zeppelin, Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix records, just to mention the biggest acts, sound awful compared to Pink Floyd, Foreigner, Supertramp, Kate Bush, Rickie Lee Jones, or Fleetwood Mac records I have that were released in the '70s (and '80s). There are arguably a few exceptions, such as good pressings of some of the Led Zeppelin records, but on average any record recorded and pressed in the '60s sounds just bad compared to most records from the '70s and '80s. All of the Cream records I have are just painful to listen to - muddled, veiled, flat, and essentially garage quality.

I understand I'm making a big generalization, but seriously, I can't think of one record from the '60s that sounds really good. This puzzles me as there is a plethora of superbly recorded jazz records from not only the '60s, but also the '50s. Has anyone else noticed this?
I can't comment on the rock recordings but the jazz recording quality is special from the 1950's-60's. The majority of mine sound exceptional from various labels, Comtemporary, Prestige, Riverside, Verve, Columbia and there're certainly others.Among the various labels they have there own distinct sound but all were very good.Fortunately for jazz lovers the current recordings maintain a high level of quality, they avoid the compression nonsense with rare exception.It's as though the engineers respect the jazz music and musicians and try not to muck it up.
At some point in the mid to late 60s studios replaced their tube equipment (consoles, microphones and processors) with solid state designs. Some say this was a step backward in sound quality. Starting in the 70s the newer consoles had more channels for recording and mixing and were mated with 24 track tape machines, which if needed, could be sync'd for 46 track recordings/mixing. Over dubbing/double tracking became the norm and real time recordings, at least for pop music, stopped. In the late 70s affordable high quality reverb/delay processors became available from EMT and Lexicon. If the 80s had a sound, it was the sound of reverb.

The biggest change really occurred in how bands used studios. In the 60s the earliest Beatles' albums were recorded in 2 or 3 days. By the late 70s and into the 80s some bands were taking nearly a year of studio time to produce an album.

Classical and jazz recordings never fell fully into this trap. For them you always had real musicians who could play a performance straight through playing together in a room. A decent sound recording room, a few good mics, spare use of processors and just an occasional overdub generally makes for a good sounding recording.
In all decades their were few great engineers that produced great recordings. They knew how to put the tape machines, mics and processors together an make outstanding recordings. Sadly, they never got the recognition they deserved.
That makes sense to me.It would seem that keeping the recording pathway simple and straightforward and avoiding the added manipulation is preferable. I'm glad jazz didn't succumb to the over processing trend.
I think its fair to say that recordings over the years have tended to continuously become more heavily "processed" over time, digitally in particular. Kinda like a lot of fast food. Also like we always seem to get new taxes and laws and few older ones ever repealed. Things tend to snowball over time. Luckily, there are many with the skills needed to tame it all. That's what makes technology a benefit and not a curse!

Myself, I have really taken a liking to listening to older recordings, most anything that pre-dates the 70's and the rise of the transistor and digital to replace tubes and analog.

The recording vintage has a lot to do with whether my main system sounds like tubes/analog or transistor/SS. That's the way it should be! I can appreciate it all when its good for different reasons. Listening to old recordings can be a nice "tweak"!
The jazz recordings made from 1958-1963 were, in general, recorded with better sound than in any other time period (amazingly, including even today). Modern jazz recordings do not have (generally) the stereo imaging of the classic recordings. Today they tend to center-fill each soloist and not have them in a natural position like they did in 58-63. Those older recordings sound more "real" and natural than most modern recordings. They had much wider sound stages with instrumentalists playing from their positions on the stage --- rather than centering each soloist dead center. That said, Nagel Heyer out of Germany records modern jazz well.
Everything said here makes sense.One thing to consider is that from the mid to late 60's into the early 70's there was a new generation of engineers to deal with the new technology.Most of the major label staff engineers were from earlier decades and well schooled in creating a recorded sound that was representative of what went on in the studio.Every label had their own "state of the art" stereo..."Stereorama" "Living stereo" the list goes on and the gimmicks were devoted to those records in those series.As the Rock music boom started to flourish many of these bands were in the studio all night,or odd hours that called for a different type of engineer to handle the task.The apprentice engineers,young and hip and eager to meet the responsibility stepped up and became the next wave.They developed the "ear" for recording this music,and as the technology changed,they quickly became the masters of the medium.The same can be said of the producers,as they are the ones who controlled the engineering path between the musicians and the engineers.
Major label enginners were still in white shirts and ties up until the mid to late 60's.You can see this in the film "Janis" where Big Brother and the Holding Co. are recording for Columbia in San Francisco and the producer, John Simon, directs the clarity of the performance with grace and understanding, and takes the playback controls to illustrate his point as far as a wrong key change.The engineer is seen in the back,out of the action,watching in his white shirt and tie and black rimmed glasses.
Of course,that is why we love Jazz,Blues, Roots music,Classical, there is far less between we the listener and they,the artist.
Although the technology changed,and in some ways betrayed the simple integrities of these musics,the passions of the engineers did not wane and the lessons of the previous generations were always held in high regard.
It is always the artist,the producer and the engineer working together with one vision to make a great recording.
Rock records are compressed to punch hard on car radios which is how rock records are promoted and sold." Full Range" = no pocket change. Classical and Jazz is played almost soley on PBS stations,some of which put out near-CD quality sound, which would be thought by many raised on I-tunes sound as" unnatural' .
That makes sense to me.It would seem that keeping the recording pathway simple and straightforward and avoiding the added manipulation is preferable. I'm glad jazz didn't succumb to the over processing trend.
If I were to generalize based upon my experience, Classical and Jazz recordings from the 50s up to 1980 are generally superb. I don't have a lot; but friends of mine that were deep into classical and another into Jazz had some outstanding mono recordings from the 50s. Some early Muddy Waters will keep you pinned to your seat. After 1980 digital mastering became popular. I have a few classical recordings that were made from digits. They sound pretty good until you put on an older analog recording and then the space opens up.
To me, the Beatles White Album (serialized pressings) from the 60s sounds really good; but in general, it seems rock from the 70s just never got to the level of Jazz recordings with some exceptions like Heart, Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton. He rocks. There are others too but I will still listen to many lower grade pressings for the music. I like ELP's early records but I swear at times I'm about ready to put a penny on my headshell. (Gasp!)
"Some early Muddy Waters will keep you pinned to your seat."

I have some newer CD remasters of early Muddy Waters tracks (mono) that sound absolutely stunning!

In general, I think I find that most GOOD modern digital remasters of old stuff like that sounds really quite excellent! It tells me that digital these days especially on a MODERN rig is capable of delivering quality sound that can rival the best recordings from the "golden age of hifi". ANd of course the original vinyl on a modern system in particular is capable of taking old recordings to new heights.

I've been comparing the sound of vinyl played on a TD 124 with SME Series III arm and Ortofon SME H30 cartridge with that of SACDs played on an Oppo BDP-105. Both sources are analog into a Cary Cinema 11a set to bypass. Specifically, the vinyl and SACD recordings of Jazz at the Pawnshop and Time Out sound remarkably similar, both having great timbre detail and soundstage. For me, the bottom line is SACD is easy, vinyl more fun -- I enjoy all the adjustment devices on the TD 124 and SME arm. Choice depends on my mood and purpose.

It wasn't called sex, drugs and rock and roll for nothing.
Before computers, smartphones and HT ate up all the consumer income, music and stereo were BIG business, rock records were made in the hundreds of millions in the 60's. Sound not a priority .
Watch the Dave Grohl documentary Sound City. It's a pretty good survey of how recording technology peaked in the 70s and digital did it in during the 80s and how pro tools leaves us now. Very good stuff.
there were good and bad sound engineers from 1950's uptill now, but in general the recording equipment today is WAY better than in 1950's.
"The jazz recordings made from 1958-1963 were, in general, recorded with better sound than in any other time period (amazingly, including even today)."

That was the time when stereo lps started to hit the market. Sound quality was a selling point and major labels touted their wares accordingly. It was a true golden age for music lovers. The sound quality possible was the culmination of many years of technological developments prior! Good sound gradually became a commodity after that. That's where we stand today. More good sounding recordings of a greater variety accumulated over time than ever, but not all can be winners. 50 years later, there are lots of good recordings and much better equipment to play it on than ever. No audiophile should be complaining IMHO. But have we hit the plateau in regards to how good a recording can sound? I suspect we may be getting pretty close, at least until someone comes up with a way to improve our ears as much as the stuff we listen to has improved over the last century.
As far as pop recordings go, one thing to remember is profitability of the record companies. Up until the early 70's, record companies signed artists to recording contracts where the artists had almost no control over payments, i.e. they were at the mercy of the record companies. Read about how many artists either faded from view or even became depressed to the point of suicide (witness Badfinger). In the early 70's artists became adept at gaining more control over record contracts, and as a result, began taking more and more of the profit. This left record companies looking for new ways to cut costs to recapture profits. One area in which record companies almost completely controlled costs was in recording, mastering, and pressing records. Since it appeared few people cared about how records sounded, there you have it. The recording quality suffered as record companies cut their costs and this is easily heard in the abysmal sonics in 70's and later pop recordings. This was exacerbated by the assembly nature of pop recordings allowed by multitracking technology. Yes, there are terrible 60s' pop recordings as in all decades, but it has been downhill since.

I don't know much about the realities of the music industry in the '60s or '70s as I am a child of the '80s, but I strongly disagree with you about the "downhill" quality of pop recordings after the '60s. Perhaps you'd need to clarify what you classify as "pop," but in my experience classic rock and pop records after the '60s and well into the '80s sound for the most part absolutely terrific. The superb quality of these recordings was the actual impetus for my original post. Pink Floyd is a good example of the incredible quality I hear on my classic rock records released in the '70s. Starting with "Meddle," the level of the PF pressings is simply magical. The cut-off point is "A Momentary Lapse of Reason," which was recorded digitally and it's obvious from the start, but we're talking 1987.

Same with Supertramp records. "Crime of the Century" or "Breakfast in America" sound insanely good. I have three copies of each from a beat-up $3 used copy to a mint MoFi and they all sound terrific. Kate Bush, who was a complete newcomer and teen in the late '70s, released her first album in 1977 and it sounds as good as analog gets. Ditto for Foreigner records. Ditto for Fleetwood Mac records after Peter Green.

Then take any Jimi Hendrix or Cream record. They seriously sound like a high school garage band in comparison. I love Cream, but when their records sound like played through a transistor radio, even the great music cannot save the experience.

Admittedly, I have not heard the Analogue Productions pressings of The Doors records recently released, which are supposedly amazing. All I know, however, is that my original pressings of a few records of the band I have sound just flat and lacking the dynamic quality of the records from the '70s and beyond.

What puzzles me is that Orrin Keepnews in 1961 was able to record and produce some of the most realistic live recordings in the history of music with a hand-held recorder. I'm talking of course about "Waltz for Debby" and "Sunday at the Village Vanguard." I suppose recording a jazz quartet is not as challenging as a rock trio such as Cream, but still the divide in quality is of monumental proportions.
Actusreus: I would classify recordings as pop if they fall into popular music categories such as pop, rock, soul, etc. And I would have to agree with you that the recordings you listed are great recordings, such as Supertramp, Pink Floyd, and others that could be on the list, including most A&M recordings such as the Supertramp. However, I have a lot of 60's recordings and they sound much more natural to me with a lot more resolution. Pop recordings from the 70s and 80s sound thin, bright, and compressed and I could name hundreds of recordings. I am not saying that there are no good recordings from each era, only that the average recording from the 60s is a lot more true to live music, especially because most are live to two track recordings. Try listening to any of the original Parlophone Beatles, for instance, or any of those earlier A&M recordings, such as Cat Stevens, or the Doors on Elektra. By the same token, you could argue that Rolling Stones records from the 60s are dreadful and you would have a point. But listen to a Bruce Springsteen LP such as Born to Run and you will see my point. BTW, I have heard several of the AP Doors recordings and I prefer the originals.
In the early days of stereo, engineers were unsure what to do with the extra speaker. Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a 4 track machine. By the 70's, 16 and 24 track recorders were everywhere, and solid-state electronics had finally reached a level of reliability that wasn't available in the 60's.
I find many "modern" jazz recordings still maintain the natural position of the musicians.Verve Records for instance is consistent with this. There are exceptions of course.
The late 70s was the pinnacle of hi budget, 24 track, pure analogue, major label recording...the music industry was making hand over fist taking years to record an LP in a proper studio was not unheard off...RUmours, Hotel Ca, etc...unfortunately...around the corner was 80s gated drums, synths, and digital was a short lived era....but a high point in terms of 70s sonics....
The equipment available today allows a talented producer and engineer to make high quality recordings equal or better than anything previously done. This applies to both analog and digital and is particularly true if the goal is for a purist type recording. There is a greater availability of first rate microphones, recorders, consoles and outboard processors than ever before. There are reasons why current day recordings don't always sound very good, but it's not because of the lack of great sounding equipment.
The biggest difference to me was BASS. Before the 1990's no Lps had much bass.. Even Briggs on organ, the bass just was not really there.
Once Home theater came alone, with dedicated subs,... suddenly everyone want BASS, and records/CDs started having bass.
Now even old reissued items have the bass enhanced.
To me this was the biggest difference.
(And naturally someone has ONE record that is old and actually had some midbass. Get over it. the vast maority had none.)
Elizabeth, I must disagree with your comments regarding bass. One word: IN-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
That was fun. Now I have to play it tonight. I have some 60s rock that sounds a bit thin; but several of my 70s and 80s rock has plenty of bass- even gut punching bass if I crank it enough. The bass in the mid 70s Heart albums is exquisite in my mind. It sounds natural to me, not overcooked. Now, as a reference, I don't always like the way-overpowering bass that I have often times experienced in blues bars.
I'll come off as a dick and tell you there is either something very wrong with your hifi or your ears. The records you cite as sounding "bad" are the best recordings I have ever heard. I'd suggest records from the 1955 to 1970 period sound way better than anything after.
a lot of good hendrix recordings are very tricky to get to sound good but once it does..........
If your comment was directed at me, I think we have a diametrically different concept of what sounds good. If you're telling me that Cream albums sound better than Fletwood Mac or Supertramp albums sound-wise, I cannot take you seriously.
Very good thread! Mapman,The best sounding Hendrix LP I have(and I do not have that many) Is an old beat up original pressing of ,In the West.
Nature of recordings then and now is similar to movies. Used to be simpler, more organic, and natural in many ways. The trend, with some exceptions, has been towards more complex. varied, and "processed". Think Cinemascope versus CGI. The good news is the older technologies and approaches are still available in newer forms plus new innovations occur all the time, so recording engineers have a lot they can and do chose from I would think. Of course, a lot is done certain ways because that is what sells. But there will always be niche markets for more specialized forms of unique art. DOn't worry, be happy! More fantastic recordings than ever to choose from and better gear by far to play it on as well. BEtter digital, better amps, better speakers, better wires. BEtter fuses? The list goes on....