What are the characteristics quality recordings?

I've been pondering what differentiates a quality recording from one that is mediocre. To me, good recordings transmit a realism of performance, have clarity, and reproduce the dynamic range of the artist(s) and their instruments. Good recordings also allow the emotionality of the music to be felt, IMO. Mediocre recordings do not do all or parts of the above. I ask this question in order to broaden my understanding of reproduced music.

That leads to my two part question:

1. What do Audiogoners believe constitutes a good recording? That is, what are the sonic qualities of an excellent recording?

2. What are examples (specific CDs or records)of recordings that reflect your answer to #1?

I think another part of the equation is the arrangement of songs or segments in the recording. To me a good recording unfolds something like a well written story.It has something to do with tension and congruity. An example of a bad recording in this respect and in my opinion are those Best of compilations where someone has decided to throw together what they consider to be the best efforts of a given group or artists. I suppose it is not an entirely fair criticism because obviously if a group or artist have been recording for a long time the sound quality of individual tracks will vary considerably. But what I find more difficult to listen to are the way these selections are set together. To me there is almost a disregard for the work they represent, and I find this often enough that I could dare say it. It is almost as if the producers of these arrangements are saying that because the whole of these selections were popular that it really does not matter how they are thrown together. pretty trivial? I suppose. I am suprised to write that it does matter to me as criteria for well presented work.
As Timf says, the sequence of selections can be very important. This is most evident in the area of Classical music. How would Mozart's Jupiter symphony go over if you played the movements in reverse order?
From the responses you have gotten so far, I'm confused as to what aspects of the recording you are talking about. As far as the technical aspects go, I think one of the characteristics of a quality recording is that "the original dynamics of the music are preserved." A common problem with many recent CDs is that the music is normalized, compressed, etc. to make the playback volume as loud as possible. This enhances playback on portable players, jam boxes, and car stereos. However, it ruins the natural dynamics of the recording. You can look at a song with a PC using a wav file viewer, i.e. Cool Edit Pro, and easily see if this type of modification has been made. If all of the peaks throughout the music are at exactly the same level, it has obviously been modified (unless it is because of a drum machine, etc.)
For myself the answer is simple. The performance and the quality of the music's reproduction, combined with my appreciation of the music, causes me to ignore completely what my system is doing and I become totally emersed in the music. I really can't identify just one set of recording practices that cause this to occur as different techniques can render excellent results depending on the music itself. Simple mic'ing on solo instruments, multi mic'ing on large groups, etc. If I had to pick just one technical issue though, I'd select dynamic's. I'm not fond of any type of compression.

One such recording is Faure's Requiem, in its original version, by Herrweghe on Harmonia Mundi. The simplicity and shear beauty of this music defies listening to the audio aspects of my system.
Considering the sonics that make for a good/excellent recordings of acoustic music, I find the following characteristics important, in the priority listed:

1. Natural frequency response with accurate timbre and harmonic balance. There is no absolute correct tonal balance because in live perfromances this will vary all over the place depending on the instruments and the acoustic environment where performed. But, unnaturally equalized recording that hype the bass response or other portion of the frequency range won't make the top of my list.

2. Immediacy and transparency - the music must sound direct, natural and alive, without a layer of sonic gauze between me and the instruments; more often found in minimally processed recordings and recordings with simple and direct recording chains. Many original pressings fail this test for me, notwithstanding a certain tonal allure some of these may have.

3. Dynamics - the recording captures dynamic shadings cleanly, and delineates the subtle micro-dynamics that are critical to making the recording mimic a live experience (even more important that the absolute dynamic range on a macro scale). These subtle shadings of volume are what make the music come alive, and are often obscured by overprocess in the recording or mastering chain, or by the playback system.

4. Soundstaging - the recording captures the soundstaging laterally and in depth and recreates a natural and believable acoustic space in which the performers exist. (Yes, I'm one of those soundstaging freaks.)

Some of the recordings in my collection that exhibit these characteristics, and which I value highly for that, include the following LPs:

Stravinsky Firebird, Dorati, Mercury SR-90226 (Classic Records 45rpm reissue)

Stravinsky Petroushka, Danon, Chesky CR42 (Readers Digest series reissue)

Bach Suites for Solo Cello, Starker, Mercury SR3-9016 (Speakers Corner reissue)

Schuller Seven Studies on a Theme of Paul Klee, Dorati, Mercury SR-90282 (Speakers Corner reissue)

Shostakovich The Age of Gold Ballet Suite, Martinon, RCA LSC 2322 (Classic Records 45rpm reissue)

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, Borodin Qt, Decca SXL 6036 (Speakers Corner reissue)

Kodaly Hary Janos Suite, Kertesz, Decca SXL 6136 (Speakers Corner reissue)

Ravel Works for Orchestra, Skrowaczewski Analogue Productions APC 007

Italian Violin Music 1600-1750, Banchini, Klimo OW 002

Musique Arabo-Andalouse, Paniagua/Atrium Musicae de Madrid, Harmonia Mundi HM 389

La Spagna, Paniagua/Atrium Musicae de Madrid, BIS 163/164

Carissimi Jephta, Collden/Angby Kammer, Proprius 7840

Tarentule-Tarentelle, Paniagua/Atrium Musicae de Madrid, Harmonia Mundi HM 379

Louis Armstrong, St James Infirmary from Satchmo Plays King Oliver, Audio Fidelity ST 91058 (Classic Records 45rpm reissue)

Count Basie, 88 Basie Street, Pablo 2310-901 (Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue)

Bill Berry, Shortcake, Pure Audiophile PA-002

Bill Evans, Know What I Mean?, Riverside 9433 (Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue)
Damn, Rushton! That was excellent! It is awful to admitt but I do not think I have ever heard anything approaching proper soundstaging. Everything I have heard always seems a little larger, little smaller than what I imagine the real thing sounds like.
Hi Timf, thanks for your comment. As to reproduction of size, I tend to differentiate that from soundstaging in my own listening. For me, soundstaging is about relative positioning in the recreated acoustic space, and a natural rendering of the instruments in that space: do I hear instruments spread naturally across the stage and in depth, or are instruments jumping around due to spot miking or is the soundstage totally flat due to excessive use of multi-miking, inept capture of stereo imaging or excessive processing that has destroyed phase relationships. (Some folks talk about height here as well, but that's not a hot button for me.)

Some great examples of excellent soundstaging on recordings, and recordings that make it very easy for others to hear exactly what one is talking about in this regard, are:

    Holst "Savitri" with Janet Baker, Argo ZNF 6 (In this wonderful recording, listen to the entry of the husband at stage far deep right and listen to his voice as he moves across the stage and then up to the front of the stage. Also listen to the voice of Death at the far left rear of the stage. On a good playback system, the spacial location is precise and specific as the singer move around the stage.)

    Allegri "Miserere", Tallis Scholars, CFP 40339 (The Scholars split into two antiphonal choirs in this recording, with one clearly in the far distance of the church in which this was recorded. If you have someone who claims not to understand what is meant by "depth" in a sound system, or how sounds can be behind the back wall behind your speakers, play this for them.)
"Size" can refer to size of the soundstage or apparent "size" of the instruments. In a favorite recording of mine, the Starker Bach Cello Suites (listed above), Starker plays a cello that appears to be 6' tall. The close miking really makes this instrument sound oversize. And yet, when I listen in a small room to a live solo cello, and if I'm sitting right up close in the first row next to the performer, this LP is not far off from what I've heard live in these settings, notwithstanding what I might otherwise imagine it should sound like.

In LP playback, I've found that different cartridges make a big difference in apparent size of both instruments and soundstage. These variables have made me somewhat more tolerant of the "size" issue.

Best wishes,
WOW - Some excellent responses to this post! Thank you.

I would enjoy hearing from other people regarding their views on this topic - particularly on what cds or albums exemplify a good recording in areas of music such as rock, jazz, etc.

Thanks again

I've always wondered, Bufus, why I have to turn Pearl Jam CD's WAY DOWN when I play them. They are so much louder than my other CD's. Is that due to "normalization, compression, etc..."?

Or just maybe the Ed Vedder honeymoon is over for me... sigh.

Thanks Rushton. Perhaps I will check your recommendations out. I obviously have difficulty describing what I hear so I appreciate the clarification.
Rushton has hit it spot on! My listening biases are oriented as his are toward classical and jazz vinyl. Music that is well recorded, that preserves the space and natural harmonic overtones of the performance, dynamic swings, and the leading edge transients that give you what J. Gordon Holt calls the "goosebump factor" make you forget about listening to your gear and allow the music to wash over you.

That being said, I think his list is a very good example of recordings that do just that. I would add that the example of Holst's "Savitri" on the Argo lable is a great test of your system's ability to resolve placement of the voices on the stage. The male voice moves down and across the stage as the recording progresses. Janet Baker's voice in this recording is so liquid and involving, if your system is up to the task, you will be completely immersed.

I would also add Stravinsky's "Firebird" on the Sheffield Lab lable as well (Lab 24) a direct-to-disk recording with Erich Liensdorf and the Los Angeles Symphony. Recorded in one take in a large recording studio, this recording as enormous dynamic swings, with some of the best recorded drum whacks I have ever heard. Great performance as well, maybe not quite as emotionally involving as the Dorati/Mercury, but well worth seeking out.

Respighi "Church Windows" Reference Recordings 45 rpm

Miles Davis "Kind Of Blue" Classic Records 45 rpm reissue.
I am very partial to the "Flamenco Sketches" track.

The example of Starker/Bach "Cello Suites" is wonderful in that while the instrument itself is so closely miked, and the cello seems huge, it is intimate at the same time. The acoustic space in which it is recorded is well delineated, and you can sense and feel the subtle shifts of nueance in the various parts of each piece. You can also detect Starker shifting his position in the chair as he plays.

Recordings that are so faithful to the performance, that make me forget I am listening to a "hi-fi", that paint a visual image in my head of the players spaced across the stage in front of me, that gets it done for me.

There is a wealth of fine reissues ou there right now, that while a little pricey (for the LP), represent the golden age of jazz and classical recordings at their best.

Regarding cd´s;

I wrote this on another thread:

Considering a CD takes 2secs to press ( including cooling ), and the ´master-copy´ looses detail on every press ( can take 2-10K of cycles ), your lucky if you get one of the first ones off the press, as the rest will decrease in quality. Buy two of the same CD, play them, chances are good that they will differ in quality.

Serious press-companies/Labels runs with a new master in Very short cycles. Getting better quality sounding CD´s.

The first ones off the press sounds just astonishing!

Also, I just get scared when knowing that a lot of studios plays with a simple transistor-/household-/car-/megaboom-stereo
for reference/mixdown-reference. Because they know that there´s were the music will be played the most. They make it sound good on those thus they know that will sell them more records. Scary and Ugly, but true.

I'm confused. Why does the master copy lose detail? Maybe I don't understand the process.
I keep waiting for examples of compression in cd's, very few responses other than the general comment, "most cd's are compressed, blah, blah, blah", no specifics. Also, don't you think classical and jazz music has much more dynamic variation than rock. While some rock starts out slow and quiet, then takes off, I think many more classical pieces and jazz can start out very quiet, then reach louder crecendos, and quiet down again, you know quiet passages/then loud. The rock song usually maintains the same beat/volume througout the song.
Ok Bufus;

They make copies.

Process: Very tiny plastic granulate is poured into an "oven", there it is melted, poured onto a small platter and just before the plastic sets again a "master-copy" is pressed ( mirrored ) over the platter. Takes about 2secs, and then the plastic has the master-copy´s "grooves" in it ( to small to see with eye ). The "almost-cd" then is lifted out and a thin aluminum foil is placed over the "top" of the unfinished cd ( for laser to be reflected in, just like a mirror ). After that a "empty" platter of plastic is glued onto the "bottom" of the cd, protecting the "grooves". Finally a thin layer of laquer or print is placed on top of the cd. Thus the "top" of the cd is the most vunerable part of the disc. The "music" side is protected by a 1mm plastic layer.

Each time a press is done over the melted plastic, it WILL damage the master-copy. However the damage is minute, but after 20000presses you would have lost 5-10% of the original state. Not much - but as guessed, very audible.

I have ordered some of the music mentioned by Rushton and Slipnot & look forward to listening. Thanks!

I've observed something in recordings that appears to be related to compression in relation to Wildoat's question. My amp has a meter that reflects the input from the source, so I have a visual measurement of the CD input on each channel. An example of a not too compressed CD is the Dead Can Dance Spirit Chaser. The volume of the music on this CD is quite varied on each cut and the meter "needle" of two channels often move in unison, but often not in unison. The level of the input varies tremendously throughout most of the CD cuts, as does the volume. This seems to produce a solid emotional response. I also see this variance in the Dire Strait's Brothers in Arms, The Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session, and even in Ysaye's Solo Violin Sonatas, where there is only one instrument. To me, these CDs don't sound as good on my car stereo as that of others, such as Sheryl Crow.

Sheryl Crow's "Very Best of.." CD on the other hand has very little meter variation, except at the beginning and at the end of each song. Indeed, both meter "needles" are pointed to the maximum throughout most of her songs. I tend to adjust the volume dial of my amp down with CD's such as this, and ironically, I find the music to be less pleasing at very high volume. Personally, I am not moved by her music, and this might have a relationship to the compressed and altered "mastering." On my car CD player, Sheryl Crow sounds good - lots of bass, good beat, and I generally don't expect much else.

From the perspective of compression alone, these seem to be examples of good versus not so good quality of recordings and of how this interact with our components.

Great Post Rushton.....Thanks.
Rannagarden, thanks for the explanation. I have never heard how it was done so I just assumed that it was similar to the the consumer CD-R burner process but with higher power laser, etc.