Why do Classical CDs sound less Alive/Real/Present ?


Of course GIGO always applies but some of my CDs are on decent labels.
When I listen to symphony recordings as an example, the sound loses its presence
and sounds a bit like I am using a much lesser grade of equipment.

My system has all components in excellent shape as well as a good amount
of acoustic treatments. The room is not large at 16 x 14 x 8 + adjacent open kitchen
behind seating of 10 x 13,  so I am wondering if what I hear is just the nature of the
beast-ie. a lot of instruments going on at one time?

I seem to recall this has always been the case in other settings as well.

What say ye? 

gadios
Yes, I believe your answer is essentially correct.

What other kinds of recording do we have involving eighty various instruments in a large hall space?  

I bet recordings of classical chamber groups and soloists (e.g. piano) sound better to you.
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a lot of instruments going on at one time?

It's true, and modern classical production uses multiple microphones that are placed close to the instruments. The result is the entire orchestra recorded at full volume with no sense of space between instruments and no ambient sound.
Classical music (and jazz) in days past were recorded using minimal mic's strategically placed to pick up the sound of each section of the orchestra; eg, one mic for the brass section. The mic has a pickup pattern which is shaped liked a hemisphere and can pick up sound from the front as well as left and right side. This technique of mic'ing provides space and dimension between instruments.
There are also microphones placed high above the conductor and across the front of the stage to pick up the natural ambience of the concert hall. When the performance is mixed, there is a live feel to the recording. The soundstage has dimension rather than a flat close up sound.

Try sampling some stereo performances from the 1960s to early 70s. There are certain record labels such as Telarc who have always used the best recording techniques.

Or maybe you're not getting proper imaging due to the positioning of your speakers or room treatments. 
Too much absorbion on the wall behind the speakers will flatten the image, IOW there won't be any 3D presentation.
Try moving your speakers forward or farther apart. Maybe they need toe-in. 
My room is 12' x 16' and I listen to classical CDs. My digital playback presents symphonic music as realistic, spacious, and dynamic. Of course, some CDs sound terrible, and if the performers are over-mic'd the music will sound flat and congested.

Can you tell us about your system?

Some classical recordings are really bad -- shrill violins, and not very natural in general. However, some can be quite good. Try a few recordings on the BIS label, especially those with Ingo Petry as the recording engineer or producer. (He is a genius.) I’ll be surprised if they sound like you’re using a lesser grade of equipment.

The BIS recordings don’t always sound like an orchestra in a hall -- there is some spotlighting -- but to my ears they sound clean, clear, and well balanced, with natural timbres.  There are also good recordings from the 1950s and 1960s but the modern BIS versions, being all digital, have better pitch stability, among other things.
I recommend the classical recordings made by Donald Fine (Mercury Living Presence) using just one mic above the conductor. So the sound captured is what he heard. I like this better than the multi-miked approach - though good recordings (RCA Living Stereo) can result. London/Decca's mike "tree" was used quite successfully with Solti's Ring - a landmark recording!
Get some of the Mercury Living Presence CDs mastered by Wilma Fine! Far more natural sounding than the typical Columbia and Deutsche Grammaphone multi-miked affairs!
Choose ADD or AAD rather than DDD. And tubes over transistors. The Golden Age for recording was circa late 50s to mid 60s.

These all represent small variations or bandaids.

I stand by my original response.

I have long answered that a large symphony orchestra in full hue and cry is the hardest kind of recorded music to get to sound anything like the real thing in a typically sized domestic space with a stereo system, however good/resolving/full-range/whatever it may be.

I agree with the previous post of lowriders. I will add that I like RCA red seal recordings especially.

I disagree with Geoff Kate. I mostly prefer DDD recordings.

Not a fan of MLP old recordings.
The difference may be caused by different recording techniques. Pop, rock, jazz, etc. are usually recorded with the close mic (microphone) technique where instruments are acoustically separated from one another and microphones are placed close to the amp for an electric guitar or close to the strings of a piano. Every piece of a drum kit has its own mic. Electric instruments may even go straight into the mixing board instead of through an amp into a microphone.

This gives a very clear, crisp, detailed recording that may then be even further processed with studio equipment. Most people like this type of recording but some don’t. They say you lose the development of the sound of an instrument as the sound travels through the air, and the blending and natural reverb that occur when a band plays live. Adding artificial reverb to a close miced recording is probably the most common effect used today.

Classical recordings are usually done with a single mic or an array of mics (too much to go into here) capturing the sound of the entire orchestra or the different sections of the orchestra from some distance. They also try to capture the natural reverb of the venue where the recording takes place. So you get a very different sound than you get from a close miced recording. Modern recording techniques are working their way into orchestral recordings and, as someone mentioned, small classical groups may be close miced.

The classical technique tries to capture the sound you would hear at a concert. The close mic technique tries to get a "better" sound than you would hear at a concert, and if you’ve ever attended a rock concert you know why. The sound quality of a rock band playing live is usually atrocious.

This is an oversimplification but gives you an idea of the reasons for the difference in sound.
Thanks, @recluse. There are many good DDD discs, but they weren't produced well in the 1980's. Early digital was pretty terrible for classical music; technology was in its infancy and there was a learning curve for the engineers and producers. Certain labels were able to make quality DDD discs and most came after 1990... Decca, Telarc, EMI, Phillips. I like RCA Red Seal for consistent quality recordings over the years.
DG were terrible recordings in the 80s; over-mic'd and harsh. I believe their digital is still inferior to other record labels; they continue to use close up multi-miking. And their 1970s analogue recordings sound very dry.

I very much enjoy AAD and ADD recordings; ADD are often remasters which have cleaned up the older recordings. Sony Classical had success remastering the Columbia catalogue which included many excellent performances and conductors (Bernstein with the NYP).
And Mercury Living Presence should be in every classical fan's collection.


@tomcy6 , I agree. See my post for the non-technical explanation of good and bad recording techniques.
But I don't see any major labels returning to the purer, more organic way of mic'ing an orchestra. Although some  chamber music and quartets are very well done.

As @elizabeth stated, you shouldn't have to experience sitting in the front row of a symphony recording at home; all instrument sections up front and loud. 
lowrider57, I think between us we've got the OP's question answered.
@tomcy6 , no doubt. I'm at the point of flogging a dead horse.

I would like to know about his room and components. There may be ways to improve the performance of his playback.

I do believe the components and room treatment play a major role in determining SQ in classical music. If what you mainly listen to is other than classical, you’ve probably maximized your playback system to sound best with that type of music:  perhaps exaggerated highs and/or lows.  Classical music requires absolute neutrality of the audio spectrum since it utilizes the whole spectrum of overtones, especially in the orchestra.


Two things digital has problems with: sweetness and air. 
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This thread is a great and honest slice of the true state of what so many people’s systems actually sound like.

And this is Exactly what I mean when I keep going on and on that most systems are choked with noise and we don’t even recognize it.

Once again, please send me all your bad CD’s - you know...the ones with the shrill violins, the harsh highs, that were recorded DDD, that won’t play well with anything other than tubes, that were made with bad mic's, or were made in a certain decade - having tackled the noise beast, I'm loving them all.
Whether the recording is attention-deficit or dire-digital is beside the point.

1. Listen to any recording of solo classical piano
2. Listen to any recording of a string quartet.
3. Listen to any recording of a Mahler symphony.

Which of these sounds most/least like a somewhat convincing simulacrum of the real thing?

As the shampoo instructions say, repeat and enjoy.
Audiophile music is something I kind of hate. Its everywhere and used to demo very expensive stuff, especially on youtube and that kind of media, with 'influencers' busy influencing. Its invariably sweet, acoustic and simple. Sounds nice in the demo booths and does not stress the equipment.
 My systems must play Zappa well. I need to hear all the instruments and that needs something that can do that. My tube monoblocks driving Kef LS 50s do that just fine. They play all kinds of music well but detail is what I need, and get from this. I may need a subwoofer, but its not driving me crazy ... yet. ;)
Much of the genre is particularly difficult to get to record and sound realistic (e.g., choral music, opera, large scale orchestral).  The live setting of such music is particularly difficult to record because the venues are so quiet and the musical dynamic range is extremely wide (takes advantage of the quiet).  We hear live music in a close to ideal surrounding that makes home reproduction nearly impossible.  I don't think most people would really want the full dynamic range of a live performance--the quietest passages would be too soft for a normal home environment and the loudest would be extremely loud and difficult to reproduce; such recordings would be utterly useless for the most common ways people listen to music these days--in the car, or on the go in a noisy environment.

Recordings of classical music have always been meant to be a compromise between fidelity and practicality, and this is the case now even when it is possible to actually deliver a wider range. 

Most popular, non-acoustic music sounds like crap in a live venue and actually sound better in recordings.  Yes, the total live experience is more exciting, but, the actual sound, isolated from everything else is not so good.  That is not the case with classical, so the shortcomings of the recording/reproduction process become much more apparent.

I think many modern labels, such as Chandos, BIS, Harmonia Mundi, do a fair job or recording.  With some labels, the digital re-releases of older recordings actually sound better than the original vinyl versions which were mastered so poorly (e.g., 1970 DG).   Yes, a lot of recordings, including older ones, are brighter sounding than a live performance, but, I think the engineers are basically catering to preferences.  I hear a lot of comments about how certain recordings sound dulled on top, when they are not dull compared to a live performance.


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Classical Music usually isn’t mixed with the “Loudness Wars” mentality.  What may sound recessed and laid back to a pop oriented listener may actually be a more faithful reproduction of acoustic instruments in an actual space.  It takes a good system to do justice to most recorded CM, and it helps to be a discerning listener with experience of hearing live concerts 

If a system is not able to play all the info you will experience less of the soundstage. You can be in this hobby 40-50 years and never playback the entire real space/ real size of classical. It's there in the recording but when a system has signal blockage you're only going to hear what makes it through to your ears and body.

Michael Green

Don't shoot the messenger. There is a ton of music hidden within the CD format, including red book.I have cds that are easily 15 years old, that were some magazines recording of the month, that I found lacking. As my system improves, so does the music
Red Book CD's are my favorite source.
It's hilarious that they sold the public on cd's because they "have more dynamic range".  There is nothing that has less dynamic range than your average cd, probably owing to modern mastering practices.
" Classical Music usually isn’t mixed with the “Loudness Wars” mentality. "

Sir, you are mistaken.
first one needs a system that is fully capable of revealing what's on the bits. Most tweeters will have great difficulty as will most amplifiers
Over every xmas for the last 10+ years I play 2 redbook CDs Dianna Kall Xmas album and Sheffield Labs Xmas album. They never sounded as good as this year, and they sound phenomenal

Last night I dusted off Usher Audio 6 Key Elements to Contemporary Art, recorded in Taiwan. No date on the disc cover, but at least 15 years old. Absolutely mind-blowing

Usher made some great recordings. Thanks for the reminder.
I had lost track of this post and now would like to belatedly
thank everyone for their ideas and suggestions. I will try them all. 

What motivated me to ask this question is that when I play plain old red book CD versions of music such as by Hope Sandoval or Patricia Barber for example, the sound takes on a "Magical" quality with a great sound stage. The feeling I get when listening to these well recorded singers is what keeps me chasing great sound. 

So the essence of my original question is why, when I have many different classical CDs by assorted studios, do I get none of that same "Magic"? Debussy's Clare de Lune is the closest so far.

Anyone?
I still think that the difference is in the different miking techniques used for recording small groups and orchestras.
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I just transitioned from an OPPO to an Esoteric CD Player with external clock, I can say I have a greater appreciation for all of my classical RB collection. That said, my guess is that most players with external clocks will yield similar results - so brand may not be all that important.

In addition I’ve upgraded ALL of my cables - power and interconnects. This change delivered on the crispness of the sound. And, the sonic change from stock power cords in particular was night and day.

No idea what equipment you have - maybe its better than what I’ve described. For me, the quality of the recording is now less important than it use to be. Or, to put it another way, the equipment appears to help all recordings sound better.  Bad recordings are never going to be healed but lets just say the difference between an older recording to a new recording is now easier to accept.

The external clock was also no small change in sound. Just to make certain that I was not justifying a purchase by wishing a better sound, I has some local audiophiles do A/B comparisons with me. We all agreed - the clock made everything more realistic - and again the change was substantial - once we all agreed on what to listen for,  The clock made the instruments appear to have a more exact location in the sound stage.

Best of luck.