How can you tell a recording's quality?

Is there a good way to tell when an album is poorly recorded? I recently asked about a hiss that I found a handful of songs, and it sounds like these songs were poorly recorded, compressed, or had poor dynamic range. Is there an objective way to determine a song/album quality, or is it a matter of simply listening to it with the equipment you’re confident in?
Or could there be a resource that covers common producing problems?

The most “objective” way may be this compression database: https://dr.loudness-war.info/

However, music production involves a lot of arbitrary decisions by the creators and audio engineers. Sounds are processed and transformed 100 ways before a song is released. Compression is often essential to make all the pieces hearable, but it can be butchered or done well.

The realistic way to determine quality is by experience and by ear.

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This.

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I typically cycle the song among the phones I have here. If it sounds “bad” in all phones, then I have my answer. It takes time though.

This. :point_up:

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It can get tricky because a well recorded album can sound worse when it’s been subject to post-production tweaks, such as mixing. Remastered versions also affect the sound, sometimes for the worse.

I’d recommend choosing a favorite album, one you know well, and going to the Steve Hoffman forums for commentary about the quality of different releases, getting them, and comparing them to see which you like. I’ve done it with Led Zep releases and have found the experience fascinating (the skinny is that the late 80s and early 90s CD releases of the albums - not the compilations - were the best, for me).

It should be added that different masterings etc can be offered for different formats and releases such that some releases that are otherwise compressed and subject the abject horrors of the loudness wars can sound better on vinyl, for instance, than they do on CD or downloads/streaming. This can work in other directions, though, and some vinyl is simply made from dodgy digital masters, not the analogue originals. You have to be very careful.

You can hear differences in releases on Qobuz. It can be frustrating because you have to check to see which version you want to bookmark or add to your playlists.

I see from you Crackle and hiss thread that the music you mentioned is from the last 20 years. It may well have been subject to loudness wars compression. I’m not sure if there are drastically superior or inferior recordings or releases of those albums. I could be wrong. But I’ve not noticed much difference in alternative rock or hip hop albums I’m familiar with.

I found this analysis fascinating:

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Never with Michael Jackson though.

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Yeah I never notice it when listening to older jazz or blues. I’ll make sure to find what year it’s from.

There isn’t really a single objective standard for this because ‘well recorded’ doesn’t mean anything.

One person may think a very clean classical recording is well recorded while another may think a totally virtual EDM production sounds well recorded.

Within that range of program material we do have something more stable than subjective impressions however - relative correlated data points. Here are a few that coincide with audible effects:

  • clipping. Hard digital clipping generally sounds bad, across almost all but the grungiest most experimental lo-fi or scratchy old video game music. This is pure distortion from overly loudenating music. See: KT Tunstall ‘Into the Telescope’ or Meldoy Gardot’s ‘My One and Only Thrill’ for examples of this gone REALLY wrong. Thank the loudness wars.

  • dynamic compression. This one is overwrought by audiophiles, as what they’re generally referring to is overly limited material from the loudness wars. Before clipping, dense passages will collapse the soundstage and sound gross and artifacty. Like above but just ‘less bad.’ Compression itself is a useful tool for making records and not to be confused with extreme dynamic range limiting for loudness purposes.

  • Recording/Tracking quality. What mics were used? Where were they? How did the space sound? What equipment was used to record? How was the performance? How much comping was done? Often no one thing is critical here, its more about the aggregate. The CSO playing Ravel under Bernstein in a huge hall with the best mics and engineers money can buy versus Billie Eilish on a UAD apollo in a bedroom. Both can great results, but the layers add up.

  • production. Sometimes the production isnt meant to sound crystalline or pure or detailed. Sometimes its supposed to be grungy and murky. Or swimming in reverb. Or bright and thin. Context is important, but I try to listen for whether the mix and production job fits the genre. Classical music generally sounds off with heavy delays, artificial reverb, flanging, etc. Heavy Rock would sound odd if it were super gently EQd and not heavily compressed or mixed. Bluegrass would sound weird if you took the top end away and hard panned it. etc.

  • processing amount. Whether analog or digital, more processing degrades quality, but adds something in return. With analog it adds noise and coloration which can be pleasing to a certain degree, and with digital you get precision but a gradual ‘shittifying’ effect with too many plugins. Most of the great mixes of the past (and present!) are simple and not overprocessed. Do only what is necessary to make the music sound amazing and genre appropriate. I have true master copies of some legendary old tunes (Bohemian Rhapsody, Runnin With The Devil, More Than a Feeling, etc) and the general minimalism is astonishing. Young mix engineers dont learn this stuff nowadays.

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Back as a teen, we recorded our first 5 track “album”. As we didn’t have the money for a multitrack, or anything similar, we used a cd player and a cd recorder (back before PC CD burners).

We played the backing track, then laid a vocal while recording to another CD. Rinse and repeat for 5 vocals, a DJ, backing vocals and some other stuff (we were a hip hop band) and we ended up with over 60 layers, per track!

You can imagine how that sounded :smiley:

(Edit to add: yes, it would have been cheaper to buy a multitrack)

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@Grover you beat me by 8 hours lol. Right on the money, sir.

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