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48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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How “Perfect” Does A Recording Need To Be?

7:10 am Home Recording

Back in the 60s, when I first got interested in audio gear, home audio systems that were considered to be “hi-fi” (high fidelity) typically had total distortion values of around 0.1%. This was considered to be an inaudible level, especially in the light of research showing that distortion had to rise to 1% or more before most people would begin to notice it. So 0.1% distortion sounded “perfect.”

Despite this, improvements in electronic components and circuitry brought ever-decreasing distortion specs of 0.01%, .005%, .001%, and so on. Although nobody would complain about improved specs, we were pretty clearly past the point where any normal person could detect the results of still further improvement in the sound. It didn’t get “more perfect.”

It seems to me that something like this has happened to modern recording, even on a hobby level. Digital recording and processing gives us a 90 dB dynamic range. We record our tracks at 24 bits with a 96 kHz sampling rate. The frequency response is virtually infinite. And the distortion? Jeez, it must be down to 0.0000001% by now! Everything sounds perfect.

Then what do people do with our perfectly recorded songs? They download them as mp3 files and listen with earbuds. They play the CD in the car while driving and talking to friends. They listen on the computer. They listen while they run on a treadmill. What they don’t do is sit quietly and listen to the music on a “hi-fi” system while thinking “My goodness, this song has very low distortion.”

Pet Sounds

Even if the listener does notice how perfect it sounds, they may not like it that way! I remember the first time I heard a long-treasured Beach Boys album as a “remastered CD” instead of a record. It was pristine and crystalline, set against a black-velvet backdrop of silence. Each voice was clear and separated from all the others. The guitars shimmered and shone. It was awful.

The problem was that it was “too perfect.” Somewhere in the process of getting turned into 1s and 0s, all the magic had gone out of the music, leaving it lifeless. Maybe it was the isolation of the voices (they’re supposed to blend, it’s the freakin’ Beach Boys), maybe it was the bizarre immediacy of the sound (they’re not supposed to be here in the room), or who knows, maybe the super-low distortion was to blame!

I had read that CD mastering engineers sometimes purposely inject hiss, manipulate the overall EQ, or (yes) increase the distortion for certain types of music to make the final product sound more “real” and less sterile. After my Beach Boys experience, I can see why.

Lighten Up and Fly Right

OK, nice rant. But what does this have to do with your recordings right now, in the 21st century? Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not telling you to not strive for perfection, to not make your recordings sound as good as you can make them sound. I am merely suggesting that there is no need to obsess over unhearable sound-quality issues at the expense of attention not paid to the actual music.

I will sometimes read a poster on a recording forum complaining about having to drop from 24bit@96kHz all the way to 16bit@44.1kHz recording (so the computer can handle all ten plug-ins he’s using), as if such a “lo-fi” recording is hardly worth making and will probably come out sounding like one of Edison’s original cylinders. “It’s 24/96 or nothing for me.”

Balderdash! The lowest resolutions and sampling rates available on modern digital equipment can provide (literally) CD-quality audio that will sound great to everyone. The quality of the song, the performance, the mixing, the mastering - all of these are much more important factors than perfect vs. hyper-perfect digital settings.

So my general (cheap) advice is, lighten up! Don’t be fooled by those ever-lower distortion specs. Fire up that Radio Shack stomp box and put some hiss in your next rock-n-roll mix. Let the meters go into the red from time to time. Don’t worry about a little leakage between mikes. And feel free to record at 16/44.1 all the time. You don’t want your song to end up sounding “perfect,” do you?

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3 Responses
  1. Corinne Curcio :

    Date: May 20, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    I agree about not obsessing about the sound. It should be clean, no hissing, no distortion. Nicely separated instruments. Well arranged without muddiness.
    For myself, the only thing I really want to be as near perfect as possible is the vocal. If I record something a settle, that slight flat note will haunt me forever! I’ll hear it every time I listen to the song. I guess that’s the point - Don’t settle, but don’t go crazy either!

  2. Glen Atwell :

    Date: August 14, 2008 @ 10:01 am

    Thanks for reasuring me that I am not crazy in believing that the Old Analogue sounds, distortion et all were very warm and inviting sounds.

    I still play music through my vintage 70s Stereo with Paper coned speakers and whoopass big sized woofers and it does not shake my house like the Cars that drive by but certainly it does sound GOOD.

    MP3s are the name of the GAME for a generation with Cellphones stuck to their ears. How nice it is to hear music like its LIVE!

  3. Thomas Ausburn :

    Date: January 8, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    It’s great to hear that other people believe in Analog as much as I do. This is 2012, and me and my wife still use the YAMAHA MD4s Mini Disc 4 Track recorder for our music. When it’s all mixed down, I run it through a Tube PreAmp and sometimes through a 2 track reel to reel for a final touch up. The Mini Disc recorder gives us Analog Insert I/O and many routing options. If we had an old 1″ 4 track reel recorder, we’d use ONLY that. I think digital has gone far enough.

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