Recording 101

In ripping some of my classical music, I’ve re-discovered a simple principle of sound recording: if you want the quiet bits to sound quiet, make ’em LOUDER.

This is exemplified in a comparison of my two “O Fortuna” recordings. The one I first purchased back in 1994 is a standard classical recording in which the engineers try to faithfully capture the exact sounds of the orchestra and chorus. It’s disappointing because after the powerful opening chorus the levels drop to where you have to turn the volume up to hear what comes next. Then you blow out your speakers when the punchy bits come back.

The second is one I bought on iTunes, and it’s the “OperaBabes” recording. It’s classical music with Pop/Rock production sense applied. The opening is like a thunderclap, but when the ladies and chorus back off to hushed tones, you as the listener get yanked all the way onto the stage so you can hear them. In short, while the overal levels, as measured in decibels, stay within a much smaller range than they do in the first recording (up towards the TOP of the 90dB range of a CD), it SOUNDS like there’s more dynamic range. This is because you can HEAR the whispers.

There are obviously multiple schools of thought on audio engineering. Some audiophiles will tell you that the first method (leave the levels alone, and use the ENTIRE 90dB range of the CD format if the music has that kind of range in it) is better, because it’s somehow “purer.” Me, I’m about accessibility. Audio recordings are an illusion to begin with. A good audio engineer is a master illusionist, and will convince me, when I close my eyes, that I’m right there.


15 thoughts on “Recording 101”

  1. I’m of the opinion that if the dynamic range is there use it…. but your cd-player/reciever/whatever should be more than happy to (at your request) fudge the volume to taste.

    1. Good article there, I’ll bet the last Smashing Pumpkins CD suffered from that heavily. Loved every CD they put out, but all of Machina sounded exactly alike. Loud and harsh.

  2. I think I have the exact same version of O Fortuna… year sounds right, the sound quality DEFINITELY sounds right… does the CD case look like a Renaissance wine label?

    Goldwave is a good program to have for modifying classical music. You can isolate the quiet parts and raise the volume on them. It doesn’t take TOO long.

    1. ZING! That’s the one. “Naxos” is the label. It’s the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus in a 1988 recording.

      The OperaBabes version kicks its Slovak ass right back to Transylwaytooquietvania.


      1. How does one get the “Operababes” version.

        Hi, we met at linucon a few months ago and have been lurking your LJ for a while. Never felt I had much to add to the discussion b4, but THIS… This hits close to my heart. I have been searching for a recording of the carmina baruna that will let me hear the whispers but not blow up my speaks for YEARS. And you may point me to the end of my quest. Where howard, where?


        1. Re: How does one get the “Operababes” version.

          The album is called “Beyond Imagination,” and the track is called “O Fortuna (From ‘Carmina Burana’).”

          With this information you should be able to order it from iTunes for $0.99.

          If you’re worried about the proprietary nature of the iTunes store, don’t be. You can burn CD-player CDs from iTunes, and then rip them into whatever you’re currently using. Not that I DO this, mind you. I like iTunes and my iPod just fine, but it’s nice to know that I’m not trapped.


  3. Clarification: obviously this principle is one that merits moderation. Classical music has something like 10 times the dynamic range of pop music, and I’m not suggesting that it be reduced to the 5dB from the top of the range that most pop fits into. But there’s no point in using the full range unless you’ve got fantastic speakers in a great room. Face it — most of the consumers of your recording are going to listen on low-end (by audiophile standards) equipment, and the mastering must allow for that.

    I’ve recorded audiophile stuff before. The two-CD set of Bach’s “Little Organ Book,” plus all the chorales from which his organ pieces were derived, was an historic recording (first time all that stuff had ever been put in one place), and we used the full dynamic range of the CD. It’s a beautiful recording, and it’s almost UNLISTENABLE on most systems. You can’t here the chorale, and then the organ blows your doors off. A little nudge in the mastering would have made this recording more than an historical curiosity (I’d be RICH! RICH I SAY!) 🙂


    1. You’re right Howard. There’s stuff I love to listen to on the home system in a quiet house, but take that same recording into the car and the ambient noise drowns out ALL of the low volume sections. Which is a problem because the car is where I listen to *most* of my music these days!

      1. One acid test we had when I was an audio engineer — we always made a cassette-tape, and took it out to the car, went for a drive, and listened to it there. It’s AMAZING what kinds of things jump out at you from the middle of the dynamic spectrum when ambient noise kills the bottom end. We found lots of little artifacts that way, and always went back and tweaked things up or down accordingly.


  4. Yup, have exactly the same problem. With Carmina Burana and other stuff (like Saint-Saëns’ wonderful violin music Introduction et Rondo capriccioso). Not only that, but buying classical music these days, you always get to pick from numerous recordings and unless you’re really experienced (which I’m not), you’re bound to pick one of the crappy ones – because it seems 90% of classical music recordings do suck. I got a double cd with Poulenc piano and organ music for christmas, and although the Concerto for two pianos still sends shivers down my spine, the audio quality is simply not as good as it should be.

    Makes me wish the composers were still alive. I bet they wouldn’t stand for this awful handling of their music! 😛

  5. total agreement here.

    with all the amibant noise in my listening enviroments (car mostly), all the stuff I have that uses the full range I have to crank up in order to enjoy it, and then I have to turn it downbefore I blow the speakers with the rock track that follows it.

    1. I haven’t played with it, but I think the new iPods may support the song-specific EQ and Levels you can set in iTunes. That would solve the problem right there.

      All I know for sure is that my older iPod will NOT do it. 🙁


Comments are closed.