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How Can All Recordings Sound Good?

By December 5, 2012No Comments

What Is Good Sound?

I am in and out of full time and project studios almost every week. All the engineers who I speak with thinks that their sound is good sound. How can this be? They all sound so different to me. They all have different rooms, monitors, microphones, you name it. Does all of it qualify as good sound? The answer is that there is no such thing as “good sound”.

Many Different Monitors

Each recording is played back on different monitors. Monitors are as different in sound from each other as are microphones. Obviously, small monitors sound different than larger ones, but controlling for size, we still have many different sounds from many different manufactures no matter what the size. Some monitors are active some are passive. One can even hear the difference between a two way and a three way. The monitors add their own sonic signature to everything.

Separate Speakers

A lot of times engineers use separate speakers for playback and recording. I have seen them using separate speakers for recording, mixing, and listening. I see large full range monitors used for monitoring recordings and then see the recording played back on a much lower quality sound loudspeaker for mixing. If you go to the engineer’s home, you will see an audiophile playback system. Is this good sound?

Different Rooms

The rooms in every studio in which the recordings were made are vastly different. Full time studios have dedicated rooms. There are separate rooms for drums and separate rooms for vocals. The nice thing about the dedicated room is that you can tune it over time to achieve the sound you are after. One can learn the room sound after recording in it over time and thus find the correct microphone positions within the room. Only trial and error over an extended time will find these locations.

Too Many Choices

Smaller project studios which are limited on space must make do with one room performing many functions. One room must record vocals and instruments. This is never welcome. Vocals and instruments require different approaches to room acoustical treatment. I have even seen one room that was the control room, vocal booth, and drum room all in one room. Is this good sound?

Good Speakers / Good Sound

Are today’s speakers up to the task of producing good sound? If good sound is so different because of so many variables, maybe we need to look towards the speaker’s performance as our good sound indicator. If we examine the frequency response curves of each different speaker manufacturers, we see different response curves. Some have attenuation in their curves to compensate for room boundary effects. Some mid ranges are more forward than others. Is this good sound?

Headphones Only

Why do engineers who record classical music use mostly headphones? I have never seen one use monitors during the process. I have seen them using monitors when they do a final or close to the end playback. They are always using headphones. Does this process make for a good recording? Since classical engineers use headphones, should they be our new good sound reference. There are many who think this way.

Playback / Recording

Should we have separate playback rooms within our recording studios? Should that help us with producing good sounding recordings. Is there a playback standard sound quality we should strive to record for that will have a great sound in a playback system, hi-fi or otherwise? Do we need to produce a recording that takes into account the environment that the recording is to be played in. Would this approach give us a good sound standard to go by. Who is John Galt?

Room Sound

Every room I am in has different levels of room sound in it. Most professionals have a basic understanding of acoustical treatment but most do not completely understand the impact of room acoustics in their mixes. They continually live with and work around this resonance or back wall delay issue without dealing with it from an acoustical perspective. Ask any engineer what issues he or she is having with the room and they will tell you in great detail. Ask them what they have done to resolve those issues and you get a blank stare or an explanation that will not come close to a remedy for the sonic issue.

Low End Issues

The low end of most rooms blurs and smears the mids at certain frequencies and at those frequency harmonics. Most engineers work around this elephant in the control room. Is this part of the process of achieving a good sounding recording? Are we supposed to work around something to achieve something else. Maybe in other parts of life but in recording and playing music, we have the technology to deal with these issues. We have the capacity to solve these resonances. The recording should be about the music and not the room.

Middle And High Frequencies

Middle and high frequency reflections from all room boundary surfaces are present in almost every studio I have been in. These reflections have to add their own stink to the mix. We have reflections from side walls, a rear wall, and don’t forget about the ceiling. We have reflections from the console and equipment that we must use to perform our craft. These reflections must be delayed in time and strength to minimize their impact at the monitoring or mix position. Every studio uses a different approach to this treatment. Is this good sound?

Opinions Vary

The term good sounding recording is a little like an opinion. Everyone has one but most are different from each other. The opinion is based on that individuals experience and frame of reference. It is highly subjective. We need a “good sound” standard to be established and then adapted by all to raise the sonic bar to a certain level and then we can exceed that benchmark by producing a new term with no standard: “great sound”.


I am a structural engineer as well as a master furniture maker. I design cabinets for low frequency, activated carbon absorbers. Connect with me on Google+

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