What do musicians want their recordings to sound like?

What do musicians want their recordings to sound like?

Steve Guttenberg here that this guy here is Alec sterling and we are in a precision sound it's right in New York City I've known Alex a long time so you know we have talked in advance about what we're gonna do here and I think the most the thing that I'm most fascinated by I want to know more about is the kind of questions that musicians or other people are asking you what they want their recordings to sound like you know and they may not be using the best words that describe what they sound like so it's is it's a back and forth definitely and the work of an audio engineer and a music producer is very much of that collaboration and I think music in music in general is about collaboration and so figuring out how to communicate with a new person each day to understand how to give them the results that they're looking for excuse me many different people come through the door and they all have different expectations of the recording and music making process and so their language is all very different and the ideas that they have or the sort of vocabulary that they're using is highly variable some people have a lot of experience and some people have decades of experience in professional music making and they know exactly what they want they're able to articulate what they're looking for sometimes they even tell me what to do in a very specific technical way some people are completely lay people they are interested in they want to make music they don't necessarily know how to do so they're looking and looking to me to kind of show them the way so there's a really a full spectrum and each day I have to kind of learn who's in the room with me how should I choose to communicate with that person how do I interpret what they're saying but like what kind of questions do they have sure so mostly I wouldn't say that I'm getting questions from people it's more I'm getting instructions or direct okay so people would say I wanted to send like a reference record for example if I really love these records and there's something about this you know X Y Z artist or this particular song that I like the treatment of something that could be something like the vocal reverb they could say I love how this vocal sounds in a space and can we do something similar to that or it could be sort of an emotional instruction like I I like things that sound kind of distant and old-timey they evoke a feeling for me um let's try to make it sound more sort of lo-fi or quaint or let's try to make it sound period in some way that's definitely an instruction I get but then there's other people that say oh I hear you know it needs give me one decibel at 5 kilohertz please so there's people who have technical language there's people that sort of have emotional language it's if it's a band how does the dynamic work in terms of so there's four guys or sure people or six people yeah and they're looking for different things yeah and how does that work it varies but what I've seen is pretty consistent across the groups that I've worked with is there's usually kind of one band leader who kind of is it's the airport to their project and they're kind of leading the show or they're kind of the band defers to them in some sense and everybody of course weighs in and has input but there's usually kind of one or two people who are sort of either they're the songwriters or they're the singer or you know the lead instrument and they kind of seem to have the clearest sense of what they are looking for and then the band kind of generally sort of gets behind that a little bit now it is music making may involve many people but oftentimes people are sort of working together for one person's project so in some cases there's a clear hierarchy like the singer and songwriter they are the ones calling the shots and everybody defers to them but I usually try to get people to kind of come up kind of agree amongst ourselves what you want the adjustments to or what you want the goal to be and then communicate kind of one set of information to me so for example I'm doing a mix right now for a client kind of like a bluegrass band there's five or six people in the band plus a producer and I asked you know please get all your comments on the mix together in one list and I can assess you know how to interpret that as opposed to getting five or six different yes instructions yeah me louder exactly there's always always more me yeah drums are allowing them spaces and loud enough keyboards not loud enough well that that's why we make everything loud okay thanks everybody could get what they want we're gonna get there that's that's why can compression was invented yeah but seriously but that what are the things like what what do baseball just start with that bottom there so what a bass players want other than more bass yeah well they definitely do want more bass but I think what bass players sometimes want is the sense of volume and energy and now Kay and that is and clarity like definition to the notes that's a depending on what the part is of course you know some days if you're just playing a root note and so a whole note all you have to do is feel the rumble of it a little bit but if there's a highly rhythmic part with a lot of sort of you know nuance and a lot of rhythmic interaction getting definition to that is something that is always desirable so sometimes the bass player might actually ask for treble because that's where the finger sound is so sometimes you might get unexpected questions but it's the job to kind of also anticipate based on what I'm hearing you know what might the person request and what are they looking for and it's also an injury it's a there's an interplay with the content so different content might have different kinds of requests and singer more reverb more reverb you you know recording a voice with a mic two inches from the person's space is kind of always an odd place to put a microphone on somebody we don't we never hear anybody say anything just two inches away really and we certainly hope they're not shouting at us from two inches away so microphones always pick up both flattering and unflattering sounds from a voice and so sometimes a singer might be responding to something in their voice at amber or a texture or an edge or and they want to kind of control that a little bit more like a shriek for example hopefully I've done my job and I've gotten rid of all the ugly stuff before I've even sent it to them but you know usually reverb usually can you make it a little warm you know warm this term warm that we we love and hate gets thrown around a lot usually singers either love themselves and they want to hear more of themselves so make me louder yeah or they are very insecure and they say I don't put me back in the track you know beriberi me in the track so I mean it's it's tough being a singer you know you're putting your heart out and you know exactly but well what would happen if you recorded the vocal from a foot away well then it wouldn't sound very good unfortunately unless it's opera and then you'd want be 10 feet away okay okay but but describe how it would be less good if it was not two inches from the lips sure so there's so much subjectivity to how we've come to hear music and sound over the different generations of recorded sound and so we never are actually listening completely sort of anew to anything we're always thinking of that sound in the context of what we've heard before and so we've come to expect the sound of a pop vocal recording to be extremely intimate present and and clear and when he put a microphone a foot away from a voice that clarity depending on the microphone of course in the recording environment and the recording equipment that clarity might start to diminish the more distance you get away from somebody you can lose a little bit of that definition in presence there's more air between you and the microphone that can softened trouble for example that can smear a transient that can create a more ambient sound and for popular music which is a lot of the music that I work on hyper definition hyper clarity is desirable so we actually are using you know three different compressors we're using lots of treble boost in the cue or getting the microphone close to the singer all these things are trying to make that voice sound as close as possible but of course it wants to send pleasing so what you say because I am the audio philia yeah is it try to capture the true sound of the singer in this case is not the primary prime director I don't know if anyone actually wants the truth there is there is stuff to be enjoyed about the truth okay sort of a high fidelity high accuracy recording of a sound can be pleasing but we don't make records to capture the truth we make records to create an ideal and art is almost never about the truth it's more about some idea of what we wish was the truth and so in recording at least in most of the content that I worked on I have no I have no interest in capturing what was in the room I'm only interested in capturing what the artist wants to sound like so that the old cliche that the audio files love to repeat over and over again is I want to hear what the band heard in the room yeah the band doesn't want to hear themselves in the room it wants to hear themselves but bigger and badder and fuller and richer and more exciting you know a perfected version yeah because that's how they're imagining it they're in their creative imagination um they sometimes they might want it to sound more like something that they've done in the room for example like with electric guitar a lot of guitar players like the sound of the amplifier when they're right in front of it because the amp itself is this very loud speaker that has a lot of bass and it's full its rich and it's an interesting and challenging instrument to capture that size so sometimes you might I do listen like for example the subject of communication I'm always listening to what people are telling me they're looking for because I might adjust my techniques to try to give them more of that but first I have to understand well what are they actually looking for are they do they want the sound of the amp in the room that dominates the whole band or do they want the sound of that amp fit into the space that's available in the arrangement so do you do have ambient mics running previously oftentimes and not necessarily to add reverb per se because the recording space that I work in most is pretty small it's not a huge space it's a maybe sixteen by twenty five foot space it's pretty it's pretty dead it's not a big Church or all those ambient mics are not necessarily about creating a sense of bloom to the sound it's more about just creating those sort of localization cues okay and so that's where a lot of the room mics that I use get used most and then I'm also adding our official River before that extension that for that sustain for the excitement but room mics are very useful and you can do fun things to them like delay them or pan them or distort them work and what about for the sound of drums because you don't have a booth right so in the new space that I'm constructing there's gonna be a large isolation room as well as the main live so I'm envisioning that I'll put the drums often it often they'll be in the isolation room so I'm gonna get more control but ambient mics on drums are a great way to get more sustained because with that distance some of the transient edge of the sound gets a little softened and some of this sort of the sustain component the hits is more emphasized and then if you add compression to that and you abuse the compression you can get a really great make right sound exactly Wow whoo no so other things should be abused by the way oh really yeah someone once told me we tend to have the most fun when we get outside of our comfort zones and I think that also does sometimes apply to audio equipment when we push it beyond its normal limits that's why we like the story exactly in fact now distortion has become such a popular thing that we're choosing equipment because it has a particular known and appreciated distortion quality right so at least in the production side of things maybe in the playback side of things were less interested well you know you know it's interesting that Nelson pass yeah past lives and he makes the first 20 amplifiers and the first one amplifiers he's like yeah I'm gonna add some second harmonic distortion I like that sound it's a nice flavor yeah so instead of saying no I'm making a mess with the lowest possible dose or I'm actually adding some yeah good people like that yeah and if you don't like that he makes other amps that don't do that so you know they each have their flavor and their sound so yeah that's kind of like the other side of what you're talking about so what about you have what you have a grand piano in there right yeah there's a Steinway Oh which is sort of a baby grand piano so and recording that and I mean in other words you it's your instrument so you know what it is sure with when an individual piano player wants from the sound of a piano that varies substantially depending on the genre there's sort of three general approaches to piano that use depending on what the context of that instrument is in the music one would be to mic it very closely right on the hammers to get the most sort of note definition most treble the most base that would be sort of the biggest most in your face sound and how it closes the mic in them and the three four inches from the hammer is two of them spaced over the place and runs the third points depends on where in the piano they're playing but I might Center those mics kind of around the range where they're playing to kind of focus on those particular notes the second is kind of just immediately outside the piano kind of in the crook of the piano that's a little bit more appropriate for jazz let's say or perhaps something that's not like the first position overriding the hammers that's much more common for rock or for very intimate jazz maybe pop as well where you want kind of a more compressed forward piano sound and my piano can sound more like an upright piano when you get closer to it so I use that more further the pop projects where you were actually not bright piano might even be a preferred instrument but for jazz you're kind of immediately outside the instrument or you're kind of just inside the instrument over the soundboard more then four classical I would get much further away from the piano actually I've set up more room mics I'd create try to get a more ambient distance sound which is kind of more referential to the Canon so as I said earlier you know there's a subjectivity to how we want to hear different sounds in different genres and we also have a kind of a cultural memory of different sounds with that we associate with different genres so if I have a classical pianist in the studio I I know automatically they were very unlikely to want to hear the mics on the Hammers wears they have a jazz pianist they're probably not going to want to hear it from 20 feet away they're gonna want more definition more clarity for their rhythm so all these things are kind of part of the discussion and and also communicating it's important sometimes people come in they say something that might contradict my expectation and so then it's a whole interesting discussion about what is their thought process behind that and again we do whatever whatever we're told and we we try to make everybody happy thank you working for them yeah exactly you don't tell them with their records it sound like not really I mean we can we make suggestions and people who come to work with me come because they trusted I bring value to the project so they they do want my input but at the end of the day it's always about you know satisfying their creative vision did we miss anything about this thing about artists and what they want artists just want the music to sound good and make them feel good okay yeah so we try to do that okay that's good my name is Steve Guttenberg my guest today is Alec Stirling at precision sound in New York City we're going to do some more videos this is gonna be the first in a series so stay tuned for those in the coming weeks see you guys thanks for watching


  • HistoryAmazigh says:

    Really really interesting video ! Thanks to both of you Steve & Alex

  • Justin Parkman says:

    so only George Martin new what the beatles really sounded like and us Audiophiles think we new what they sounded like .

  • Nick N says:

    Great interview Steve, thanks very much.
    Do you happen to know what those monitor speakers on the stands are?( the ones with the orange cable and white tweeter surrounds )
    Maybe it wil be in the next part of this interview.

  • David Olson says:

    This is a terrific interview. Sometimes get close to the truth but no one really want’s the raw truth. Hmmmmm…..,

  • MrPeeBeeDeeBee says:

    Art is the lie that helps us understand the truth. – Pablo Picasso

  • Chuck Finley says:

    I enjoyed the engineer’s discussion of mike placement and the proximity effect.

  • trellusg says:

    So awesome! I loved this, an inside peek…

  • Michael B. says:

    I hate complimenting Steve. But this was a kick-ass interview,

  • Andrew Meates says:

    Interesting interview.It would seem that the Quad catchphrase (closest approach to the original sound) or High Fidelity is no longer what it's about. If it sounds right buy it I suppose, voicing or coloration is king; nice ATC monitor speakers at the back there !!!

  • Perhaps says:

    I have a lot to say here:


    Pertaining to bass players:

    "All you have to do is feel the rumble of it a little bit."

    Alex should have been challenged on this.

    When the band is playing, is that what they hear from the bass guitar — just a rumble?

    Or do they hear clearly defined notes?

    Why should the bass be reduced to a rumble?

    What is the problem with keeping every instrument well defined?

    How does the actual bass, coming out of the guitar, that sounds glorious, turn into a rumble?

    Why even play a bass guitar. A toy MIDI box, from Walmart, can add all the rumble Alex's heart desires.


    "And singer?"

    "More reverb"

    That is unfortunate.

    You would think that singers, good ones, would have lovely voices, and would want their lovely voices to be left unmolested.

    Yes, there are times for reverb. But that should be the exception; not the rule.


    "Hopefully I've done my job and gotten rid of all the ugly stuff…"

    How is that accomplished (without butchering the recording)?

    If a sound is in a recording, then it must be "processed" in order to affect a single aspect of it — but that processing cannot 100% isolate anything; it cannot be done without adding its own distortion.


    Pertaining to: hyper definition / hyper clarity:

    "We are actually using 3 different compressors" / "treble boost in the queue" (Argh!)


    Compression is the Kryptonite of audio clarity.

    How can an unmolested recording become better than it is, by compressing it?


    "I don't know if anyone actually wants the truth."

    There, my fellow critical audiophile listeners, is the crux of the matter.

    There, my fellow critical audiophile listeners, is the problem.

    We have audio engineers, who actively and deliberately, degrade sound quality.

    And after the 13 minute mark, Alex really opens up, smiling away, at the virtues of "distortion".

    (like a chef bragging about burning food and over-salting everything)

    Alex knows how the equipment works. But that does not make him suitable for the job at hand.


    "We (meaning Alex) makes suggestions" (to the artists).

    My suggestion is to find a different engineer, before Alex auto-tunes your creation into a sonic mess.

    Steve, you might as well take your cue from Alex.

    Going forward, please add reverb, boost the treble, and add 3 levels of distortion to your videos.

    I gave this video a thumb's up, based on you providing insight into why our recordings too often lack depth, width, slam, leading edge, separation, and above all, realism.

    We now know why we hear an engineer at a mixing board, with all of its artifacts added, rather than hearing an otherwise pristine landscape.

    It is interesting that Alex's studio has wood floors.

  • Jerome Mc Kenna says:

    Sound is sound people understand this with photography they need to understand that recordings are not a 'record' they are an artwork.

  • Raoul Duke says:

    News flash folks dynamic range DR5 doesn’t sound good! I don’t like RMS levels <=10dbs I’m sure others will agree. I can’t listen to that kind of music on my rig it sounds ugly thick heavy collapsed soundstage you name it. Can we get some dynamics back I’m not asking for it to swing all the way to the way things used to be. Can the music breathe? Please?

  • Thomas Wachter says:

    I produced my own recording when I was 20, and everything turned out just the way I wanted it to be. The engineer was awesome and he knew how to mix well. I was so fortunate to have this engineer.

  • PROJACKED says:

    Man this guy's voice is deep…

  • Mattias Sjösten says:

    This was most interesting. This is my takeaway – so if we want to recreate how it actually sounded once it was recorded, that's one thing, but if that's not what the artist wanted it to be mastered as well thats a losing battle 😀 not changing much for me since i still want my system to sound as good as it possibly can. The part of microphone distance was also interesting, because from what i heard before, a certain distance, some air between the mic and the singer was required for a realistic sound. But again if they're not interesting in the truth why are we?

  • Steve March says:

    What a great piece Steve. So enlightening. Thumbs up for this!
    Now we can all go back to just playing our recordings the way that we like them to sound… Instead of chasing the elusive soundstage and tembre someone else thinks is more accurate.

  • Jamie Smith says:

    90% of musicians must want their music to sound like doo doo, because it does. I would be embarrassed to be an audio engineer and put my name on all the trash out there. Any musician with any popularity has the ability to change the industry but don't unfortunately.

  • Gustavo S says:

    Congrats Steve, one the best interviews in the audio press

  • Marcus Latuske-Hearl says:

    I really enjoyed this one….. 👍🏻Great content

  • Mr. Rude says:

    Can u make it sound like I recorded it on my mobile phone only more dry, flat and much louder

  • John Clancy says:

    Great to get this connection… I think I made this very point a few weeks ago, the last things pop rock musicians want is the truth / actual sound in the room. Classical, jazz and maybe folk music would align more with that audiophiles stated goal, but rock musicians usually want to sound way “bigger” than real life. Then when they play live, they are attempting to recreate that “fake” studio sound, and usually fall short. Colorized Speakers and Sonics are not always a bad thing, if pop or rock is what you want to hear.

  • donald chisholm says:

    Very interesting interview Steve. One of your best

  • Plutocracy Now! says:

    Hmm…didn't see one interesting artist on his list of clients on his website. Looks like a bunch of pedestrian dreck.

  • Rohit Rao says:

    Really informative episode! I was blown away to learn that the musicians don’t even want “accurate” sound. This makes me believe “soundstage” might not exist on these recordings and I might be having false expectations from my own systems.

  • Wolfgang Pointner says:

    finally someone it telling the truth to audiophiles, I am a musician and this guy tells it like it is, 100% true.

  • e james says:

    how does an entire generation just "give up" on electric guitar?I don't get that. It used to be that electric lead guitarist's were like gods……

  • e james says:

    Sterling Sound,
    Edgewater, N.J.

  • Douglas Blake says:

    The closing comment about people wanting to express their artistic selves is probably not very true anymore… like everything else the music industry has been consumed by greed where what an artist really wants is to bring in the big bucks but struggles to do so after various distributors, producers, managers and services all grab chunks of the money.
    About the only place I hear real music anymore is from the guy in the park with his guitar or the garage bands that come and go around town.

  • Bill Kenney says:

    There are artists and then there are artists. The names have been changed here a little but here goes. Lets call the facility The Mastering Lab in LA. Famous for lots of things, now under a different name and management. It was the place to record if you are a headliner in the music industry.

    Then there is the “Bitch” Artist. First name Barbara last name starts with an “S”. Intolerable , unmanageable, unforgiving. But she has a fan base that buys her recordings regardless of the fact that in reality she’s a “Bitch”.

    So one entire Studio in The Mastering Lab had to be totally rebuilt to her ever changing requirements. Yours truly had a distant part of that in that The Mastering Lab reached out to folks to help them with the kind of wiring they needed to satisfy the sound that “The Bitch” wanted.

  • Tuxedo Max says:

    I’m now a subscriber because of THIS, thanks Mr.G

  • Jim Shaw says:

    This is exceptional, almost stellar. Alex knows his stuff, walks the walk every day, and even better has the vocabulary and thought process to express it. Here, he explains a lot about our starting point as listeners to recordings. I'm looking forward to hearing a lot more from him.

    Your questions were well chosen, too.

  • John LeBeau says:

    Guitarists are always concerned about their "tone". Most have a a signature tone which could change from song to song. I've played my solid body through my stereo completely clean. The sound is flat, uninteresting, mechanical noise of fingers or pick on the strings is unpleasantly intrusive and the effect is generally boring. Distortion, even if it sounds clean, is desirable. Distortion, known as natural reverb, is why you like to sing in the shower. Perhaps he should install a shower in his studio for the singers. When I embraced single ended triode amps so many years ago, I knew at the time that they were laughably high in distortion (mostly second harmonic, if you want to hear a second harmonic, listen to the first guitar strum in Yes's "Roundabout", strings forced to vibrate an octave above their natural frequency), but they sounded oh so right. This was such interesting interview, and it tells me that "accuracy" should be banned from the audiophile vocabulary.

  • Lee Dingle says:

    Very interesting interview.

  • DigimaxPhoto says:

    I cud a used a bit more cowbell!

  • Tony Harrison says:

    Very enlightening Steve. I'm excited to hear that more of this type will be coming in the future and look forward to it. I'd be most interested in the opinions of today's recording Engineers and who they believe are some of the currently best Recording Engineers (such as Jim Anderson) and past (such as Rudy Van Gelder and David Baker) and why. Thanks

  • IMMO Lab says:

    So no accurate reproduction?! Who would have thought that artists want to simply impress your soul with that final presentation , to pull you emotionally into their subjective universe So rude not to be more concerned about accuracy and audio gurus sensibilities . ..
    Great insight, thanks for the interview!

  • Norman Maslov says:

    Why are many record compressed and loud as hell? The new Rick Rubin produced Santana has great music but sounds loud and terrible. No dynamics and all Squashed. The CD is horrible and the vinyl only slightly better. Hey Rick RUBIN WTF? They must notice

  • Scott Lowell says:

    So, you didn't lecture him about the inferiority of class D amps, like those on his powered monitors?

  • Steve Guttenberg Audiophiliac says:

    I shot three more interviews with Alex, on monitor speakers, compression, and reverb! Look for them over the next few weekends.

  • Chris Bishop says:

    Very good interview, Steve. A very good view from an audio engineering perspective. Thank you 👍

  • JL Main says:

    This is an awesome interview Steve! Alex is very articulate and thoughtful. Most people don’t understand how much effort goes into recording a given artist. Many times the artist themselves have little understanding of the process and it’s possible to go through a career and be unhappy with the music that you put out and struggle to name a recording of your own that you think captures your own vision.

  • paul davies says:

    A very honest engineer no BS straight talking

  • Doan Trinh says:

    Steve can you do more of these videos? Audiophile equipment reviews are great and fun however videos with audio professionals in design and recording are truly in need. 100 thumbs up!

  • Thorn Matthew says:

    These days… they want to know how much auto tune can I get away with?

  • Lynn Poole says:

    Good one Steve.

  • Cheap & Cheerful Record Collector says:

    Great interview, maybe your best !

  • John Doe says:

    "You can't handle the truth!"

  • William Sharp says:

    One of your best & most informative videos ever. 🙂

  • Ryan A. says:

    Steve, why the video with Susan (not sure if this is her name) in which you addressed the topic of "Synesthesia" was removed?

  • Carlito Melon says:

    Added to Favorites!
    Wow, audiophiles take note: Accuracy and Transparency are not the goal for his clients:
    We can build our systems to sound good and make us feel good:-D
    Steve: can you find classical, baroque and jazz recording engineers to interview?
    I find myself more drawn to their more natural sounding work 😉

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