What Can We Really Deduce From A Recording?

This from Jonathan in anoher thread. Sorry pal, I’m not picking on you, but it did make me wonder…

There is so much advice, predjudice, myth, and downright nonsense in this crazy recording world of ours, I thought it might be interesting to discuss what we can actually deduce from any given recording. Can we really tell if the compression ratio on the vocals is too high? Can we say with certainty that the bass below 100Hz is reduced to mono? Can we conclude with certainty that the singer has had some help with pitching?

More importantly, when we understand exactly what we can’t tell from listening to a recording, will that help to understand us what is important, and what is not important in the recording process?

I’ll start with some obvious - but important things that I’m sure most of us can discern:

  • Errors of pitching in timing (or lack of them).
  • The presence of certain effects such as reverb, delay or - of course - automatic pitching (absence of effects is not so easy to identify)
  • Panning and the stereo image
  • Loudness (by measuring)
  • Spectrum (initially by analysing but it gets easier to tell by ear over time)
  • Incorrect levels - the ‘acceptable’ parameters are wide indeed, so when something is outside them, it’s quite obvious.
  • Instrumentation - i.e. we can tell whether it’s a guitar or a kazoo. (Although we can’t necessarily tell if the instruments are virtual).
  • Diction. Some might say diction is subjective, but I always go by the yardstick that if I can’t understand the lyrics, then the diction is crap (assuming the vocal can be heard well enough).

So you don’t like music that’s not sung in English?


It’s a discussion about what can be gleaned from a recording, so it would be good if we could keep on topic.
To answer your question, I didn’t say that I like or dislike music based on the language it’s sung in, and I didn’t even mention the word “English”. I said that it’s possible to make a call on the diction. That applies to any language.

?? Each recording is too different to ever be able to generalize like this. You simply can’t paint every recording in the world with the same mechanism for discernment, as they do not all share the same properties TO discern.

And I don’t see how you can make a call on WAS important without knowing the context, the application, and much about the particular source. I could easily have affected the final product weather you’re aware of it or not.

Being unable to tell which preamp was used, does not make the subject of preamps irrelevant. It might make the choice of a specific preamp overall less important than the overall choice of a guitar amp, but that is far from makes it irrelevant.

Maybe, maybe not. In a radio or live to air productions where a board operator makes a mistake…you’ll could notice. And if a ratio isn’t too high per se, but is inappropriate for the source, you could hear it. The ratio is sometimes and is sometimes not set incorrectly based on the way the other parameters on the compressor is set.

What you seem to have stated is that if something is not distinguishable in a final mix, that thing must necessarily have been inconsequential to the process of how you arrived at the final mix. Basically if you can’t hear it, it didn’t make a difference.

This doesn’t work intuitively. The structure of the argument itself isn’t sound unless you establish that the end result was not affected in any way by the process. You have to divorce the process from the end result in order to argue that the process (which mics, preamps, rooms, etc…which are part of the process) had no affect on the end result.

An example is that you might not be able to deduce there was a floating floor and staggered stud wall with a OITC rating in the 60’s. Your inability to specifically point out that in the final recording does not mean you are not hearing its contribution to the final product.

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This may actually come down to world view, but there are a lot of things that are essential to the finished product of anything, that are relatively unimportant to you. (And me of course).

But to constrict our defintion universal essence by what you or I can’t tell personally, don’t think is important, or can’t consciously identify, seems to make’s a pretty narrow view of life.

You can’t taste arsenic in your food but its still pretty important to not use it as a cooking ingredient.

No I’m just morbidly prejudice against people who have a lisp. lol. ;p

I was already thinking of a cooking analogy when I read this. And it’s on topic in a philosophical sense. :wink: The ingredients and techniques you use when cooking or baking something may or may not influence the end result in a noticeable way. My understanding is that in baking the specific process is much more important, as not enough of this or that or yeast etc, baking temperature and time, will not rise or settle properly (maybe some studio analogy there?). In cooking you can be very creative with varying a recipe or just making something up to see if it works.

So whether you used butter or margarine or olive oil, and the butter was warmed rather than cold before adding, or a tiny amount of some spice was added, it could be really hard to tell whether any of those things really affected the end result in a meaningful way. On the micro level I would think that “everything affects everything” in a subtle and nuanced way, but on the macro level where the taste and consistency matters our senses may or may not be able to detect a difference.

The point being that how each ingredient is initially prepared is kind of like the musical performances, the combination of those ingredients is kind of like the mixing process, and the final touches (salt, pepper, temperature adjustment) before serving are kind of like mastering. Only through experience and careful experimenting could you tell whether changing one thing or another makes a significant difference. And some of it will ultimately be “taste” :slight_smile: and personal preference, or even superstition that something really matters or not.

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I apologise, that’s not what I’m saying.

If I hear a particular drum sound in a commercial mix, and I want to emulate it, I have to use whatever is at hand. I’ll be thinking to myself “I bet I can get pretty damn near to this sound”. It seems to me that in the same circumstances others may be thinking “oh no, I don’t have a million dollar drum room so I have no chance of getting near this sound, so I’m not even going to try”.

So what I mean is, if I can’t specifically hear a million dollar drum room in the mix, then I have no idea whether one was used or not. All I know is, I’m gonna try to get there using what I have - including my knowledge and skill.

You’re on to something here. There’s a question of the ingredients, then a question of process. Then there’s an overlap where the process is a result of the ingredients. An ingredient (salt) is not a process (like oven temp). Process is not equipment, but equipment can affect a process. Process (or workflow) alone isn’t relevant as far the end result is concerned, but when it changes an end result it is.

My point wasn’t so much that the small things add up. What I was trying to say is that your own personal conscious ability to say “that is a remo pinstripe doubly ply head on the second rack tom” does not mean there wasn’t sufficient reason for SOMEONE ELSE to have used that particular drum head.

You know, really there’s also a difference between
"I can’t hear it, therefore it doesn’t matter", and
"I can’t hear it, therefore it doesn’t matter to me"

Then we jump to
"I can’t hear it, therefore it shouldn’t matter to you either"

I suppose you could counter argue saying that “What you hear doesn’t matter, because the public doesn’t know any different anyway, and they listen on shit speakers”. That’s a red-herring, and quite a ways off from the question of what we can deduce about gear from not being able to site every single source of sound on a mastered recording.

Maybe we rephrase the argument:
“If I can or can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter because I couldn’t afford it anyway, so fuck everyone that can”. Hahaha. I’m sorry. Just had to say that.

Maybe we rephrase the argument:
“If I can or can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter because I can afford it, so fuck everyone that can’t”. Hahaha. I’m sorry. Just had to say that.

Then we jump to
"I can’t hear it, but it matters to me so it should matter to you too"

I’m trying to get a debate going here about recording methods and techniques. I’m talking about analysing a stereo recording to see exactly how much we can definitiely identify, and how much we have no idea about. I use reference tracks a lot, and so do many others. If you understand what it is possible to understand/identify when referencing, that could save a lot of time, effort and tears.

[quote=“AJ113, post:8, topic:1557”]
I apologise, that’s not what I’m saying. [/quote] DOH! Them damn straw men get the better of me sometimes.


If I hear a particular drum sound in a commercial mix, and I want to emulate it, I have to use whatever is at hand. I’ll be thinking to myself “I bet I can get pretty damn near to this sound”. It seems to me that in the same circumstances others may be thinking “oh no, I don’t have a million dollar drum room so I have no chance of getting near this sound, so I’m not even going to try”. [/quote]

Ok. Completely fair. That makes perfect sense. No problem with that whatsoever. My question is if you don’t have a million dollar drum room, and you know exactly how to get that sound, why not GO RENT a million dollar drum room for four hours? Instead of being ‘pretty damn near’ the sound, just nail the sound right dead on the frickin head? Its only 4 hours.

Our knowledge and skill are greatly applied to the scenario either way. I’ll bring the same level of my own personal orchestral mic technique skills to a multi-million dollar studio as I will to a shitty local high school auditorium. But the same orchestra, with the same players, in the A-room at East West is going to sound better. It just has to do with the way orchestras sound in rooms.

I get that some instruments are minimally effected by the room. I would never rent a large studio to overdub a tambourine. And there’s no conceivable scenario (in my opinion) where it would make a difference. With orchestras is always makes a difference, but with drums…sometimes I very much doesn’t. Pianos…benefit from fancy rooms, but not quite as much as drums in my experience. Sometimes so little that they may as well have been tracked with Ivory or Addictive.

Ill bite on the original post…

Because of the way algorithms in reverbs have developed lately I don’t know if its possible to tell where exactly it came from. That cheap little Redline reverb and the Fabfilter can be tweaked to sound an awful lot like a high dollar lexicon, and sometimes be even better for the track.

I also don’t think I could tell some imaging plugins apart from each other. Take an Eventide H910 vs a Roland Dimension D, I can tell them apart on my own mixer, but if asked to identify from the other in a final mix, I doubt I could.

This is interesting thinking about it. I’m pretty sure I could tell an all PSP or all Fabfilter recording apart from an All Waves one because there’d be stuff missing from the first 2. Like…if those are you only 3 options, as soon as you hear an autotuner, you automatically know Waves, because PSP and FabFilter don’t even make one. As easy as that is hyptoethcially, its practically irrelevant in real life, because no one has a compelling reason to only mix with one set of plugs.

On unmastered amateur recordings, you can make deductions based on common mistakes. Sometimes its obvious what is a user limitation vs a purely technical one. Sometimes its not.

On real good recordings, you can usually deduce beater type, skins, stick gauge, material composition of the snare, size of the cymbals…if you know your gear really well, you can make a pretty educated guess on what size and type of ride cymbal is being used. Though you’d be guessing at brand. I think if I listen to a mix closely enough, I could tell you that if a cymbal is Zildjian, its probably an A, K, or Z with a fair amount of certainty, the problem is that it would have to be a Zildjian to deduce that. Something I could not do is tell you the brand of the shell. Keller makes a LOT of high end shells. I don’t know enough about drums to be able to do this, but since I can do something pretty similar with pianos, I wouldn’t doubt there are people that could do this with drums.

Hmmm. I don’t know that you could tell the type or model of a 2 bus compressor. As the way it acts and sounds is so highly dependent on the material going into it. And also, because of the purpose of the 2 bus compressor, you’re a lot less likely to hear it in the final, then experience problems with it getting TO the final.

I can tell amps apart in a final mix. I’ll never hit them exact, but you can tell them apart. Even if you didn’t know Brad Paisley is fiercely loyal to Dr Z, anyone who knows their gear would be silly to guess Peavey, Framus, or Hughes and Kettner. Now if you’re given a hint that a country artist is using a Mesa Boogie, you can get pretty damn close by eliminating amps that would be useless in that style of music. So you’d probably be left with a Lone Star, Maverick, Mark IV, or C+. And vice versa if its a metal band, and you know its a Mesa. A strat has a very specific sound. So does a tele. I doubt anyone could tell a Tom Anderson from a Fender Custom, in the same way you probably couldn’t tell a Collings from a Martin unless you were playing it.

Oh yeah, I can tell you the size of a grand piano. I can easily tell you 6, 7 or 9 ft. I might not be able to tell you brand, but I can most likely tell the region it came from. European, American, and Japanese pianos have distinct tonal characteristics that I believe are identifiable even on top of an orchestra.

Sadly enough, I’d be highly skeptical of anyone who claimed they could pick an assortment of 1073 preamps out of a final mix. And I’m fairly certain no one (without a deep prior knowledge of mix) is going to be able to tell you what in the mix was fed to a 1073 and what was fed to a decent 1073 clone. At most, you can lump pre’s into overall characteristics, like warm and dirty, or bright and clean, or gentle and transparent…etc. Even if you can hear the minute difference, it’d be very hard to make a judgement call, unless there was a distinct mismatch between singer, mic, and pre.

Regarding EQ, Api’s to me have a super distinct sound. Both the hardware and the UAD versions. There’s a gorgeous API vision console in Charleston Sound south of where I’m at and it’s absolutely wonderful to work on. Those EQ’s are just ridiculous, but you don’t realize it until you actually turn a knob. Since you don’t have that luxury in a master mix, I don’t really know how you’d identify an API eq. Yeah, I think trying to guess which EQ got used on the bass guitar is pretty impossible.

Speaking of mics, I wouldn’t be able to randomly guess what specific mic was used on the lead singer. But I would be able to tell you that if you came into my studio, and tracked with my Blue Bottle mics, exactly which capsule was used on the vocalist. I could pick that out because there are 9 capsules in the set, and some would be completely wrong for a vocalist all together. The ones that do work, have radically different sonic signatures.

I’m finding out as I’m rambling that prior knowledge has a lot to do with this. If I know there’s a Vintage Fairchild in the mixing room, and I hear a super open transparent smooth compression on the lead vocal, I’m going to make an educated guess.

In all honesty, if we’re taking specifically about the sound of drums in a room, it doesn’t float my boat. Room reverberation sounds crap to my ears. If I had enough money to rent a million dollar studio for four hours, I could think of better ways of spending it.

It’s interesting to me how differently people listen to music. When I first hear something, I don’t immediately try to tear it apart into individual pieces and how they are treated in the recording. I just hear the whole thing and either like it or not. From there I might try to analyze the individual performances, and how they were eq!d to mesh with each other, and maybe make some assumptions about mic positions and the size of the room if it is an element of the recording. To try and discern anything more specific than that takes you into an area that didn’t exist previously: the ability to find just about any plug you need to emulate any well known piece of hardware. To keep with the cooking analogy, you now have the ability to turn the spaghetti sauce into clam chowder, and you have to be careful not to overdo it.

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I don’t think you can deduce a ton from a recording unless there are obvious issues. It’s usually obvious when drums were tracked in a tiny room. It’s not always obvious if samples are used. Sometimes it’s very obvious that samples are being used.

You can hear when the band can’t play in time. You can hear when the producer can’t tell where he wants to take the song.