Keys To A ClassicMy buddy Ben sent me this question:

Sound quality or song quality, which would you say impacts a listener more?

A few non-helpful answers come to mind.

Like “both” or “it depends.” 🙂

While they’re not super-helpful answers by themselves, I think diving into each one will uncover some stuff that might help you.

Both

I think the obvious answer is that we’d all like all of our recording projects to be awesome songs with awesome sound quality.

That’s the Win-Win.

That’s the goal.

Aside from the fact that it’s simply nice to have a great song recorded with great quality, they both really feed into each other.

You work harder to get great sound quality when the song quality is so good. In a sense, you don’t want to mess it up.

If I’m recording a song for a client, and it’s just plain boring, I’m going to have a hard time really focusing on on a great-sounding recording. I wouldn’t really see the point.

Chances are no one wants to listen to a really fantastic recording of a sinfully boring song.

“It depends.”

There’s a flip-side, though.

Sometimes a really great song can out-shine a really mediocre recording. I’ve said this before with regards to recording, but the same applies to music-making, too — talent can overcome many obstacles.

If given the choice between really great gear and a really great musician, I’ll choose the musician.

In a perfect world you can have both, but alas, life ain’t perfect.

This is the kind of conversation that could go on for days, but I will say that there are plenty of songs out there that many, many people consider to be really bad songs…and they’re wildly popular.

In the end the public (i.e. your fans or clients) will answer your question for you.

Pursue excellence. Do the best you can. Put out stuff you can be proud of.

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  • dan

    Obviously its hard to get your songs heard through all the hundreds of thousands of songs out there. If you know you have something special you have to try for the sake of music. We all need this copycat BS to stop because a lot of quality music is covered up by the machine. Just because it doesn’t work right away does not mean you should stop,it just has not hit the right avenue yet or your not trying hard enough to get it heard….

    • Interesting points. It’s all subjective, after all. If no one’s listening to your music, it COULD be that your songs are bad, or it could be that you haven’t found your audience yet.

  • Dan

    Awesome. I’m surprised this is not talked about more. Song quality is number one always. Both is better but without a good song studio magic means nothing.

    • How many songs SOUND great, but are still bad songs? 🙂

  • CameronN

    My favorite song, the drums sound horrible. Love it though!

    • Exactly. We should all remember to serve the song more than serve the audio. Y’know?

  • Sound, or Song Quality? is an interesting debate.
    I have to say, firstly, that I have heard great songs with ropey recordings and I have heard great recordings but there was no song. So it is all relative really. Having said this, I firmly believe that with a band, especially, a well produced and great sounding song will attract far more attention than the same song recorded really badly. Good production can give that uplifting chorus an extra kick up the backside and make everybody go “wow! that sounds great what else can I listen to by this band?” However, if it is lame and badly produced, there is not enough to draw the listener’s ear.
    I have been listening to recordings done badly by some bands and I laugh out loud and turn it off and I don’t even get to listen to the “song”. I hear demos with badly out of tune singing, out of tune guitars, poor drumming and sounds that can make you wince etc. This is why I say to bands, if you want to do demos for other people to listen to, then record it as well as it can be and it will stand more of a chance of being listened to. If it is rough demo use it as a guide for your own development of the song.
    For a solo singer with just an acoustic or a piano for example, then in theory with that genre, and with today’s technology available to home users it is, to be brutally frank, very difficult to do a really bad recording. In those circumstances it is the performance that has to shine through, i.e. “capturing that moment”.

    • Xan

      I agree with much ov what you are saying but I think that it is important to separate the PERFORMANCE from the – just to make it clear – the AUDIO PRODUCTION.

      In other words a good song might still have some appeal if the mix happens to be a bit coarse, but ONLY if the performance is top notch.

  • Andrew

    “People listen to songs not sounds!” Sure both are important, but if I was stuck between the choice of choosing a crappy recording with a catchy melody or an amazing recording with no melody at all I’d choose the “crappy recording with a catchy melody every time.” I never heard anyone imitate the sound of the distorted guitar, but I have heard people attempt to sing the melody line of a lead singer on a track.

    “The Quality goes in before the name goes on”
    – Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien

    Try to get both like the best! =)

  • A good quality record can not turn a bad song good into a good song, but a good quality recording can turn a bad song into a good quality recording!

    Of course that all depends if we agree what a bad song is in the first place 😉

    • Xan

      Ov course what someone likes is largely a matter ov taste. But I guess there are a few elements that good songs have. One I would say that is pretty much universal is that the arrangement has a good flow. If a song sounds “awkward” then it’s probably not a good one! 😉

      In my experience I have found the good songs, and indeed some ov the best songs are those that almost write themselves! i.e. they is done very quickly, sometimes in as little as 10 minutes. It more like you’re not so much writing the song but “channeling” it.. 🙂

      Those songs that keep getting worked on, and have to be bashed away at one session after another seldom end up any good, although sometimes they can make ok and “interesting” filler tracks on an album.

  • Xan

    I think everyone is making great points in this post. Yes it’s great to have all aspects ov production top notch, but indeed one area particularly well done may compensate for a certain lack in another.

    But the sound quality thing is indeed interesting. Sometimes good is actually BAD, in certain genres.

    Take Black Metal for instance. (And I know quite a lot about this as I have been working in this field since ’94!) It actually benefits from a what we might call a “raw” or “coarse” production. If you make it sound all slick ala a modern metal type sound it suffers greatly.

    In fact many fans actually prefer the sound ov band’s “rehearsal recordings” which is simply a recording device – which used to be a cassette deck – placed in their rehearsal room. If you are lucky with the room acoustics and mic placement you can actually get quite a listenable sound this way.

    With my band though I am trying to go for something different, something new. It is hard to describe but what I am aiming for is a “raw sound encapsulated in a high quality production”.

    Basically I am attempting to capture raw sounds, particularly in the guitars and drums but put that all into a mix that has the frequency dispersal inline with a normal ‘pro’ mix. (whatever normal is, but to me it is a mix that sounds nice and sparkly but has a decent thump in the low end and is not muddy).

  • Robert

    Back in the late 70’s and 80’s I was privileged to record several times at a studio called Strawberry South in Dorking UK, as our singer was the junior assistant engineer and teaboy there. It was a wonderful studio owned by a band called 10cc who were pretty big in the UK at that time. Stuck above the control room window was a big strip of paper with the words; “IN THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION THERE IS NO COMPROMISE.” It’s a great motto and even though I never achieve perfection it always reminds me to try. I’ve always remembered those words because they don’t just apply to music.

    • Xan

      10cc was that band that did that thing where they recorded someone singing all the notes ov the scale (on separate tracks) and bought up different faders thoughout the song to form various pad chords from them…! That was a cool technique..! 🙂

      I was lucky enough to see them a few years ago play at the School of Music auditorium in Nelson, New Zealand. 🙂

  • dan

    +1 for song quality! The average public isn’t gonna be thinking about the SSL preamp that the guitar was recorded with. Just my .02

    Dan

  • I’ll second what Kazo says.

    I think there are four different aspects of a track’s quality – the quality of the song, of the arrangement, of the performance, and of the recording. Although we’d like to have all four working in our favor, we often have to overlook (or ameliorate) less than stellar quality in some of these aspects. In my (not so humble) opinion, the performance aspect is the most critical, followed by the arrangement, the song and, distantly, by the recording. I’ve seen lousy songs, arrangements, and recording saved by a brilliant performance. I’ve seen lousy songs and recording saved by a brilliant arrangement. I’ve seen lousy recordings saved by a brilliant song. I’ve never seen the inverse of these things.

    It’s sad to think that what we do as recordists doesn’t really matter that much in the larger scheme of things – people are much more interested in performance and the song than in what we do. In many cases, the best thing a recordist can do is to stay out of the way and capture accurately what’s happening.

    That being said, there are also enough cases where we are critical in creating a space where a great performance can occur, in helping the performance along via post-processing, in working with an artist on their arrangement, in providing a stellar mix (which is another case of arranging, albeit after the fact), that our lack of influence via recording doesn’t matter so much.

  • Kazo

    It depends on a ganre of a song. I hear very bad songs playing in the clubs every night, just because it’s bass is kicking. So in that case the sound quality wins.
    In other case, if you have great song, PERFORMED great in the studio, everything else comes as a bonus 😀

  • Andrew Bauserman

    Give me song quality, please!

    I agree “both” is best. But a great song stands the test of time, despite a mediocre recording.

    One example: The original 1966 stereo release of “I’m working my way back to you” is hard to listen to in headphones with its odd panning:
    http://youtu.be/nj0BnpvM5cQ
    But 13 years later the Spinners brought it to life with “modern” production values:
    http://youtu.be/TY_AlrfB3U0
    And 15 years after that, Boyzone took a stab at it with 90’s recording technology:
    http://youtu.be/X2SGASZ-16I

    Regardless which mix is my favorite, the song ITSELF has chops — something sadly missing in too many modern tunes.

    Sorry to be disagreeable 🙁 Love your blog and podcast!

    • You’re not disagreeable at all. I’m 100% with you.

  • IMHO, the quality of the song is much more important than the quality of the recording. However, great recording quality can make a good song sound excellent!