Why do many modern recordings sound so bad? They sound gritty and harsh, with very little dynamics.

I’ll try to explain. First consider that music recording and playback is like a chain with several links. Here are the basic parts of the chain from start to finish:

Analog or digital recording > limiting and compression during mastering > CD or data-compressed file (mp3 encoding) > listener’s speakers or headphones.

If any link in the chain is weak, the end listener hears bad sound. But at any link in the chain — any stage in the recording/playback process — we can choose to make the audio high-quality or low-quality.

Examples:

* Both analog and digital recording can sound very clean and beautiful if done well. Both can sound distorted if the recording levels are too high; or the digital sample rate and bit depth are too low; or the analog-to-digital converter is poorly designed or poorly clocked.

* Mastering engineers can choose to apply lots of limiting to make the recording “hot” but (but may be) distorted, or they can leave it alone so it is quieter but clean. (Note, though, that mastering engineers have to do what their clients request).

 

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* You can set the mp3 encoder at a low bitrate (like 128 kbps) to make a small file that sounds swishy, or you can set it to a high bitrate (224 or 320 kbps) to make a larger file that sounds good. Or use a lossless encoder.

 

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* The listener can choose cheap, leaky earbuds which cost little but sound nothing like the original recording. Or the listener can choose good headphones or speakers that have adequate bass and treble, and low coloration.

So, if modern records sound crappy, that could be due to cheap earbuds, bad speakers or room acoustics, low bitrate mp3 encoding, too much limiting (loudness wars), or an incompetent recording engineer.

Digital audio is not the cause of bad sound. The misuse of audio tools is. So is the low fidelity of cheap earbuds and laptop speakers.

— Bruce Bartlett, recording engineer, author of “Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition”