Great production can often seem like a dark art. It can involve technical prowess, sculpting instruments into sonic bubbles of EQ, and it can also veer into mystical shamanism, gently coaxing out performances while unorthodox mic positions abound.
Does a great sounding album need unearthly sound effects? Or long, meandering takes captured live? And do they always have to be over budget?
Besides long hours of hard work, we consistently find that the best-sounding albums happen when the recording studio is used as another tool to capture and communicate an artist's vision.
There are far too many excellent examples to cover in one list, but we've included groundbreakers, some gleaming sound-check classics (consider this your Steely Dan disclaimer), and, hopefully, a few you may not have considered as studio masterworks before. Let us try to persuade you otherwise.
- Nils Frahm interview: "When I like something I want to know why; I want to understand the principle"
Spilt Milk by Jellyfish (1993)
In the early 90s, the West Coast pop-rock group Jellyfish had a short but eventful existence, managing to cram what should by rights be a decades-long creative arc into just two blistering albums. Spilt Milk is the second and considered the band's masterwork, though we recommend also giving their breezier debut Bellybutton a spin.
Combining intricate harmonies, decadent orchestration and sunshine melodies, Spilt Milk was a failure commercially in part due to its unashamed craftsmanship at a time when grunge authenticity was coming to the fore.
Indeed the album is sometimes even accused of committing the cardinal sin of being ‘overproduced’. It bursts with late-stage grandiosity and wears its influences on its sleeve, from opener Hush – a Pet Sounds lullaby with a Day in the Life warped orchestral line – to the bombastic Queen-style romp of Joining a Fanclub including a left-field nod to Roy Wood in the sparkling saxophones lurking in the background of the searing guitar.
But this is much more than an exercise in pomp and pastiche. Producer Albhy Galuten (famed for his work on Saturday Night Fever and creating the first commercial drum loop) carefully captured the full-bodied tones of every single instrument – and there are a lot of them – taking days to perfect each one.
The album’s title was chosen in reference to it being both over budget and behind schedule (a recurring theme in this list), as the Spilt Milk sessions dragged on for six months, while the band agonised over intricate arrangements, retakes and tweaking.
The result is daring excess laced with irony and levity, as sudden shifts and pushy drums make way for bursts of vocal chorus. It's an overload of ideas and sounds that should be in competition with each other but instead delight.
The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)
A fair bit of cliche surrounds Dark Side Of The Moon and Alan Parsons' legendary quadraphonic mix. But Pink Floyd's landmark concept album, blending psychedelic rock, spoken word and sound effects, remains a remarkable piece of work that has had an inescapable influence on the music creation and production industry.
Having already stretched technical limitations in their previous two albums, Pink Floyd spent nine months of 1972 at Abbey Road Studios using its state-of-the-art equipment both to capture a musical framework of extended, live in-studio jams and to create the psychological sonic palette that helped unify the album and serve its theme of a descent into madness.
From the eerie layering of interview tapes and that heavily sculpted kick drum heartbeat opening the album on Speak To Me, to the rhythmic cash sequence at the start of Money – achieved by painstakingly splicing together Roger Waters’ cash register recordings into a loop 20 feet long, that had to be slung around microphone stands – Dark Side of the Moon continues to remind musicians just how versatile, expressive and illustrative the studio can be.
Reach by Jacky Terrasson (1995)
For Reach, Jacky Terrasson's acoustic jazz piano trio was recorded by Mark Levinson (yes, that Mark Levinson) in close quarters, and that's exactly what it sounds like: a piano trio in a small room.
The album was recorded in 1995, at the end of a six-month tour. Terrasson, drummer Leon Parker and bassist Ugonna Okegwo played in the same space, with no partitions, and every accent and offbeat tempo shift reflects the intuitive interaction of players who appear to anticipate one another’s every move.
Levinson used a two-microphone recording technique capturing tracks in single takes. The spontaneous quality of the music is enhanced by the open, airy atmosphere; nothing is close mic’d, and no compression was used.
The dynamic range and subtlety can be a challenge both for your speakers and your ears, but it’s one that pays dividends. Listening to Parker's drums' candid, minimalist sound is particularly revealing; the timbre of each hit shimmers and rings with incredible aural nuance.
Toto IV by Toto (1982)
It should come as no surprise that a band made up of session musicians would be capable of creating a great sound. In 1982, though, Toto were struggling to replicate the commercial success of their debut album and increasingly under fire from cynical critics who mocked them for seeming sterile and pre-fabricated.
Instead of trying to chase acclaim, the band dug their heels in, bringing in even more studio musicians to create a polished, multi-layered record that gave them two of their most successful singles – Rosanna and Africa – and garnered six Grammys, including Producer of the Year for the band.
It's clear that every performer on Toto IV has amazing mastery of their own dynamics; for such an unapologetically pop record, there’s an astonishingly full-sounding acoustic range and lack of compression. But the band also experimented with how technology could help to enhance their vision, and throughout the long recording process they lived in a Winnebago in the studio's car park, tinkering day and night.
To cram the complicated arrangements onto 24-track machines, engineer Al Schmitt used three separate recorders simultaneously with one track of each machine running SMPTE time code to keep everything in sync. In a technique borrowed from Paul Simon, after each track was finished, the master would be copied and mixed down to continue working with for over-dubs to maintain the sonic integrity of the first generation of tapes.
When it came to mixing, there were still too many tracks to fit on the sound desk. So mix engineer Greg Ladanyi worked in sections, painstakingly cutting verses and choruses together as he went along, with the band lined up to take on fader duties –and the process repeated until absolutely perfect.
Never Too Far by Dianne Reeves (1989)
Usually classified as adult contemporary, with its late 80s/early 90s snare and sizzling reverb tails, Never Too Far boasts a tremendous sonic variety of African and Latin influences framed by Reeves' powerful, virtuosic voice and backed by a band of jazz luminaries.
Producer George Duke, who played keys with Frank Zappa and contributed synths and sequencing to Michel Jackson’s Off the Wall, imbues Never Too Far with an expressive, electric element, from the bluesy keyboards in Come In to the bouncy Synclavier in Fumilayo, gently folded into the mix like cream.
Meanwhile, on songs such as Fumilayo and Eyes on the Prize, fusions of call-and-response and funk, Duke showcases his talent for combining complex rhythmic textures as interlocked beats and hooks skip together with clarity and ease.
With so many competing styles, it's the quality of the production and Reeves’s vocal that makes the whole record adhere. Her voice is incredibly present with a naturally open sound that's often pushed to the extremities of her range and, as a result, Never Too Far is full of expertly captured delicate moments of vulnerability.
Aja by Steely Dan (1977)
Often accused of being peddlers of yacht rock, Steely Dan are notorious for their obsessive studio process, strictly running their own sessions with military precision.
This attention to detail garnered a clutch of Grammys for their long-time engineer Roger Nichols and producer Gary Katz, as well as the devotion of live sound engineers who rely on their brand of crisp, tightly honed funk to check their rigs are all in working order.
Their reputation for pathological rigour is well earned. On Aja, their fourth and most successful album, the band spent a year-and-a-half in the studio, remixing the album 13 times in the process and enlisting more than 40 session musicians with 19 different guitarists brought in to play versions of the guitar solo on Peg.
But to dismiss Steely Dan as sounding 'clinical' would be to deprive yourself of some of the most expert production ever committed to tape. Yes, there’s the perfect tiptoeing bass intro to Black Cow and cut-glass high-hats, but Aja is also deeply idiosyncratic, full of swerves and disorienting sounds, such as the minute-long drum solo that closes the title track performed by the legendary Steve Gadd, cloaked in otherworldly synthesizers and horns.
In 2010, Aja was added to the United States National Recording Registry for its artistic, historical and cultural significance. Even four decades after its release, it is one of the finest recordings ever made, transcending technology, taste and trend.
Vespertine by Björk (2001)
As a producer, Björk is no stranger to constructing whole sonic universes. While she may have more groundbreaking and avant-garde albums, 2001’s Vespertine – her first to be recorded entirely on Pro-Tools – demonstrates the Icelandic artist's mastery of complex textures. She invents a form of homespun electronica in which the interplay between synthetic and natural sounds forms an architecture of introverted chamber music.
For three years before making the album, Björk recorded noises around her home – from the shuffling deck of cards heard on Hidden Place, to feet in fresh snow on Aurora – and magnified them to create ‘microbeats’. Sounds were chosen that would maintain sonic integrity even when downloaded as an mp3, and most tracks contained 30 to 40 of these microbeats combined together in a process she described as “crocheting a huge blanket with a tiny needle”.
In an album where electronic sounds are the norm, traces of the analogue world – be it static and glitches on Cocoon, the warm harmonics of harpist Zeena Parkins or Björk's own vocals whispered at close proximity to the mic – provide welcome acoustic interjections with a sense of ecstatic domesticity and comfort in an icy landscape.
Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes (1969)
Fair to say 1968 was a difficult year for Isaac Hayes. After a decade at Stax Records as a session musician, producer and songwriter of hits including Soul Man and B-A-B-Y, he had finally released his debut album as a solo artist and it bombed.
Stax itself was in a tumult: the Memphis label lost both its biggest star Otis Redding and four members of its house band in a plane crash the year prior. Oh, and its distribution deal with Atlantic had expired contentiously, resulting in the loss of its masters.
Vice President Al Bell’s solution? To record a new back catalogue ASAP. He demanded 27 new albums by mid-1969 and called upon Hayes to quickly turn out a follow-up to his flop. Hayes reluctantly agreed with the caveat of having complete creative control. This auteurism resulted in four tracks luxuriating out over 45 minutes, blending pristine production with an opulence-laced rawness that set a precedent other artists scrambled to replicate.
Hayes played Hammond and sang the vocals live while simultaneously conducting the newly reformed Bar Keys, laying down his performance as single takes with the process described by co-producer Marvell Thomas as: “Play whatever you want to play and have a good time doing it.”
That freedom of expression extended into post-production. The 12-minute extended remake of Burt Bacharach’s Walk On By was sweetened by string overdubs, recorded separately in Detroit to expedite the process, that crescendo and collapse into Michael Toles's slinky, psychedelic guitar building into a frenzied finale over six intense minutes.
For all its excesses, Hot Buttered Soul remains a tight, cogent, honest and intimate album with artistry infiltrating every part of the recording process.
Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (1977)
It’s a wonder that Fleetwood Mac managed to create anything at all during their recording sessions for Rumours, in the face of crumbling interpersonal relationships and hedonistic drug use. Even more remarkable is that the record became their most commercially successful album, renowned for its sonic clarity and harmonic sweetness.
Despite the soap opera behind the scenes, in the studio the band were scrupulous when it came to detail, with Lindsey Buckingham re-stringing his guitar every 20 minutes to maintain the crispness of tone while recording Never Go Back Again, and Christine McVie's Songbird being tracked during an all-night session at Zellerbach Auditorium to achieve an authentic concert hall ambience.
Songs were written by the individual members, without collaboration, the only exception being The Chain which was cobbled together from four different tracks. It was nearly left off the album before being resurrected after Buckingham asked for it to be spliced with blank tape to add the iconic kick drum of the verse.
The radio-friendly sound producers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut achieved was a result of arduous 16-hour days and an element of chance. For the first week, they struggled to get any sound out of the API console. Caillat said: “ Everything sounded like a miniature person was playing these miniature instruments, and we were just pulling our hair out.
“[We] tried everything to make the sound bigger. We even taped two kick drums together out of frustration... Finally, I got pissed off. I said, 'Goddamn it, what the hell's going on here?' And I literally just started turning knobs, and within about five minutes of doing this on a track we were trying to cut, it was sounding great.”
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen by Georg Solti (1965)
There are more than a few reasons you might not fancy listening to a bit of Wagner. But, as the humorist Bill Nye quipped: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”. And Decca’s recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen, conducted by the uncompromising Georg Solti and featuring a maverick cast, is widely considered a masterpiece.
Der Ring des Nibelungen was groundbreaking as the first opera ever recorded in a studio, and it demonstrated the potential that the stereo LP format could have in making performances accessible at a time when epics were too expensive to mount regularly.
Decca producer John Culshaw saw the possibilities in stereo to present home listeners with a ‘theatre of the mind’, in which characters could cross from stage left to stage right, move forwards and back or tail off as exiting off to the wings.
Recording took place over nine years from 1956 to1965, in the Sofiensaal in Vienna, a former sauna with a bright bathroom reverb. The room was fitted out with Decca tree mics and the ‘stage’ marked out like a chessboard to carefully position the singers.
While sound effects such as thunder or the noise of Valhalla collapsing into ruin were added technically, the studio conditions gave Culshaw the opportunity to overcome the compromises of recording live. He revelled in detail and historic accuracy, going to great lengths to replicate the impractical orchestration Wagner had originally specified, including a section of six harps, medieval steer horns and 18 anvils to be hammered at brief interludes.
The power and impact of the recording was such that Culshaw claimed: “The anvil passage and the thunderclap at the end of Rheingold became a sort of international standard by which you judged the quality of your gramophone player.”
Full of energy and devastating dramatic power, Der Ring des Nibelungen was a huge commercial success, sharing chart space with Elvis, and galvanising the classical recording industry.
Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys (1966)
It’s hard to believe that an album ubiquitously regarded as the pinnacle of craftsmanship and aesthetic refinement could have sold so poorly on its release. Still, while the lush melancholia of Pet Sounds took the long route to public acceptance, its sonic influence was felt immediately – not least by Paul McCartney, who has said that God Only Knows spurred the recording of Sgt. Pepper's.
Brian Wilson famously refined the wall of sound technique that Phil Spector had created – so that “if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record” – by separating and spreading out instruments to produce a clearer, less cacophonous feel. In this instance though, the material was pretty strong.
The tense and expensive nine months of recording sessions were managed with an iron fist by Wilson, who regarded the album as a solo project and used a huge orchestral palette with the notorious Wrecking Crew serving as the backbone of the album.
Wilson, who is deaf in his right ear, created the final mono mix in a single nine-hour session to provide more consistency over how people would hear the album regardless of the quality or the placement of their home system. And despite numerous re-releases, purists still swear by this version, complete with its quirks, such as an audible tape splice between the chorus and bridge of Wouldn't It Be Nice and chatting during the instrumental break of Here Today.
The Black Album by Jay-Z (2003)
Jay-Z marked his first retirement the only way he knew how. He made an era-defining swansong, with nearly every track produced by a different luminary of the 2000s: Just Blaze, Kanye West, The Neptunes, Eminem, DJ Quik, Timbaland, 9th Wonder and Rick Rubin.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for modern albums to have vast armies of producers. But The Black Album features here because it is one of the few to make each song a sonic showcase of ‘show me what you got‘ style while maintaining a single storytelling journey.
There are many details to admire, from Kanye West's magnificent dancehall track Lucifer, made at the apex of his chipmunk era with a blown-out bass with which many speakers will struggle to grapple, to the towering organ sample in Just Blaze's Public Service Announcement.
And, while we could have filled this list solely with Rubin’s work, we’re making do with the sublime 99 Problems. Exceptional for its dry, close aesthetic combining old school hip-hop collage (the drum track is built from samples of Mountain’s Long Red, Billy Squier’s The Big Beat, and Wilson Pickett’s Get Me Back On Time Engine #9) and pretty much no melodic content other than the cadential inflections of Jay's voice as he raps about the trappings of fame and racial inequality.
The Black Album is also notable for the production work that it inspired. Jay-Z broke with Roc-A-Fella's tradition of not releasing a cappella 12-inches, opening the floodgates to a wealth of remixes, the most famous example being Danger Mouse’s transcendent, career-making mashup with the Beatles own sonic masterpiece, The White Album.