Instruments | Recording Classical Music | Contemporary | Classical

The high quality of performance and sound on modern CDs, as well as the sheer range of recordings available, has had a dramatic effect on the reception of classical music. On the one hand, recording has brought the music to much larger audiences than concert halls could ever accommodate. On the other hand, it has altered the way music is performed and the way we hear it.

The increasing prevalence of recorded classical music has meant that some listeners can have unrealistic expectations of music in a concert hall. When a live performance differs from their favourite CD in terms of balance, tempo or interpretation, they can sometimes be disappointed.

The purpose of recording is to extend the life of an individual performance, making it available to a wide audience by distribution via CDs, tapes, broadcasting or the Internet. How this is achieved is often more complex than many listeners may realize. To begin with, the musicians rarely – if ever – play a piece of music from beginning to end, as they would in concert. Instead, a recording is made in a series of ‘takes’. For each ‘take’, the musicians play a section of music, which can be as long as a movement or as short as a few bars. The producer then advises on passages that did not go well and these are re-recorded.


Developments in the use of microphones in recording music have radically altered the way classical music is heard. The principle of using two microphones to reproduce stereophonic sound was first demonstrated by the British company EMI in 1933, but stereo recordings did not become widely available until the late 1950s. This development gave listeners a dramatically improved sense of the spatial environment in which music was played. Later, increasing flexibility was offered by the development of multi-track tape recorders, famously used by The Beatles and their producer George Martin to make the aurally complex Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) vinyl album. By the mid-1970s recording studios could record 24 separate sounds simultaneously on the same magnetic tape. This profoundly affected the attitudes of musicians and producers to the act of recording music, giving them the flexibility to place microphones around an orchestra and record each section and soloist separately. By the 1990s there had grown a reaction in classical music recording against such complex microphone set-ups in favour of the simplicity of a ‘stereo pair’ of microphones carefully positioned in front of the orchestra.

Acoustics and Reverberation

We can all form a mental ‘picture’ of the space in which a recording takes place, even while listening to a mono recording. This is called the ‘acoustic’ of a space – it can sound as small as a cupboard or as large as Westminster Abbey. The aural clues that allow us to detect this are the sound waves, or reverberations, reflected from the inside surfaces of the room in which the music is played. Music is often suited to a particular location (much...

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