What Makes a Recording Timeless

It’s difficult to say what gives a recording a timeless quality.  Some recordings just age well, where years and decades later you can listen and not get distracted by the timestamp of when it was recorded.

But being difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible nor it can’t be pursued at will.  My observation is that if an artist is to put together a recording with these principles in mind, it’ll maximize the chance of the recording being timeless, for it to be relevant and valuable years down the road.

  • Cover the obvious: write great songs, perform them like you mean them.
  • Rely more on creating good and interesting sounds at the source, rather than relying on manipulation at post-production or mixing.
  • Avoid obvious uses of production fads of the time.  (subtle uses are OK)
  • When mixing, mix with the intention to maintain the integrity of each instrument as much as possible.  Again, this means minimal processing and manipulation, and being understated in terms of effects.

Of course these are not iron rules, I am sure all of us can think of timeless recordings that defy one or all of the suggestions.  But any and all recordings do receive the timestamp of the technology at the time of the recording.  Different eras have different capabilities and trends, and staying as neutral as possible and using recording as a simple and honest representation of live, human performance help create the timelessness.  This also applies to primarily electronic music.  There the performance itself may be scripted/programmed/sequenced, but the human element remains in how the sounds/patches are created.  If you want the recording to stand the test of time, don’t use factory presets of your synthesizer or beatbox, manipulate the sound at the source to concoct you own twist of that given sound.  This, and competent arrangements, go a long way toward achieving timelessness.

Recently Bob Yang and I were discussing our Minnasia catalog and I listened to a few of the tracks for the first time in a while.  It struck me that of all the recordings we’ve made so far, the all-acoustic Promised Land session may be the most timeless one.  I am rather conservative and traditionalist when it comes to musical instruments — I believe analog sounds are more interesting than digital.  I just like the honesty of such old-school approach.