Every audiophile knows that great sound engineering is not bound by genre. From new wave, to hip-hop, to folk rock, the true connoisseur of sound can appreciate any expertly crafted record.
Great songwriting is, of course, always the essential foundation to the greatest albums. But making those songs sound great in the studio – the art of sound engineering – is almost as important.
Covering a wide spectrum of genres and sound engineering styles, this list celebrates a selection of the most sonically rewarding albums of all time.
Tears For Fears – Songs From The Big Chair (1985)
Engineer: Dave Bascombe
Songs from the Big Chair serves as a lesson in why creativity cannot be rushed. Following the success of the new wave band’s debut album, The Hurting, Tears For Fears succumbed to pressure from their label, and promptly returned to the studio to work on new material.
Unfortunately, the pressure did not produce the diamonds the label was hoping for. Vocalist Curt Smith described the band’s next single ‘The Way You Are’, as “one of the worst recordings” they ever did.
Producer Chris Hughes was called in to work with the band on what would become Songs From The Big Chair. He encouraged the band members to go away and work on the songs individually.
After a little encouragement from Hughes, Guitarist Roland Orzabal entered the studio with two chords and a melody, from which ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ was born in just a week. As the album started to take shape, Hughes would spend months perfecting ‘Shout’ – the iconic protest song that went on to top charts worldwide.
Experimenting with synthesisers, new electronic effects, and drum boxes, Smith, Orzabal, and Hughes, along with engineer Dave Bascombe, eventually found their rhythm to deliver the timeless Songs From The Big Chair.
Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms (1985)
Engineer: Neil Dorfsman
The fifth studio album from Dire Straits sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, as the band permanently raised the bar for music production standards.
Following the band’s extensive two-year tour with the record, they broke up in September 1988. They probably never wanted to hear the songs again – but the legendary record has continued to reverberate through history and across the world.
Recorded at Air Studios in Monserrat, and produced by Neil Dorfsman and Mark Knopfler, Brothers in Arms was one of the first albums to be produced on a Sony 24-track digital tape machine.
Speaking about the album’s legendary second single ‘Money For Nothing,’ their manager Ed Bicknell has said, “I thought the song itself might be a bit of a hit, but no one could have foreseen what would happen with that album.”
To this day, the record is celebrated by audiophiles for its stunning production qualities.
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
Engineer: Alan Parsons
Routinely presented in listings of the “greatest of all time” albums, this Pink Floyd record is one of the few to achieve high mainstream success across vinyl, CD and digital streams. The concept album was a product of the progressive rock era, associated with its deep and sometimes troubling topics of time, money, war, death, and being in the moment.
As the first album that Roger Waters would lead lyrically, he wished to pursue different concerns to Syd Barret, focusing more on political and philosophical themes.
In recent times, Waters expressed that the most important theme of the record is “the connection between us as human beings, the whole human community.”
Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (2006)
Engineers: Mark Ronson, Franklin Socorro, Matt Paul
An all-nighter, an unorthodox drum technique, and a few chords were the key ingredients that led Mark Ronson to complete the instrumental of the song ‘Back to Black’ in the 1960s Shangri-Las, Ronettes-style that Amy Winehouse wished for. The following morning, the Camden singer-songwriter walked into the studio and told Ronson that she wanted the “whole album to sound like that.”
Winehouse had been working on the album for some months before she found the right match in Ronson, and the pair went on to write six of the songs from the album together, recording them in under a week. The result was one of the best soul and R&B albums of the contemporary era.
Talking about the recording process with Winehouse, Ronson explained, “I just met this person who was so incredibly together and lucid…this incredibly smart girl who’s just come in and told me what she wants her record to sound like… she blew me away. So I was just very excited, and I really liked [that] we instantly kind of hit it off.”
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
Engineers: Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut
Selling over 10 million copies within the first month of its release, Rumours was Fleetwood Mac’s most successful album, bringing them to the world stage in style. The line-up saw members come and go, but by 1974 their distinctive blend of pop, rock and folk congealed in the form of the 1977 classic.
The irony of “The Chain” – a song about unbreakable bonds – is that the band broke many bonds throughout the creative process. Multiple affairs and complicated relationships occurred during the making of the album, with the mayhem behind the scenes seemingly helping their creativity as a unit.
Engineered by Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut, the mix uses subtle, clever panning to create a spacious, wide sound that’s extremely pleasing on the ear.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (2013)
Engineers: Peter Franco, Mick Guzauski, Florian Lagatta, Daniel Lerner
The fourth and final album of Daft Punk, Random Access Memories closed the electronic duo’s studio career in style. Paying tribute to late 70s and early 80s disco and funk, the record earned the pair several awards at the 2014 Grammy Awards. It was also the duo’s only album that topped the US Billboard 200.
In the studio, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo used analogue tape recordings to create the warm, saturated sounds that the album is known for, digitising the recordings afterwards.
Benefitting from the input of songwriting mastermind Pharrell Williams and guitarist Nile Rogers, the album went on to become a touchstone record for electronic pop.
Thomas Baltanger, one half of the duo, has emphasised that the timing of the record’s release was key to its success – “it could not have happened before or after,” he stated in one interview.
The record saw the pair work closely with several sound engineers, most notably including Peter Franco, Mick Guzauski, Florian Lagatta, and Daniel Lerner.
Dr. Dre, 2001 (1999)
Engineer: Richard “Segal” Huredia
Few albums have been so influential for a genre as Dr. Dre’s 2001 was for hip-hop.
After the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop feud died down in the late 90s, newcomers like Eminem and Mos Def were on the rise, but Dr. Dre was due a return too. His comeback came in the form of this legendary record.
Whilst the rest of the industry was making its transition to digital recording, Dre still preferred analogue equipment. Using the same SSL desk he used on The Chronic in 1992, and incorporating live instruments, the producer and rapper paved the way forward for a hip-hop sound that, as one critic has put it, was “gritty and commercial at the same time.”
The final product – complete with glistening features from Dre mentees Eminem and Snoop Dogg – was a modern classic.
The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969)
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
Considering the astronomical success that The Beatles enjoyed throughout the 60s, the making of Abbey Road was not as straightforward as you might expect.
At the time of recording, the group were on the verge of going broke, George Harrison quit just before recording began in late February 1969, and a car crash meant that John Lennon missed the first few studio sessions.
Nevertheless, the quality of the songs shone through, with the album entering the UK album chart at number 1, remaining there for a total of 17 of its 81 weeks in the chart.
In terms of engineering and production, the record showcased a highly effective stereo mix, as well as the use of Robert Moog’s newly invented synthesiser, demonstrating its revolutionary sounds in ‘Here Come’s The Sun,’ ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’.
The engineering was led by Geoff Emerick, with Alan Parsons – who went on to engineer Dark Side of the Moon – working as his assistant.
The infamous album cover contained neither the band’s name nor the album’s title much to the aggravation of EMI bosses, with designer John Kosh arguing, “you don’t have to say who they are – everyone knows who they are.”
Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)
Engineer: Finneas O’Connell
By the end of 2019, the debut album of Billie Eilish had sold over 1.2 million copies and was the fifth best-selling album of the year. Speaking with Zane Lowe in an interview, Eilish said that inspiration for the album largely came from “night terrors, nightmares and lucid dreaming.”
Work on the album began in 2016 with her brother and chief producer Finneas O’Connell, writing and recording from O’Connell’s small bedroom using Logic Pro X alongside a simple interface and set of monitors. This room gave the singer a comfortable place to work, as well as the desired acoustics for the vocal recordings.
Despite the whole album being recorded and produced in a small bedroom, When We Fall Asleep picked up the ‘Best Engineered Album’ award at the 2020 Grammys. It remains one of the most-streamed albums on Spotify to this day.
Adele, 21 (2011)
Engineers: Mark Rankin, Ryan Tedder, Greg Fidelman, Beatriz Artola, Philip Allen
It was a Myspace demo picked up by A&R scout Nick Huggett that eventually led Adele to accept a record deal with XL Recordings over attending the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Following the critically-acclaimed 19, her heartbreak pop album 21 cemented the singer among the charts internationally, for years to come.
Intent on capturing her raw emotions, Adele began writing for the album within a day of a relationship breakup.
The record benefitted from the input of a number of top engineers and producers, including Rick Rubin. The acclaimed producer has famously stated that the audience should “come last,” making him seem like an unusual choice to produce a pop record.
Perhaps understandably, Adele had doubts about whether the two could work well together, but later spoke about their chemistry in an interview, saying, “He was just so wise. I’ve actually never been so chilled out, being involved in music, as I was when I was in Malibu with him and the band.”
Paul Epworth also aided on the production for the album’s opening song ‘Rolling In The Deep’ (although he highlighted that the vocals were virtually untouched from the initial demo).
The record benefitted from the input of several sound engineers, whilst remaining flawlessly cohesive.
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