Critical Listening Tips — An Interview with Recording Engineer Russ Long

When it comes to critical listening, pay attention to the stuff that sits deep in the mix. That's where you really can hear the difference high-quality components are making. The length of the reverb trails, the number of times a vocal delay repeats, the noise of a piano’s sustain pedal being pushed and the squeak of the piano bench. These are the things that an inferior system loses.

Written BY

Mike Dias

I founded Domo Audio because I love music. I love audio. And I believe in building relationships, not transactions.


December 30, 2019

As audiophiles, we want the raw essence of sound. We crave to be as close to the original studio experience as possible. That’s why we’re always looking for new and better gear. 

At Domo Audio, we take this sonic obsession a step further. We go right to the source and talk to the recording engineers who made your favorite albums. 

Russ Long is a Nashville-based engineer who produces, records, and mixes music for albums, tv shows and films. He has worked with Wilco, Dolly Parton, and Sixpence None the Richer. Russ is a also fellow gear-head and a pro audio product reviewer for Pro Sound News, and a perfect guest to talk about what to critically listen for with Hi-Fi components and the role that the studio & equipment play in making the record. 

How important is the recording studio in the creation of the record?

While I think the recording studio is massively important, it’s shape and size can be radically different depending on the type of album being made. For example, the only microphone used on many of today’s pop albums is to record the vocal. Everything else is programmed or recorded direct. So for this type of album, a home studio is adequate and sometimes the best solution. I can’t think of anything better than an artist being able to walk into their home studio and record any time they feel inspiration.

The last thing you want is someone having to force a performance when they feel nothing like singing solely because between the commercial studio, engineer and assistant engineer, they are spending $3K/day and they don’t want to go over budget. If they have a great mic, preamp and ADC and a room that sounds reasonably good, they can easily top that forced performance at home.

But if they want to record strings on that album, they’ll need to go to a commercial studio because in that situation, the sound of the room, the cue (headphone) system, number of mics, etc. are all critical.

And on the other end of the spectrum, you think of all of the great band recordings that have been made over the decades. From the Beatles and the Stones to the great stuff being made today, these great albums couldn’t have been made in a bedroom one instrument at a time. It took the collaboration of these great musicians playing off each other, in a room full of great gear for the magic to happen. 

And how important is the recording gear?

It takes great gear to make a great sounding record but a great performance and a great song trumps great sound every time. The old studio expression, “You can’t polish a turd” really is true. Ironically though, it’s usually the great songs that sound the best because the musicians, vocalists and engineers are more inspired throughout the process when it’s a great song.  

Do you think that it's possible for us — the listeners — to hear and experience exactly what you heard and felt in the studio?

I don’t know if it’s ever quite as good because some of that feeling you get in the studio is the excitement from actually being part of the album creation process. I do think that having a great system in a great room with no weak links can get you pretty damn close though. 

Do you mix with a certain audience in mind?

I’m happy to say that I’m just as big of a music fan as I was when I started in this business so I initially mix with myself in mind and I try to create a mix that is something I would like to listen to. Ultimately, it’s the call of the artist and producer though. Sometimes where I land is exactly what they want but occasionally it takes a bit of tweaking to reach their vision. 

What monitors do you have set up in your studio?

I have Focal SM9s and I love them. 

What are your go-to headphones / in-ears?

My go-to headphones are the Audeze LCD-X planar magnetic headphones but I’m a bit of a headphone junkie so I have tons of options. I also spend a lot of time with the Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 phones and lately the Audio Technica ATH-M60x. As you know I’m a big lover of Ultimate Ears IEMs. The UE Reference Re-Mastered IEMs have long been my favorite but in the recent weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time with the UE Live which I’m also quite fond of. 

And lastly, what’s your home sound system look like?

My home system is a Parasound Halo Integrated 2.1 amplifier, a Pioneer Elite BDP-53FD Blu-ray player, which also plays DVD-A and SACD discs, and a pair of Episode ES-700-MON-6 speakers. I actually do a lot of listening for pleasure in my mix room which is also in my house. In there I have a Tascam DV-RA100HD Player along with with the Grace m905 Monitor controller. The Grace has the converter card installed so I use it’s converters and of course the Focal SM9 monitors that I mentioned earlier. The headphone amp in the Grace is pretty stunning as well and it’s what I typically use when listening to headphones. I usually use my little TEAC HA-P90SD Hi-res player or my Benchmark DAC-1 when listening with the IEMs.

To learn more about Russ, his work, or his Dangerland studio, please visit any of the links below:

View all of Russ Long’s music credits

Learn more about Russ’s studio, Dangerland

Read Russ’s pro audio gear reviews


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