Simultaneous recording from large numbers of neurons is a prerequisite for understanding their cooperative behavior. Various recording techniques and spike separation methods are being used toward this goal. However, the error rates involved in spike separation have not yet been quantified. We studied the separation reliability of "tetrode" (4-wire electrode)-recorded spikes by monitoring simultaneously from the same cell intracellularly with a glass pipette and extracellularly with a tetrode. With manual spike sorting, we found a trade-off between Type I and Type II errors, with errors typically ranging from 0 to 30% depending on the amplitude and firing pattern of the cell, the similarity of the waveshapes of neighboring neurons, and the experience of the operator. Performance using only a single wire was markedly lower, indicating the advantages of multiple-site monitoring techniques over single-wire recordings. For tetrode recordings, error rates were increased by burst activity and during periods of cellular synchrony. The lowest possible separation error rates were estimated by a search for the best ellipsoidal cluster shape. Human operator performance was significantly below the estimated optimum. Investigation of error distributions indicated that suboptimal performance was caused by inability of the operators to mark cluster boundaries accurately in a high-dimensional feature space. We therefore hypothesized that automatic spike-sorting algorithms have the potential to significantly lower error rates. Implementation of a semi-automatic classification system confirms this suggestion, reducing errors close to the estimated optimum, in the range 0-8%.