Live Versus Recorded Music

Live Versus Recorded Music

Written by Rich Isaacs

I went to a rock concert a couple of weeks ago. This was only my second such show since the pandemic began (not counting a few bar gigs involving local bands), in stark contrast to the over 50 shows I wrote about attending in 1977 (see my article in Issue 161). I was instantly reminded of the problems one can encounter in the “concert hall” environment.

Stereophile editor Jim Austin, having recently been to a classical piano performance at Carnegie Hall, wrote about some of those problems in his editorial “On Live Music” in the May 2022 issue. He tackled the accepted notion that audiophiles should attend live, preferably acoustic, music events in order to have a point of reference for how “accurate” or “realistic” one’s system sounds at home. His conclusion was that there were distinct advantages to experiencing well-recorded music in a domestic setting, most notably fewer aural distractions emanating from other concertgoers. Austin mentioned cell phones going off, items being dropped and clattering on the floor, and the crinkling of paper programs, along with people who wear excessive amounts of scented products. To that list I would add other peoples’ conversations and – my all-time pet peeve – the person behind me who can’t manage to keep their foot or knee from bumping the back of my chair over and over. Have these folks never experienced any of this, or are they alone on the planet?

The show I saw was a performance by an Australian band, the Church, whose heyday was decades ago. I will admit to being a casual fan – I only own two of their albums – but the chance to see them locally in a relatively small setting was the draw. The concert took place in an old, run-down converted movie theatre, a venue that normally features punk and metal bands where volume trumps sound quality. In the hope of getting what should have been the best possible sound, I was able to put a folding chair ten feet behind the mixing board. My first thought as the performance began (with one of my favorite tracks of theirs, “Destination,” from their best-selling album, Starfish) was, “they sound so much better at home!” Vocals were almost unintelligible, and a general boominess muddied the other instruments. It was loud enough that earplugs were necessary, which added to the dulling effect.

The Church, concert poster.


I have long questioned the hearing acuity of many, if not most, rock concert sound engineers. In fact, I fantasize about being at a show with lousy sound, going up behind the mixer, yanking the sound guy out of his chair, and immediately lowering the master volume fader before tackling the mix and equalization settings. I have only done live sound mixing once, but I do believe I could improve things. Whenever I’ve been at a show where the sound was done well, I make it a point to compliment the engineer. They always appreciate the positive feedback (you should pardon the pun).

I understand that, unlike classical concerts, most rock shows are usually performed in venues where little or no attention has been paid to optimizing the acoustics for music. The cavernous structure in which this concert took place proved to be a rather extreme example of that lack of forethought. Virtually all seating had been removed, and the walls were reflective (another pun) of the idea that acoustic treatment had been given short shrift.


One notable thing about the show was that apparently there had been a problem with their regular drummer. A friend of the band’s from New Zealand stepped in at the last minute. Lead vocalist/bassist (and the only remaining original member) Steve Kilbey told us that this friend (I couldn’t catch his name because of the sound) had “put his life on hold to help out,” and that this was their first gig together. I think he was preparing us for the possibility of a few screw-ups (which didn’t happen). As a former drummer myself, I would never have guessed they hadn’t performed together previously, so smooth was his fit with the band. They couldn’t have had much time to rehearse, but it sounded like they had played together for years. The band was fleshed out with two guitarists and another who alternately played guitar, bass, or keyboards. Those three also contributed backing vocals.

After a few songs, Kilbey seemed pleased with the reception, going so far as to quote the line from Sgt. Pepper, “you’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” He also begged our indulgence as the band introduced a number of new songs, which were well received. Once again, the sound quality (or lack thereof) prevented me from discerning titles.

I was hoping the band would play my other favorite of theirs, “Lost,” but, alas, they didn’t. The moody feel of that song fits right in with 1980s-era Pink Floyd.


Even if you think you don’t know the Church, you might be familiar with their best-known song, “Under the Milky Way,” which they saved for late in the show.


They were generous with their time, including an encore with three songs, and they seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Unfortunately, this concert experience has me wondering just how many more shows are in the cards for me. There just aren’t that many groups still performing live that will get me off the couch and into the hall.

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