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    Live Versus Recorded Music

    Issue 163

    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.

    Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/picjumbo.com.

    10 comments on “Live Versus Recorded Music”

    1. There are good reasons for minimizing the number of live music events one attends these days, starting with cost — money and risk of disease. Staying home has its advantages. That recognized, I’m missing the criticism of attending live concerts as a reference. No matter what structural issues, sound choices made and episodic annoyances one encounters, I’ve found live music almost invariably has a different tonal quality than recorded. Those events provide a reminder about chasing an impossible standard, or fooling myself into believing something that is not. Live and recorded are different beasts, each to be appreciated for what it is.

      1. Thanks for reading. I should have addressed the difference in greater depth. I do think the idea of comparing live sound to what we hear at home is compromised by the fact that most acoustic concerts involve amplification and sound reinforcement through speakers. Unless the venue is so intimate as to not need that reinforcement, what we then are comparing our home system to is simply the PA system. I look for clarity, depth and, if the recording intends it, some illusion of reality when listening at home. I also think a recording can sound great without necessarily sounding “real.”

        1. Fortunately, the vast majority of live music I hear is in locations where amplification is not used or where minimally amplified. The local house concert venue and the local old style theater (1919) have very good acoustics.

    2. I am always amused – if not annoyed – when audiophiles repeat the shibboleth that we need to attend live events of acoustic music so that we always have a fresh reference to the sound of live music. Prior to the pandemic, I averaged a concert a week for nearly ten years. The very vast preponderance of these events was at SFJazz Center in San Francisco, which has both an auditorium and a small performance space. I also have attended events at the Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, the Conservatory of Music and outdoor venues like Stern Grove and St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Most of the music was played on instruments that do not need amplifiers to function.

      At every concert I attended, every instrument on stage was miked and amplified, even the drums. When seated near the stage at concerts played on instruments that do not need amplifiers to function, I can hear music emanating directly from specific instruments, but, even then, I also hear the same instruments amplified by the monitors above or on the stage. To say that the “imaging” and “soundstage depth” are compromised is a huge understatement.

      Listen to live music for its emotional impact and visceral immediacy, but go home and listen to your decent stereo if you want to hear music with detail, clarity, and instrument placement.

      “Under the Milky Way” is a terrific song. The version that Sia did for Ford Motor Company commercials is my favorite but it has been covered by a few artists.
      Sia’s version was available for download at the Lincoln website for awhile and still is on YouTube:

      https://youtu.be/VpiZThThao0

      Listen and be moved!

    3. What Mike Rubin said.

      My experiences range from live concerts of Earth, Wind & Fire & Van Halen, which were such walls of mud that I often couldn’t identify hit songs until a dozen bars had been played, to a stunning John Mayall acoustic set in 1970 that sits at the height of my live performances. Yep: most are often much better appreciated through commercially engineered productions in your own home setting – and you have the luxury of repeating the great ones at your leisure!

      My contribution to you home listeners is one of the great “Free Audio Upgrades” Mapleshade slipped into one of its fliers many years ago: sticking your listening chair against the back wall of your listening room. My adventures in wresting the best sound in MY room resulted in placement a couple of feet away from the wall in my high-backed chair: merely pulling my head 6 inches off the headrest immediately collapses soundstage and ambience. Ya, I know – it smacks of snake oil, but I eagerly recommend speaker listeners experiment with this trick (I wound up a coupla feet ahead of the back wall because my setup yielded too much bass in that position – YMMV).

      1. In an issue of TAS, Robert E. Greene recommended taking your glasses off when listening. The glasses interfere with the incoming sound. I tried it and it seemed to work, although I can’t say I did any kind of scientific comparisons. And, I’m so nearsighted that I’m reluctant to take off my glasses.I certainly would not be able to cue a record without them!

    4. I’ve been to thousands of live shows, about 50 to 200 annually including in lockdown. Everything from Live Aid to the Berlin Philharmonic in Jerusalem, piano recitals in a concrete car park to the Royal Ballet in the open air briefly interrupted by a herd of cows. The basic requirements for a live performance is sound good enough to convey the meaning of the music and a venue to allow the performer to connect with the audience.

      Recorded music usually strips away the whole performance thing and all you are left with is music, so people seek to perfect that and often it is sonically better than live. But it is never the same.

      Unless you have been to the live performance, you won’t appreciate the difference.

    5. I appreciated your frustration with the sound engineers at live gigs. One pair of telling events that brought this home to me was seeing a Led Zeppelin covers band about 15 years apart; same members and, I wonder, same sound engineer? The first time blindingly and unexpectedly good, the second still good musically but abominable sound with the bass swamping everything. I surmised that his hearing had gone after all those gigs, although it is a tricky venue acoustically. Thing is, other productions have got it right at that venue. One notably, Justin Currie of Del Amitri, which brings me on to whether artists live can actually play and whether they can actually sing. Justin can, and even obliged that night to attempt a request from the audience that he announced was a real voice wrecker and might jeopardise the remaining gigs. (Not because it was loud, screechy or rough but because of the demands placed on pitch control, it seems). Anyway he nailed it. (I remember turning to my wife many years before at a Del Amitri gig a few bars before an anticipated descant and saying “Let’s see if he goes for the falsetto.” He did. I disregard the vacuous pop of Cliff Richard but he did say one important thing in an interview: that the voice is an instrument like any other, and so many artists don’t train it whilst spending hours perfecting their other instruments. Don’t get me started on the number of singer songwriters who have no business fronting up their own songs, even on record. But all is not lost for some. Richard Thompson was frankly not the best singer early in his career. Later, well into his third decade of performing, and consistently since, it was evident that he really put some work in on his voice.)
      So to can they play – what are they like away from the sophistication of the studio? As you say in the article so many live performances are unrecognisable until a few bars in. All gets put into perspective when a band actually sounds and plays well live. After a few years being disappointed by mediocre performances I saw Jethro Tull for the first time in about 1981. It was an epiphany. Boy we’re those guys tight. (And sounded great). And not even the classic late 70’s line up. To be fair so too were The Blues Band on the same bill. By contrast Huang Chung on the same bill actually gave up half way through a song because they simply lost the plot. I have never ever seen that before or since. Lately, since various lost and declaimed ‘jurassic’ acts have got back into performing I’ve come to appreciate that hard experience and showmanship counts for much. But after a lifetime of going to gigs I’m left wondering how it is, with all this modern technology, only some bands can realise their potential live.

    6. Rich, I saw a concert that was quite an exception to your experiences: Kraftwerk at Radio City Music Hall, June 17. Admittedly I’m a fan of the band, but, predisposition to liking them notwithstanding, the sound that night was truly astonishing — clear, wideband from chest-punching bass (when called for) to glistening highs, and dynamic, with noticeable contrasts in volume, something I rarely hear in rock/pop concerts. Most impressively, it was in surround sound, which was not only enveloping but the band and mix engineers used it to brilliant effect, making the entire hall into a big 360-degree sound system with instruments and vocals coming from everywhere.

      No other concert sound I’ve ever experienced has come even remotely close, except for previous shows by the band, but they’ve improved their sound since I last saw them in 2015 to the point where it was honestly remarkable, a completely mind-blowing listening experience.

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