Live cheating

May 19, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Here’s an interesting question as posed by a reader.

“How many microphones are allowed in a live recording to not be considered “cheating”? I think there at least two levels of “live” music, for example: 1) Two microphones (left and right) where the band is playing. The microphones would capture the real distance and space of the recording venue. 2) As many microphones as you want. You could place one microphone literally one inch away from the singer’s lips, another inside a piano, and another in front of a saxophone’s mouth. Then all those microphones would have to be mixed into a 2-channel presentation. I imagine that some people might see the second approach as “cheating”: although you are recording “live”, the rendered mix is not happening in the room the way our ears would capture them.”

I think we can all agree we want the final product to sound live.

How we got there can be interesting.

In a pure two-microphone recording we capture without affect that which we would hear if we were standing on stage. A purist’s viewpoint.

While technically correct it is empirically incorrect because it’s missing one essential element.

The listener.

When a group is playing onstage the listener’s attention shifts along with the music. As soon as the pianist begins her riff we mentally turn down the level of the others and focus on the soloist.

The same happens when we listen to a 2-channel playback of the event but only if the musicians are working together to make that happen—something quite rare in live performances. When we cannot see the players it reduces our mental filter’s ability to shift focus.

The long and short of it is we have two choices in a live recording. Either the musicians are skilled enough to titrate their performance such that the listener is constantly directed where they want or (more typically) that job falls to the recording and mixing engineers.

If the end result of the recording serves the music then how we got there doesn’t really matter.

Only the music matters.

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41 comments on “Live cheating”

  1. IMHO, capturing a performance in a live balanced acoustical space (studio room, venue, hall, cathedral etc.) when recorded with just 2 mics would yield the best 2-channel reproduction playback realism! Natural ambiance, room reflections, spacial dimensional clues and precise musician placement would most closely reflect what you might hear if you were there (audience) during the live event.

    If multi-mic mixed in a semi-studio arrangement recording (ex: Octave’s Scabaret-Hothouse Flowers), achieving very satisfying live realism is certainly possible (and desirable), but does boil down to the engineer’s experience and efforts in achieving those desired results.

    FWIW, the latest two Octave releases will be very interesting to hear what mixing down the masters on the FR30s brings to the audio table!!

    1. You sir are in my corner (O: I have been commenting for a long time on this subject, and I speak from experience recording and employing true stereophonic principals. It is few and far between to find recording companies doing this.

      Octave records……hmmmm……how many channels to record a single, acoustic instrument in a beautiful concert hall setting? (think – Bach Cello Suites).

  2. Stereophony is a most artificial concept trying to fool our ear-brain system in order to create so-called phantom images which often are only located in a horizontal plane with strong left to right orientation and more or often less sound image depth. The basic and inherent problems of stereophony are: microphones cannot reliability reveal the real directions of sound waves hitting the mic‘s membranes while we can precisely detect the location of a sound source even with one ear only (see: HRTF) – some animals can even moves their pinnae towards the sound source! The second basic problem: inter-loudspeaker crosstalk resulting in comb-filter effects blurring the sound and sound images. (Similar blurring happens in videos when camera panning happens!) Unless there a better recording techniques and crosstalk cancellation techniques for the 2.0 reproduction you can only get a most artificial sound far from the real “live” 3-D concert hall sound. The best you could get is a live-like sound (correct PRaT) if you have loudspeakers without phase and timing errors inherently created by passive crossovers. Not to mention the individual listening room acoustics superpositioning the room acoustics captured by the recording mic arrays.

    1. Way too complicated comment right there. Sorry, in my opinion, it is much simpler then all that…. (O; Comb filtering is a fault of MULTI microphone techniques, fact! I always start with the source recording setup.

      1. Sorry. I fear you have to accept that a pair of loudspeakers (in most cases each featuring multiple drivers mounted on a baffle) is a much more complex system than a single microphone – seen from the point of view “sound field” to be recorded and finally to be reproduced. Simply see the sound field created by the signal of a recording of a voice using a single microphone when being reproduced by a pair of Infinity IRSVs with some dozens drivers. 🙂 For loudspeaker crosstalk just start here: https://www.ambiophonics.org/comparison-of-crosstalk-cancellation-filters.

        1. Thank you. That is why I have a single purpose, large listening space which I set up according to Paul’s suggestions and even sent him a personal email thanking him for that and a nice response in return (O:

          The speakers here, do not suffer from the multi driver thing. I am a Martin Logan guy now, and have not looked back.

          Although, I DO have other systems in the home utilizing towers with multi drivers (Klipsch Reference Premier) in my livingroom = a more typical (room) setting. Needless to say, it is ok for the most part, but totally difference experience then an empty, treated room where you are sitting 20′ from the speakers.

          My doors are open once again for anyone that would want to come by to hear the system, and happily, I have had some nice friends and neighbors that have visited. Always good to share great music and sound (they bring their own) when ever possible.

          That is all for now, and thanks for the link!

  3. With a pure two-microphone recording you capture a perspective that will not be honest unless all the ambient sounds are also recorded and played back around you as it was heard in the live performance.

    1. It’s much more honest as an ‘audience’ perspective then a whole host of mono channels ARTIFICALLY brought together! Thats not real stereophonic principals.

      1. Speaking from the perspective of having played live before an audience, and in studio? Live, maybe. Studio? It usually helps to be mixed, unless everyone was playing together in one large enough room with good acoustics, and recorded in one take.

        1. You make me smile……..yes to all your questions. There are studio and live recordings in my library from the many groups I have been in. Dating back to the mid 70ies, with lots of first hand experience in the music business, which of course, has totally changed over the years.

          Actually got my start playing organ back in ’63 and it went on from there (O:

          1. I used to seek only for “recorded live” albums…. Studio recordings let me down a bit, unless it was studio ‘recorded live.’

            What I love about YouTube is that there are many well mixed live performances, and you can see who’s playing what.

            Some of the playing is just OK. But, here is a recorded live performance and I enjoy listening as if I am seated in the room watching a band rehearsal.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1BluZwP6vs&list=RDm1BluZwP6vs&start_radio=1&ab_channel=StudioPrestige

      1. Lien,
        If you can listen to the album on a well set-up 2 channel home-audio
        system then you’ll understand why I have mentioned this recording.
        Also, what ‘jazznut’ says just below.

        1. Thanks for your reply. As I had remembered reading many years ago that this album had been recorded using a SINGLE mic, I was curious about your thoughts regarding that feature’s effect on the recording quality.

          Having only listened cursorily to the album, I never thought much beyond the impression that it seemed like a good recording, but as the material itself wasn’t much to my liking, I left it at that.

          Anyway, after reading jazznut’s comment I thought I’d perhaps been mistaken about my recollection, but after checking around, I found a couple of references to the album’s single-mic status, and even some mention of the liner notes containing certain errors about the recording process and equipment.

          1. Your welcome.
            Yes, most sources say one mic, which is even
            more amazing, if that is in fact true.
            I always thought that there was a second mic
            involved, exclusively for the singer.
            My point is, specifically, ‘look what you can do
            with just one or two mic’s, if you know what you’re doing’.

            “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it…
            that’s what gets results.”

  4. In most music venues, other than most classical music performances, there is significant use in the live performance of microphones and loudspeakers to convey the desired sound to the audience. Just look for the mixing console, often out in the midst of the audience. I’ve seen this in small clubs with folk, jazz, and country music. It is certainly the case in any large venue – Woodstock changed the world in more than one way; one of those has been how large outdoor concert sound is done.

    You might conclude that the feed off the mixing desk is the best one, but that does not take into account the venue acoustics.

    Add in how the person or persons responsible for the final mix may adjust the sound. Many remastered early stereo recordings, even classical, sound as though a lot more than use of an audiophile-quality re-recording path has entered into the process.

    The result for me is to be interested primarily in the music itself and what sort of illusion of the performance has been created.

  5. Yep, you nailed it. You can put two microphones at the listener position, or even a dummy head, and the recording still won’t sound like how a listener would perceive it, because one very important thing is left out – the human brain. Our ear/brain can emphasize sounds coming from different directions, and de-emphasize others. Microphones and speakers can’t do that. So we help it with spot mics. We recorded the American Bach Soloists performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco several years ago. We had an ORTF main pair above the orchestra, which provided the bulk of the sound, but we also had wide mics, audience/reverb mics way up high, and spot mics on the soloists, choir, harpsichord, tympani, and the string sections. The recording sounded fantastic and many people use it as an audiophile reference. We recorded 16 channels and mixed to 5.1 and stereo, but the end result sounds completely natural, like you were there at the concert. That’s the art of recording/mixing.

    1. The real art/challenge (with full orchestral ensembles) is to record with two channels and achieve that goal. Engineers are having too much fun with ‘toys’ and channels these days. I have talked about this many times.

      A Decca Tree or in your case an ORTF scheme over the top of the orchestra is NOT natural. When I go to a symphonic concert (NO AMPS, NO SPEAKERS), I listen from within the venue at my seated position, NOT the maestro’s perspective.

      I have made some very simple recordings of orchestra, choral, organ with a simple single point MS microphone. Musicians from those very performances have been to my home a the dedicated listening space, and they can’t get over how full the sound is from ONE MIC !

      My work during the summer involves the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I am always teasing the audio engineers about the 40 plus mics hanging over the stage which include a Decca Tree over the directors podium, and a pair way out in the hall. Live broadcasts from Symphony Hall streamed on WCRB Saturday nights reveal the use of 3 or more seconds of reverb. It sounds like it was recorded in a very large, hard surfaced church! I know what that room sounds like, and it’s not like that, SHEESH.

      Most empty concert halls have 1 -2 seconds max, and with a full audience, it is pretty dry.

      What ever happened to less is more…………….?

      1. I’ve tried MS techniques and use them for certain things. But for a large ensemble with choir, harpsichord, etc, it didn’t give us the definition (this church had a SEVEN SECOND reverb time!), coverage, and width we wanted. Of course, multi-micing also gives you more control when mixing. That’s why everyone does it.

        I’ve also used Decca trees, and they sound wonderful! That’s why almost every film scoring engineer uses that technique (along with spot mics of course). I don’t think Shawn Murphy’s film score mixes sound unnatural. They might have more definition than from a typical audience perspective, but that is a good thing, especially in film mixes, where so many elements are competing with each other.

        That said, there were many great mono recordings done in the 50s using just one mic, suspended above the orchestra (not located in a “listener” position.)

        1. Thanks for your reply. Yes, true stereo recordings are a work of art and patience in getting it right. I always look at the symphony orchestra for instance and the way musicians are placed out on stage. I think of how the composers (LONG BEFORE recording came along) utilized the natural mixing and blending of this acoustic placement according to the volume (loudness) of the sections.

          It is the only reason when I record an orchestra I will get good height (12-15′) to get the ‘layers’ of the sections of the orchestra front to back. I am also 20′ or more from the front of the stage to capture that audience perspective, and let it all breath into the room.

          One of the biggest problems with multi mic placement is trying to make it sound like ALL the musicians are playing in the same space. Many times artificial reverb is employed to make it happen. Drives me crazy.

          Most times, the strings section ends up in ones face during playback / critical listening in our homes, and sound much drier then the brass located at the rear of the stage!

          It is interesting to note, and I use it as a telling gauge of what the REAL reverb is in the concert hall, and that is by the brass. Most likely, hot spotting if at all within the brass and percussion section is lightly ‘feathered’ in or not at all because of the cutting power of these instruments. Thus, they tend to excite the natural acoustics of the room.

          Things can get a bit blurry with all that going on, and with all those channels.

          Since I am in the ‘church business’, I would be VERY curious to know which and where this room of 7 seconds is? There are not many performance spaces with natural reverb tails that long LOL. Do tell !

          1. Grace Cathedral, a 92 year old Episcopal church on Nob Hill in San Francisco. I didn’t measure it, but I think the ceiling is close to 100′ (we hung the audience mics from the rafters up there).

  6. Paul said it best, “If the end result of the recording serves the music then how we got there doesn’t really matter.

    Only the music matters.”

    I’ve been to many concerts, especially bluegrass or “Americana” where bluegrass groups work on stage with ONE microphone, switching spots as necessary for solos and such. And it sounds great.

    Then you can have multitrack recordings where an engineer may have 20 mics all on the just the drum kit, so he can later mix it the way they WANT it to sound.

    Microphones are not human ears, they are tools to be used wisely.

    1. Amen!
      I always mic my guitar amp into the PA. I can carry a much smaller amp and don’t have to worry if I am to loud or not loud enough. “in the old days” I had several stacks that was as tall as I was. I also use a transconductance amp compressor from Keeley. I have heard final mixes going thru a tube based compressor for final mixing and it sounded clearly better on a A – B comparison.

      1. Indeed. I note super electric guitarist Steve Kimock often plays through a relatively small, mic’ed 50-watt Dumble amp, a rare and magnificent beast that is at the heart of his sound.

  7. Bob Carver tried to delay crosstalk with mixed results. A process called Sonic Holography. Interesting and very holographic with some music but does color the music in an unusual way. it is something to be experienced though.

  8. It would seem the vast majority of “live “recordings are pulled right off of the sound reinforcement board. Not too “live” really.

    1. This is not the case. Only very low budget (free?) recordings (bootlegs) are done that way. The soundboard mix will often be missing some key elements needed for a good recording. Maybe the cymbals are plenty loud in the venue, so they are not mic’d, or those channels are turned down. Great sounding 24 channel rack mount recorders (ie. JoeCo Black Box) can be had for a few thousand dollars these days, and all larger venues and sound companies use them. They might use the mixing board channel direct outputs to feed the recorder, but the stereo board mix is not gonna sound very good in the home. They do often still record a stereo board mix though, so the band can get an idea of their performance afterward. But for public consumption, they’ll mix in post from the multi-track recordings.

    2. Hey John, indeed I record using two mics into a recorder for shows I put up on the Internet Live Music Archive, but yes, many people love getting a mix from the soundboard, mainly because it has less crowd noise, isn’t “smeared” from reflections off the walls, ceiling, and floor, and often you can understand the vocals more clearly. As you mention though, those soundboard recordings might be missing certain elements and in general aren’t mixed to sound “right” listening to them directly, but are mixed to sound good coming out of the venue’s P.A. system. As usual, it is all a compromise.

  9. Paul and several posters hit the nail on the head. Microphones simply are not as advanced a design as our ear-brain combination. So, while theoretically two microphones spaced the same distance apart as our ears with a blob of material between them of material, size and placement similar to a human head, the two microphones are not capable of registering the sound field as well as our human faculties, so additional microphones are typically necessary to compensate for the inadequacies of current microphone technology. It is similar to current speaker technology. Two single drivers spaced apart cannot deliver as realistic a sound as multiple drivers optimized for their particular frequency ranges and dynamic requirements.

    1. I am wondering if your are using an AVR with multi channels, speakers and DSP to mimic better ‘compensate’ for what our brains / ears heard live in your listening space?

      1. I do not have DSP in my main audio system. My main system is stereo with as few components in the chain as possible. I do have a second, seven-channel system with DSP reverb, but that system is not for two-channel playback.

  10. You know Paul. In a recent post here, you mentioned something about that AKG C-24 mic again and how sweet it is. We have NEVER heard it used as a stand alone, stereo microphone sorry to say. (someday you’ll get brave :O)

    Because of that, I did a quick search on the web to see if I could find a ‘solo’ use of this mic in a LIVE setting. I FOUND ONE!

    Harry James and his big band orchestra. ‘The King James Version’ on Sheffield Labs. It was recorded in a church and DIRECT TO DISC. I could not find a digital recording of this for that reason – vinyl only.

    So, I went on eBay and found one from a music lover who was parting recordings out of his personal record collection. Arrived in it’s plastic sleeve, and looks to be in like new shape.
    Inside the gate fold with great photos during the session and a wonderful write up by Doug Sax.

    It just arrived, so I have not played it just yet. I would imagine this TRUE STEREO recording from 1976 is a spectacular presentation of what took place in that space, letting acoustic instruments breath naturally with some distance and showing the true capabilities of that microphone when used discretely.

    I will add this, which many listeners never seem to realize.

    A RARE recording made using this 2 channel scheme means, the musicians MUST get it right from start to finish – it is LIVE, there is NO mix to fix things in later, there is no patching/slicing/dicing/splicing things together. A recording and performance in it’s PUREST form, NO SAFETY NET found here, as if you were there live.

  11. Although that spot emulation done by the mixing/mastering engineers seems to be common to lift the soloists, I don’t always see it as a good thing. IMO it’s usually practiced way too strong compared to what the listener concentration effect you described, suggests. Furthermore the listener then has no choice anymore to have a balanced band spectrum. This practice always kept me a bit from perceiving recordings as real, but artificially pimped.

    Blue Note recordings might be the most extreme example of much too loud horns. Impressing in a way, but different from a good live balance.

    To be honest, I think this theory is even misunderstood generally. We do use this effect when we want to listen for a weak voice out of a noisy crowd, and I think the spot lifting recording theory comes from there. But imo it does happen in this example only because we concentrate on isolating that one voice out of the crowd, because we otherwise wouldn’t hear it. In a concert when we look at the soloist, we hear him anyway…we don’t have to „amplify“ him. Looking at a soloist is a much weaker grade of concentration than we need to isolate a voice out of a crowd.

    I think lifting soloists should only be used if they are too muted in comparison to others, just as this practice is used on live mixing boards.

  12. In all of the sessions I have seen or been involved in has not only spacial mics for totality, each performer and instrument also has it’s own line/mic channel for later mixdown. A lot of folks use the monitor mix as well.

  13. Genez,
    Nice session.

    FR, yes!

    Many good comments here.

    The ‘65 Fender Deluxe Reverb! Excellent!

    In my collection I have a Fender Custom Shop combo with basically a P2P wired Bassman circuit into 3 10”. Stunning tone. And with a power brake it gets a great tube overdrive.

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