Studio sterile

March 23, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

When enjoying live recordings we get more than just a great capture of the music. We get a sense of the crowd, the stage, the air conditioning system, the floor bounce, the room acoustics.

Live recordings are the polar opposite of the sterility of studio recordings where great pains are expended to neutralize studio acoustics, quiet the room, make whisper-quiet the air conditioning system, and silence any hint of an audience.

Live recordings capture both the brilliant musical surprises as well as whatever mistakes happen (which is one reason many live recordings are actually a compilation of multiple night performances presented as one).

In a studio session do-overs, punch-ins, editing, and overdubs cover the mistakes and often over sterilize the performance.

There are clear differences between the spontaneity of live recordings and the sterility of the studio versions. Both have their charms, benefits, and weakness.

The one observation I will make is that I wish more studio recordings would be alright with some environmental noises. When we were recording the Audiophile’s Guide SACD reference disc, many tracks were captured in PS Audio’s warehouse where, without much effort, one can clearly hear the air conditioning system at work, creaks, groans, and sighs from the metal roof, and a generally more “live” sound.

I often miss all that recording studios spend small fortunes eliminating.

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33 comments on “Studio sterile”

  1. Who here remembers the live grungy bootleg recordings of the 60’s & 70’s…Grateful Dead?
    In an increasingly sterile world where superbugs have learned how to overcome our antibiotics it’s nice to have well recorded music, be it live or studio, from an era when music wasn’t made by computers & pitch controlled auto tune devices…when music was real; when making music was a craft with heartfelt lyrics & original melodies…you know, before everything ‘old’ was sampled & passed off as new.
    I can go on, but there’s no point because I know that I’m right 😉
    ‘Hot August Night’ is still a stunning example of how to record a live concert with clarity &
    precision…a lesson from 1972.
    I could do without the background tape hiss from some of the classical recordings from the mid 50’s, 60’s & 70’s though.

    1. We remember how added “dither” improved the sound. I reckon that room and audience ambience is a version of dither.

      And that is one reason we love the sound of Jazz at the Pawnshop.

  2. I think there are two things here that have to be separated. There’s there ambience of a live performance and the acoustic of a live venue as opposed to a studio.
    We went to a gig a few years ago that was released (Mavis Staples Live in London), the sound of the album is nothing like the appalling sound of the venue. I go to a fair number of classical recitals that are broadcast or recorded and the audience are trained not to make any noise, their impact is only on the acoustic.
    Few classical recordings are made in a recording studio, usually in churches or large halls. They are often highly reverberant, for example many of Linn’s recordings with the Dunedin Consort, such as the award winning Mozart Requiem and St John’s Passion I’ve been listening to recently. The same venues have been favoured for decades.
    One notable exception is Wyastone, 2 hours from London. Nimbus Records started recording at an old country house in the 1970s and in 1992 built a 550 seat recording/concert venue. It is now used by dozens of record labels and has an ideal acoustic for anything from solo piano to full orchestra.

    1. I’d like to believe that said 1992, 550 seat recording/concert venue can be replicated, & maybe tweaked, all over the planet for superior (ideal acoustic) recordings by other labels as well.
      “Wouldn’t it be lovely”

      1. It’s a fantastic arrangement. I think the building was built by a charitable trust set up by the owner of Nimbus Records. It is a proper commercial operation, a preferred venue for some top flight recording artists, but it also facilitates more journeyman musicians and even school orchestras. The BBC Welsh Orchestra work there quite often. The ground floor seats are removed to fit in a full orchestra.

        Another interesting independent is Aeolus Music, who explain themselves thus:
        “AEOLUS is a record label specializing in Baroque Music and music for organ. Our goal, and that of our artists, is to present superb interpretations performed on the most appropriate instruments. In order to achieve this, we often travel throughout Europe to record rare historical instruments. We also strive to attain the best results in terms of sound quality. In pursuit of this goal, we record very carefully in well-chosen venues with the best possible recording equipment. Often our recordings are released on Super Audio CDs, providing high-end stereo as well as surround sound on SACD players, while offering full compatibility with all standard CD players.
        AEOLUS is based in Germany, and run by the producers Christoph M. Frommen and Ulrich Lorscheider.”

        Also check out “Myrios”, also from Germany.
        Magnificent recordings, formats from 24/96 to DXD and released up to DSD512.
        Amazing recording quality and award-winning performances.
        Always done at performance venues.

        1. My late accountant Michael Thompson worked with Nimbus at Ross-on-Wye, when he came to visit me he often gave me a Nimbus vinyl record or two. Their recordings were superb as befits their studio expertise. Michael sadly died of cancer a few years back, a sad loss. He was also a hifi enthusiast so spending on equipment was encouraged 🙂

    2. I had the great good fortune to hear/see (heresy?) Mavis Staples, 10 days past her 80th birthday, at the 2019 ZooFest. She was the headliner at this long running music festival by the Zoo Bar (it’s not a dive bar, well kind’a, it’s a blues bar) and is a force of nature. She and her band performed on an open air stage set up near the end of a two block long stretch of closed off street in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. If you didn’t mind the pre-COVID-19 crowd, you could find an opening close enough to the stage to hear her sing directly (did I mention that she is a force of nature?) and the amp/cabinets for the electric instruments and the drum kit. When further back, the concert sound system was actually pretty good, also. It was the memorable climax to another great 2 day music festival.

      Another example of a fine recording/concert venue is Blue Heaven Studio in Salina, Kansas. The story is that a small-ish congregation in this small-ish rural town had an old church building that was beginning to suffer the ravages of time to the roof and heating/minimal air conditioning system. Economic/financial reality indicated that it would be advantageous to build a new church and sell the old one. At the time Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds was in need of additional facilities for his growing business and looked into purchasing it for warehouse space. During a due diligence inspection of the building, he quickly realized that the acoustics of the old sanctuary were magnificent. He bought the property and instead of his original plan, he had the building repaired and converted into a large, open studio with both digital and analog recording equipment. Most of the pews were left in place for an annual music festival: Blues Masters at the Crossroads. I have driven down there twice to attend them.

      Viva live music, but until things return to a reasonable semblance of the old normal (and afterward), bless the stereo.

      And yes, my musical tastes range far beyond just the blues, though that is a great love of mine.

      Sincere condolences to the families of Boulder Police Officer Erik Talley and the other nine victims of the King Soopers shooting.

  3. Audiophile’s Guide SACD reference disc? How do I get it?

    As to environmental sounds, the audience of live recording done once and not cooked

  4. Undoubtedly the live recordings of today, compared to those of the past, represent a markedly significant advance, there are some that are heard so naturally that the need for the recording studio could be ignored. It is possible that this advance is due to the digital age.

    To corroborate what is stated here, I put to your consideration, the present work that, having its defects, (no recording is perfect) causes these to be minimized, either by the virtuosity of the performers, or by the beauty of the work, but mainly for the quality of the sound achieved.

    If your speakers have enough resolving power, (like mine) you will hear the ineffable timbre of baroque instruments, and if not, it does not matter, you will delight in this exquisite work by Corelli.

    And for those who like this genre, and good sound, you will be able to enjoy here, the heavenly work of Pergolesi (1710-1736): Stabat Mater, in its original version and with instruments of the period.

    There are countless interpretations of this work, but I am sure that lovers of audio equipment, but especially good music, will appreciate it not only for the virtuosity of the performers, particularly: Bragle (mezzo) and Labelle, but also for the immediacy of the recording.

    1. Agreed. Moreso, as many period instruments do not have the volume to be effective in modern concert venues, the live recordings often have better balance even that the sound from the better seats.
      The last large period instrument performance I went to before lockdown was Handel’s 1742 Messiah by the Freiburg Orchestra under Pinnock with the Zürcher Sing-Akademie.
      I must have been in the good seats as the guy sitting next to me went up on stage at the end and got some flowers, but from where we were the woodwind were difficult to make out. The Zürcher Sing-Akademie in particular were marvellous.

      1. My thing is LPs, CDs, Laser Discs, SACDs, however, this YT delivery (captured through a cheap streaming device, whose HDMI output goes to my NAD: M51 Direct Digital DAC, which, in turn, feeds without pre-amp, at 6 Amber Seies 70 power amps, in half-stereo configuration, of which, 4 of them, drive 4 passive subwoofers Legacy: Foundation) produces an extremely pleasant sound, bordering on the addictive.

        I’m sure there are many here in this space, with more sophisticated streaming systems, who, perhaps, could be so kind to try these extraordinary pieces of music on their equipment, so that they can verify, if these recordings are second to none, when comparing them using servers and streaming systems, more expensive.

  5. Hope no one in the the PSA or Ayre families were affected. The pain in your community must be stunning. So unnecessary. Really sorry for your loss.

    1. I was stunned watching the news yesterday about how this insane violence has come into your community Paul. I was visiting Boulder many years ago and it’s such a beautiful area of our country I would have never thought such insanity would ever take place there. My deep regrets to you and all the other residents of Boulder.

      1. It’s America. Hard to be stunned, but your kind thoughts are much appreciated. The pandemic mercifully caused a lull in mass shootings to levels we haven’t seen in a decade. Alas, since the first of the year we’re back in fine form again. This is the 7th mass shooting since the beginning of the year (mass shootings are 4 or more not including the shooter). 3 people shot doesn’t even make the news.

    1. Glad to hear everyone at PS Audio is ok.These things are horrific and utterly wasteful whenever and wherever they occur but when they are close to home they inevitably have a greater impact.

      I remember being in Colorado of all places when I heard of the Dunblane shooting in 1996. It was a visceral shock. These things happened, I understood that, but they don’t happen in Scotland. Not near my home and my family.

      Of course they do, and sadly they will. Happily legislation here makes it less likely to happen again. But not impossible, and we did not have the underlying societal pressures you do in the states which makes it much more difficult to legislate effectively.

      Again, glad to hear you are all ok and best wishes to the people of Boulder.

  6. Even though this happened to me on a rare occasion, I have heard a recording and even seen a YouTube video of a live performance that I actually attended that brought back such stirring memories of how incredible that evening of music was. It’s not the type of live recording I want to hear As a rule but in this case it was a full audience of over 3000 people in the old Paramount Theater in New York City. A coincidence like this is absolutely thrilling to relive on CD or even better video. Knowing that I was in the audience feeling the incredible energy of the music on stage and the fans in the audience. There’s nothing like it. Anyone who is interested in this magic evening it was the last road tour performance of Return to Forever Returns, The absolute final performance of Chick, Stanley, Al and Lenny. An 11 minute standing ovation.

    Rest in peace Chick Corea.

  7. I love live recordings where the crowd noises contribute to a huge, lifelike soundstage. On one particular track I use the cough of a man in the audience when comparing audio cables. It is amazing how different that cough can sound with different cables.

  8. I find that recordings with ambient noises are not flawed because the noises, once they become familiar, don’t get in the way of enjoying the music — unlike the way noises like coughing or unwrapping throat lozenges get in the way of enjoying a live concert. In fact, they become almost comforting, and they add to the enjoyment of the recorded performance.

    Some of my favorite reference tracks have unintended noises: the famous A/C vent in “Mining for Gold” from the Cowboy junkies; the floor creak (and the little “oh” I think I hear) at the beginning of “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” from Santana. There’s a flute & piano track, Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” on a HFN/RR Test CD, that features rain hitting the glass roof of the hall.

    The brains of audiophile music lovers are constantly working at cross purposes, trying to enjoy the music while analyzing the sound. We need cues to make us relax and listen to the performance of the musicians rather than the system. As “Mining for Gold” starts playing, I find that when I hear the fan noise and the rush of air from the A/C vent — up on the left wall with systems that image well — I smile and relax, secure in the knowledge that the system is sounding right. Then I concentrate on Margo Timmins’ vocal, feeling like I’m there in that church, live.

  9. God Bless all the families that lost loved ones in the senseless tragedy in Boulder, the innocents merely going about their day in which everyone expected respect for life and freedom to be unchalleged by cowardice of evil.

    We keep these families in our thoughts and prayers.

  10. Stunned ?
    Come on, it is the USA. where everyone (correct me if I’m wrong) is allowed to carry a gun.
    As long as the people of this country think this is ok, combined with the fact that there are a lot of lunatics and disturbed souls on ths planet… what else do you expect.
    But it’s a terrtible tragedy for the family of all victims. Their lives will never be the same.

  11. A moment of silence for the victims and families of the shooting in Boulder. There are never words to describe this unconscionable act of cowardice and senseless loss of life.

    We used to shop that store all the time living a ½ mile or so just up the hill in Shanahan Ridge A-frames across the street from the Flatirons.

    A breathtaking view with a heavy heart this morning.

  12. OK… the goal is to eliminate the citizen’s right to arm himself. We are being sold on not having that right. Its political. I was held up at gunpoint by a criminal element. Not some raving lunatic. It totally changed my perspective. My dad was held up in a jewelry store. It totally changed his perspective. The mass shootings are a political tool to get us to disarm. Why? The founding fathers knew that in every generation are born to us the power mad. We can not change evil. We can only restrain it…… Be stupid and join the Chamberlain club? Look…face IT. Can you? Certain men are evil and crave power over your life. Don’t like it? Good. You should not. What you do about it is up to you. Many Americans carry guns. Many more than you know, and do have contact with you. How many do you know? and… that’s the point. You don’t even know.

    1. So the carnage will continue.

      Different places have different problems, but I’m glad I live in a country where guns are not part of the public consciousness, the police or any officials generally do not carry firearms, and my kids were able to travel around town on their own day or night as long as they understood the train and bus system, which was pre-teen.

      Our living without the fear of gun crime, that the risks of gun ownership does not even cross our minds from one month to the next, is in most places I’ve travelled around the world normal, not the exception. I cannot imagine having to live with the threat posed by gun ownership.

      Several countries like Australia have in recent years have dramatically reduced gun crime by banning guns. All it requires is public support and political will.

      I had an uncle who died from a gun. A bullet put through his head. A Harvard graduate, anti-gun advocate, congressman from Ohio. Suicide. Twice as many Americans kill themselves with guns as are killed by guns.

      1. Thanks for the read Genez.

        Maybe we should ban all humanity? 😉 Funny how everyone from the other parts of the world seems to know what’s best for us (US). The propaganda comes from the self enlightened who know what’s best (Rolling eye emoji). Like you said it’s all about power & control. Evil has been around since mankind started, and probably longer.

    2. The purpose is not to disarm law abiding American citizens.

      I have not personally been assaulted at gun point, although I did escape a car jacking attempt many years ago. My brother-in-law was robbed at gun point late at night in a self-service gas station. Fortunately he had enough cash in a money clip outside of his wallet to satisfy the robber (who was caught on a security camera, arrested, and convicted). My brother-in-law now has a semi-automatic pistol and a concealed carry permit. He is also a long time deer hunter; as well as an avid fresh water sport fisherman (as is his wife); and owns a large caliber bolt action rifle. I have no problem with any of this.

      However, do you really need a non-full automatic (which can be re-engineered to full automatic functionality by after-market kits), yet rapid fire assault rifle with a high capacity ammo clip for self-defense? Really?

      The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: A well regulated Militia,being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bare Arms, shall not be infringed.” That “well regulated Militia” statement seems to indicate intent by the American founding fathers (the founding mothers may have had a different perspectives, but that is not known with any degree of certainty, and they were prevented from having any official input anyway due to prevailing customs of those times; [sarcasm font on] ahhh, the good old days [sarcasm font off]) for the free States to have some say in the matter of regulation, like background checks. The wording of this amendment is open to interpretation, not being unambiguous, leading to debate ad nauseum. A precise definition of arms is also not specified, although historical context may be inferred.

      During the American Revolutionary War, the most common personal long barreled fire arms were the Brown Bess, Charleville, and ‘Committee of Safety’ smooth bore, muzzle loading muskets. The state-of-the-art personal weapon available to the American militias was the Pennsylvania rifle, a long barreled rifle made by skilled local gunsmiths based on the German Jager rifles. These were still single shot weapons that required a meticulous reloading process, though they had greatly improved range and accuracy.

      As forward thinking as we like to believe the American founding fathers were, they were not science fiction authors. An AR-15 or even a M1903 Springfield 5-round magazine loading rifle would be as far fetched to them as a phaser-set-on-disintegrate from Star Trek is to us (or at least most non-science fiction geeks (me! me!)) before 1966. Perhaps even more so.

      The [sarcasm font on again] evil, liberal media [sarcasm font off] that is the CBS Evening News reports that the arrested and charged (but not yet tried), alleged shooter at the King Soopers supermarket, where the lives of ten law abiding United States citizens were taken, had purchased (legally) an unspecified rifle only a week before. It has not yet been released if this was the weapon that was used. Anyway, what is wrong with this picture?

      The National Rifle Association has, predictably, issued a statement referring to the aforementioned 2nd Amendment. I am quite aware of the ‘slippery slope’ hypothesis presented to continue to engender delusions of “Big Brother is coming to take our guns away” among the faithful. Despite opinions of the N.R.A. et al., common sense is not their exclusive domain.

  13. I remember an interview with Barbra Streisand in which she told of how she listened back to a song she had recorded in a studio, and wondered why it sounded so wrong. The producer told her that he had eliminated the sound of her breathing between phrases! Of, course, she demanded it be returned to her natural sound.
    Some studio mavens go way too far in their pursuit of “perfection”.

  14. These noises make things more real. There are noises at live performances, mistakes are made by the performers etc. which tell one that the person is at a live performance apart from the quality of music itself. Some venues have more noise and some less. So be it. Regards.

  15. My recording mantra is:

    Human Is Better Than Perfect

    I consider ambient noise to be forensic evidence of a live event, able to identify the time and place when musicians played together on a stage or in a private chamber. What I term a “professional audience” does not make its presence known by noises, but by the two way communication of psychic energy, olfaction, toes tapping in air and other body rhythms.

    I am also amenable to “live in the studio” recordings, but I find that the INTENTION to splice causes a loss of focus on the piece as a whole and a disruption of the narrative arc, the journey that the musicians and listeners take together.

    Likewise, splicing, overdubbing, acoustic isolation and headphones disrupt the multi-partite, interactive, communion and communication of the players.

    Studio acoustics are designed to be sterile, so the engineer can impose his synthetic spatiality in hours of mixing and mastering, denying the musicians know how to reach their audience without an intermediary sausage maker. If that is true, GET BETTER MUSICIANS.

    Music comes from beating hearts and literal inspiration (breathing) through the fingers and lips. It is a mirror for the soul, and machine interventions of knobs, shiny boxes and plug-ins can only dilute and degrade the musical truth.

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