A modern console stereo from Symbol Audio, $26,000.
Looks like this is "Off-Topic" week at TOP. Ctein's writing about tea again (see below); I've been deeply troubled by, and preoccupied with, the Massacre of the Innocents in Connecticut, and had to write about it twice (and I want to write about it again, but am going to refrain); and then, in the comments to the "Geeky Tweaker" post, Nigel had to go and ask this question:
Tell me, Mike. Do amazing hi-fi systems sound better than real instruments? If you had an acoustic guitarist in your living room would it blow your hi-fi away? If one goes to a concert, say an acoustic one, and hears a trio play, is it better than the most expensive hi-fi (like the one in the picture)? I don't mean to be sarcastic, but I am interested in the subjective pleasure of wonderfully reproduced music in a room.
This is the sort of question I'm powerless to not answer. Tiny claxons go off in the nearly empty corridors of my brain; audio question! Must be addressed!
The answer, Nigel, is that a stereo system, at its best, will most likely be an adequate simulacrum (especially with acoustic guitar music, which is relatively easy to reproduce well)—but the real thing, while it won't "blow your hi-fi away," will sound better.
The difference—and it's a large one—is that with the stereo system, I can listen to Andres Segovia, Leo Kottke, Chet Atkins, Robert Johnson, and Wes Montgomery in my living room, whereas the best I could theoretically do with a live guitarist would probably be a neighbor or relative who plays a bit, or a local guitar teacher who's available for hire. It's a big difference. Music first, sound second.
Beyond that, I can't fit a symphony orchestra in my living room, and some musical performances were never played live, from "I Am the Walrus" to 32-track electronica to Glenn Gould.
There's a huge body of conventional wisdom—conventional sanctimony might be more like it—which holds that live music is always better. That it's "the absolute sound," the reference to which reproduced music should aspire. Not to me. I've heard just as many poor-sounding live performances as I've heard poor stereos. Great-sounding music is rare—and just as rare either live or reproduced.
Live music might sound more realistic at best. But...
- The performances might not be the ones I want to hear: for instance, I once paid previously perfectly good money to see Neil Young perform one of his greatest guitar anthems, "Like a Hurricane," on solo organ. Right guy, right song, wrong night.
- The performers might be having an off night. I once went to see the great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who insisted on conducting—badly—for half the concert. It was only slightly more relevant than watching him paint a house.
- The performers might be impaired. I had the misfortune to see the Pogues live once, and Shane McGowan was so blindly drunk he wouldn't stop raving into the microphone...and you were sorry when he did. The experience was such torture I haven't willingly listened to the band or the singer since.
- I might be uncomfortable in my seat or find the surroundings offensive: I saw the blues legend Freddy King once, while I was sitting next to a large table of very drunk, very loud servicemen who seemed to have been placed there by Satan specifically for the purpose of ruining everyone else's evening. And...
- Yes, the sound quality might be bad. I heard Dizzy Gillespie in a 40-table jazz club, and he had the trumpet and the drums miked. It was physically painful. Anyone who can't hear an unmiked trumpet and full drum kit in a room the size of a large living room really doesn't deserve to hear them, if you ask me. I actually complained directly to Dizzy about it, face to face, in person. My brushes with greatness are usually not what such encounters are meant to be, unfortunately. Big sigh.
That's not to say it's not worthwhile to hear real musicians playing live. It certainly can be. I stopped going to most concerts years ago because the music is too loud to hear, but I still go hear classical music or acoustic jazz from time to time. Occasionally, live performances can be transcendent—I got to see Lynyrd Skynryd play a 15-minute version of "Free Bird" in concert, before the plane crash, and that was fun. Sometimes you get lucky. And sometimes you just need to get out of the house.
For better or worse, though, recordings are the main form that music performance takes in our culture. It's the best way to listen to music, in my opinion.
Live music can be nice...but it's often just no substitute for the real thing.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
John MacKechnie: "That band may suck on Floyd, but I hear they do an Amazing 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps.'"
HT: "I discovered this far too late, but your typical rock shows are much more enjoyable when wearing earplugs. I know it sounds counter-intuitive. But as you point out, popular music concerts have the volume turned up way too loud anyway. Quieter volume would be ideal, but the next best thing is to wear earplugs. Rock show decibels will exhaust your ear after a few minutes but wearing earplugs will let you enjoy the show in its entirety and, yes, you'll still hear the music just fine. The only thing that will truly be muffled is the crowd noise of those nearest to you. (And that's a good thing.)"
Ed Kirkpatrick: "I have been to my last rock concert.
"I am a huge Mark Knopfler fan. I consider him a fabulous guitarist and songwriter, I have everything he ever released. I wanted to see him for years. So when he brought his show to Wolf Trap Park at the Filene Center a few years ago we paid a lot of money for great seats. A nice part about an evening at this venue is that you can bring a picnic and enjoy food and drink before the show at many lovely spots in this outdoor park so lots of people pay to lay around on the lawn area and party, me included. However, as soon as the music started the behavior of the audience just ruined it for me. Drunk fans in the house seats and the lawn area continuously hooted and shouted, some people in front of us decided it would be fun to stand up and dance and sing and we had to stand just to see the show. The lighting engineers blasted extremely bright lights called blinders directly at the audience and it did literally, if temporarily, blind us. I have been told by some who know that this is done to defeat unauthorized video recording. What the whole experience did for me is convince me to just stay home and listen to good music on my system. So I agree that recorded sound is better than live, at least in the rock concert world.
"Oh and the beer is a lot cheaper!"
Son of Tarzan: "Having had the truly distinct pleasure of hearing three of the acoustic guitarists you mentioned above about 30–40 years ago, Segovia...concert hall, Atkins...small club venue in Chicago, and Kottke in a coffee house in Milwaukee, I can attest to the fact that there is no comparison to the feel of live music.
"When you are caught up in the sights and sounds of the live experience, sound quality is but one of multiple sensory stimulation one enjoys. In the confines of your own 'listening chamber,' no matter the price of the equipment, the media, or the construction of the room, lacking the peripheral parts of the performance, people, place, and presence can not compare.
"I listen to the three artists listed above and many other types of music that I have experienced in person quite often on my 15+-year-old system, sometimes from vinyl, sometimes from CD or even sometimes in the car. The detail of the sound is still not the driving factor in my enjoyment. Especially now, decades after seeing and hearing them in person, the most important part of the experience is the memory of the event."
Dennis: "Amen. Amen. I couldn't agree more. Live shows (rock at least) tend to be over-the-top loud now and you get the feeling that the performer is just running through the material. I too saw Lynyrd Skynyrd appproximately six months before the crash. That and the Who (with Keith Moon) and will cherish those memories until my dying day. There was something special there that doesn't come 'round anymore. Better the controlled environment of my living room, with DTS and HD video."
Joe: "I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and though my father loved classical music (especially Stravinsky), I never heard a live orchestra until I was away at college. My father did have a terrific stereo, and a great record collection, so I did grow up familiar with many great orchestral pieces.
"Then during my first year off at college, I went to see a performance one of my favorites, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, my first time hearing a live orchestra. And I was totally blown away. I had never heard what real violins sound like, and it was like night and day. It was as if the instruments were breathing, like they were alive. I'll never forget it.
"On the other hand, I've had the opposite experience, like Mike describes. Hot Tuna played so loud it was painful. I've gone to see Keith Jarrett play solo improvisations at Carnegie Hall three times and one of those times he was in such a foul mood that I wish I'd stayed home. (The other times, though, were transcendent, and have not been released as recordings.)
"What can you do? You pays your money and you takes you chances."
Norm Snyder: "Growing up in Detroit, in the 'sixties, a close friend's dad owned a club called Baker's Keyboard Lounge, which only held about 110 people. There were a lot of great jazz musicians to be heard on their tiny stage. A few times, if an act had cancelled, my friend's dad would turn to his son and any friends who happened to be hanging around in their living room and say, 'Who would you guys like to hear?'—meaning, he'd see if he could book them. That's how we all heard Mose Allison, live, for the first time. Sonically, the club was great, but I also have recordings of his from that period and later that are good quality, and a pretty good system at home. Nothing can compare to the experience of being in the room, as the music was created. The phrase 'You had to be there' really applies.
"I think that's as true of recently enjoyed live performances by jazz and other musicians, as it was (admittedly in my memory) with Mose Allison that weekend long ago. Being in a small club, with live instruments/musicians involved a kind of participation and sharing of an energy that recordings can't ever really capture."
Mike replies: Norm, I hear you (maybe this post should have been titled "Live Music is Not Necessarily Better"), but you were luckier than most. Then, too, there's live and then there's live. In high school I used to travel to Chicago to hear music at the blues clubs, and enjoyed it hugely.
One of the most raucous and most fun was a wild set by Otis Rush, in a small club where the audience was in very high spirits and completely into the music. Otis chicken-walked the bar with his guitar, to great applause. Cut to college, when I was on a committee to bring concert artists to the 3,000-seat auditorium. We booked Otis Rush and his band, paid extra for their travel expenses. I was greatly looking forward to the event.
But apparently no one else was. Otis and his ensemble set up in the middle of the much-too-big stage looking like a small island in a big sea, and played to a house that was about one-third filled. Nobody sat in the front rows. And most people were sitting there quietly with an arms-crossed, "show me" attitude. No energy from the audience at all. The band clearly was not enjoying the experience either, although they tried their best.
Really taught me a thing or two about "music."
Jim Hart: "The Keyboard is still there, still operating. It is now the 'World's Oldest Jazz Club,' having first opened in 1934."
GH: "Live music is amplified and mic'ed in completely different ways than recorded music, so you're really at the mercy of the room and the engineers every night. I played in bands in Los Angeles for 10 years in just about every club around, and I don't ever recall the music sounding as good as a recording. Some rooms, like the Viper Room, tend to do a better job than others, but it's hard to replicate an album recording, especially if there are several members in the band. I'd say that seeing live music is about the energy and experience, but recorded music generally 'sounds' better."
Poagao: "I was fortunate enough to see Ennio Morricone direct music that he composed for films, and that sent a shiver down my spine. Yet even that shiver derived from hearing the same pieces played by cheap Italian orchestras on tinny TV speakers when I was a kid."
Player: "Recorded music is the idealized version of how the artist wants the music to sound; live performance tries to match that ideal but falls short. Recorded music is the standard; live performance is the reality."