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Wednesday, 19 December 2012


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Hmmmm. The way most of us get to see most photographs today is electronically. Secondarily, we see them in four-color printed reproductions, least of all do we see original prints.

Live music, for me, has always been about the experience not the quality of the music. With the exception of notable concert venues such as symphony auditoriums or opera halls, it is almost always inferior to the studio production values. I cannot STAND "concert albums". Of course, so much depends on the musicians you are discussing. As a someone who enjoyed a Dead Show back in they day, the only way to experience the Grateful Dead was at the show!

This seems akin to asking whether it's better to photograph a scene, or to witness it in person. For me, that's an even more difficult (and interesting) question.

I am highly unqualified to comment on music or sound systems, but I think I can take this in a slightly lateral direction to add something that might be helpful.

Mike's reply makes reference to the variables that can affect a live performance, including accoustics of the room, sobriety of the musician, etc., and compares it with the fixed state of a recorded performance. Some people prefer stability and predictability (recorded) and some people like the unpredictable and the uncertainty that goes with it. Sometimes the same person can prefer one over the other and then switch back depending on their mood or the circumstances.

So if you like the excitement of uncertainty (or at least are in the mood for it) you might enjoy a live performance better, simply because you are literally hearing the thing for the first time. But if you prefer (or take comfort in) knowing what's coming in the next beat or the next refrain, you'll enjoy recorded music more.

In both cases the operative word is "enjoy," which is subjective. And Nigel's original statement said he was interested in the "subjective pleasure," not the objective measurement of quality.

Another factor in favor of live music is that it brings in the added dimension (for most people) of being able to see the music being performed. Whereas audio recordings are 100% about audio, a live performance brings in visual and other sensory inputs. For some people that might be a negative. For others its a positive.

The thing is, that you are really talking about two different things. Sound systems that REproduce the original performance, by definition, are intended to get as close to the original sound as possible. Nothing to do with the quality of the original performance. You can also use audio equipment to SHAPE sound to your preferences. By adjusting frequency band levels, using vaious filters, and other available sound shapers, you can make the sound what you want within the limits of your system. In the 'old days' (before the 1980s) there was little you could do at home beyond level adjustment.All shaping was done at the recording studio. Post solid state and computer, the sky is the limit. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Being a rehab'ed audiophile, I find Hi-Fi to be an invention from hell, intended to syphon all our money. You start with a budget integrated amplifier, a CD player (if you are still living in the 90's, that is) and a pair of budget bookshelf speakers. Sound quality is so disappointing that you'll be upgrading in no time. As you don't know a thing about Hi-Fi, you start your upgrade path with the loudspeakers, so you buy some nice, wood-veneered floorstanders which cause every moving object in the room to shake. You talk about it to the fellow at the nearest Hi-Fi shop, who recommends you a monster 300-watt amp so that you get more "control" over the bass. Now it's better (at this stage you covered your walls with duvets and foam pads in order to reduce slap echo and standing waves), but your CD player isn't up to the task anymore. You buy a Meridian CD player which, as a bonus, plays MP3 files. Now it's finer, but the high treble makes you edgy. You buy some super cables that are akin to having anacondas lurking at the back of your system, which cause some of your visitors to giggle whilst your back is turned...
To cut a long story short - it never ends. You'll end up with a second mortgage on your house (by this time you have a Krell/Wilson Audio system, or Conrad-Johnson/Avalon one) and still never get the promised experience of live music at home. Ordinary records sound flat and thin, compromising the listening experience, so you start buying records from Chesky. Things get a little closer to the real thing, but in the meantime you lost your musical taste and only buy recordings that sound good through your system. You are not a music lover anymore. Plus your wife left you and you get calls from the bank clerk everyday. Only the fellow at the Hi-Fi dealer loves you. Suicidal thoughts run through your mind more often than you ever expected.
That's grossly exaggerated, I know, but it depicts the kind of lunacy that made me give up trying to be an audiophile. Now my hobby is photography, which is no shorter of lunacy than Hi-Fi... (*sigh*)

The true live experience brought home will only happen when producers include the sound of an idiot sitting behind you talking on the rear surround channels. THATS live music.

It seems to me like Glenn Gould understood this well: that recording artist and performing artist are two different things, and one is not necessarily subsequent to the other.

(See also: Steely Dan.)

One thing I like about live music is that it is often less produced and more basically instrumented. For instance, Newton Faulkner plays with just a guitar and his voice at small live shows, but his studio albums (of the same songs) often have drum beats and other added effects.

Compare http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2i6f9Pw08s (live), with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDiKbXtAnZU (studio). I definitely prefer the live version, even with the terrible youtube recording (yes, it's even better if it's really live).

Some people insist that a good concert is one that sounds "just like the record." Too often true.


You are right on.

I had the displeasure of hearing Isaac Stern butcher the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Yet his recording with Bernstein and the NYP is wonderful, my second favorite. He was, of course, well known for ups and downs in live performance.

Then heard a Russian I'd not heard of do a first rate job a few months later.

A year ago or so, I heard George Lopez play The Goldberg Variations at a free concert at Bodoin College. Great performance - and he only talks, quite engagingly, when not playing. \;~>

We have friends who love play live gigs, and feel that recorded music has had a large negative effect on music and musicians. And yet, I prefer listening to them recorded, or at least with my eyes closed.

Terrific musicians, poor stage presence. I videoed them a couple of months ago, and they were shocked when they saw it. One is lively and visually engaging. Two are like stone, and the forth scowls rather frighteningly (but almost always sings on key these days).


... and then there's the merits of 'live' recordings of music versus the studio version. Yes there's audience noise, less opportunity to control the sound, or edit, but... anyone who like me appreciates, say, The Allman Brothers live at Fillmore East, or Curved Air Live (I could go on but its up to your own taste) knows that sometimes an atmosphere and 'vibe' is captured that studio recordings sometimes lack. But is the live recording better than being there? probably for most of the audience.

Agreed - I often find myself preferring the studio version of a piece or song, because I know they've had a fair shot at refining it that little bit further, so all notes, phrases, effects etc are just the way the performers want, the best of multiple takes if need be. By comparison, live frequently just sounds raucous and ill-balanced.

Soup made from a chicken with nought but stock, versus just a dash of salt and paprika...

Oh go on then: SOOC versus ACR defaults versus just a dash of contrast and saturation and fix the blue sky hues...

Concerts tend to have bad to average music, gigs sound fantastic:) It really depends on the artist - small venues with folks like the Indigo Girls, amazing. Big stadium shows with U2? Well, maybe the music is not quite as clear, but hearing an entire stadium singing "In the Name of Love"(In Memphis, mind you) is an event. Live music, tho, i find to be a lot more satisfying when it's at a human scale.

Glenn Gould, interestingly, was QUITE clear that recorded music could and should sound much better than live. You can balance the various components of the sound much better, you can edit out the mistakes or poor choices and replace them with other takes, and so and so forth.

He felt very strongly that simply trying to emulate live performance with recordings was a fool's game, one that he was not at all interested in. I tend to respect his opinion, since he was both a recording engineer AND a musician of the highest order.

There are also physical and psychoacoustic phenomena that, quite apart from Gould's opinions, make recordings and listening to them a more complete acoustic experience. The physics of sound in rooms is extraordinarily capricious, and most of what you "hear" is constructed by your brain from a wild array of cues. Reproduction systems for sound can eliminate some of the necessity to construct, and can provide a more consistent physical experience that your brain should be able to use to create a better "heard sound".

Well, as you said: "Music first, sound second."

A concert where everything clicks together: the musicians, the music, the audience, the room, is one of the most wonderful and uplifting human experiences (fully 100% of all the people whose experiences I get to experience firsthand (that is: me), agree with this statement). The sound of such a performance is not even key to it's success - all that is necessary is for it to not get in the way of the musicians succesfully recreating their work, of the audience enjoying it and of the energy flowing both ways.

Having said that, a subpar concert can be a chore, even if the repertoire is something I otherwise like.

And anyway, the original question could even be answered with a qualified yes - the reproduction, in the proper setting, of a fully realized recording of a real instrument, can be superior to the live performance of that same instrument in an inadequate setting.

Ah, but there is no substitute for experiencing people making music together.

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.

A long time ago I realised that large arenas make lousy settings for music, especially Rock. As a result I refuse to see performances at these venues.

I live in Toronto and regularly attend concerts at Massey Hall, built in 1895.....it sounds fabulous.

Check out - Massey Hall 1971 by Neil Young - Reprise, for a 40 year old live recording, where the hall acoustics are on display for all to hear.

Mike, your suggestions on what can be done about gun violence were wise, compassionate and practical, I put the post on my facebook page and also sent it to Michael Moore. Anything else you have to say on the subject would be very interesting indeed, certainly to me, and I suspect to many others. Of course, you may not want to turn TOP into your own soapbox on everything that ails humanity, but this is a matter so utterly important to address, certainly more important than cameras and photography... If you wish, you could always post somewhere else on the net -- your own facebook page..? If you don't have an id there, maybe its time to join the nearly 1 billion. There is Google plus as an alternative.

In the 1980s, I went to two Oscar Peterson concerts (several years apart) in the Musikhalle in Hamburg, Germany. This is the main concert hall in a city of 1.8 million, not some hole in the wall or a high school auditorium.

Both times, after the intermission, Oscar Peterson stood in the middle of the stage and said (to the audience and presumably the engineers): "Please turn off the terrible amplifiers and speakers" or words to that effect. He definitely said "terrible".

After that the second half was better.
During the first half, I had been thinking "This doesn't sound very good, maybe I'm better off listening to this music at home".
Even during the second half (purely acoustic), I'm not convinced that hearing it live was any better than listening to a good recording at home.

Maybe a slightly different take:

I find I listen differently to live and recorded music. It's not the same experience. Good live is definitely better than good recorded in a number of ways but one of the things about live music is that you never ask the question "Does it sound like the real thing?" No matter how bad live music sounds, and how distorted or coloured the sound is from the sound system and acoustics, how little it sounds like the actual performer playing live in his or your own room for his own pleasure (I've heard artists playing in living rooms), we never question the "accuracy" of what we hear and a lot of the time what we hear is not the voice or instrument sounding "natural".

On the other hand we always question the accuracy of recorded sound. Being unable to tell the difference between recorded and live music is supposedly one of the goals, but do you expect one of Ansel Adams photographs of Yosemite to replicate the actual scene so perfectly that you can't tell the difference, or to be better than it? I think a lot of people chase the wrong thing with audio systems.

Just as looking at a photo is different from looking at the scene, listening to a recording is different to listening to a live performance. A good recording, and a good listening to a recording experience, have different characteristics to a good live performance and need to be judged by different standards in my view, just as we hold the photograph to different standards than we do the original scene.

I once had a guest tell me that listening to my audio system had been "a life changing experience". I'm too close to my system and too aware of it's weaknesses to have that sort of experience with it myself but I've had life changing experiences looking at various works of art including photographs and I understand the feeling. It's not about being fooled into thinking that it's as good as live music, it's about experiencing the music in a new and revealing way, just as we sometimes experience the world in a new and revealing way through an art work.

Good audio systems don't compete with live music, they complement live music. I need both in my life, just like I need real scenes and photographs.

I have a very very high end DAC/headphone amp and unobtanium headphones. One can build an amazing system at various price points with headphones at a fraction of the cost of a system with speakers. The detail, dynamics, tonality and spatial information in the best recordings is astounding.

I listen to a lot of orchestral music, I'm a bit nutty over the music of Gustav Mahler, it captures the joys and sorrows of life in ways that touch me deeply.

I'm fortunate to live in London and go to Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Centre to hear the great orchestras, conductors and soloists of our time. I go many times a year.

One time last year I sat next to some dude who wheezed on every breath he breathed through the whole concert. Nothing I could do about it, nothing he could do about it short of leaving and he didn't. It was an extremely frustrating experience!

Several times I've sat next to a gentleman who suffers a number of misfortunes, he has something going on with his leg, it's clearly not right and he has to shift his leg using both hands pretty often. It's bloody distracting but what can I do other than be thankful that my body is only suffering from the wear and tear of age. This chap also has a nervous problem with his hands and that's kind of distracting too. I could closer my eyes but the point of being at a concert is partly visual so I don't. He's a nice chap too, what can I say...

Then there people who are probably at their first concert and don't know the special etiquette of concerts like not talking during the concert and yes whispering can be heard for rows away thanks to the concert hall acoustics. And please turn off your mobile...

On the other hand, to know the music and experience the 120+db crescendo of the finale of Mahler's first symphony or the dying tones of the end of the ninth written as Mahler himself was dying is one of (my) life's great experiences and no hifi I've ever heard can capture the dynamics locational placement of the instruments and true tones of an orchestra as when heard in person.

Problematical is that so many recordings are poorly done. Sometimes recordings of orchestras even from the best labels are done in a studio with many takes and the best of these takes are spliced together for the final recording. On a less sophisticated system you can hardly tell the instruments apart and you certainly can't hear the spliced takes but on a sophisticated setup the splicing is jarring. You can hear a subtle shift in tonality "air" and dynamics and other jpeg like distortions.

But when you have a good recording and a fine hifi and you're sitting comfortably at home you can wave your arms around and conduct the orchestra, your body can swing with the music as the melody jumps from violins to cellos to flutes to clarinets and you can enjoy the experience of unrestrained listening in a way that you never could at a concert without causing the kind of disruption that would have you barred for life.

And just as you can make great photographs with even a crappy camera you can enjoy the bliss of music with the most basic of playback systems.

Whatever floats your boat. and I'm glad I don't have a boat by the way, I hear they're very expensive and you can hardly move much before you run out of boat and you're in the water. I'd get really bored myself...

The worst band around is the favorite band of Zack Arias !

Pretty clearly the best technical performances are recorded -- often multi-track, often edited together. I like that. And I like being able to hear them again when I'm ready.

But I do also rather like the interaction that happens between a good performer and a good audience on a good night. That has its own charm, especially for work that isn't primarily about technical virtuosity.

I'd love to know how Dizzy responded!

Edward Tenner wrote an interesting thing about recorded music in "Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity." In it, he contends that the ability to record, re-record, and splice out flawed takes has led to a previously unheard of pursuit of technical perfection, and that other qualities of music - emotion, character, etc... - are thus sacrificed. Note-peeping, you might say.

He looked slightly crestfallen or disappointed (in me, I mean), shrugged, and said something like "That's what people like" (although I wouldn't swear in court to the exact wording).


Ahhh, there is this little dingy bar in Hamilton Ontario that I just adore going to listen to bands play. Bar is a total dump, the kind of place where you wonder how it stands in a stiff wind.

The sound guy there and myself have the same 'ears' and audio quality is simply outstanding. Once they had a different sound/mix guy there and it was trying to listen through a potato. Luckily he was just a fill in and the regular guy is back.

If a stereo can sound as good as that, I haven't heard it. Having said that, I don't hang around stereo shops or know of anyone who is an audiophile so have nothing to compare that too. Even if I did, the people living on either side of my condo would most likely take offense to the 'live' experience emminatiing from my unit.

I think we've all had the 'totally inebrited musician' on stage experience. One of the members of one of my favourite bands was so out of it one night he could barely stand. But play he did and he did well for himself. At one point he did drop his guitar pic and a couple members of the band had to help him stand up again from his crouch. Once vertical, he played on and did well for himself. Moral of the story - sober or not, always tape spare pics to a stand ;)

One of my sonic hero's is Neil Young. I've loved his song writing and guitar playing since he penned "Ohio". One of my bucket list items was to see him in concert. Well this came to pass several weeks ago. The sound was terrible, he didn't say more than 10 words the whole night and it cost what was to me a big wad of dough. He and his band members from Crazy Horse just got into a ring like a drumming circle and pounded away for 2+ hours. Listening to him in the comfort of my living room on my stereo is much superior. I was hoping to hear some stories behind the songs but alas nothing.

I have been shocked at how much acoustic music is mike'ed these days, and over amped. Worse, it is often playing through glorified PA systems. Not much of a musical experience. I saw Randy Newman on solo piano in a small, excellent hall, but it was so amped you could not hear the real sound unless you were very close. (I was, having been burned before.)

Is everyone deaf these days? Sure, when I was young and saw Blue Cheer, they a wall of Marshall Amps turned to 11 in a cinder block club. (I left. I was not stupid when I was young.) But that was their schtick. Now every dance club is so loud you cannot talk and your ears ring afterwards - a really bad sign.

Well, here's a nearly formal proof of why, in fact, live music is better.

If you go to a lot of gigs you'll find that some of them are terrible, many are OK, some are really good, and a very small number are essentially infinitely good. The kind where you spend the second half of the gig trying and failing not to cry because it's just so bloody good, and the kind where you can, twenty years later, remember most of the setlist, where you stood and who you stood next to and so on. These things can change your life (and I don't mean that hyperbolically).

So now listen to a lot of records. There will be some good ones, there may even be some very good ones, but the mere fact of them being records which you can listen to repeatedly means that they never have this infinitely-good property.

I've been to maybe ten infinitely good gigs, and of the tens of thousands of records I've heard (including, of course, by the performers at the infinitely good gigs) I have never heard anything which is anywhere near that level of emotion (I mean, I cry to records, but it's not the same thing).

So, the formal bit: let's add up the total goodness of all the records, and the total goodness of all the gigs. Well, for the records the sum is finite, while if you have been to even one of these exceptional gigs, it is infinite: live music wins. Someone who chooses never to have the chance of experiencing that is choosing not to live.

A couple of incidental things:

1. Venue size. For rock/pop never see anyone in a venue which can hold more than a thousand: a hundred or less is better. If they are no longer playing venues that small then you have missed them: do not, under any circumstances, ever, be tempted to see someone in a stadium or at a festival. Some kinds of jazz can perhaps scale a little larger, likewise orchestral music (but: not chamber music).

2. The whole audiophile thing. I could be unboundedly rude about this, but I won't because people who believe in the cult believe in the cult. I'll just say one thing: "double blind". As general advice buy the cheapest audio system which will not damage your media (this is now very easy), listen on speakers not headphones when possible, and spend the savings on more records, which are the thing that actually matters. If you have spend anything like as much on hifi as you have records you are making a bad mistake.


Norm (featured commentator) was sandbagging a little bit. Baker's Keyboard lounge has a VERY rich history, and having the access he had during that time would have been divine. Just google it, you will see...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baker%27s_Keyboard_Lounge

"Tiny claxtons go off in the nearly empty corridors of my brain; audio question!"

I believe the word you intended is claxon or perhaps Klaxon (proprietary), as in "a kind of horn". Claxton is a small town in Georgia famous for its fruitcake. If, on the other hand, you are suggesting that your head is filled with small, spoiled fruitcakes, then you said it, not I.

I just feel with great regret all of the concerts I could have gone to in many parts of the world, save for my profligate spending on super, high-end audio. GRRRR.

Amen on the earplugs suggestion. I don't see many shows nowadays, but I always wear earplugs.

And another amen on the Pogues. I made the mistake of seeing them a few years ago, and Shane was hopelessly drunk. The opening act (Urban Voodoo Machine?) was 10 times better.

Mike, i'm not sure if i can ever forgive you for posting that video. The space provided here is not large enough to list the issues with their playing. That was painful, and i only watched the till the start of the first chorus.......my poor, poor ears.....

I actually watched it three times trying to figure out what they thought they were doing. My best guess is that it sounded okay in rehearsal but they got hopelessly off track right from the start of the actual performance and just kept on going--show must go on and all that. It's like all the instruments were waiting for all the other instruments to catch up. Quite inspiredly bad!


I guess the bumper stickers will not be issued?

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.

Only at the local meeting of the A F of M.


No sandbagging intended, in the story about Baker's Keyboard. Being in high school, and then college during that period, and being asked if a couple of guys could go and pick up Roland Kirk at the airport and take him around to the radio station was an amazing experience for someone discovering that music. Sol Hartstein had the club at that time, and his younger son eventually became George Shearing's road manager. Occasionally somebody who was appearing at the club would come back to the house to play after hours if they were having a party [Hammond B2, I think, and a Baldwin baby grand in the living room]. Listening to HiFi in the same house, of recordings of the same performers, could never be the same. It could sound wonderful, every nuance heard clearly [the sound of fingers on the strings of a bass], but the sheer presence, could never be the same.

Yes, my "system" at home may have more accurate sound--sound "better"--but will never compare to Rahsaan's playing, toes hanging over the edge of the stage, as he rocked and swayed.

Sometimes it's not possible to reproduce feel and climate on the recording, I'm Bobby McFerrin fan, seen him live twice already, there's nothing like a live show, when you almost connect with him by his audience conducting games.

Reading through all these entertaining comments, I am reminded of another story.

When Columbia enticed Bruno Walter to record with them for the last part of his career, they offered to hire any orchestra in the world that could be bought.

He turned all that down for Hollywood, where he said the best musicians in the world were playing studio gigs. He had them set up a big, empty warehouse space, where he split up the musicians he choose into separate spaces where they could see him, but their sound could be tuned and recorded separately.

That was the credited "Columbia Symphony Orchestra". I think those recordings are some of the greatest by a great conductor. Others may differ. (But they'd be wrong about the Brahms Double Concerto. {;~)> )

I assume he had guest conducted the Hollywood Bowl, where the HB Orchestra is a pick up band of the top studio people.

Another story, told to me by someone who was in that orchestra at the time, is of the very intense European conductor who was twisting himself into knots trying to say what he wanted in his tortured English, and mightily frustrated that he wasn't getting it.

Someone in the orchestra, tired of all this, piped up. "Who do you want us to sound like, Berlin, London, New York, Amsterdam, Chicago, who? Just tell us, and we'll do it."

Moose Tellin' Tales

I once had the pleasure of attending a small audience recital, by the local star classical guitarist, playing an instrument lovingly crafted by the local star classical guitar maker. There were about 12 of us in a large living room: the guitarist sat at the foot of the staircase and I stood about ten feet from him, with clear air between us, and a captivated silent audience.

The sound quality was extremely disappointing. It was plain boring. No dynamics, insufficient loudness....

I went home and played some classical guitar recordings on my decent hifi, enjoyed it immensely, and have never again tortured myself with that stupid "it it like live?" so-called test of a hifi.

Live music must surely be the reference point for its reproduction at home. But there is a very wide variation in the sound quality of different venues as well as variations in how you hear the performance depending on where one sits.

My poorest classical listening experience was from cheap seats in Avery Fisher Hall (NYC)in the 1980s. Its acoustics may have changed a lot since then, but it seemed to be a long concrete box that produced very shrill reflections.

And then London's Royal Albert Hall, which has often been criticized for poor acoustics, produced one of my absolute favorite live classical listening experiences when I was there last year. My daughter and I had good seats and the music was lively, detailed and dimensional in a way that I have never heard from even the best sound systems.


I had an experience that was similar to your disappointing Otis Rush gig. Steeleye Span came to play at the old leisure centre in Bletchley. The auditorium was full, with rows of chairs except for some raised seating right at the back; the cheap seats. This was where I and my friends were sitting.

The people in the chairs wore suits and ties and nice dresses and politely applauded at the end of each song. Us oiks sang along and stamped our feed and applauded loudly. One of our guys had been practising "All Around My Hat" in his bath for weeks.

Songs were introduced with "This is a song about dead people", and "this is another song about dead people", referring to the passive bulk of the audience.

In the end, Maddy Prior came right up to our seats and sang to us from a few feet away. We went wild!

Ow, ow, ow The video needs a warning. Permanent scarring may result.

Hey Mike....I think you and I are about the same age. Yes, I will tell you age makes a huge difference in the equation. When I was a young single fan of jazz in the mid-sixties I thumbed around the country just to be able to hear club bands who employed the Hammond B3.

The finest moments had to be hopping out of the car or truck in the middle of the city at night with head cocked on the hunt for that unique sound coming out of some door and spilling into the night air. Once inside it was the Holy Grail of sounds for me. Sometime I knew the B3 player sometime not. I did hear many of the greats:
Jack McDuff, Big John Patton, and Jimmy McGriff with saxophonist Charles Earland......what a sound!

I have put together a number of sound systems over the years and still listen to vinyl, CDs and now the computer. I have never heard any system that can reproduce the sound of the B3 in those clubs. Of course my entire energy was focused on the excitement of being there.

The ears and nerves would not hold that position these days so I do listen to some great B3 sound on my couch with eyes closed and foot tapping out the memories of another time.

Glenn Gould was mentioned by Mike and by two TOP readers. I think an excerpt from his 1966 essay, The Prospects of Recording, actually bears reading. In the following passages, Gould countered objections derived from "humanitarian idealism" against recording and in favour of live music:

1. An argument for aesthetic morality: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf appends a missing high C to a tape of Tristan otherwise featuring Kirsten Flagstad, and indignant purists, for whom music is the last blood sport, howl her down, furious at being deprived a kill.

2. Eye versus ear orientation: a doctrine that celebrates the existence of a mystical communication between concert performer and public audience (the composer being seldom mentioned). There is a vaguely scientific pretention to this argument, and its proponents are given to pronouncements on "natural" acoustics and related phenomena.

3. Automation: a crusade which musicians' union leaders currently share with typesetters and which they affirm with the fine disdain of featherbedding firemen for the diesel locomotive. In the midst of a proliferation of recorded sound which virtually erases earlier listening patterns, the American Federation of Musicians promotes that challenging motto "LIVE MUSIC IS BEST" — a judgment with the validity of a "Win with Wilkie" sticker on the windshield of a well-preserved '39 LaSalle.

(High Fidelity Magazine, vol. 16, nr. 4, April 1966, pp. 46-63; my emphasis)

But just search for Gould's "Prospects of Recording" online and read the entire essay: it is incredibly relevant today, even more so than it was during Glenn Gould's lifetime.

Excellent topic! Some random thoughts...

- Nowadays, I mostly avoid live music like the plague. Amplified live music is all too often nihilistic, macho and violent, enabled by technology that we don't know how to use except to show we have chest thumping POWER. And, I'm just talking here about the out of scale acoustics of hearing a modest duo. With a full-on rock band it's more like WWWIII with nuclear explosions! I fear this is a permanent, post-modern cultural fixture that taps into the same dopamine/adrenaline fueled addictions that drive mass murder and other acts of societal violence. I can't stand to go to professional sports events for similar reasons. Heck, even movie theaters are excessively loud nowadays, especially during previews and with most action-adventure type movies.

- As a mid 50 year old, I have fond memories of concerts from my late teens into my mid 20's. Then it seemed that most concerts became too loud and obnoxious, so I began to stay home. I eventually developed tinnitus from overexposure to loud volume.

- The best sounding concerts almost always have professional sound engineers hired by the band to run the sound. From that golden era mostly 3+ decades ago, this includes Pink Floyd in Quad, Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pat Metheny, etc.

- The most important variable in sound is usually the ROOM, whether it's your home audio system or a live concert. If the acoustics of the room do not match the scale and type of music, then it will not sound good.

- Try listening to music in total darkness!

- One of the most viscerally amazing live concert experiences in my life has been live pipe organ. True, the volume peaks of this type music are often quite loud, as can be a large symphony at full blast. However, it's not constantly LOUD like many concerts today.

- I sold high-end audio gear 32 years ago and quickly became sick of the bizarre nonsense that golden-ear tweakos believed. I also sold photography equipment later, but that experience was never as weird -- even with the most anal customers!

- As I type this, Jascha Heifetz radiates from my LCD, virtually created by moderately priced 2-way 6" monitors. It would be better live, but this will have to do. Along with Hendrix, Django Rienhardt, and many others, I'll never get to see Heifetz live.


I never got Cecil Taylor until I saw him play solo in a 60 seat club. Shatteringly different experience than trying to listen to his records cold, on a stereo or with headphones. And once seen live his recorded work took on completely different meaning for me.

Richard Thompson I have seen a few times live, and though his records are great and accessible, there's simply no comparison to a live show.

I was lucky to see Eliot Smith many times solo and in various bands. I wouldn't trade the recordings for those shows on a bet.


In reply to Ed Kirkpatrick, sadly his experience isn't unusual for "rock" shows at Wolf Trap. As a 16-year usher there, I've learned to recommend that people purchase house seats rather than lawn seats. With a house seat ticket, patrons can sit on the lawn and enjoy their dinner, then move into the house when the stars/lead acts play so they can avoid the drunks and the standers. Unless you really have to see the performers, I recommend box or loge seats rather than front or rear orchestra. The view is better, the music is just as loud, and patrons almost always avoid the lights. I hate lawn seats as they're generally only useful for partying and for saving an insignificant amount of money! As ushers we've noticed a steady degradation in the politeness and consideration of patrons everywhere we usher; it's not limited to Wolf Trap, unfortunately. That said, seeing and hearing performers live is a wonderful thing, even if the sound is [likely to be] better in my living room as Mike suggests.

From street buskers to massive multi-media events, live music covers a lot of ground.
In the last decade my city finally built a venue large enough to attract major acts.
Over the last few years Mrs Plews and I scraped enough dough together to catch Santana and Eric Clapton when they came to town. With multiple cameras and big screens it felt a lot more like watching them on TV. Great shows but I wonder with just how far they can go off script in a situation like that.
The other side of the coin came last year when we heard Tony Bennett. He prefers smaller, more intimate rooms and we have a theater with amazing acoustics. At one point he put his mic on the stool and walked out to the edge of the stage and sang a song. That still gives me the shivers.
One of the strangest live encounters I can recall came at Silver Dollar City near Branson Missouri where we ran into the Dillards playing on a couple of park benches. It was a wonderful surprise.
And finally there was once a nice little room above a blues bar downtown and we were lucky enough to catch Mose Allison up there. Wow.
The lovely thing about having some kind of HiFi is that I can have all these wonderful artists play in my living room anytime I like. It's clearly not the same but it is a joy none the less.
The problem with HiFi (I love saying HiFi) is that it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Back in the 60's I was stationed on Okinawa and one of my friends spent every dime he had on a sound system and all he would listen to on it to was Enoch Light. He claimed everything else sounded to bad to bother with. Sigh...
Time to go, we are hopelessly snowed in and I'm going to pour myself a cup of coffe, cue up some Walter Wanderly and irritate the bejeezus out of my poor trapped family.

Your mention of Connecticut and Kottke in the same post put me immediately in mind of his "Echoing Gilewitz," from A Shout Toward Noon. I'm not sure why but I definitely needed to hear it.

I think an inspiring video is needed to counter that dreadful performance above.

The Landfill Harmonic

It ia unfair to compare live amplified performance with recordings. I would rather hear a bad mp3 of a recording Rudy Van Gelder did while sick with the flu and ear infections over just about any live amplified performance. Because live sound guys are generally rock drummers and guitarists who just didn't have the talent for a career as a musician. The standing joke for years among Jazz musicians was that a sound check was a half hour setting mics on the drums and another half hour getting them "right"and five minutes on everything else.
A performance by a great orchestra or chamber group in a decent hall is another thing.

Reminds me of a time years ago when I saw Van Morrison in a new cutting edge outdoor facility. He was awful. Never acknowledged the crowd and came across as not wanting to be there. Also his techs somehow failed to get dialed in on sound and he played almost nothing anyone knew. (or at least I knew.) None of this would have happened at home with a decent sound system.

Live and recorded music are completely different things. Despite having been an avid reader of audiophile magazines starting in the '80s, I always felt that the ideology of "the absolute sound"--the effort to recreate the sound of live music in the living room--to be misguided and even grotesque. The purposes and goals of music in a domestic environment are, at least for me, entirely different than in a concert hall.

Free live music always sounds better, especially in FLAC.


MIke. So glad to have pushed your buttons on this one. Here's my story. My favourtie songwriter is a New Zealnder called Neil Finn (he did the end song on The Hobbit, which is awful in my humble opinion, but in all other cases he is a certified genius). I've travelled far and wide to see him, either with his band Crowded House, or even better in a solo setting with acoustic guitar. They have ranged from a big London theatre one-off to a gig at Largo in LA, in the small room before they moved, holding maybe 100 people. In all cases hearing him play live is far better than on record. That's because he is about communicating with his audience, engaging them in the process, whether allowing people to sing along (sounds much better if you were there) or even inviting the audience up to join him on stage. My superstar moment was when I joined him on piano.

The point being that with his music it's not about reproduction, but connection. I know find myself listening and enjoying live recordings of his music - bootlegs, or on youtube. Having the audience in the room is the thing that makes the difference, even if I'm not there with them. The reproduction of the harmonics seems to make very little difference at all.

Happy Xmas, by the way.

In October I attended a live concert from from the wind ensemble Concordia Santa Fe. Last night at another of their events I purchased a CD of the Concert and listening to the CD through a $100 headphone, I swear the sound is so much better than the live concert. All the annoying hall noise is missing. The microphone array at the stage got just the music as played.

I agree with much of what you say here. Apart from classical music, its hard to go to a live concert where there are no mics and mixers - so we don't really hear live music at concerts, just the amplified sound from closely placed microphones. And of course the lady who sits behind you who keeps whispering to her friend .....

BTW - the Symbol system featured in the photograph looks very nice, but fastening the speakers to the record deck in this manner, is bound to have a serious affect on audio performance, as the vibrations passing through the wood, will interfere with the stylus. Have they not heard of acoustic feedback? The arms need to be decoupled from the deck - fastening the speakers to it is not a good idea!

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