The Live Music Myth

If the sound of live music was really the goal, we'd like our music less.


Dorian Gray Studios use PMC MB2 XBD monitors for mixing and mastering.

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, held last weekend in Denver, CO, is one of the more relaxing assignments I travel to each year. RMAF is less like an industry conference and more like a hobbyist gathering. Consider it the Comi-Con for hi-fi enthusiasts.

Basically, at RMAF you travel from suite to suite at the Marriott, where dealers, distributors or manufacturers have set up their newest audio gear so you can sit down and chill. While ultimately the exhibitors want to sell you a system, rarely do you hear much of a sales pitch. Usually you need to tap someone on the shoulder to ask them about products before they’ll tell you. The emphasis is on the listening experience, not the hard sell; there’s usually a price list on the table to pick up on your way out.

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At RMAF you will overhear or get engaged in a lot of audio geek talk, and this can be fun. One of the best I heard was during a visit to the PMC booth, where Mike Picanza was playing tunes on the company’s new model 21 bookshelf speakers, which run around $2,600 a pair (making them some of the more affordable speakers at the show).

PMC not only makes speakers for home use, but also studio monitors used in recording studios around the world. In his talk, Picanza wanted to emphasize how important studio monitors and mixing are to recorded music, but inadvertently also demonstrated something else.

Picanza played me three version of one track recorded at Dorian Gray Studios in Germany. The first version was the music recorded straight to the mixing board without any adjustments. It was essentially raw music. It sounded good, but a bit flat. Nothing was distinct. It lacked life and texture. The second version had the levels adjusted to bring the vocals forward and put the drums more toward the back. The third version was a final mixed track, the master stage. The final version was louder, fuller, with more emphasis on the voice and the piano. Altogether the master stage version sounded more three-dimensional. Everyone in the room liked that version best.

Nothing unusual was done to that track—that’s how recorded music happens. What we hear over our stereo systems is not necessarily exactly what happened when the band started playing and vocalist started singing. Much of the original performance, and the final effect, is manipulated to fulfill someone’s vision of what the music should sound like (which can be different from what it does sound like).

And this leads me to the point I believe Picanza unintentionally made (though he acknowledged it later when I brought it up). I call this the Myth of Live Music. Often we hear that the goal of music reproduction is to create the feeling of live music—make you believe the artist is playing in your living room. The truth, though, is that if the artist were playing in front of you, it would sound nothing like the CD.

Even most live music, unless it’s pure, unamplified acoustic, has gone through some electronic manipulation. Rather than being true to the sound of live music, the most you can hope for in a home stereo is being true to the recording (or true to the mastered version). But even that fails us sometimes, because if being true to the recording was enough, we’d all fill our homes with professional studio monitors instead of loudspeakers voiced for home use. A mixing room in a recording studio is acoustically very different from a living room, and most people would probably prefer the sound from traditional passive stereo speakers over studio monitors.

The point of this is that when we tell ourselves that the a recording played over our favorite equipment sounds realistic or live, what we really mean is that it created an emotional connection for us—we like it, accuracy be damned. That’s actually part of the magic of audio gear—the ability to create an impressive, immersive experience that is moving. Does one speaker sound more like the real thing than another? Most times we don’t even know what the real thing sounds like. We just know the sound we like.

That’s not to say that better equipment doesn’t sound better–of course it does. The better our speakers, amps and DACs, the more depth, texture and flavor we find. Great equipment can be revealing by letting us hear and experience moments in the the music that poor equipment hides. A great recording on a great system can sound even better than live music.


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