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June 2016
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Is It Live, Or Is It... Better?
Roger Skoff writes about listening to music both ways.
Article By Roger Skoff


  It's said that, for at least most of his life, the great Canadian pianist and Bach interpreter, Glenn Gould never went to any concert where he wasn't performing. As the story goes, his rationale was that, even for his own performances, he could hear the music played better, from a better listening position, in better sound in his own listening room than he could at any concert hall, so why go out?



How can that be? Well, from the performance standpoint, Gould was a great technology fan, and even before his retirement from public performance in 1964, saw in the ability to do multiple "takes" and splice them together the opportunity to create "perfect" performances – not only free from missed notes or the coughs and other sonic accidents that can mar any live event, but also performances that would combine the best moments of artistic insight from each of however many playings of the same piece it might take to get the entire performance absolutely "right".

From a sonic perspective, as well, Gould saw that a perfectly placed microphone at just the right point in an acoustically-treated recording studio was far more likely to hear the music in perfect balance and clarity than a listener could by taking his chances on available seating in even the best concert hall. And even if that listener got lucky and got the seat in the hall with the very best sound, he realized that other listeners might not fare as well, and saw in the recording process the opportunity to bring the best to all.

I'm certainly no Glenn Gould: My only musical accomplishment consists of two years of cello lessons when I was in junior high school, and I wasn't even particularly adept at that. I do, though, have a long history of music listening; the benefit of a number of high school and college Music Appreciation courses. I also have the advantages of a life-long love of music and an open mind, and I agree with Glenn Gould in at least one respect: For sheer technical and performance perfection, a recording is much more likely to "deliver the goods" than a live concert.



When we get into modern and "pop" music, something else comes to bear, too: Much of what we hear on recordings can only be heard on recordings. It's not that the recorded sound is better than the original live performance; it's that for a great many recordings, spanning a vast range of artistic styles and performance practices, there never was an original live to begin with, and it may never even be possible to create one.

Just like so many movies in recent times, where computer-generated imagery (CGI) has augmented or replaced difficult, dangerous, or frankly impossible live action, much of what we hear as the current musical offering has never existed except in recorded form. Certainly classical music recordings do tend to be recorded "live", with the full orchestra and whatever singers all in attendance at the time and place of performance, but even there, by the time it gets to the public there's no guarantee that a mastering engineer or the artist, composer, or conductor (a la Toscanini) hasn't had a hand on the knobs and dials, "sweetening" the performance, replacing errors, or building a conglomerate of sections or passages from as many as several "takes".



Glenn Gould did this regularly: "Although Gould's recording studio producers have testified that 'he needed splicing, less than most performers', Gould used the process to give himself total artistic control over the recording process. He recounted his recording of the A minor fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier and how it was spliced together from two takes, with the fugue's expositions from one take and its episodes from another." Gould did this not just to improve a recording's technical or artistic quality, but sometimes – in his capacity as a composer – as part of the actual composition process. I can personally remember something very similar, not with Glenn Gould, of course, but one morning back in the 1970s while I was consulting to Motown I was allowed to sit-in on a session where Berry Gordy -- Motown's founder, principal owner, and creative genius – and a number of his creative staff actually created some of the music for a new Jermaine Jackson album by sequentially playing bits and pieces of recorded sound from five different hand-held micro-cassette recorders and picking them up in mixed order on a sixth, to be later re-played, re-recorded and given lyrics as new songs.

Perhaps not exactly involving that same technique, this "assembly" kind of music-making is certainly one of the most common recording – and even (for rock 'n roll) compositional – practices in use today. For most of Glenn Gould's musical life (he died in 1982, the same year the CD was introduced) phonograph records and tape recording, with all their limitations, were either the dominant or the only recording media available; even so, by "cutting and pasting" from multiple recordings and by doing "sound-on-sound" recording (recording over a previous recording without erasing it, sort of like "double-exposure" photography) Glenn Gould and other musicians of his era were able to accomplish remarkable compositional and performance feats not possible in any other way. Les Paul, in particular, reputedly the inventor of sound-on-sound, became famous for it and, later, multi-track recording and started a whole new style of pop music based in their use.

Nowadays, with the wonders of digital recording available to the artist, engineer and producer, just about anything can be achieved in the sonic realm, and the "non-produced", all-the-performers-in-the-studio or-at-the-concert-venue-at-the-same-time, absolutely natural, non-compressed, un-equalized, hear-it-as-the-musicians and-the-live-audience-did recordings that used to be the everyday standard have become exotic audiophile fare, available only at a premium price, only for a very specialized audience.



This, of course, brings up the old issue of audiophiles and "sonic purity": If the music we buy today is now something that, in at least large part, has no "real-life" equivalent, and exists only as the high-tech product of talented people working with advanced technology, should we as audiophiles still be concerned for how "natural" our system makes it sound? When there never was a "live" performance, but only a multi-channel studio mix-down, do we still have to worry about how "live" a recording sounds? When much of what we buy is already equalized in the studio – perhaps even at the individual microphone level – do we still have to feel "impure" if our equipment has tone controls? Or even if, Heaven forbid, we use them? Can we now finally forget about the compulsive and hard to define concept of "realism" (except as a great fun trick that our system or those who make our "software" sometimes play on us) and concentrate, instead, on sound that we like? Can we finally agree that, when there is no "live" and what we have, instead, is something even better, we should stop worrying about musical provenance and authenticity, put one of our favorite recordings on the system, lean back, close our eyes, free our imagination, and just...

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