16 July 2007

Miscellaneous Confessions

I am not an audiophile. When I listen to recorded music, I may notice the sound quality, but very rarely does this color my overall opinion of the work. It has to get to the level of the constant static on the earliest jazz recordings (i.e. 1910's and 20's) before I will bat an ear. I can't tell the difference between MP3 and CD sound. The word "lossless" is not yet in my vocabulary. I can tell the difference between CD and vinyl, but who cares? I can't stand reviewers who practically put equal stock in production and content, but I suppose this isn't worth bellyaching about since great music poorly recorded tends to garner more acclaim in the long run than mediocre music masterfully recorded.

Lately, I've found that I am far more likely to be dissatisfied with the sound at live performances than recorded ones. Perhaps that means that I take the art and craft of recording engineers for granted, or that the overall competence of live "sound guys" everywhere is not very high, or that we are more aware of what we are missing when we can see it but not hear it. In any case, when it comes to recordings, I don't seem to have any trouble looking past the production as much as possible in order to connect with what is really going on musically. I am more picky when it comes to live music, which raises a familiar conundrum.

People have been speculating for decades now as to whether recorded music will kill live music, and even I as a musician have to admit that in many cases, I'd rather stay home with my stereo. This is mostly because of amplification*. You might as well be listening to a recording when violins or trumpets or grand pianos are cranked through a PA system; the sound comes out of a speaker just the same, and it has none of the character that the same instrument has when heard unamplified. Pretty much the only thing that makes it worth the trouble to hear the music live is to hear the sound of the instruments and/or the space in person. That's all that live music has on recording in the end, and yet there are precious few settings outside of the concert hall where one can expect to hear unamplified live performances on a regular basis.

What comes out of a PA is what comes out of your home stereo, only your home stereo isn't set at a dangerously high volume (unless you want it that way) and you don't have to commute in order to use it. I value live music as much as anyone, but for me, "live" means "acoustic." There simply is not enough of a difference between a recorded ensemble and an amplified ensemble to make it worth anyone's time to choose the latter over the former. There's also something to be said for the comfort of one's own home, as the saying goes. I don't think live acoustic music is in any danger of succumbing to recordings as long as it continues to offer something recordings don't have. Live amplified music, on the other hand, will always be in direct competition with recordings, which offer basically the same experience. Let's face it: some recordings come right off the soundboard at a live show. That says it all.

*Let's be clear up front that this is not an all-out attack on electric guitars. The choice and calibration of *personal* amplification equipment is an art unto itself, as evidenced by the fact that when a PA system is in use, it is not uncommon to mic the guitarist's amp rather than go direct. I think we already tend to recognize that a musician's particular set-up is part of his/her sound and art; what is not recognized as widely is that this sound must be as prone as any to disfigurement when run through a PA by an incompetent engineer.

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