KAFM TUNED IN: Live music or Memorex? Recorded music sounds better, but live music feels better
with Uncle Karl
Before the invention of the phonograph, all music was live music. Before we began to consume music through speakers in our radios, record players, iPods, or home stereos, music was a participatory activity. It accompanied and enhanced daily activity, giving rhythm to repetitive tasks. It was the rhythm of our work, a recounting of our history, an encouragement to battle, a channel for worship or a soundtrack for celebration. In order to experience music, you had to either make it yourself, or be present with those who did.
In 1878, our relationship to music expanded. When Thomas Edison began to sell gramophones, music became reproducible, portable and available. It became possible to call up a particular song to fit our mood, activity or particular time of day. We became able to use background music to help us focus on a task or distract ourselves from something unpleasant. Music could be enjoyed in privacy.
However, as with all new technology there was a downside. The social aspect, an integral part of our relationship to music to that point, was compromised. The great composer, John Philip Sousa, wrote an essay in 1906 titled, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” in which he warned of the anti-social aspect of recorded music. Time has proved him to be somewhat correct. Imagine a bus or subway full of commuters stoically holding their places in space, partially removed from their surroundings via tiny headphones. Now, imagine the level of attention to the present moment that a small gospel choir stepping on and performing live might bring to the same commuters. In both scenarios, the same people are listening to music, but experiencing it in a very different way.
Not long after the first recordings were made, the idea of re-recording and creating “perfect” music, purified of the small mistakes that inevitably color live performance, was imagined. We now even think of recorded music as sort of a gold standard. We go to a concert to hear and see an artist perform the latest album, and expect a faithful rendition.
However, it is important to remember that recorded sound may be true to the source, but it is not true to how we experience the world. A recording of a crowded restaurant will sound like chaos, every noise of equal importance. However, in real life we are somehow able to have a conversation amidst this chaos by reading body language, reading lips and somehow filtering out the noise that our brains register as unimportant.
Our brains and bodies engage much more with our environment when we experience music live. Sound affects everything around it. Every room and everything in it vibrates, resonates, and reflects every sound made in it. However, recorded music generally seeks to eliminate this. Most recordings of music strive to eliminate any sound other than any particular instrument, singer or digitally-produced signal, so that engineers and producers can record clean sound for each source and split each into separate recorded tracks. Volume levels can then be individually manipulated, tracks can be re-recorded, or eliminated entirely without affecting the sound of the other tracks. Perhaps this is why recorded music sounds better, but live music feels better.
Experience your favorite artists on your iPod, car radio, or home stereo. Then see them live at the KAFM Radio Room, Mesa Theater, Roper Music, a local bar or the Avalon and feel the difference.
Karl Prager aka “Uncle Karl” is a volunteer programmer on KAFM Community Radio. When he’s not traveling the world or attending music festivals, you can catch Uncle Karl’s “Yellow Dog Show” every other Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at 88.1.
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