Home Alone

We all have secrets, and it's about time I came clean with one of mine: I enjoy recorded music more than concerts.

I know, that's a sacrilege—as a lifelong music lover, I'm supposed to relish the live event, with all of the energy and connection between musicians and audience that can happen only when they're all breathing the same air. That may be true for you, but not for me. I've harbored the guilt for years: When I take the plunge and attend a concert, I rarely enjoy the experience enough to justify the effort and expense.

My sense of guilt is magnified when the music is great and I'm still not feeling it, for any number of reasons: I'm too hot or too cold; the sound system is too loud or too quiet; the strangers next to me are coughing, sneezing, burping, snoring, or farting. I've had beer, soda, and mystery liquids rained on me. That's bad, but worst of all is when I'm out of phase with the audience or friends I came to the show with: they either like the music less than I do and I'm worrying about them, or I hate the show and desperately want to leave but don't want to insult my friends. You get the point—I'm a seriously neurotic concertgoer.

In late August I went alone to the Stone, John Zorn's storefront club in the East Village, to hear Terry Adams (piano, celeste), Hal Willner (turntables, samples, voice), Karen Mantler (harmonica), and Art Baron (trombone) perform the music of Thelonious Monk and the poetry of Sun Ra. I didn't know much about the Stone—only that a 65-seat venue would have to be intimate—but the hard plastic seats and cramped vibe instantly put me off. The humidity was oppressive, even though an air-conditioner was running full blast 20' behind me, drowning out some of the quieter tunes and poems. Then there were the distractions: shuffles, people moving about, and, best of all, the door to the bathroom was at the back of the stage. If nature calls, it better call before the show starts—and even then, you'll have to make your way through the maze of music and microphone stands and cables on stage. On the plus side, the Stone's PA sound was terrific and not too loud. I was thankful for that—for once, I didn't have to wear earplugs. The Stone's schedule of concerts looks really interesting. I'll never go back.

I wasn't always this way. I have lots of wonderful concert memories: the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden in the 1960s and '70s; B.B. King, Procol Harum, and the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East; Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard; Eric Burdon, David Bromberg, Loudon Wainwright III at the Bottom Line; Tom Waits, the Pixies at the Beacon Theater; Ray Charles, Abbey Lincoln, the Modern Jazz Quartet at the Blue Note; Philip Glass solo and Larry Coryell at the Village Gate; Laurie Anderson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and many more. I enjoyed concerts more in the '60s and '70s, less and less as the years went by. I saw Led Zeppelin twice, and the sound sucked both times. When I finally got around to seeing Eric Clapton, he was a total snooze. Sadly, the forgettable shows far outnumber the great ones.

My friends who prefer live music are always saying things like, "I'll take great music performed in a great venue every time. Not only is the music more involving, but the energy of musicians playing with and off each other adds another dimension to the storytelling." Okay, but I get most of that from my favorite studio and live albums. At their best, they capture musicians at their peak: the Who's Live at Leeds, the Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East, the Dave Brubeck Quartet's At Carnegie Hall, Woodstock, etc. Nowadays, depending on the band, a lot of live music is heavily processed and Auto-Tuned—it's not truly live anymore. Sometimes, when everything is just right with your home system, you can feel closer to the players than you might have at a concert. I know I do.

When I'm home alone with my hi-fi, I'm in control. Everything is exactly the way I want it to be. I play what I want, when I want it, at precisely the volume level I want, and it almost always sounds better than what I hear at concerts. Recorded music has been honed, perfected, and approved by the artists—it's as good as they'll ever be. In many cases, it's better than their live shows. Ex–Talking Head David Byrne noted in his book, How Music Works, that live performance and studio recording are completely unrelated skills. Most bands and artists are much better at one than the other.

But as I was finishing this piece, I went to see my friend David Chesky's Jazz in the New Harmonic show, at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was an idyllic evening: the band was in fine form, and the sound, friends, food, and ambiance were all in sync. I loved every minute! Dizzy's comfortably seats about 250 people, and the club's sound engineer doesn't run drums, horns, and other loud instruments through the sound system—only the double bass, voices, etc. The finely crafted acoustics of the club put the music in the best possible setting. If you live in or visit New York City and love jazz, by all means make your way to Dizzy's. Hey, that's coming from me—the grumpiest concertgoer on the planet!—Steve Guttenberg

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...about the essence of art. (That's more important than whether one capacitor is better than another.) Good art criticism demands truth. And truth ain't always popular. So much audio writing is just bandwagon tub thumping, cliche recycling and corporate sucking up.

Having said all that, I'd suggest live and recorded performances offer different things. For me, live is more about the process of creating the music. Recorded is more about the music. Live is messier and full of distractions. Recorded is curated and distilled. (Sort of like a colour photo is about the subject while a B&W photo is about the idea of the subject.) DSFDF.

Catch22's picture

With very few exceptions, and as I get older, listening in the comfort of my home is far more enjoyable. I do still prefer going to the symphony when I can, but the small venue, pop stuff is increasingly rare for me.

maelob's picture

I guess you are not a classical music lover, live concerts is the reference sound for classical music. I wish I could attend a concert everyday. Cmon NY has some of the best classical venues in the world!

corrective_unconscious's picture

That's a funny definition of "live music" when it's pumped through a public address system.

This entirely elementary distinction does not apply merely to classical music - you can hear many kinds of live, unamplified music, and if the music is unamplified you are almost guaranteed by definition to not have stadium rock concert degree rudnesses from audience members.

audiolab's picture

Whilst not your principle argument here; if it were only live music that was available to us, it would be a very dull world. We would only have access to a micro percentage of what we listen to now. Viva recorded music. For 99.999999999999% of us recorded music is the ONLY way we can enjoy the music we love. A night out at the opera with a star cast and a half decent seat for two. Would cost a months salary (UK).

Music_Guy's picture

The genres of music I enjoy have all the pitfalls you name. My experiences are very similar to yours. When I go to listen to "live" music, I must put my desire for convenience, clarity and quality on hold in order to enjoy the other characteristics of spontaneity, energy and so on.

I got introduced to "professional" quality music through recordings played back on mediocre equipment. Then later, when I had more means, I enjoyed more live music and simultaneously built a better sound system.

Now, for me, the two experiences are completely different. If I had to give up one experience, it would be the "live" music. Especially since, for my music, "live" performances already have electronic equipment set up temporarily at the venues in the stream. Hence, the performance often doesn't sound as "acoustic" as a good studio recording of the same performers, music and instruments...even if the instruments were acoustic to begin with.

I take nothing away from those who insist that live performances are better. But, thank you for articulating the point about the quality of experience of listening to good music reproduced well.

corrective_unconscious's picture

It's not clear he is discussing live music at all, except in the sense of live bodies being present to feed the electronics with a signal.

This is true even for the small jazz space example he gives.

thom_osburn's picture

Even so, my hearing is not what it used to be (age, genetics, chronic sinus issues, etc).

Small venue shows like Steve Wynn at East Atlanta's 529, or Dean Wareham, Brendan Benson, Cracker, Ronnie Spector, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Warpaint, Shonen Knife - who all played at THE EARL - were terrific despite the lack of proper seating. Great sound, and the acts themselves often ban smoking.

One of the VERY BEST shows I ever attended was in Chattanooga, at the downtown (and free to the public) Concert On The Bricks. Jake Shimabukuro played solo on a tastefully amplified Ukelele. To this day he is my favorite guitarist on the planet.

One of the worst shows I ever attended was (believe it or not) the Atlanta Symphony at Wolf Park (they played in an enclosure), between Atlanta's Ben Hill and Austell suburbs. Windy, a murky mono PA mix, and the band butchered one of my favorites, The Polovetzian Dances.

After being burned a half-dozen times I have vowed to NEVER see another show at Chastian Park. The PA is really, really quiet as not to disturb the gentrified neighborhood that popped up around it - you can hear the glassware clinking around you far more clearly than any performer's vocals. After one irritating night where a bored mom noisily woke her kids up to take them home, RIGHT in front of us, RIGHT during "Cabinessence" by Brian Wilson & the Wondermints, I declared the venue forevermore off limits. Never mind how many wonderful bands play there on a regular basis. If the Second Coming happens in Atlanta and THAT'S where Jesus holds court, I will have to see it on the news later.

BruceGA's picture

His show in Chattanooga was incredible. A great performer and person, he got the audiences attention and kept it. That can be a wonderful venue and I've seen some nice jazz performances there.

acuvox's picture

Producer Jim Dickenson famously said "A pop band tries to make the concert sound like the recording, but a REAL band tries to make the recording sound like the live show." The degradation of live sound comes from adopting engineering techniques from pop recordings. Compression, EQ and artificial reverb are all distortion of the live sound. Mixing itself is spatial distortion, and the sound gets more fake with the number of microphones feeding each speaker. The classic concerts you cite used individual amplifiers for guitars, bass and keyboards, and the reality is that no speakers can amplify transients accurately from a full bore trap set played by Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham. The right way to do PA is a speaker array per instrument with NO MIXING, like the ultimate Grateful Dead PA system.

There is another Manhattan venue with excellent acoustics, great piano and refined use of PA like Dizzy's, but that hosts a much wider variety of music ranging from Art Songs and string quartets to Prog and Death Metal, including some jazz. This is sound worth leaving home for: http://spectrumnyc.com/blog/calendar/

ednazarko's picture

I used to go to a ton of concerts, a couple every week, but most of them I was playing and not an audience member. I played low brass and percussion, in symphonies, brass choirs, jazz big bands and combos, and rock bands. I think performers end up hearing music differently because they're used to hearing it from where they usually sit or stand, and listen for the inner parts that they usually hear more clearly (and more loudly, because of proximity) than the audience does. Over time, I began to find concerts frustrating to attend, other than small group jazz performances, because I couldn't hear what my brain wanted to hear, and the mix always seemed wrong, even if it was magnificently done. Things sounded flat and spread, not enveloping.

After awhile I never went to see anything other than small jazz groups in intimate settings, and only if I sat down on top of the group so I'm inside the music. Same is true today. I don't play any more (haven't for 30 years) but my brain's perception of how music should sound hasn't changed much. I know it influences my listening technology preferences - I like bipolar or open baffle speakers way, way more than any other type, and I tend to sit close up so the sound surrounds me. I like headphones that put me in the middle of the mix and not those that put the performance in front of me. I also like everything much louder than most people do - orchestras heard from even close up floor seats are puny sounding and un-engaging to me, compared to sitting in the midst of the performers.

Let me enthusiastically endorse your endorsement of Dizzy's in NYC - the sound quality there has an "in the middle of the mix" feeling in many more places than the front row, not true of a lot of clubs. I've seen jazz performances there, and then the same group in another venue, and the sound in Dizzy's is much more engaging and exciting, less flat.

Jameskr's picture

I've always enjoyed recorded performances rather than live. I was introduced to Hi-Fi by my father when I was very young (back in the heyday of Sansui, Pioneer and Marantz) which has instilled a love of just sitting and listening. Listening to the vocalists and the instruments. Being able to place them, spacially, where my imagination put them regardless of where the speakers were placed. This is still one of my favorite things in life to do.

Over the years I've attended many concerts and shows and almost never enjoy listening to the music as much as sitting in front of a good pair of speakers. The memories and moments of the events are one thing, the actual listening has never been as good however.