Canned Music

no preservatives added

What is live? What is canned?

Well, that’s easy. Live is when the musicians are upfront, in person, performing right here, right now. Canned is music that was recorded and later replayed through a sound system.

And that’s what everybody thinks. Think again. Tell me, what’s the difference between hearing a recording through a sound system or hearing live musicians through a sound system?

Most performances today are miked, mixed, amplified, and played through loudspeakers. You might think, because the musicians are performing in the flesh, on the spot, it would be fair to say, it’s live. But let’s face the music, it’s canned. The only step that’s missing is the recording. (And often parts of what you hear at a live performance are prerecorded.) The sound of real, living musicians, playing real, acoustic instruments is being filtered. They may be performing in the moment, but the sound is not live. It’s aliveness has been squeezed through microphones and wires and electronics, leaving us merely with realtime canned music.

That’s point number one. Point number two is this. The only music performances most people experience today are realtime canned concerts. They’ve never heard, or too rarely hear, the sound of unprocessed music. Just yesterday I was talking to a young woman who went to a performance of the Verdi opera, Rigoletto. She commented that it was not miked. The Metropolitan Opera, miked!? Of course not, but in her experience, everything is amplified. She, along with the majority of concert goers, only know the sound of sound systems—most of which are not good and/or poorly operated. It’s no wonder there’s so much nonsense going around about the quality of home audio. The only known reference is other artificial sound. Without the real, acoustic reference, there can be no honest judgment of sound quality.

Then there’s the issue of, “this is the way instruments sound, but that is how I wish they would sound.” I witnessed an interesting example of this dichotomy in a demonstration of three recording techniques, wax cylinder, analog tape, and digital. Two musicians participated, a violinist accompanied by a pianist. They played a short piece captured by the horn of the wax cylinder, and two different microphones, one feeding an analog reel-to-reel tape, one to a computer. All three recordings were done simultaneously. After playback the audience voted on their favorite. No surprise that the wax cylinder came in dead last—noisy, scratchy and lacking in both treble and bass. The winner was the analog recording. Hmm. I didn’t like any of them, but that may have been partially due to the playback speakers. The violin sounded reasonably good on both modern techniques, although slightly more alive on the digital, but the piano was bad, really bad, on both—bottom heavy and muddy—not at all realistic sounding. That bass heavy muddiness was especially evident on the analog recording. So how did the analog recording get the most votes? The violinist summed it up neatly when he was asked to comment on his favorite. Referring to the analog recording he said, “That’s how I would like to sound.” The tonal quality he strives to achieve, not his actual sound, was the reason he preferred the tape. Had he listened to the piano, instead of only to himself, the murky sound would have necessitated qualifying his preference. Curiously, the pianist’s opinion was not queried.

There you have it. If one doesn’t know the sound of acoustic instruments first hand, under varying conditions, or if one has a rosy, idealized sound in mind, there’s going to be disagreement about when reproduced music sounds right.

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