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I was walking past a bar the other day and heard music coming out. I could immediately tell that the music was live, being played in the bar at that moment. This is something I have often noticed, I can tell whether music is recorded or being played live.

This seems to extend to recordings of live music as well. I have often found myself identifying that the musical background of, for example, a youtube video was being played at the time and was recorded using the same microphone that recorded the ambient sound of the video.

First of all, I assume that I am not alone and that any musician or music lover can also make this distinction. So, why can we do this? What is it that allows us to recognize live performances? I assume it has something to do with the way they are recorded (or not as the case may be) and that a good sound engineer would be able to fix things so that I couldn't tell but what does it depend on?

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The human ear is amazingly sensitive to pitch, overtones, and physical direction. Just think how many friends' voices you can ID even over a crappy analog phone link! – Carl Witthoft Feb 17 '14 at 20:24
    
I do not know a scientific answer to this question, but I have always been fascinated by it, because I can tell the difference easily as well. – user1044 Feb 18 '14 at 16:20
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@CarlWitthoft "crappy analog phone link"... what's that? :) – Shawn Strickland Dec 18 '15 at 15:01
    
It's usually the drums that are a dead giveaway to me. That low frequency energy perhaps cannot be reproduced by anything other than kick snare and toms. – Matthew James Briggs Dec 19 '15 at 8:04
up vote 15 down vote accepted

I know exactly what you mean and I've thought about it quite hard myself. Not everyone can do this, but as you attune to music more and get used to what a drum kit or guitar playing in a room sounds like, it's easier to pick out the characteristics of live vs. recorded.

I think it's a mixture of things:

  • The mix- sometimes live music isn't mixed as well as recorded music (e.g. the vocals are too loud/quiet or drums are loud etc). There's seemingly a tendency for guitars to be set more harshly with live music than when recorded.

  • Reverb: If the band are playing live in say the corner of a pub, all of the instruments will bounce around the room and get much the same reverberaton treatment. In recorded music, different reverb is often artificially applied to vocals vs. guitars / drums etc.

  • The snare drum especially : You're most likely hearing a snare drum which has echoed around the room before it gets to your ears. In a lot of recorded music, the snare microphone is pretty close to the snare (a few inches) plus some other mikes overhead which are still much closer than the audience would be to the kit. So recorded music tends to have a close-up sound on the snare whereas live music the snare is much more a part of the rest of what's happening. I personally find this a real giveaway.

  • Vocalists wooping the crowd up between songs (a dead giveaway haha) or little twiddles between songs.

If you're listening to a live album, it still comes across this way because often the reverb from the stadium/hall/room where it was recorded is part of the recording, so the effect is retained.

Having said that, it's possible to be fooled in that "Alive" by Pearl Jam is a live recording but has had a studio treatment afterwards.

Our ears are amazing at picking up signals like this and seemingly we're able to determine live from recorded music quite easily, once we get used to it or train the ear.

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Another big clue is the use of compression. Originally compression was used to fit the dynamic range to the limits of vinyl/shellac recording, but our ears are now so used to it, and it's used so routinely in recording, that uncompressed music sounds 'live' or even 'wrong' depending on context.

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Are you suggesting that using compression on a mixer in a live setting will make it sound more like a recording? I think it will be less dynamic, but the key elements to "sounding live" will still exist even with heavy compression (i.e. ambiance of a room) – Shawn Strickland Dec 18 '15 at 15:03
    
In computer games there is an HDR simulation effect that is similar to compression in a way (where the simulation compresses the dynamic range to simulate aperture effects). One problem though is that my eyes & brain will try and compensate for the simulated effect, especially when the game designers have purposefully chosen a fast-attack/slow-release. Our hearing perception behaves in a similar manner. And surely some compression is perceivable if only by virtue of our hearing trying to dial it in. I guess this is some form of support for this answer. – Yorik Dec 18 '15 at 22:52
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@Shawn yes, I'm saying that one of the cues that we perceive as 'sounding like live music' is the uncompressed dynamic range. Particularly on vocals - we are so used to hearing compression that we don't hear it as 'artificial', but instead as 'professional'. – peterG Dec 19 '15 at 1:47
    
My experience: I have heard a live band playing everying through a PA (small pub, guitar amps down low, quiet drummer) with heavy compression on the PA in order to sound loud, but actually they weren't that loud. It worked brilliantly: A really full sound, but it genuinely did have a feel that you're listening to a giant stereo, not a live band, I think this answer has a lot of merit. Given that actually they were live, the overall effect was a bit confusing aurally, but it sounded great. – user2808054 Dec 23 '15 at 11:45

Recorded music has the acoustics of two rooms. Strongly amplified live music actually tends to have a lot more problems than studio music because you have the mics also picking up the PA and the environment and the sound intended for other mics. Of course, that does not hold for electric guitars and other instruments amplified without microphones.

Unplugged music is rather direct and clear. Recorded music only picks up the sound at a number of defined points and gets mixed to two channels usually. A lot of spatial information gets lost in that way.

That's one reason that Hammond organs have been semi-popular: the rotating Leslie speakers used with them create a great spacy sound in concert, but the effect is practically not recordable in a manner reproducing its character well. Neither for replay of recordings, nor for remitting over a big powerful PA.

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"Recorded music has the acoustics of two rooms." is a really great way to put it. – Shawn Strickland Dec 18 '15 at 15:06

I think room reverberation - and the "sound" of the room - is the key giveaway to whether an audio source is live or recorded, throwing out obvious reasons like "Thank you Kansas City!", differing from the recorded version of the song (in a rock or pop format), or musical mess-ups.

A great sounding room, like ones you'll find in recording studios that record groups live, will have a very neutral sound and not give away that the recording is "Recorded music has the acoustics of two rooms" as stated in another answer.

Often times, especially in the case of Jazz (but definitely not limited to), nearly every recording is recorded live but doesn't sound so because the acoustics of the recording site were good enough (or "dead" enough) to not throw leads of "human echolocation". This allows for the acoustics of the room where playback happens to take over without a doubling effect of bass boom, reverb, echos, or just weird timbres.

For a live setting, the same applies, but in reverse. A washy, echoed, boomy room will always sound live, no matter how good the musicians because the sound doesn't move through the room well without modulation. A live show in a proper concert hall can sound very pristine and CD-like when all those offending audio red flags are handled.

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