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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. – Wheat Williams Feb 18 '14 at 16:20

3 Answers 3

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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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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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