I’ve been listening to some back episodes of David Pickering’s excellent “Getting Better Acquainted” podcast, particularly to Episode 5 in which he interviews Sarah Nicolls, a pianist who works a lot with prepared pianos. At one point they’re discussing recording and how it’s annoying how some people are very perfectionist as a form of eternal procrastination. This made me realise I’ve probably not talked about my feelings about live vs recording much before, and that might be slightly interesting, especially as I’m reading David Byrne’s How Music Works very slowly, because it is slightly boring.
I prefer listening to recording to live gigs. The sound quality is better, you listen again and again, and the experience is a personal one. I don’t especially enjoy large public experiences, I think music is usually a matter of personal taste and it can make you feel very vulnerable to have strong emotional reactions to things. Also, there weren’t decent gigs in the town I grew up in, so it was recorded music that transported me from my surroundings to musicville.
As I got older, I saw the value of live music; the improvisation, the spontaneity, or at the very least, the fact that the art was being created as you watched. Hence “performance art”. Ironically, it was Jeff Buckley’s recording “Live at Sin-e” that really convinced me of the magic of live. There, the art really was being created and decided in the moment.
But that’s a hard genie to put in a bottle. Maybe with a live recording, sometimes, you do it. But if you try it in the studio, you often fail. Note that I say this not because I’m a skilful live musician and a whizz in the studio – quite the opposite. If you’re a skilful live musician, studio recording is easy – you can just turn up and do what you do live. The arrangement and so on might be quite different, however.
Here’s the thing: live is forgiving. That fretboard noise, that slightly flat or boring vocal note, even a wrong chord – live they don’t matter. People are there to see a performance, not check whether you played the right notes the right way – otherwise why would anyone ever listen to Ian Brown sing live? Equally, turning up and playing the right notes the right way isn’t a performance. The studio is a magnifying glass – any shortcomings will be writ large. If you’re a supertalented musician, that’s not a problem; if, like me, you’re not, it’s terrifying, and the more you think about it the harder it gets to get it right.
But there’s no audience in the studio. Your only audience is the people listening to the final recording. They don’t care if you got that solo in one take or ten, they don’t know if that vocal is a comp from three sessions. Realising this, recording becomes less about ego and performance (“I have to play the best”), and more about representing the song (“the song has to sound as good as it can”*). What can you do to chisel out the idea of that song from the block of near-infinite opportunities in front of you?
This approach has several potential drawbacks. Firstly it encourages you to be a lazy musician. This doesn’t really bother me. It’s better you’re making music than not, and if you’re more interested in being a good musician than making good music, you probably shouldn’t be a songwriter/composer, you should be a musician and listen to other people when they tell you what to play. But if you never improve as a player, I think this can drive you toward studio perfectionism of the wrong kind – if you’re just focussing on playing the part “properly”, you can close yourself off to “mistakes” that might be better than what you were playing! Capable players have more freedom to try new things out.
Back to Dave’s point: I also think studio perfectionism is bad, but realising where I wanted to apply pressure and where I could slack off is the only reason my recordings sound halfway decent. As with many things in life, it’s worth working at the stuff that really makes a difference, and the rest – you can ignore it if you want, or put in extra effort getting that right if you think it’s important. That’s up to you.
*note that I don’t necessarily mean “as slick and hi fi as possible”