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How much should you 'improve' a live recording in the studio?

How much should you ‘improve’ a live recording in the studio?


This week in the Record Producer Daily I am reviewing the new autobiography by Tony Visconti, which you can order here

Amazon in the US doesn't seem to have it at the moment.

In March 1972, Visconti was asked to record a concert given by T. Rex at Wembley Stadium in London. Wembley stadium is England's premier sports stadium so this is clearly a major event. It was to be filmed too – by director Ringo Starr!

Mobile recording was a major project in those days. Today, you can throw enough equipment to record a concert into the boot (trunk) of a car.

Back then, it meant hiring the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, which was built into a huge truck.

The Rolling Stones mobile, at that time, had both 8-track and 16-track analog multitrack tape recorders, and a Helios mixing console. Helios was to the 1970s what SSL came to be to the 1980s. I've never had chance to work one, so if anyone happens to know of an opportunity…

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Then as now, live recordings are rather different to studio recordings.

First of all, in a modern-day studio recording, the arrangement is generally built up as part of the recording process. Indeed, the song may be written as part of the recording process.

But in a live recording, clearly the band has to know the song already! Obvious perhaps, but it's a major difference in recording technique.

Secondly, since the band is performing in front of an audience, then whatever mistakes they make are going to be printed onto the recording for eternal posterity.

So how do you get around that?

One answer is to use technically great musicians and rehearse to the point where there is no possibility of making a mistake.

But technically great musicians can sometimes be lacking in passion, and over-rehearsal is, artistically, almost as bad as not enough.

So it is likely that there will be mistakes. Small mistakes perhaps that the live audience won't notice, but they will show up in a recording on repeated listening.

One possibility of dealing with these mistakes is to make it clear to the audience that the concert is being recorded and there may be retakes.

Generally this doesn't happen when the audience has paid for their tickets. If it is an invited audience and they see the show for free, then their patience can be tested a little. I've seen this happen and the audience actually loved the idea of being in on the process of making a live recording.

But the T.Rex concert was a regular concert, and there would have been no possibility of this happening.

So what other alternatives are there?

One is if there is more than one show. If there are two shows, one will be better than the other. That's only natural. So the better show is used for the majority of the recording, and any mistakes are fixed by editing sections from the other.

In an audio-only recording, this is easy, as long as the tuning and tempi match.

In this case, the evening concert sold out and an afternoon show was added. Great for audio, but T. Rex's leader Marc Bolan changed his outfit between shows, ruining the possibility of the shows being intercut for the film.

There is one further way of fixing mistakes in a live recording, which Visconti came to call 'Live Plus' – and that is to take the tapes into the studio and punch-in or overdub any 'tricky' moments.

Now this is where a serious problem arises. How do you know where to stop?

And when you buy a record or CD of a live show, how live do you expect it to be?

Clearly, the odd fixup is in everyone's benefit. But to rip a live performance to shreds and almost completely re-record it in the studio isn't the right thing to do.

In the end I guess it boils down to your philosophy of recording, and how much respect you have for your audience (and how much money you want to make).

In this case however, Visconti added background vocals and re-recorded some of the bass, which was out of tune on stage, which seems to me to be entirely reasonable.

David Mellor

Producing Lauren Balthrop

Producing Lauren Balthrop

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David Mellor