Staying live?


Musician, DJ and radio producer, Chris Berrow, discusses live
music and what the word “live” actually means.

What is live music?  Well, that’s easy.  Live music is when you can see and hear someone singing – or playing an instrument.  You experience sound caused as a direct result of the performers’ actions, and the music is therefore live.

Great, job done. That was probably the quickest documentary ever.

But hang on a second, before you go and put the kettle on, let’s think about it again.  What is live music? Is it really just being present at the same time as a performance?

The definition of ‘live’ is not as clear cut as it might seem. For example – what about tracks that are ‘recorded live’? You are listening to a live performance through your headphones or speakers, but you can pause and resume the track whenever you want.

And what about live performances broadcast on the radio? There is at least a 10 second delay on most transmissions – this is sometimes done on purpose so that swear words can be censored ‘live’ – in a sense by an alert sound engineer. Do performances on the radio, musical or otherwise, count as ‘live’ if you hear the sounds 10 seconds after the event?

It’s true to say that the definition of live music was much more simple before recording equipment was invented, and it’s important to understand a little bit about the history of recording so that we can understand what “live” used to mean and has come to mean today.

The first recorded words were thought to have been spoken by Thomas Edison when he invented the phonograph in 1877.  The earliest phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder. But it had very poor sound quality, and the recordings degraded very quickly so they could be played only a few times before they became unusable.  Still, the result was so unexpected that the invention seemed to work – to most people – like magic. Edison even became known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” because the machine’s ability to capture and reproduce sound was so unusual.

Here are the first words that Edison recorded with his phonograph – he is reciting the words to “Mary had a little Lamb.” ……….

……..It sounds clear enough and the words are certainly discernable.  The phonograph’s ability to record sound was even used to advertise the product itself……

…..But these are not the earliest ‘recorded’ words in human history.  Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville patented ‘his’ invention 20 years earlier on March 25, 1857. It was called the phonautograph.

The phonotaughaph transcribed sound waves as undulations or other deviations – in a line traced on smoke-blackened paper or glass.  The machine was intended solely as a laboratory instrument for the study of acoustics, and it could be used to visually study and measure the so called “amplitude envelopes” and waveforms of speech and other sounds, or to determine the frequency of a given musical pitch by comparison with a simultaneously recorded reference frequency.

For the phonautograph, direct physical playback was impossible – at the time.   However, the transcribed soundwaves, called phonautograms, contained enough information about the sound that they could, in theory, be used to recreate it.

And now, over 150 years later,  technology has progressed to a stage advanced enough that we can listen to one of the earliest known recordings in history.  In 2008 several of Scott’s recordings were optically scanned, and using a computer to process the scans, digital audio files were created.

In a moment we’ll listen to a phonautogram of a very early recording of “au claire de la lune…”, but first here is a modern recording, just to jog the memory…     And here is Scott’s phonautogram…

It’s worth noting that Edison takes all the credit for inventing ‘recording’ as his machines were designed for playback. He is very much responsible for popularising the medium.

It’s worth noting that Edison takes all the credit for inventing ‘recording’ as his machines were designed for playback. He is very much responsible for popularising the medium.

After Edison’s phonograph there were many new developments in recording technology. In the 1880s, a redesigned model using wax-coated cardboard cylinders was produced by Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter.  Further inventions such as the gramophone, Vinyl, Tape, CD and digital MP3s have helped to make music incredibly accessible and records can now easily be distributed to a mass market.

Not long after sound recording became possible, so did the ability to edit the tracks recorded using technology. As competition grew, there was a desire and almost a necessity to ensure that your record was a “perfect” performance.

Soon, everybody could edit their recordings after the live take, splicing together tracks to create a performance of a piece which never actually happened. This cast doubt over how authentic recorded performances were, and in a literal sense, the authenticity of performances also became much more difficult to verify.

Take, for example, the case of Joyce Hatto (1928-2007), a British pianist and piano teacher who became famous late in life, when unauthorised copies of commercial recordings made by other pianists were released under her name, earning her critical acclaim. The fraud only came to light a few months after she died.

In Joyce Hatto’s final years, more than 100 recordings were falsely attributed to her. Her so-called catalogue of CD recordings included the complete sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart and Prokofiev, concertos by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mendelssohn… and most of Chopin’s compositions, along with rarer works such as the complete Godowsky Chopin Studies.

I suppose if your going to do it, then at least she did it properly.

The fake recordings received critical acclaim and were released by the English label “Concert Artist Recordings”, which was run by Joyce Hatto’s husband, record producer, William Barrington-Coupe.  He initially denied any wrongdoing – but subsequently admitted that he had committed fraud. He claims that his wife Joyce was unaware of the deception, and that she would hear the final recordings believing that they were all her own work. He also said that he acted out of love and made almost no money from the recordings.

If critics couldn’t even tell that Hatto’s recordings were not recorded by her, what chance do we have?  It is only now with recent technology that we know  the performances were not hers.

It ‘s crucial for us to understand the history of recorded music, as the technology to edit and alter sound recordings has impacted out modern day view of what we think live music is.  This idea of taking someone else’s recording and using it as your own is entirely acceptable now of course.

Here is a clip of the song “Fools Gold” by the Stone Roses………And here is Wretch 32’s sublime reworking. Featuring Example…

The case of Joyce Hatto not only raises questions about the authenticity of recordings, but also about the nature of the record as a medium.  So thanks a lot Edison you ruined everything.

Back to the question, what is live music?

Perhaps live music is just music that we believe is “live” – that has a level of authenticity and credibility to us as an individual?  Most people would make a distinction between recorded music and live music. But as I said earlier what about tracks that are ‘recorded live’? What does that mean? And what does ‘live’ mean?  To answer this question, let’s look at the traditional definitions of live music, which divides performances into 4 categories.

i) The ‘most live’ music is a performance given when you are in temporal and spatial co-presence of the performer.  This means you are there at the time of the performance and you are listening to it.

ii) The second degree of liveness is when you only have temporal co-presence.  For example you are listening to a live broadcast on the radio but you can’t see the events taking place. (This assumes that there is no delay on the broadcast as I mentioned earlier.)

iii) Next comes simply spatial co-presence. The unpopular practice of lip-synching falls under this umbrella – you can see a performance but there is no “live music”, you are listening to a recording.

iv) Finally comes recorded music. You aren’t present at the performance and the music isn’t live. For example listening to a record playing at home.

But I don’t think that these degrees of liveness provide an adequate definition of what ‘live music’ means to us.

Some would argue that the use of technology in performances makes them not live…Lip synching for example, our third degree of liveness.  Pressing play on a recording and then miming along while the music comes out of the speakers is one of the most cited examples of inauthentic, fake performances because crucially the music is PRERECORDED! Completely unacceptable!

But how many people would say that using a microphone in a performance makes it not live?  If you went to the Wembley Arena for example to see a concert, you would be rather shocked if the lead singer of your favourite band ran out on stage *without* a microphone and started trying to sing. It would just be rubbish.  But a microphone is technology designed to create the desired effect in a performance – so that everybody can hear the words and the vocal line. The same is true for electric guitars which require an amplifier to be heard in a stadium, and often heavily distort their sound to create an effect which is not available without technology…

………For example, Jimi Hendrix with his performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1969.

Similarly, isn’t a violin – or a piano – just another piece of technology which you require to make a performance happen – but it’s just called an instrument?

If your performance needs you to mime along to a prerecorded backing so that you don’t sound out of breath when you are performing your routine (a la spice girls) is that so wrong?  I think people rebel against miming because they don’t realise it is going on. But if you believe that someone is singing live but they are miming – is that ok? Surely their performance is so good that they have managed to convince you? Isn’t the art of performance to convince the audience of the performance’s authenticity?

Here is another example where the “degrees of liveness” are incredibly blurred – this should throw a spanner in the works.  It’s a recording of a live performance of the Guns N’ Roses song “Civil War”, from Paris in 1992.  In the clip we hear “live” guitar played at the same time as a pre-recorded voice sounding over the speakers (saying “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate”), all of which has been recorded and is now currently being transmitted on radio (or computer)  as part of this pre-recorded documentary!

How confusing.

But now let’s look at recorded music and try and make a distinction between a performance that has been recorded live and an album track which has been carefully considered and heavily edited.  Let’s go back to the beginning of the programme with the Bee Gees…

The track “Stayin’ Alive” is a very interesting recording. You would never guess, but firstly, the drumming is literally a tape loop. The producer Karl Richardson copied a choice few seconds of drumming from “Night Fever”, cut out the piece of tape, glued the ends together, and fed it back into a recorder to create a new drum track. This was done solely to work around Dennis Bryon being away for a few days, but the effect was a strikingly mechanical beat. As boring as this would become later in dance songs, it was new in 1977.

The rhythm was so mechanical that “Stayin’ Alive” was used in a study to train medical professionals to provide the correct number of chest compressions per minute while performing CPR. The song has close to 104 beats per minute, and 100-120 chest compressions per minute are recommended by the British Heart Foundation, and endorsed by the Resuscitation Council in the UK. Believe it or not a study on medical professionals found that the quality of CPR is generally better when thinking about “Stayin’ Alive”.

As you probably accept, this track was never performed “live” exactly the way we hear it on the record. For the recording, musicians would perform several takes and pick the best one, or even splice two together.

But think about this: every time you press play on your recording – is that a performance? Is the CD player “playing” the record? The speakers or headphones are allowing you to experience it? Could you even say that it is live because no two plays will be identical? The CD could skip, the speakers might be turned up or down, or changed entirely to a different type of speaker. There could be noise in the background. You can customise the settings, and create your own performance environment. Are you playing the record? Listening to a record is very different with headphones as opposed to on speakers.  And if I play you a much quieter version of the song, there is no doubt that it has a different effect on you as a listener…….You are probably just thinking “turn it up” though!

Let’s look at another famous recording – Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”  Bob Dylan selected a number of takes and mixed them to create the final track on the John Wesley Harding sessions album.  The final version of “All Along the Watchtower” resulted from two different takes during the second of three John Wesley Harding sessions. The session opened with five takes of the song, the third and fifth of which were spliced to create the album track. You would never know from listening to it.

When our friend Jimi Hendrix recorded his cover verision of All Along The Watchtower he took this editing process one step further, using the mixing desk as an instrument in itself. If you have stereo, you will hear the effect  he achieved.  Compare this to when Hendrix performs the song in a live way. It feels different, one is less ‘careful’ than the other, but one is more ‘live’ than the other.

What about radio? Is radio really “live”? And what about this documentary?  This documentary is pre-recorded. I don’t think that we are under any illusions – it is generally accepted that documentaries are not live.

However, this documentary is recorded in such a way that it sounds like it is happening all in one go. It gives the impression of continuity, but in actual fact there have been over 200 edits to the audio alone. It’s like paper mache, an audio item made up from recorded live elements.

I could have edited the documentary in a less professional way, so that it would sound like there were mistakes all over the place place place place. There might be more pauses… or unwanted coughs. With documentary making often a sentence is recorded a few times and the best one is selected for the job. With documentary making often a sentence is recorded a few times and the b… With documentary making often a sentence is recorded a few times and the best one is selected for the job. Third time lucky.

But my aim is to deceive the listener, you, to make sure that you think that it is happening live. The very fact I am telling you this is like “seeing behind the curtain”.  Except that I included that whole bit on purpose so perhaps it was professionally edited all along…

Maybe this logic transfers to live music performances as well?  Perhaps live music is just music which is authentic enough to deceive us into thinking that it’s live?  But somehow that’s not good enough. We still feel like we are being cheated.  Let’s look at music that can’t be performed live in a concert environment.

This type of electronic music can never have a traditional live performance because it was not written to be performed by anyone. It is meant to be played on a computer, through speakers. But are the speakers, in this case, the performer?  And every time you press play doese it become a live performance?  For me it all depends very much on your own personal definition of live music.

As I see it, a recording is an artefact of a performance that once was. It is a record – literally – of the events that took place on a certain day at a certain time. This is sometimes called a trace. However, a recording that has been edited, even slightly, is no longer a direct record of what happened on that day.

The Bee Gees song for example, has been heavily edited to create a kind of collage of sound. So the exact point where you edit a recording is the point where a recording ceases to be a record of a live performance.  Instead it becomes a new artwork.

Like a classical composer (and I use the word classical in the loosest sense, it is wholly wrong to group all music before 1950 under this umbrella term), the sound engineer removes him or herself from the temporal, making changes to the architecture of the final work as a whole.

I would argue that by editing performances you are creating a collage of sounds, and a new form or art.

As for what makes a performance live, that depends on what you yourself want live to mean.  It has to be authentic, and it can’t be deceptive. It has to capture something true.

What is live music? There is no one answer, all I want you to do is think about it.  So next time someone asks you ‘what is a live performance?’ Take a few moments before answering.

Chris Berrow studied music at St John’s College Cambridge before working at Affinity Radio in Cambridge and then BBC Radio 2.  For more information about this or any of Chris’s documentaries, please visit, head to or follow @djchrisberrow on twitter



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