HomeStudio vs. Live

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“There are stars in the southern skies
Southward as you go
There is moonlight and moss in the trees
Down the Seven Bridges Road”

--lyrics by Steve Young

“Seven Bridges Road” might have very well been the first song I heard sung (partially) a cappella.  It certainly has become my favorite Eagles song, not just for the harmony but its poetry as well.  During that opening stanza, there’s a chill that runs up my spine each time they abruptly cut off the lines of the song, and we are left to relish in the silence between each lyric, letting the echo of the first line sink in before the next one begins.  I have always found it stunning.

So when I was finally able to listen to a live version of the song, I was… well... under-whelmed. It seemed that every fan in the audience wanted to fill the void of that aforementioned precious silence with their ear-splitting screaming.  The live version compromised the song‘s emotional integrity.

To be fair, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with all live CDs, a cappella or not.  It usually starts off as a beautiful relationship.  You see the new CD with “new” material, and you believe it’ll be different than than the last time; that you won’t be disappointed.  But then, eh, after four listens it gets to be the same-old same-old, and you’re left wondering why you even picked it up in the first place.

I’m being overly dramatic, I know, but let’s look at it this way:  time and again, artists use live albums to re-hash stuff they’ve already recorded in studio.  It’s usually their most popular hits. Chances are, if you buy a live album, you’ll have heard a few if not all of the tracks on there, especially if you’re a fan. I’m already bored with it by the time I’ve read the list of songs on the back cover.  In other words, I find live albums (particuarly those with old material) somewhat unnecessary.

The first and foremost reason that I am pro-studio (I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m anti-live) is the cleanliness of the tracks.  I’ll use a non-a cappella example of Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song”.  Bear with me, the analogy is short-lived but it’s a live song with which I think we can all identify.  It’s a perfect example of two aspects I don’t care for during a live recording:

     1.) The audience’s clapping along is off the beat (even Sandler is thrown off) and…
     2.) The yelling of inappropriate things during the middle of songs “I love you Adam!”

Funny?  Sure, the first time you hear it.  But for repetitive listening?  Ehhh, not so much.
Any performer has also had the misfortune of the audience miscalculating the end of a song.  It happens during plays and movies too.  We reach an impasse.  We think it’s the end.  We clap and/or give a standing ovation and then the band continues playing or the singers keep on singing.  And we’re left to awkwardly take our seats again.  It happens a lot when you view live performances, but to have it on a CD for prosperity is a tad annoying.

Another aspect that irks me is the banter, either between songs or during songs or even tacked on at the end.  This can include anything from a song’s introduction to clever little remarks between group members to segue ways, to even just saying “great to be here in (such-and-such town)”.  Sometimes I wish these little snippets were recorded as extra tracks, so we could choose to download them or omit them from our music collections.  I presume I’m not the only one who listens to CDs over and over again.  I think it’s safe to say that we have all had songs with which we’re glad our MP3s are able to fast forward.

A good example is Straight No Chaser’s "12 Days of Christmas”, which is obviously popular and therefore ripe for nitpicking.  I love the song.  Love the arrangement. Looooove it.  But after the “Dreidel Song” part, there is an… ETERNITY of laughter and clapping.  OK, I confess, the first time I heard it… I was right along with the audience, laughing and smiling and thinking it was cute and funny.  The second time, eh, I gave a slight chuckle.  But by the third time, I was saying, “Get on with it already!”.  I’m sure they had their reasons for pausing for a good 20-25 seconds (yeah, I timed it).  Maybe they were waiting for the laughter to die down. Maybe they were making sure they were all on the same page before they started their “12 Days ala Toto”, Maybe they forgot the lyrics.  Don’t know.  Don’t care.  Getonwithit!

There is one thing I’ll say in favor of recording live, and this goes double for a cappella, because this one thing quite possibly negates all my anti-live objections.  That is… live is the best way to listen to a cappella.  Wait… no… physically being there and watching it performed, in all its organic, real, raw glory is the prime way to listen to a cappella, but hearing a recording is the next best thing.  It’s recorded live so the listener feels like they’re part of the audience; that they’re actually there at the venue.  I understand this emotion.  I understand the thrill of being at a concert and the adrenalin that, if done properly, gets pumps from the act to the audience.  It’s why we go. But, to me, no live recording can replace that.

It’s a necessary vanity on behalf of a cappella groups, as well as musicians with instruments, to want to be heard live.  Partly because of the fact that fans/audience/listeners know what studios can do nowadays, and that, especially with a cappella, the art can’t be dismissed as being tweaked.  It’s a need to say, “Hey, look what we can do without any instruments”. The YouTube world seems to be full of envious naysayers who think it’s impossible they’re hearing what they’re hearing.  They can’t or won’t believe what they’re watching unless they’re actually physically there to see it for real.  One shouldn’t have to prove himself to these mindless ninnies, but, well, there it is.

A cappella groups should take comfort in the YouTuber’s unstated compliment--that being, they (the a cappella groups) are actually doing what someone thinks is impossible.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t hate live.  For instance, I find the live version of Rockapella’s “Blah Blah Blah” infinitely better in its faster tempo on Rockapella Live in Concert than I do as a studio cut on Rockapella 2.   And Deke Sharon’s muted trumpet during “Summertime” on the Live CD, Get Down Mr. President, sounds just perfect.  (I haven’t heard a Studio cut of it, but I think it would be pretty hard to beat the live version).  I just prefer to see live than to hear live.  If I’m not going to be able to see it, then I might as well get it as clear and as close to perfection as a studio can make it appear to be.  I can handle the looping and the tweaking of a studio cut.  It’s perfection might mar my perception of how an a cappella group will perform the same material live, but I can live with that.

Live albums, for me, will always be fillers until the group can get down to business and write and record new material with no audience there to tell me how and when I should react to the emotion of a song.  Studio allows a cappella groups to put their best feet forward and impress without distractions.  And if an a cappella Studio cut is done correctly; it will invoke a compulsion to want to see it performed live.

About the author:
Amy Kinsella, a fan of a cappella music, has spent most of her illustrious singing career performing for the dashboard of her Saturn and entertaining her houseplants, most of which are still alive.  She likes to perform for various community theatre groups, and although she'll pitch in as a second alto when needed, she almost always prefers the straight plays to the musicals.  She's all for the perpetuation and perseverance of contemporary a cappella music and does her best to contribute to the cause by hounding the few theatre connections/networks she knows into featuring more a cappella groups.  And aside from various dirty looks to "it ain't gonna happen", she believes, or hopes rather, that she's making a dent.


Love it....

I love finding articles where somebody says what I am thinking, but has the skill to put it into words. This is a great view on things Amy, in a continuous discussion.

Eric Talley
Alumnus ASU Lost In Sound


yeah, didn't she do a great job??

Amy Malkoff CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.

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