Live albums may reproduce some of the experience of a concert performance by including applause and other noise from the audience, comments by the performers between pieces, improvisation, medleys and so on. They often employ multitrack recording direct from the stage sound system (rather than microphones placed among the audience), and can employ additional manipulation and effects during post-production to enhance the quality of the recording.
Live recordings of classical music can be similar to non-classical albums in the sense that they can record an event (e.g. The Proms, Vienna New Year's Concert). However, many artists prefer to record live rather than in the studio, with post-performance edits to correct any mistakes. Hence many 'live recordings' can be virtually indistinguishable from studio counterparts. Depending on the closeness of the miking, such recordings may have a stronger ambient effect than studio performances. The conductor Leonard Bernstein made virtually all of his later recordings from live performances rather than studio sessions.
In jazz, live albums often stand beside studio efforts in terms of importance, as improvisation is such a major part of the genre. It is quite common for newly unearthed live recordings to be seen as vital, revelatory additions to an artist's catalog, as with the release of Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 2005.
Studio and live albums in the electronic genre can be nearly indistinguishable if the recording is made directly from the soundboard. For this reason, some electronic groups have more live material than studio recordings in production. For example, electronic pioneer Tangerine Dream had nearly 300 hours of live bootlegged recordings loosely legitimized by the artists themselves, called the Tangerine Tree project.
Rock and pop
Many successful recording artists have released a live album, however these albums are generally seen by either critics, fans, or the artist(s) themselves as expendable parts of an artist's catalogue, often failing to sell as well as studio albums. However, some pop and rock artists are known for live albums that rival or exceed the sales of their studio albums, such as Kiss's Alive! and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive!. The best-selling live album worldwide is Garth Brooks' Double Live, having sold in excess of 21 million copies as of November 2006. In Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, only 18 albums were live albums:
- Live at the Apollo by James Brown (#25)
- At Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers Band (#49)
- At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash (#88)
- Live at the Regal by B. B. King (#141)
- Alive! by Kiss (#158)
- Live at Leeds by The Who (#169)
- Happy Trails by Quicksilver Messenger Service (#189)
- Wheels of Fire by Cream (#203)
- Live/Dead by Grateful Dead (#241)
- Kick Out the Jams by MC5 (#290)
- MTV Unplugged in New York by Nirvana (#311)
- Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads (#345)
- At Newport 1960 by Muddy Waters (#348)
- Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (#350)
- Cheap Trick at Budokan by Cheap Trick (#430)
- Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 by Sam Cooke (#435)
- Live in Europe by Otis Redding (#466)
- Live in Cook County Jail by B. B. King (#499)
Soviet cosmonauts took a cassette copy (minus case) of Pink Floyd's Delicate Sound of Thunder (1988) live album aboard the Soyuz TM-7 spacecraft on 21 November 1988. The cosmonauts played the album aboard the Mir space station; making it the first recorded music played in Outer Space, barring the possibility of music recorded by alien species being played in Outer Space.
In jam music, however, live recordings play a much larger role. Since, as in jazz, improvisation is such an important aspect of jam music, every performance is different and unique. Therefore, live albums from these artists offer not just the "concert experience", but new and unique musical ideas that cannot be experienced on studio albums. Many fans attempt to acquire as many live recordings from these bands as possible in order to have a complete musical collection. This leads many jam artists to release many more live albums than studio recordings. Notably, the band the Grateful Dead have released well over 100 different live albums documenting almost every part of their entire 30-year career, while only releasing 13 studio albums. Some bands, such as Show of Hands, prefer to release live albums as their debut albums.
Concert sound recording can be the most challenging environment for a sound engineer; if done correctly the listener will feel that they are an audience member of an exciting musical performance. For a good sounding concert recording, a careful combination of microphone placement, equipment selection, and timing are crucial. In some instances it is possible to obtain a better recording from a live show than from hours of work in a recording studio. The energy of the performers and the sound of the crowd combine to make a memorable recording, making a live album a good alternative to the expensive and lengthy process of producing a studio album.
Concert recordings are approached one of three ways (although modern recording is almost exclusively via the third option):
- The “Stereo Pair” approach where two microphones are set up usually in or near the audience giving a result that is somewhat similar to what you would hear if you were in the crowd at that performance. This is a minimalist approach that sounds very authentic and will include the sounds of the environment and audience, for better or worse.
- The “Board Feed” approach where the master channels from the mixer is sent to a recorder. This is another quick and easy way to obtain a recording with minimal effort other than the permission of the band and venue, and a portable recorder.
- The multitrack remote recording approach captures each microphone and instrument separately to be mixed, modified and (optionally) augmented later in a studio environment. Additional microphones are placed throughout the venue to capture not only the audience reactions but also to blend in the sound of the band in the performance space. This results in a cleaner sounding recording of the performance than either of the previous methods, but requires far more equipment and expertise.
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