Conservatism in studio recordings

i know I’m making a ton of broad generalizations here, and that there are a ton of obvious answers, but i feel I’m missing something- as someone who doesn’t make recordings of my music, at least in the traditional sense for later consumption in whatever form, i have no relation to the process or ultimately overall goal. and i feel there’s some sort of unwritten rules that i’m not aware of-

what prompted this is that yesterday i, yet again, bought an album from an artist who i’ve enjoyed live many times and the record is boring as hell. and really, not to get confused with the live situation, i’m not talking about the energy or the vibe or the setting or the audience reaction or the sound of the room or studio musicians vs. stage musicians or the mixing of eras in their career or the length of the show. it just seems that the most very basic, foundation compositional choices are way more conservative on recordings than they are as compared to how the artist interprets the song for a live setting.

is it simply a case of the artist developing the material further once its recorded so there’s a deeper understanding of what’s important when presenting it for an audience? though of course there’s the opposite approach where bands will workshop material on the road and then record it. in which case it also usually ends up being drastically toned down. it seems that something happens in the studio which takes the edge off everything, smooths out the mix to the point where nothing is in focus. and for sure examples to the contrary can be easily found but i kind of always prefer a live recording over a studio cut.

for example, i’m totally into son lux and especially the new trio configuration. ryan’s studio stuff is really great… until you hear them live and then there’s no comparison. i guess there are so many things in a live show that just can’t translate to other kinds of listening experiences, but the arrangement of the material, the overall aesthetic is so amazing. i wish they would just “properly” record their latest live set as a real record. now I’m stuck listening to youtube rips for pretty much any of my favorite bands.


I haven’t really thought about or felt this recently, but I definitely got a similar feeling a lot when I was first getting into punk and indie music. I remember seeing Gang of Four at Coachella in… 2003 or 2004? and that was one of the first times I realized that their music on Entertainment! probably sounded completely different when they performed it live in the 70s. The Coachella show left something to be desired, but there was clearly a much different vibe and more thorough depth to their sound (and in writing this, I’ve just remembered that they even thought their records didn’t reflect their live sound, enough that they released an album of re-recordings of their old songs).

You can hear similar thing by comparing Joy Division’s studio work with their live recordings. Or if you’ve ever seen Mission of Burma, comparing that to the old recordings…

In the past year, I’ve also struggled with this a bit in my own music… I had some song concepts that I wanted to do proper production on, but play live in a completely different way, and it’s turning out to be harder to reconcile the two than I’d originally thought.

With all of the high-precision control that you can get with modern DAWs, it’s really easy to over-produce a track, or fall into the trap of trying to make things perfect, rather than treating the system as a means of capturing a live performance. I find that when I fall into that hole, it’s even harder to figure out when to stop, or to call something finished. Especially if I accidentally let myself think about about how meticulously edited and comped most mainstream music is these days.

I think there’s probably also some motivation in the opposite direction to “just be done with it already”, and to move forward on new things, rather than spending production time revisiting the old.


i’d guess this is the main cause of the issue you’re having. even from personal experience - the last record my partner amelia and i did together was written in a very quiet, meditative home studio environment, which we then ended up performing in much different (larger, livelier) spaces. to me the show and the record served two different purposes (public v. private) and brought out two different sides of the same songs. whether that’s good or bad is tough to say.

the son lux stuff in particular i would bet is all written and recorded before he thinks about how to play it live. in this arrangement there’s almost no way for the song not to grow and evolve once it’s been arranged for the trio and then performed countless times for audiences. music is always changing, unless you’re the eagles and closing every show for 30 years with a note for note version of hotel california.


…[quote=“rknLA, post:2, topic:4244”]
modern DAWs, it’s really easy to over-produce a track, or fall into the trap of trying to make things perfect, rather than treating the system as a means of capturing a live performance…
it’s true/also, every mix is a 'performance


Agreed @instantjuggler

I would say over the course of the last 20 years the huge shift in profitability of music has been the biggest impact to this. Well it’s always been a factor but much more so these days.

Alot of people as always fall into the “if it ain’t broke” routine, get comfortable and lose focus on creativity. It’s hard to disagree with that from a financial point of view if it’s your sole source of income. Unless you want to risk going broke. Always exceptions…

Taking Son Lux as the example. He can record a studio album for next to nothing and make it profitable with touring. I’ve not seen him live, but i’ve only heard amazing things of the live shows (being so much better than the records)

If he/they we’re to aim to have these as the album / ‘product’ it would require writing/demoing/band rehearsals/live shows to fine tune and then record live. Whilst this could still be done ‘cheaply’ it would take many more months or possibly years to complete the album. To engineer & perform at the same time for such a recording is a huge undertaking. You would need to hire an engineer at least and if you don’t have the gear or the space a studio would be required aswell. The costs can just spiral out of control going this route if you want it at the same high level that Son Lux is capable by himself.

At the end of the day, unfortunately, it just comes down to cold hard cash…

Very true!
Although cash is king again though. Just having an engineer to remove that element is huge.

I’m in the middle of writing/performing and engineering/mixing my bands latest album. We live performed & recorded the tracks (full band) in some various spaces we had free access to, which are very few and far between.
Using all our own recording gear built up from 15years of collecting.
It’s too much to try and both engineer & write/perform at the same time, it’s 2 different kinds of thinking for both and it can really affect the results of both.

We’ve done the full blown studio recording stuff in the past, the cost just can’t be recouped these days, unless you’ve got a big label to help. In which case the creativity can, or rather, will be compromised for profitability, resulting in those rather lack lustre studio albums again.


Yeah, love that Horace Andy dub. But mixes get less and less live the more people use DAW’s to automate parameters. I still use analogue mixers so that I can play with the things but usually end up doing a bit of both. When playing live musicians go with the flow and react to each other - even to each other’s mistakes. I try and do things with jams and then edit them rather than building things up from zero. I see what Instant Juggler means about conservatism, but I still think that there are a lot of truly great studio albums… depends what sort of music you’re into i guess. in Dub, the studio becomes the instrument…
x gus

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I stumbled on this thread and thought I would add a comment - sorry for bumping if no one cares anymore.

I was listening to the first Sound + Process podcast and started thinking about how this related to my own production endeavors which are, admittedly, only for my own amusement at this point. What specifically got me thinking was trying to envision a live show built around MLRV or sampling in general especially with a tool like Grids, as tactful and intuitive as it is, that fundamentally lacks in immediacy and expression. This isn’t a slight towards Grids at all, but the things that I discover on Grids are not immediately replicable like they could be if I were playing a guitar or a piano in a prescribed form.

My point is that I think there is a lot of virtue to making a published work as conservative as possible - easily digested, if you will - in part so that it CAN be expanded on in a performance situation and also in part because of the decision making process that exists in a studio environment and the lack thereof in a live environment. Some material (and artists) probably respond to the additional structure positively and others its hit-or-miss.

My own work is mostly recorded on the fly, in a DAW, but generally “live” in a single take. I can’t easily replicate it so playing it live would be akin to DJing it somewhat. For me, this would require sitting down and carefully deconstructing the audio into Ableton and figuring out what I can play and what I should play along with. This takes a work that was once a single, cohesive, idea and forces me to make post-mortem decisions/changes to it - just so I can try and inject new energy into it during the actual performance. Whether you are doing this as a solo performer or rehearsing with a band before a show, the idea is kinda the same: boil the parts down to the most basic elements for the performance and decide on a general arrangement so you (or the other musicians) can build from there to incorporate your audience and energy.

Suffice it to say that the whole thing is complicated which is why you see different results from different folks. I think there is a lot that goes into it - probably even more so for bigger acts/artists. Sorry for the ramble.


it feels like we are moving beyond the age of recording. listening to recorded music will continue as a legacy but now that it is possible to create music and save it as a patch or an algorithm it feels like the recorded format is becoming less important, in fact it’s role in the evolution of music is probably over, maybe it’s necessary to let it go in order to allow for something new.


VCV Rack. Automatonism+Context Sequencer. Various modular formats. etc


sorry, but recorded media is literally everywhere. I’d also argue that “recording” in all the word’s acceptations (from cave paintings to digital selfies via oral traditions writing in a collective memory) is inseparable from humanity. Aren’t we experiential recording beings after all?


I may be in the minority here, but I am a huge fan of DAWs and their workflow. I make broadly electronic music, and I revel in the possibilities of finely honing sounds to my satisfaction. I’m sensitive to the idea of “over-production” but reject a limited set of criteria to define a piece of recorded music as such. So much of the surprise and emotion in my work flow emerges from taking my raw material (what I’ve tracked, whether electronic or acoustic in nature, inherently linear or basically cyclical) and carving, stitching, and fine-tuning each piece until it all hangs together like a tapestry. Sometimes it’s as simple as a single recorded take with some light EQ and automation, other times it’s literally hundreds of tracks with even more micro-edits and automation.

I guess I think of songs and sound in general in a sculptural sense… the amount of “work” it takes to get it to completion will be different every time, and the amount of granularity is entirely subject to the maker and the needs of the work. A highly worked piece has the same potential of value and emotional resonance as a “live” take. The same is true in a performance context, and I think there’s not really a way to equate the objective quality of a recorded work vs. its live expression. They are fundamentally different pieces regardless of the specificity of the abstracted music-in-itself (i.e. score or other written notation).

Just for kicks, and to illustrate the variability of creative approaches, here are two different pieces of mine in their “finished” states before the final studio mixdown stage:


Interesting topic. I like and use DAWs, but I started recording using tape machines and mixers. So the replication of those technologies makes perfect sense to me.

But it’s an interesting question, how else could we do this? I saw the idea that music will just become a patch or an algorithm, interesting idea. Monome kinda goes there, I guess? In 100 years maybe music=coding.

Or maybe there will be a revolution in the UI of recording/mixing software in the next decade. People of my generation and older needed the mixer/tape deck analogy. People who never used that technology don’t.

But then again, the violin was standardized almost 500 years ago, and maybe the form of that instrument is pretty good and doesn’t need changing. Possibly we’ll stick with the DAW as-is for a long time. The Fender Telecaster: A pretty elemental form of the electric guitar, less than 75 years old but not likely to change anytime soon. If you’re into that kinda thing.


yeah, and we should continue with that. It’s just that I’m getting bored with the recorded medium (of sound) for some reason, or maybe it’s just autumn.

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