Can a Live Mix Sound as Good as a Recording

I saw this question come across the Twitter the other day:

Can you expect a live mix to sound as good as a recording mix?

Brian Howley

I was going to respond on Twitter, but then I realized I had more than 140 characters worth of answer, so we are. There are a lot of ways to look at this question, but first I think it’s important to define “good.”

What is “As Good?”

If you define “as good” as having the same production value, perhaps a live mix will never measure up. In the recording studio, you have the opportunity to run multiple takes, multiple tracks, multiple effects and multiple passes through the mix to get the it spot on. In fact, with fader automation, you can run through the track as many times as needed to make it perfect. In a live setting, you might have one or two times through in rehearsal plus the actual service. Even if it’s a song you’ve done several times before, it’s not likely to be as good as it would if you had more time in the studio.

People unfamiliar with the recording process may think that the band goes into the studio, plays the song while being recorded and the track is done. Under rare circumstances that happens, but far more often than not, each musician gets multiple takes and the editor pieces together a perfect performance. The engineer might pull out all kinds of effects and tricks to make the sound quite amazing. An entire CD project may take a month, several months or even a year to fully produce.

Compare that to a typical church weekend. As live engineers, we’re often working with a pickup band that has hopefully listened to and practiced the songs during the week. They may run the song once or twice, then we mix it before an audience. In larger churches, you may have the opportunity to record the rehearsal earlier in the week, then tweak with virtual soundcheck. But for most of us, it’s rehearsal, then service.

With that kind of schedule, it seems clear that a live mix would not sound “as good” as a recording. However, let’s look at it another way. Why would you want it to?

Why We Do Live

My first reaction to the question was, “If you want it to sound like the recording, just play the recording.” There’s a reason we have live bands on our stages and platforms every weekend; a live band draws you into the worship experience in a way that’s unlike listening to a recording. There is a rawness and dare I say, a realness that happens with people playing live. When we mix live, we have the opportunity to create energy and movement in the song, and it’s probably going to be different and unique each time.

It’s that sense of uniqueness that leads people to pay serious money to see their favorite bands live. They don’t go to hear the recording, they want to see the band play the songs right in front of them. A live venue is unlikely to be acoustically perfect, and we’re probably not going to be able to do cool stereo sound effects and all  the subtle multi-track thickening that can be done in the studio. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t sound great.

Apple and Oranges

I really think Live and Recorded are like apples and oranges. Which one tastes better? The truth is there are good oranges and bad, tasty apples and rotten ones. And in that spectrum, we have many different varieties. Some people may like oranges better than apples, and others may like apples better. I would suggest that this is not a zero-sum game; that is, if one is “good,” it doesn’t make the other “not good.” I’ve heard some really good live mixes, and I spend a lot of time studying great studio mixes. Which do I like better? Why do I have to choose? Can’t I like both?

I’ve been doing live sound for a long time, and have gotten pretty good at it. I really like mixing live and enjoy a tremendous sense of satisfaction when a mix comes together well. On the other hand, I’m experimenting with recording more these days, and I enjoy that a lot also.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that recordings are “better” than live. I think live mixes can sound amazing; they’re just different. It doesn’t also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can when mixing live to create a great sound. But we also have to recognize that we’re working under very different constraints, so the definition of success has to be different.

That’s my take anyway. What’s yours?

Thanks, Brian for the post idea!