Rating Recording Quality

Sunday, April 06, 2008

At the bottom of each post is a sound quality grade. If you've ever wondered how it is that we arrive at this rating, I wanted to offer an explanation.

First, the grading system- We use a traditional "A-F" method that most of you are all to familiar with from your primary school days. Plus and minus grades (A+ or A-, for example) are allowed. One thing that you might notice is that although we techically grade A-F, there's no C's, D's, or Fs in the ratings we've given so far. Don't ever expect to see them. This is a blog dedicated not to live shows per se, but really good live recordings by the best live musicians. Personally, we don't care how amazing a show was when you were there, if it was recorded on a $5 mini-cassette in someone's pocket it's not worth our time or the time of our readers. Live recording is an art and it requires good equipment and a good mix/transfer.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way...In order to grade a show, here are the main factors we at the Jivefather weigh:

--- Equipment/Software- Is the "lineage" acceptable? Lineage put simply is the path that the music took to get from where the artists played it to where you're listening to it right now. Equipment needs to be used and positioned properly to make sure that sound is not squished, expanded, or otherwise altered. This must also be factored when transferring and "touching up" sound from a live performance. A typical lineage looks like this (taken from the Addison Groove Project show I posted):

Schoeps CMC64 > SonosaxSX-M2 > ApogeeA/D1000 > Emagic A62m > iBook via USB @44.1/16

This will look like gibberish to some, and that's fine. What it should tell you every piece of equipment used in the taping and transfer of a recording in chronological order. For example, let's look at the lineage above and work with the first piece, a Schoeps CMC64. In a fraction of a fraction of a second, Google provides the following links regarding what you should expect from this piece of equipment. We now know it's a high-end stereo mic that's perfectly suited for this application.

The real questions we're looking to answer here are: Were decent mics and recorders used? Was the transfer done using appropriate equipment and software?

To look at lineage in a sense that more people can relate to, let's work with the idea of freshness and let's make a sandwich. Assume that the base ingredients come from the same source and are of acceptable quality. Do you want the loaf of bread that was sealed airtight and transported carefully, or the one that was left out in the air and crushed beneath a leaky box of raw chicken? Speaking of chicken, do you want the sandwich with the chicken that was kept at safe temperatures or would you prefer the chicken that was transported to you in a 99 cent foam cooler with a hole in it? Doesn't crisp, clean, and cold lettuce sound better than floppy brown junk that picked up a few critters in its travels...?

The idea is optimum preservation, and the best recordings deliver the show to you just as the musicians intended it to be heard when they played it. Let's chill with the food references (they're making me hungry), but the same ideas apply to the other criteria.

--- Accurate Representation of Venue Sound- Anyone who has been to a few live shows will know that the acoustics, setup, and crowd of a venue have a huge effect on what the audience hears, and in the interest of reliving a show, these factors should be evident in the recording. Hearing the same band at a local coffee house, Irving Plaza, Red Rocks Ampitheatre, and the Sydney Opera House will produce very unique sound experiences. Any or all of these can be wonderful, the real question is whether the recording properly represents the venue. Is the building small or large? What is the place made of, literally? What's the ratio of people to open space? How does the sound system interact with that building? Is the show even in a building?

An example of this that should be easy to relate to would be the Railroad Earth show I posted a bit ago. It's an outdoor setting and the crowd is definitely present in the recording as are the qualities expected in an open air recording. What really adds authenticity is the fact that twice during the show a freight train rolls through about 15 feet from the stage. You'll hear it clearly (click the link above and look for the tracks marked with **), and you'll hear the reaction of the crowd as well. That's probably almost exactly what you would have heard if you were at the Blue Plum Festival listening to it. Some people would be really bothered by that in the recording, but to me it is perfect. That's what happened in that place on that day, and we want to hear it.

Basically. if the show was recorded at a place where you've been before, this is pretty easy: Does the recording capture the quirks of the place or not? If you're listening to a performance from a place you've never been, what does Google tell you about the place? A quick search should let you know if the sound is appropriate. If the venue is an open air stage and the recording sounds like it's from a cinder block room, there's a problem.

--- General/Other- This covers the rest of what factors into our grading, and sort of overlaps on the first criteria. It's almost solely on the shoulders of the person who recorded it, although it certainly could be attributed partially to the person controlling the sound at the venue. The recording should be "even", which is to say that the levels should be appropriate (not too much bass, nor a "tinny" recording with too much high range). It should sound like it was recorded roughly from the "middle of the middle", or the absolute center of the audience. I shouldn't feel like I'm hearing sound from left/right/front/back more than the other. I'm not a taper, but I've seen plenty: The best set up in the middle and midway between the front and back of the audience, or at least centered to the stage but in the back. This is also where most "taper" tickets are sold when applicable.

This is by no means meant to be a definitive guide, it's simply an explanation of what we do here at The Jivefather. Live music is very subjective. What we might think is an A+ recording might be viewed totally differently through the eyes of another (quite possibly more knowledgable) fan.

In other words, your milage may vary, but this is how we read the odometer.

Another guide on how a show should be taped, from Titus Films.

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