Production and the Listener: The “Perfect” Performance

This paper describes a pilot study into the way listeners perceive a “live” and edited recording of the same performance.  Auslander (2004. pp 1-13) says: “listeners do not perceive recorded music as disembodied.” As the vast majority of most people’s musical experience is via the recorded medium rather than through live performance, and recording is now much easier to manipulate into artificial constructs of performance, there needs to be an investigation of how this experience is changing the audiences’ and performers’ view of musical performance.

Gracyk (1996) argued that you should consider the recordings not the score as the primary musical work, this applies to modern popular music where compositions tend not to be formally written down but are more often than not a synthesis of artists, producers, engineers and programmers working together to produce the finished result from a very basic idea instead of them being performed from a written score. The idea of editing Glenn Gould’s two recordings of Bach: the Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981) would be anathema taking out the very reason why the two recordings are recognized as landmark interpretations of the same piece of music by the same artist.

The aim of the study was to investigate the influence of real life and strict tempo regulation on the reception of a recorded rock performance, and to investigate how the listeners react to performances in recording, and whether the reactions are dependent on age and musical experience

The Study

The basic methodology for the study was to record an experienced band in free time then edit that performance into a strict tempo grid.  Both performances were then played to audiences and a questionnaire completed which included details about themselves and their musical experience. They were then asked which of the two versions of the recording was preferred, and what differences they noted about them. These results were then entered into a database and the results analysed.

The Recording & Editing Process

Figure 1. Recording Blue Traffic

The band that was used for this pilot study was Blue Traffic an experienced South Wales blues/rock trio who perform regularly, using an experienced band was essential as the study required a band that you didn’t necessarily have to edit. The recording was tracked live into Pro-Tools via an Audient console. A click was played to establish the tempo and then dropped out of the cans to allow the band to play in free time with no reference. A tempo had to be established at the start to allow for an editing grid to be set up. The bass and guitar was direct injected to give a reference for editing. The guitar amp was also recorded and the bass was re-amped. The vocal was overdubbed and double tracked. These methods kept the tracks as clean as possible for editing.


Editing was carried out in Pro-Tools using playlists. This meant that when the tracks were edited the playlists could be substituted in the mix, therefore not changing the sonic signature of the two versions.

Figure 2. The drum tracks tabbed for editing.

Figure 3. The tracks sliced and moved to the grid.

Figure 4. The drum tracks cross faded

The drum tracks were the easiest to edit as the transients were easy to discern and allowed the parts to be edited as a group.

The guitar and bass parts were more difficult as you can see from the following screen shots. The DI signal was used to reference the parts, and the signals from the amplifiers were sliced into notes using this reference.

Figure 5. The bass part being edited, the orange waveform is the DI, the purple waveform the amplifier.

This did get more difficult as the parts got more complicated.

Figure 6. A more complicated bass passage being edited

The guitar was also edited in the same way.

Figure 7. The opening guitar passage sliced for editing. The blue waveform is the DI straight from the guitar, the gold waveform is the DI after the effects pedal, and the pink waveform is the amplifier.

The vocal parts, main and double tracked, were also edited to the grid

The live version was then mixed and bounced out to a stereo file. Then the edited playlist was substituted and this was bounced out to a stereo file. This meant that the sonic signature of both recordings would be as identical as possible. The results can be seen in the spectrographs below:

Figure 8: Spectrographs Top “live” version, Bottom edited version

The two graphs are very similar, with a little less level at @1100 Hz and slight enhancement at 1600 Hz in the edited version, these slight differences are accounted for by the phase shifts in the edited version.

Data Collection

A questionnaire was prepared which asked for age, what musical experience the respondents had, what music they listened to, which version they preferred and why, and what differences they noticed between the two versions.

Figure 9: The Questionnaire

The tracks were then played to the respondents; care was taken not to lead them in any particular direction when explaining the survey to them. The questionnaires were analysed and the responses entered into a database.

The Results

Figure 10. The results across the whole sample

The result across the whole sample was an even split for those respondents who specified a preference with just under a quarter of the sample not expressing a preference either way.

The results by age range.

Figure 11. The results for 13-18 year old respondents

There is a marked preference for the live version amongst this age group with a third expressing no preference.

Figure 12. The results for 19-25 year old respondents

There is an even split in this age range and less than a quarter expressing no preference.

Figure 13. The results for 25-35 year old respondents

There is a preference here for the edited version and a smaller percentage again expressing no preference.

Some of these differences may be accounted for by the sample size.

The reasons given for the respondent’s preference

Figure 14. The reasons given for preference for those respondents who preferred the “live” version

When answering the question, the vast majority of these respondents talked about the feel of the track, whilst the remainder talked about some aspect of the sound.

Figure 15. The reasons given for preference for those respondents who preferred the edited version

When answering this question the vast majority of the respondents talked about the sound with 14% talking about the feel or the timing of the track.

Differences noted by the respondents.

Figure 16. The differences noticed by the whole sample

It can be seen from the above pie chart that the vast majority are talking about the sound of the track and not the timings of the performance, with 44% believing that the mix was different.

Figure 17. The differences noted by those respondents who preferred the “live” version.

Within this group of respondents, the vast majority again talk about the sounds of the recordings rather than the timing or feel of the performance.

Figure 18. The differences noted by those respondents who preferred the edited version.

Again within this group of respondents, the vast majority talk about the sounds of the recordings, with the same percentage thinking that the mix had been changed.

The preferred version for musicians and non-musicians

Figure 19. The preferences of musicians

There was a fairly even split between “live” version and the edited version amongst the musicians, with just a small percentage in favour of the “live” version.

Figure 20. The preferences of non-musicians

Just over half of the non-musicians preferred the edited version, whilst a third preferred the “live” version, the remainder not expressing a preference.


In this pilot study the results showed that over the whole sample, there was an even split between the percentage of the sample that preferred either the “live” version or the edited version. The difference was more marked when you split this result into age groups with the younger age group preferring the “live” version and the older age group preferring the edited version. This could suggest that the respondents were being educated into listening for greater “perfection” in the recording they are listening to. Indeed during an interview one of the comments was “I would expect the album version to be like the edited one, but if I saw the band live I would expect them to sound like the first version.”

The split in the preference between musicians and non-musicians was marked as well, with the non-musicians again preferring the edited version; maybe this is a sign that the musicians are more tolerant or aware of feel in performance.  The respondents were also more consistent when they gave their reasons for preferring the “live” version again this might serve as an indication that they recognise the feel of a performance.  But taken as a whole, the people who took part in the survey were unable to pinpoint the major difference in the recordings, with the vast majority talking about the sonic qualities and the perceived change in them between the two versions.  Whilst this served its purpose as a pilot study, some changes will be made for future work. The respondents would be asked whether they liked the track in question. This would enable you to discern whether they were actively engaged in listening.  Instead of asking: which version they preferred? they would be asked, which version was better suited to the music being recorded?

This study has already raised some interesting questions about the effect that listening to “perfected” audio recordings may have had already. Further investigation will have to be carried out using different musical styles. There is also the question of how tolerant is the listening public of performances which are not perfect in timing!  The last angle of investigation would be to look at what effect this is having on performers, whether they are now trying to live up to a perfected ideal or whether they are now relying on technology to make them sound perfect.  In two recent issues of Tape Op there have been two tongue-in-cheek articles.  Chris Camden pronouncing himself guilty as charged of being an Abuser of Pro Tools and Larry Crane setting up Purity and Honesty in Recordings.  Although these articles were humorous in nature they might well underlie the concern that we are getting into a cycle of chasing perceived perfection instead of humanising musical performance.


Blue Traffic (unsigned)

Dan Turner

About The Author

Andrew Gwilliam

The Atrium, University of Glamorgan


Auslander, P. 2004. Performance Analysis & Popular Music: A Manifesto. Contemporary Theatre Review. 14(1). 1-13

Gracyk, T. 1996. Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock. London. I.B. Taurus Publishers

Camden, C. 2008. Guilty as Charged. Tape Op. 65. California. John Baccigaluppi

Crane, L. 2008. Purity and Honesty in Recordings. Tape Op. 67. California. John Baccigaluppi


Brock D/Calvert R, 1973. Orgone Accumulator. Space Ritual. United Artists. UAD60037/8


Gould, Glenn. 1956.  Bach: The Goldberg Variations. Columbia Masterworks Records.

Gould, Glenn. 1981.  Bach: The Goldberg Variations. CBS Records