The Soul of Good Live Recording
There is really something about a live album. Now all bands put out live albums, and they’re not always the best— in fact it’s pretty easy to put out a bad live recording, but when it’s done right it sings. Take Sam Cooke’s seminal album Live at Harlem Square Club, there’s an album that really defined a sound for an entire generation of soul performers. You can compare it to his Live at the Copa Cabana album, a very similar set recorded on the same tour, and the sound is totally different.
Same band, same performer, many of the same songs, and this album is a total 180 from the first one. The Harlem Square album is possibly the best example of that raw, soul sound that brought the gospel tradition to a secular audience. The Copa album, a good album in its own right, still comes off like some of Cooke’s less spirited studio work; it was too clean, too produced, and the crowd way too tame. So the difference between a real landmark album and a banal studio recording is a very fine one.
Go too far towards one end of the spectrum and the album will sound like chaos, you won’t be able to hear the band and the sound of the crowd will overwhelm the performance instead of supporting it. If you go too far towards the Copa end of the spectrum, then you get something that’s too clean; essentially a studio album with none of the benefits of an actual studio. A good studio album is as much the product of the audio engineer as it is the performer. (After all, where would STAX records have been without Chips Moman?)
Any performer worth their salt needs equally salty producers; you need a sound company who knows the venues and the crowd, whether you’re in New York City or Miami, FL. Because making a good live recording, one that can really capture the sound, and more importantly, the energy, of a live performance is not just a work of art, but a work of artisanship. You need the skills, the heart, and the chops to pull it off in a way that brings the listener in to the crowd.
And, at the end of the day, the live recording has to bring something to the table that standing in the audience doesn’t, a certain focus— a kind of narrative that is at once broad and intimate. At their best, live albums are like a special concert created just for whoever’s listening.