Sound equals space. But we’ll get there… First, we have to start with The Grateful Dead. They were among the first bands to become notable for welcoming taping of their shows by the audience and the trading of these tapes freely within the community, or jam band “scene” that was already forming. This was distinct from other rock and roll bootlegs made famous by Bruce Springsteen or The Rolling Stones as the practice was actually encouraged by the band and because every show was designed to have a different setlist and different musical explorations in the “jam” portions of songs, making each and every individual concert something special. Taping was encouraged to preserve the memory from each show and to enable fans that couldn’t make it to each show the opportunity to then go back and listen to these shows in the future. The Grateful Dead and their approach to live performances (changing the setlist every night, performing more than one set of music with an intermission in between, playing multiple concerts at the same venue in consecutive days, etc.) has influenced a plethora of jam bands today that emulate this live performance setting and ritual. This also means that they allow taping of their concerts, and many, many bands today also tape soundboard recordings for sale to the public as an extra revenue stream, especially for concerts deemed more important or special, such as New Years runs or the final two or three shows of a particular touring season. The list of bands that have similar taping policies is a long one: Dead and Company, The Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, The String Cheese Incident, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, Gov’t Mule, and many more. But perhaps most importantly, the greatest living rock band: Phish. This project will focus on their live recordings, as they are the band in which I am the most well versed. And because they rock!
Basically, there are the audience recordings that I alluded to, and there are official recordings done by the band that are much higher quality as they are plugged directly into the soundboard where the show is being mixed live. Audience recordings tend to highlight the experience and feeling of being at the show, while soundboard recordings highlight the actual instruments more. Therefore, the quality of the SBD recording is essentially the exact same as when you heard the show live, or as good as it would have sounded if you were not there. The soundboard shows offered by the band (you can now stream any show since 2009 as we live in the future) are recorded by the same soundboard but transmitted to a separate digital audio tape that does include all of the “air” in a show. That is to say that many of the songs feature the crowd applauding or cheering at the end and if the band took two minutes in between songs to discuss where the set may go, that is included as well. So you’re not even missing anything by choosing SBD over AUD.
While there are camps of people who enjoy both types of recordings, it is hard to deny that having the band release FLAC or mp3 files straight from the soundboard is supreme. There is no better way to hear the full scope of all the instruments, mixed correctly, than to have a soundboard recording. However, the main argument against these recordings is losing the experience of feeling like the listener is present at the actual show, which looks something like this. This is a typical view of the audience for an outdoors Phish show. This is the environment that AUDs aim to capture. Note the tall, skinny microphones at the beginning of the video. There are lots of them! Those are tapers, recording the show as an AUD for themselves.
With an audience recording, you will almost certainly lose some sound quality, but you also gain the accompanying sounds of a crowd reacting to everything the band is doing, which of course, is completely unexpected. Anything can happen on any night. Even though the band does release every single show they play with a soundboard recording, taping amongst the audience is still allowed and encouraged, and there is a strong subgroup of the overall fan base who exclusively listen to audience recordings even today. It should also be noted, however, that trading audience recordings in today’s internet climate is unbelievably easy and FREE – especially on apps like ReListen. Meanwhile the band charges $9.99 for most show downloads, the only exception being if you had a physical ticket to the show, which includes a free download code every time.
Here’s an example of an audience recording of a show from the summer of 2016 in San Francisco. Skip around to any part of the recording and you’ll immediately notice the quality difference between this and your favorite studio-recorded song. However, though the sound may not be loud or crisp enough for true audiophiles, it is a fairly faithful representation of what really went down onstage and in the audience.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. This is the soundboard recording of the same show from summer of last year in San Francisco, and clearly, what you lose in atmosphere, you easily make up for with the power of crisp sound.
Soundboard recordings are always high fidelity, a must for audiophiles and Phishphiles alike, meaning the soundboard provides a flat frequency response within the intended frequency range of the speakers for the arena or amphitheater. That is a fancy way of saying that the sound engineers for the band have found a delicate balance where they can reproduce the exact input signal (the band’s instruments which are mic’d on stage) with no distortion whatsoever, or at least a level of distortion so insignificant that it is not perceptible by humans. Now the people that argue for audience recordings because they give you the feeling of being in the actual physical space with the band are forgetting one important factor: we have stereophonic sound for a reason! Stereophonic sound, more commonly referred to as simply stereo, purposely creates a sense of spatial realism, as stereo consists of two independent audio signal channels designed to replicate the aural perspective of instruments on a stage! When listening to a soundboard recording, the listener can comprehend how the engineers mixed the show live, bringing up the bass for certain parts or taming the higher frequencies of Trey Anastasio’s guitar in others. They were catering it for your ears! You have two ears, so you should be treated to two independent audio signal channels. Soundboards these days have many, many inputs and channels to help provide the best possible sound, and they can be absolutely humongous, like this one.
Phish now professionally videotapes every show, and sells most of them as webcasts so that fans who cannot make it to the concert can watch from home. This is called “couch touring,” and the same arguments that apply to SBD vs. AUD come back into play when video is involved, as the sound is still the main point. These are concerts, after all. Here’s a video shot professionally by Phish. Some people love this because they get to see the band up close in high definition, while the purists contend that this is not how you would be able to see the band at a show in person. They don’t like that you can’t see the whole band and what everyone is doing at the same time. The multiple cameras and angles also don’t allow those viewers to get the same feel for the venue, or for the overall experience. Remember, these are generally fans who have seen anywhere from 50 to 200 Phish concerts – so they know what they are looking for!
For comparison, here is an example of a video that was not professionally shot by Phish, but rather by a fan from the audience in the taping section. You’ll notice that the sound resulting from a random audience member taping the sound from the nearest speakers through a less-than-stellar 1990s camera microphone is not ideal. The sound is quite tinny, and it loses the umph of the bass guitar, which is incredibly important for a song like this one, called “Cavern,” which relies heavily on the strength of the bass and drums.
As we know, sound absolutely changes the feeling of a particular space, and in that regard, I completely understand the fondness for audience recordings. Some people just like hearing the show within the actual dimensions of the venue, with people becoming even further split on the issue of indoor vs. outdoor shows. Phish has been known to be quite comfortable playing outdoor shows at amphitheaters, but I prefer to see them inside, as sound is essentially the compression of air, and where is there more air than you know what to do with? Outside. The sound can travel and escape from you, quickly, whereas in a venue like Madison Square Garden, the sound has nowhere to go but right into your ears!
So where is the future of this debate heading? Simple (and that’s not just the name of a Phish song!) With the direction in which virtual reality is already trending, we should reach a point in the not-so-distant future in which Phish will set up multiple VR-capability cameras in the middle of the audience, most likely near the soundboard. They would transmit what the cameras and soundboard were picking up directly to your VR headset at home, where you could immerse yourself in the concert and truly feel like you were standing there with everybody, able to look in every direction and hear every note clearly. Talk about taking couch touring to the next level. One of my favorite TV shows, Portlandia, parodied this very eventuality perfectly. Of course, because it is parody, everything goes wrong for them during their viewing experience… But I truly believe that this is the world we are headed toward. Until then, I suppose I am just going to have to rely on my trusty soundboard recordings to experience my favorite jam band.
I leave you with a trailer for an actual 3D movie that Phish shot in 2009. They released the film as a limited engagement in theaters all over the country. And it gives you the perfect look at a concert you just have to experience.