Recording vs Live Performance – Which is harder?

This year I’ve been getting back into recording tracks, mixing them, making them sound as good as possible. It’s a skill in and of itself, but when it comes to recording your own voice vs doing a live performance, which is harder, and which is easier?

Well, it’s not that simple. There’s pros and cons each way. Let’s have a look at them in turn:

Recording

Pro: You can do multiple takes and take your time
Don’t like THAT line? Redo it. Don’t like that word? Redo it. Want to add another verse after recording? Easy. You exhaust yourself after every line? No problem, you can take your time. This aspect of recording has (in the most extreme scenarios) enabled people who can’t actually finish songs live from start to finish, to be able to put out songs and even albums.

Pro: You can precisely engineer your voice using technology
If you’ve sung something ALMOST perfectly, or you want to add harmonies that were never sung, or add effects etc, all of this is doable in post-production. You can elevate a good performance to great using technology, and make it sound completely natural.

Con: The average person’s recorded listening standards are incredibly high
The music industry is increasingly putting out albums with ZERO errors in. Even the voices have been pitch corrected to within an inch of their lives, and Joe Public has become accustomed to this. As such, the average person’s standards for how good recorded vocals should sound is ludicrously high, and almost unachievable without heavy editing and knitting together of best takes plus pitch correction to tighten up the sound.

As a personal anecdote, I’ve seen people who hear real singers all the time get completely blown away by a vocal recording, where the same vocal recording only gets a response of “It’s OK, sounds decent” from the average member of the public. Such is the near-impossible task for singers to impress the average person with a recorded vocal.

Con: Even small mistakes stand out and are permanently recorded
If you leave a mistake in the record, it’s there forever, immortalised for all time. People keep listening to songs repeatedly, so even hidden mistakes often end up being brought to the fore. The more people listen, the more errors end up being found in recorded vs live performance.

Live performance

Pro: The average person’s ability to critically listen to live music is relatively low
In contrast to recorded vocals, the average person’s ability to hear small mistakes (sometimes even big mistakes) in a live scenario is extremely low, certainly in comparison to the recorded vocal standard.

In this regard I’ve personally been cringing in response to some live vocals, where the average listeners are applauding and going wild for it. The standards of live vs recorded are very, very different.

Pro: Small mistakes are hard(er) to hear, and once the mistake is over, it’s gone
MASSIVE pro here. Make a mistake live? It’s just there for a moment and it’s gone, and listeners seem psychologically to be very able to let go of those mistakes, and enjoy each good moment as it comes. In contrast, recorded vocals seem to cause people to hang onto those errors as they can always scroll back and hear them again.

Con: You only get one chance at the song
With recorded vocals you essentially get all the time in the world. With live vocals, you have to go from start to finish in one go. Your performance is the recorded equivalent of your first take. As such, you’ve got practice so as to get your first take to be above your “good enough” standard.

Con: You can’t engineer your voice using technology to anywhere near the same extent
You can of course EQ your voice or add effects, even run it through a computer with plugins that have live options, but they are restricted in comparison to studio recording options, and that’s still assuming you’re performing with a microphone. If you’re performing completely acoustically (e.g. voice and guitar, voice and piano, voice and something else), then you have nothing to hide behind. You can’t make your voice bigger or smaller using technology in the latter example, your voice just IS.

If you find this daunting, you’re not alone. There are plenty of singers (some I’ve met, and some famous examples) whose voices would be nothing without a microphone to heavily amplify what they are doing vocally, and with hefty modifications to their tone before it goes out of then PA.

Closing thought

Have you noticed how the pros and cons of recorded vs live vocals are basically polar opposites? I find that remarkably interesting.

Closing question: what about recording live performances? This (arguably) reduces all the pros whilst keeping all the cons. Mistakes that weren’t heard live will be heard on record. You don’t get multiple takes, though you may be able to do some level of audio manipulation to improve things. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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