On Instrument Positioning in Live Recordings

All recordings of concerts are artificial. But once you’ve gotten that out of the way – you simply accept that you can never reproduce the actual sound of a live performance – you have to approach the question of how these recordings should be mixed. Not only are there questions of the volume of individual voices, instruments or groups of instruments, but also where they should be in the soundscape.

In the simplest type of live recording, you have one performer playing a solo instrument; say, a guitar. That instrument is centered in the soundstage, and there are no problems. Add a singer to the guitar, and it’s still simple to position.

But move to a slightly more complex instrument, such as a piano. There are two ways to record a piano, using microphones or a pickup. With the former, you can position microphones around the piano – most often, this is just two microphones placed facing the open lid – or you can use a pickup, which is transducers placed on the soundboard inside the piano. (There are many ways you can combine these devices, or use multiple microphones, both inside and outside the piano.) But a recording engineer faces a dilemma: do they place the piano in the center of the soundscape, or do they try to position it so the different keys are heard in different locations? I’ve heard recordings which are made to sound as though the listener is sitting in front of the keyboard; the lower notes are to the left, and the higher notes to the right. This is essentially false, because no one other than the performer hears a piano in this way. However, it does give the piano a bit more “life,” and makes the sound less static.

When there are multiple performers, the questions become much different. Generally, you want to have the performers sound as though they are in their appropriate position on stage. So a string quartet will have two instruments more on the left channel, and the other two on the right (generally the two violins are on the left and the viola and cello on the right). But I’ve heard string quartet recordings where the two instruments on the left are almost entirely on the left channel, and the same for the instruments on the right. This approximates what it would sound like to be in the middle of the string quartet, but no one ever sits there.

A jazz piano trio is an interesting group. Generally, the piano is on the left, the bass in the middle, and the drums on the right. This leads to many recordings trying to replicate this positioning. For example, listen to Brad Mehldau’s The Art Of The Trio Volume 2: Live At The Village Vanguard . (You can listen to samples of the recordings I cite by following the Amazon links.) The piano is far to the left, the drums to the right, and the bass in the middle, as they are on stage. However, you would only hear a performance like this if you were sitting in the first row, dead center. This gives a certain artificiality to these recordings, which is compounded if you listen on headphones. In fact, I find this approach very annoying on headphones, and generally don’t listen to recordings like this except on speakers. (Though even with speakers, the positioning is very obvious.)

Take the same artist when he’s in the studio. On Songs: The Art Of The Trio, Volume Three, recorded in the studio, the piano is centered, and the drums are quite creatively spread across the soundstage, while the bass is also centered. Musically, this is much more interesting than if the instruments were positioned laterally.

This positioning is even more obvious in the recent Grateful Dead releases from the band’s Europe 72 tour. You can hear this clearly on the Europe ’72 Vol. 2 release, notably on Dark Star. When the Grateful Dead performed, Jerry Garcia was stage left, Bob Weir in the center, and Phil Lesh stage right. Garcia’s guitar, in these new mixes, is far to the left, but Weir’s guitar is on the right channel. Lesh’s bass is in the center; I agree that the bass should be centered no matter what, but the positioning of the guitars is simply odd. No one would have heard the music like that, unless they were in the first few rows, and even then, the resonance of the halls would attenuate that positioning greatly. Add to that the fact that the vocals are centered. This is logical, but having Jerry’s guitar far to the left and his voice in the center is a bit jarring.

The Grateful Dead’s recent release of some music from their Spring 1990 tour follows this approach. But the drums are more spread out than in the Europe 72 mixes (probably because the multi-tracking used in 1990 allowed for this giving more tracks to the drums), and the keyboards are also far to the right (keyboardist Brent Mydland did sit on the right, as did keyboardist Keith Godchaux, in 1972). But on these recordings, Bob Weir’s guitar is in the center, which is more logical.

No matter what, an engineer has to establish a soundspace. All I’m saying here is that sometimes this soundspace is too artificial; in attempting to reproduce some of a band’s positioning, it creates music that doesn’t sound realistic. You certainly don’t want all the instruments in the center, but putting them far to either side can sound strange. Could it be that these recordings are mixed for people who keep their speakers very close together? I don’t; I have speakers on my desk that are a couple of feet to either side of my head, and my living room stereo’s speakers are fairly far apart. This speaker positioning makes sense for most recordings – especially those of an orchestra – but for some recent recordings, it just sounds weird.

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The Grateful Dead Movie Now Available on Blu-Ray

I remember well, back in the summer of ’77, when The Grateful Dead movie was released. I don’t recall exactly where it was showing in New York City, but with my friends, I went to see it shortly after it opened. It was in one of the few movie theaters that had Dolby sound, and the sound was, indeed, excellent (for the time).

Times have changed, and The Grateful Dead Movie is now available on Blu-Ray, with much better sound than the original film: as with the 2004 DVD release, there’s a 5.1 surround sound mix, this time with lossless audio (because there’s more room on the disc) and 1080p images.

Let’s face it: The Grateful Dead Movie is not a very good movie. It tries to be a cross between a concert flick – which was becoming common at that time – and an overview of what the Deadhead scene was like. Interspersed among the concert footage are interviews and films of people waiting on line at the Winterland, during what was thought to be, at the time, the Grateful Dead’s last concert run. (And that cheesy opening animation…)

Fortunately, this turned out to not be the case, and after the hiatus, the band came back strong. But this attempt to portray the anthropological nature of the scene took away from the concert footage. Had there been full songs, long jams, and uninterrupted musical sequences, together with the rest of the footage, this might have been a good movie, but when watching it, you want to hear the music, and it keeps getting cut off. I’m sure the reason was financial, but if only the movie had been an hour longer, it could have been a good record of the period, and had lots of music as well.

Fortunately, on both the DVD and Blu-Ray release, there are extra filmed tracks with music only. These total about 100 minutes, and are roughly the equivalent of a full set of a Grateful Dead concert, and features the following songs:

Uncle John’s Band
The Other One > Spanish Jam > Mind Left Body Jam > The Other One
Scarlet Begonias
China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
Dark Star
Weather Report Suite

Not a bad setlist. So, while I have the DVD set already, I’ll certainly buy the Blu-Ray, but not for the movie itself; I’ll get it for those extra songs. There are very few good films of the Dead in the 70s, and this is the best record of a Dead show, until the 12/31/78 Closing of Winterland DVD set. Unfortunately, this show was only recorded on VHS, so the quality is not up to par. I really wish that more footage from the October 1974 shows – the ones recorded for The Grateful Dead Movie – were released, but I have a feeling that there’s not much left that’s salvageable. In any case, getting Dark Star, The Other One and China > Rider on a Blu-Ray is worth the price of admission.

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Individual Shows from Grateful Dead Europe ’72 Set Now Available

It didn’t take long. Before many of the original purchasers received their box sets (see Europe 72 is Here for more about the set), the Grateful Dead, or rather Rhino Records, announced that they’ll be releasing all 22 shows individually.

For now, there are only six shows available, at prices of $25 and $30 (3 and 4 discs, respectively), but eventually they’ll all be released. In addition, there are stickers and magnets and even a t-shirt; not essential, in my opinion, but some may like them. (I’d rather see a poster, to be honest.)

So, if you couldn’t spend the $450 for the box set, you can still get the shows you want, or even all of them, one at a time. For now, they’re only available from the Grateful Dead website, but that may change in the future as well. If they’re available from Amazon, they may be discounted enough to end up cheaper than the box set. And who knows if they’ll be available digitally? I’m still waiting for that Grateful Dead themed iPod…

In the meantime, if you just want a taste, you can buy the original Europe ’72 release, or the just-out Europe ’72 Vol. 2, a very nice selection of songs from the tour, including a juicy 30-minute Dark Star from 5/7/72. If you like the new release, you may want to discover more.

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Europe ’72 Is Here

I finally got my Complete Europe ’72 box set:

I got number 3047:

In my initial listen to parts of the first show (4/7/72, Wembley Empire Pool, London, England), I’m very impressed by the quality of the mix and remastering. The instruments all sound fresh and clear, and the overall sound is very nice. It’s especially interesting to hear Pigpen’s organ a bit more present than in most recordings from this tour, and the vocals are all well balanced.

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Coming Soon: Grateful Dead Complete Europe ’72 Box Set

For Deadheads, there are few periods as cherished as 1972, and particularly the European tour, where the band rode around on busses and played 22 shows in a seven week period. While an early live album was released from this tour (called Europe ’72, this triple-LP set was a big hit in the 70s, but was only a selection of what they band played. (And it had some overdubs, so it wasn’t totally faithful.)

The Grateful Dead is releasing a 73-CD set called Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, which will feature “every single note” from the 22 shows on this tour. At a steep price of $450, this is, in some ways, the Grateful Dead’s holy grail. This limited edition may not sell out entirely (they will make no more than 7,200 copies, but only those that are pre-ordered), it’s an awesome document of a fine period in the Dead’s history. Looking forward to hearing these 70 hours of great music.

Update: in true Grateful Dead style, the servers couldn’t even handle one order, and promptly crashed as soon as the set was offered to Deadheads. We’re hoping that this will be resolved soon, and the many Deadheads who want to order will be able to do so. They’re trying to get everything “just exactly perfect.”

Update 2: Much to my surprise, the 7,200 copies of this set have sold out in just four days. As the web site now says:

Hey now! Due to overwhelming demand, surprising even those of us with huge faith in the Europe ’72 project, the entire limited edition run of 7,200 boxed sets has sold out in less than 4 days. We thank you beyond words for your support and belief in this unprecedented and wonderful release.

They go on to say that they will be selling the music without the fancy packaging, so anyone who wants the music will be able to get it. But to think that they just generated $3.24 million dollars in sales to Deadheads in just 4 days…

Update 3: The Dead are releasing Europe ’72, Vol. 2, a 2-CD set of selections from the box set, that have not been released on other recordings. No 2 CDs will give a real example of the 70+ hours of music in this set, but with this and the original Europe ’72, you have a good idea of what was going on in that tour. And this release contains a truly awesome Dark Star from 5/7/72…

Update 4: It’s now 7 months after the announcement, and they’re preparing to send these out. People in the US have been charged for the set, though I haven’t yet. They say that overseas charges should be made this week. This has been a long wait, and I’m sure it will be worth it.

Update 5: August 29, and the first American Deadheads have started getting their boxes. I got an e-mail this morning saying that mine will be shipped from “our warehouse in Amsterdam,” so it will be tracked and all that. No ship date yet, but it should be soon.

Final update: September 12 – I got my Europe ’72 set!

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Coming Soon: A Grateful Dead Video Game

Rolling Stone reported on this last month: a video game about the Grateful Dead, “featuring the act’s music and signature imagery and lore.”

Featuring all band members’ names and likenesses, as well as audio recordings, artwork, photography and video culled from the psychedelic pioneers’ fabled Vault, the outing will be playable from multiple platforms and devices. Accessible via the band’s official website (, Facebook and online game portals, it will feature a range of games and activities that draw upon popular characters, settings and motifs from the Grateful Dead canon. A custom website will also be designed specifically for the game itself and its community… A scaled-down mobile version featuring similar content will also allow players to access specific features of the game from smartphone handsets.

Well, sounds interesting, but what will the game be?

Examples might include “playing scavenger hunt bingo with mobile phone cameras” where players try to find a Grateful Dead sticker on a Volkswagen camper. Still early in design, many of the game’s core facets remain undefined, but he says the title will reflect themes prevalent in Grateful Dead lore, including Americana, the old west, gambling, Biblical tales, nature, space and journeys. Rather than one single play style, the title is intended to bring many together under a single banner of red, white and blue skulls and dancing bears.

The article goes on to say that “Players will explore a Grateful Dead-themed world comprised of many types of games, earning points for game play and points for other ways of participating in the Grateful Dead experience,” and that “This will be a social game, a game model we think we can innovate, given the very social nature of Grateful Dead fans and the rich online community that has existed online around the Dead since the mid-1980s with The Well. Visually it will be eclectic, like the Dead is.”

The conclusion is interesting: “We want a Deadhead Uncle to be able to buy a Grateful Dead Games gift card at Target to give to his nephew who will redeem the credits and special privileges in the game.”

Except in the song, Me and My Uncle, a staple of the band’s repertoire,

I loved my uncle, God rest his soul,
And I left his dead ass there by the side of the road.

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Essential Music: Dark Star, by the Grateful Dead

As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”

While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.

The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.

Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.

Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.

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Book Notes: Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip

Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip
by Robert Hunter, Stephen Peters, Chuck Wills, Dennis McNally
481 pages. Dorling Kindersly, 2003. $50

Buy from | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

What can you say about an illustrated book about the Dead? It’s fun, disjointed, fragmentary, but it fits perfectly with the Dead and their style of living and music-making. In the usual Dorling Kindersly style, this book contains lots of sidebars with illustrations, scattered all over the place. Since I bought this book more than two years ago (this addition November 2006), I’ve found myself reaching for it when I just want to experience a bit of Deadiana, or when listening to a Dead concert to look up the context.

There’s no narrative, other than time itself. The timeline, which is the thread through this book, moves from the earliest days to Jerry’s death and beyond, covering the albums, important concerts, drug busts and all the other highlights of the Dead’s career. If you are, or ever have been, a Deadhead, you’ll want this book to leaf through while listening to live Dead shows.

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