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Can Recorded Music Ever Be Indistinguishable From Live?

Remember the old commercial—"Is it live, or is it Memorex?" The question of whether or not recorded music can be indistinguishable from a live performance has been bandied about since the first days of Thomas Edison's "talking machine," when many listeners claimed the recorded sound was identical to the original.

Of course, our modern ears are more refined than that, but so are modern recording and playback systems, so the question remains, and much has been written about it. Stereophile editor John Atkinson documented an interesting experiment in which he recorded a live piano recital and immediately played the recording for the same audience, and Michael Lavorgna addressed the issue in Stereophile here. Steve Guttenberg provides more food for thought in an article for Stereophile and his Audiophiliac blog on

So I ask you: Do you think it's at least theoretically possible for recorded music to be indistinguishable from a live performance, perhaps with a massively multichannel recording and playback system? Or is the question moot, since they are two different things altogether?

Vote to see the results and leave a comment about your choice; I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

Can Recorded Music Ever Be Indistinguishable From Live?
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gaslight's picture

I believe you could fool the ear if you recorded each instrument in an ensemble in an anechoic chamber. That way, you could avoid reproducing any echoes.

Then setup a single speaker for each instrument in its physical location on stage. Perhaps some instruments would be particularly challenging, especially cymbals, drums and other percussive instruments.

hitsbig's picture

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WazNeeni's picture

We may eventually be able to fool the "golden ear" into not being able to tell any difference, but highly sensitive measuring equipment (whatever that means) will always be able to measure the difference.

Jarod's picture

This is the age old question and a good one at that. I too believe that with the proper gear and circumstances you should be able to recreate the live sound almost perfectly. I think the hardest thing to recreate are those natural acoustics in different venues and music halls. I think vinyl would come the closest to recreating these sounds and anomalies.

Jarod's picture

After reading Mr. Lavorgna's article I now believe that comparing the two is indeed a moot point; apples to oranges. Fundamentally listening to live music and recreating music is two different things all together. Thanks for the great article Mr. Lavorgna!

Scott Wilkinson's picture
Your proposal is very interesting! The idea of recording the instruments in an anechoic chamber is brilliant; any recording in a "normal" room would include something of the room's ambience, and playing that back in an ambient room would likely reveal the sound as a recording. Placing a speaker in each instrumental position to reproduce that instrument is also intriguing, though the radiation pattern from a speaker is different than the radiation pattern from an actual instrument, which might give it away. Great food for thought; thanks!
WazNeeni's picture

The drums would definitely be the hardest. You would need 2 different speakers for each piece of the set, facing opposite of each other. 1 speaker playing the sound coming from the top of the drum or symbol, and 1 speaker playing the sound coming from the bottom, or the inside of the drum.

Is there such a thing as a sperical, multi directional speaker? That would help.

uavKenny Kraly Jr.'s picture

Their 2 different things all together.

Mrlee41's picture

I actually see them as two different things. The experience is different, Live seems to offer a few unexpected and uncontrolled sounds. Recorded seems to control and concentrate on particular sounds, tones and pitches. The perfect example for me is any song an artist does live is a totally different experience from a studio controlled song minus the crowds cheers, applauses and their reaction to a note held for a long, long time!

Barry Willis's picture

It's theoretically possible to make a recording and play it back so that the playback is indistinguishable from the live performance, but it's probably a practical impossibility.

The degree of verisimilitude depends on the sophistication of the record/playback technology and on the sophistication of listeners. Moderately lifelike playback sounds like the real thing to naive listeners. Edison conducted recorded vs. live demonstrations with his cylinder players and listeners claimed they couldn't hear a difference. At least, that was Edison's assertion. He was almost totally deaf and assumed that whatever came out of his player's horn was the same as what went in. He shouted into it, and a voice came back. That was proof of concept for him.

No one today would say that a cylinder player sounds realistic because we have higher standards born of deeper experience. Even extremely realistic playback can be detected as inauthentic by skilled listeners, because they know which aural cues are real and which are artificial.

The dynamic characteristics and harmonic shadings of microphones and loudspeakers always alter original acoustic signals. To conduct a scientifically valid recorded vs. live experiment would require microphones and loudspeakers that are far more accurate than anything that exists today.

javanp's picture

I'm inclined to give an emphatic yes here, but I think it depends on the type of "live" music we're talking about. If you're talking about a rock concert, well, of course a recording could be played back indistinguishably from its live counterpart--the music you're hearing at a rock concert goes through processors, amps and speakers before it ever gets to your ears. The only variable that might skew that is in the recording, but with uncompressed recording capabilities these days, I don't really see that being much of an issue. Now, if we're talking about an electronically unassisted live orchestra, then... most likely. Perhaps it is expecting a bit much for a speaker to recreate a sound exactly like the musical instrument, but that instrument isn't even going to sound exactly like it did in another room or acoustic environment. In that regard, I'm comfortable in expecting a speaker to be reasonably indistinguishable from a live instrument.

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