The next project I’m undertaking is a live performance which we’re going to record in a similar style to an MTV Unplugged performance. An MTV Unplugged performance typically takes the form of an acoustic, stripped back version of an otherwise very produced album version of a song. The artist that we will be recording takes a very laid back approach to his writing and performance even in his latest album, however we want to really try and embrace the live and stripped back element of MTV Unplugged for this performance without using acoustic instruments. So how does a song transform into a stripped back version of itself for this kind of performance. In this blog, I’ll be analysing Pearl Jam’s performance of Alive for MTV Unplugged and how it differs from the original recorded version.
The live performance of this song is pretty similar in structure to the original recording, not much has been changed in terms of the way it's put together. The guitarist at the beginning of the live performance plays the same lick as he does in the recorded version for the same amount of bars, with an acoustic guitar coming in part way through the intro followed by the drums. Again this is all exactly as the original, there is even an acoustic guitar that comes in at exactly the same time in the original as it does in the live performance.
Although there isn't much changed in the way the song moves through the different parts, there is still some variation in the different fills and solos. When a laid back vibe is introduced it seems like the band take a bit more liberty in the way they perform. Just looking at the waveforms of the original recorded version and the live version side by side we can see that there is difference of a few bars in the outro, meaning maybe it was cut short. Probably not for any particular reason, again the band seems to take certain liberties with this live performance because of it's relaxed and stripped back nature. A visual analysis of the transients in the song, the parts where the wave form gets bigger and then smaller quickly, shows the different changes of in the song, and again we can see that the different changes to verses and choruses are similar, but they are slightly off tempo from each other. The live version rushes a little bit ahead of the original recording's beats per minute (BPM), but keeps with the same time signature. I think it is probably the case for any live performance to not perfectly match the BPM of the original because they're not playing to a click track and it hasn't been edited to perfectly fit a time signature, but this still emphasises the fact that the live performance can be altered at will by the performers. The over all structure of the MTVUP performance vs the original studio recording remains pretty much the same, with a few variations in timing, guitar solos and drum fills, and this is mostly to do with the limitation of performing a rock/grunge song with only acoustic instruments.
As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of an MTV Unplugged performance is to perform acoustically regardless of the original genre. In this particular performance the only thing that's really changed is the electric guitars are changed to acoustic, playing the exact same parts throughout the verses and choruses.
The studio recording contains an acoustic guitar for the backing guitar parts and the lead guitar is distorted electric, but in the this live performance there are two acoustic guitars instead, bring both to the foreground rather than only filling in the back end with acoustic. The biggest change this kind of instrumentation brings is in the outro guitar solo, the lead acoustic guitar doesn't exactly replicate the solo in the studio recording and instead it seems like it's mostly improvised. The high energy that the electric guitar brings through the studio version can't really be replicated by the acoustic guitar, so the outro in the live version naturally feels more open and stripped back. The acoustic guitars in the MTVUP version aren't covered in effects like the guitars in the studio version are, the acoustic guitar in the studio version has some kind of a flanger or chorus on it and the electric guitar is obviously very distorted. There's also a fair and expected amount of reverb on all of the elements in the studio version, we can here it pretty clearly on the intro guitar, the vocals, and the drums, most notably on the snare. Lending to the laid back nature of the MTVUP performance, all of the elements are left clean with no FX, no reverb, no distortion, no chorus or flanger. There is a noticeable delay on the vocals in some parts of the studio version which are not heard in the MTVUP performance, however it does sound like there is a slight bit of reverb added to the vocals which could be a result of room noise or could be a post processing effect unit used during the live recording. The guitars are lacking completely in any such reverb or room noise because they are semi-acoustics meaning they can be recorded via DI (direct input), meaning there is no need for a mic. This results in a twangy sort of sound because we're not hearing the full body of the guitar through a mic.
The instrumentation is obviously important to consider when analysing the difference between these two versions of the song, but maybe not so much with the performance we're recording because we're looking to keep all of the instruments the same as the album version.
The most obvious difference in sonic quality is the fact that the MTVUP version is obviously live and therefore sounds live. There hasn't been any effort made to cancel out the sound of the crowd cheering, there are small mistakes throughout the song that obviously haven't been digitally corrected, and everything has been done with one take, no second shots. I think this is what makes recording a live performance so special, the fact that you get to hear exactly what the band played that night "warts and all". Interestingly enough, if we look at a stereo image graph and an frequency spectrum graph of the two songs, we see a lot of similarities.
Both of these screenshots were captured during the same section of the chorus. The frequency analyser in figure A show us that there are various frequencies throughout that are accentuated, or are at least louder than the rest of the frequency spectrum. Around 100hz in the low end is generally a lot louder throughout the chorus than the rest of the low end frequencies, and throughout the graph around 1khz and 2hkz we can see a similar pattern. The reason for this becomes a little more obvious once we look at the frequency spectrum graphs is figure B. All of the frequencies are somewhat uniform in figure B, meaning that there isn't much separation between different frequencies and therefore different instruments. Even just by ear we can tell that all of the instruments kind of wash into each other in the live performance, compared to the studio version. This could be due to microphone "spill" during the performance, where, for example, the vocal mic may pick up parts of the drums or guitars, and visa versa. However, as we discussed earlier, the guitars and bass guitar are being recorded via DI meaning that there is no need for a microphone. So perhaps leaving the mix unpolished for the live version was a creative choice. Looking at the stereo image analyser we can see the separation and amplitude between the left and right speakers. In figure A the L-R distribution, as well as the amplitude is quite even, where as figure B shows us that the live version is certainly lesser in amplitude and slightly less uniform to the centre.
A recording of a live performance should sound as much like it did that day it was recorded, as it does on the DVD or final product, as the purpose of a live performance is to relive the experience without having to actually attend. I believe the production and mixing choices made for the MTVUP version of this song have achieved that.
The difference between the MTVUP version and studio version of Alive - Pearl Jam isn't overly complicated, it's just simply done with acoustic instruments instead of electric. The artist that I am working with soon is going to take all of these kinds of changes into his own hands; if he wants to change the instrumentation or the song structure then I will leave him to make those decisions. The most important thing to take from this is the approach they have taken to translating a live performance into a recording. At the end of the day, all recordings were once performed live, but then they are polished and perfected until they're ready for commercial release. Allowing imperfections to shine through and not over polishing a mix is going to help translate the experience of a live performance to that of a digital medium.