Crowd Noise and the Hyperreal

S. Alexander Reed

presented at The Art of Record Production, University of Westminster, 18 September, 2005


In this time when the primary musical experience of most westerners comes through recordings, musical scholarship has rightly equipped itself to grapple capably with the sonic and technical aspects of studio production.  Simultaneously—and in some limited ways, connectedly—the musicological climate has supported unprecedented amounts of research on social and political questions of audiences and their roles within a performative setting.  Among those who care to view musical works in a non-Platonist light, however, recordings and live performances have been cast as opposites and pondered separately, or at best, compared and contrasted. 

If we are willing to classify the packaging and titles of a studio recording as paratext, then its perceptible text is the sonic content of the record.  While as Theodore Gracyk notes, an audience's perceptible text at a live concert is a multisensory barrage, an audio recording of such a concert—whether altered after the fact or not—is of course “flattened” down to its sonic content, leaving not necessarily any intrinsic differences between itself and a fully produced studio recording. (1)

Not only is the division between live performance and studio production confounded by the mere existence of concert recordings, but it is deeply blurred in practice by the highly studio-centric process of engineering, mixing, remixing, and otherwise producing a contemporary live record.  It is not uncommon for performers' mistakes to be edited, pitch-corrected, or overdubbed entirely, nor is it atypical for an engineer to alter equalization, phasing, or reverberation to account for discrepancies between the desired acoustics of the recording and those of the concert venue.  The one textual universal, however, in effectively all recordings whose paratext declare them to be “live” is the presence of crowd noise—the cheering, applauding, and mumbling of a concert audience, who by virtue of having been recorded, are themselves immortalized, and who furthermore, by supplying the vitality of their liveness, allow the musicians to possess and ultimately mass-market their own liveness.  It is a symbiosis enacted by the presence of a little chatter.  With record titles like Frampton Comes Alive!, Pink Floyd's Pulse, and Iron Maiden's Live After Death, we can see that this notion of crowd noise granting life to a recording is hardly new, and its deliberate use in and profoundly complex effect upon recorded music is the focus of my inquiry.  Later on I will use it as a means of introducing a critical approach that might apply well to certain other aspects of record production analysis and beyond.

In the Baudrillardian sense, crowd noise in pop recordings is hyperreal.  Because compared to studio albums, live records almost invariably feature less clear sound quality and lack the advantages of multiple takes, the tangible sonic selling point of the live record (aside from occasional new arrangements or an exclusive track) is the crowd noise—that which makes it real.  In the very different worlds of the concert hall at the time of recording and the home consumption of the resultant CD, Baudrillard's question “whether the world itself isn't just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world” seems to be answered in the affirmative. (2)   The crowd’s role as advertising is one in which individual free will is effectively foregone.  Not only is a silent audience member but one out of hundreds, maybe tens of thousands, but when Baudrillard’s “sheer ecstasy of being crowded together”  is mediated by the mixing board, their faces vanish, leaving only the ingredients of a perfect crowd at a perfect concert that perhaps never even happened. (3)

Scottie Pakulski, the sound engineer for Prince’s “One Night Alone” tour in 2002, illustrates: “I made some real-time adjustments for effect, like muting the PA and inputs when Prince left the stage just before the encore, and pushing up just his vocal mic to record some crowd sound…. I had a patch on the XL4 called “crowd,” and all the VCA’s would move down except for Prince’s vocal, which would go up. The engineers back at Paisley Park then processed the crowd sound and edited it to provide some between-song ambience…. It’s very difficult to tell that the songs were recorded in different cities across the U.S.” (4)

Faking the volume of crowd noise and evaluating it for consistency and character is not a recent development.  Hector Berlioz noted in 1852 that for some poor performers, “if the living could not be hired to applaud them, they would make do with the applause of a set of dummies,” or a clapping machine, whose crank they could turn themselves. (5)

So what we have nowadays on a single compact disc is a society encoded into 16-bit sound, who are themselves a clapping machine capable of determining the sign exchange value—the arbitrary cultural and artistic worth—of the very performance of which they are a part; by pushing the crowd noise fader up, an engineer sets in motion a reversal whereby an artist is no longer worthy of adoration because the audience deems him so, but instead where the audience adores because the artist's worthiness is a given.  In most live recordings, value is neither to be demonstrated by the musician nor awarded by an audience, but manufactured by the engineer.  Predetermined, it bulldozes the home listener, unable to enact his or her own judgment of the performance.  Writing almost on this very topic in 1962, Jan Holcman warns listeners  “Hold on to your seat, for now you will be judged”. (6)   The result of this simulation is an unwavering signal of the performer/audience feedback loop, providing a listening experience that is not just live, but as the Rolling Stones titled their 1973 concert LP, Liver Than You’ll Ever Be.  Liver than live; more human than human; even better than the real thing.  Encrypted onto unchanging physical media, liveness does not manifest in real suspense –– the “risk” of a performer’s fallibility or a crowd’s expectant fickleness – but instead in the Frankenstein’s Monster of edited performances and processed crowd noise that at some distant point in the chain of record production, was made of real people.

It is of course naïve to suppose that the capacity for crowd noise to advertise a performance’s value lies simply in the bandwagon approach that a hundred thousand fans can’t be wrong.  Its deliberate use as an identifiable but integrated sign to which attention is drawn both in the recording process – a Tascam mixing board’s manual instructs, “put a pair of mics… in the middle of the crowd” —but also on final recordings by virtue of its selective placement and volume, helps to argue that crowd noise need not be auxiliary human buzzing, but that it assumes a foreground role woven through many records. (7)

In his book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach gives us the keys for a much richer reading of expressly processed crowd noise’s meaning based on this notion of foreground.  Delineating between Homer’s narrative voice and Old Testament style (or what he calls “Elohistic”), Auerbach describes “the need of the Homeric style to leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness and unexternalized.” (8)   Stylistically speaking, while History, as exemplified by the pentateuch, is grounded in background, relief, hidden complex motivations, and suspense, Legend, the stuff of Homer, is all foreground, with simplified motivations, and no obfuscated assumed context.  The multiple foregrounds of Legend—in this case, the music and the crowd noise alike—are presented so that “their relationships -- their temporal, local causal, final, consecutive, comparative, concessive, antithetical, and conditional limitations -- are brought to light in perfect fullness; so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths. And this procession of phenomena takes place in the foreground – that is, in a local and temporal present which is absolute.  One might think that the many interpolations, the frequent moving back and forth, would create a sort of perspective in time and place; but the Homeric style never gives any such impression.” (9)

Not all pop records with crowd noise fit this description, but the resistance of silence from song to song, the cigarette-lighter-accompanied screams at a ballad’s fermata, and the omniscient ears of 24-channel sound that we so often hear on these albums means that a good many of them do.  And why shouldn’t they?  By attending to crowd noise, a producer denies the recording its foreground/background gestalt, making it more Legend than history—no doubt an appealing idea to a rock star’s ego.  One of countless clear examples of this is The Cure’s live record Show, where in between songs, tremendous prominence is given to the crowd, and then when the new song begins, the audience quite unnaturally fades out entirely just as more instruments are added to the mix.

Some live recordings do offer a sense of audience background, uncertainty and quietness.  The Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” album and has virtually no crowd noise at all, and other albums like the Swans’ Omniscience are also clearly historical in Auerbach’s view.  Whether records in this category are “real” or not is left wide open to audience interpretation, rather than force-fed.  It is the nature of history to be incomplete and open to interpretation, if not always authentic. 

That said, Legend is a good way to think about live records, because our understanding of legendary events concedes that maybe they didn’t really happen the way we tell it, and maybe they never happened at all, and maybe their characters never even existed, but that makes them no less true.  Stories come from culture, but cultures come from legends.  In this respect, the realm of Legend gives us perhaps the original hyperreal simulacrum.  Interpolated into my connection of post-produced live records with hyperreality and Legend is Simon Frith’s “knowledge that what [we] hear is something that never existed, that never could exist, as a ‘performance,’ something happening in a single time and space; nevertheless, it is now happening, in a single time and space: it is thus a performance and [we] hear it as one.” (10) And so the truth of a recording is more important than the reality of a recording.

On occasion, a recording brings into relief the point at which truth and plausible reality so aggressively conflict with one another that one must be sacrificed, as with the version of “The Sound of Silence” on Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, where the song begins amidst the fade of crowd noise in an obvious concert setting, and ends in studio sterility.

Consider crowd noise that becomes musically integral to a song’s structure.  A chanting and rioting crowd appears out of nowhere sixty minutes into Pink Floyd’s studio album The Wall; the band They Might Be Giants ridiculously inserts a sampled audience chanting to a mambo beat in the song “Absolutely Bill’s Mood.”  All of these are cases in which on the most basic level, suspension of disbelief is interrupted for the sake of drama, but more significantly the multiple foregrounds of which Auerbach speaks lose track of their relation to one another, and the result is no longer Legendary—a careful balancing act of foregrounds and stated contexts—but is instead panoptical with an instability analogous to cubism.  The individual natures of these instabilities vary, but by musically—rhythmically, melodically—integrating this sound, which, regardless of a recording’s structure via Auerbach, we have socially constructed as background, as performance on a musical recording, the cubist lack of reference point becomes not only spatial or temporal but one of some intentionality that separates performer from audience.  When crowd noise is sampled and played musically, as in The Shamen’s “Progen ’91,” or Nine Inch Nails’ live recording of Hurt, the recordings reframe the sign's meaning (crowd noise as crowd), exposing and contradicting our preconceptions of the sign and revealing in the spirit of Baudrillard the tyrannical principle of the sign.  The sign reclaims its primeordeal ambivalence when crowd noise is used as a musical instrument; it loses its rationality.  It becomes opposed to itself and not to its absence, for the quality of the crowd noise is not at stake, but the nature of its referrant, and this makes it destructive of meaning.  Crowd noise is unique among irrationally sampled and manipulated signs in that it is not merely a non-musical sound, but it is the explicit response to music; it reacts to music, and to bring it into the music is always therefore more semiotically complicated than the simple insertion of a given sample.

So this all means that on a continuum of its pervasiveness as foreground, crowd noise moves in meaning from the historical to the legendary to the irrational, or semiotically, from a sign whose meaning is individually determined by the consumer, to one whose meaning is dictated by the producer and collectively accepted by consumers, to one that cannot be fully determined by anyone.  This progression of microstructure to macrostructure to hyperreal explosion is of course not unique to the admittedly esoteric study of crowd noise on rock records.  Some would say it is the progressive order of art, culture.  

If irrationality is destructive of stable meaning, then it seeks to free us from the external imposition of meaning onto signs that Baudrillard calls terroristic (for it is the goal of terrorism to alter others’ perceptions—a small few imposing onto an entire culture a set of sign meanings that is both absolute and arbitrary).  While my proposal of this three-stage foreground continuum as a way to think about external noise—be it an audience roar, tape hiss, or room ambience—is perhaps the central musicological contribution of this research, I wish to conclude with a brief historical contextualization and analysis of this continuum’s implications and further potential.

Irrationality in this context is at once a perversion and a subversion of the legendary.  Textually, crowd noise as music tests and ultimately destroys the relationships between foregrounds, and politically, it eschews the mimesis that hyperproduced signs of “liveness” bring with them.  Slick record production, conveniently for cultural theorists is culturally aligned with capitalist structures—this is not just popular music, but it is “corporate rock”—and so either by seeking out the irrational in creating music from crowd noise or by denying the audience and liveness the opportunity to be foreground, thus creating an historical document, a producer is making an anticorporate anticapitalist choice.  This is acted out in practice by the distinctly leftist flavored yearning for authenticity that gives rise to bootleg recordings, made with no studio wizardry or editorializing of foregrounds, and distributed beneath the corporate radar.  This is the rejection of the legendary in favor of the historical.  On the other side of the legendary are postmodern musicians who favor irrationality and blur the meaning of signs guilelessly.  Bands such as The Shamen and Laibach even use the word “hyperreal” in song titles or read manifestos over a disco beat.  In short, both those searching for the real and those asserting its inobtainability share the common mission of rejecting the legendary and all the baggage that comes with it.  

But can we really ever rid ourselves of the legendary?  Don't we need it?  At least in terms of record production it is still the norm, and that is because it provides a sound to which we aspire.  Its terrorism becomes our underpinning in the world.  Legends tell us who we are and where we come from—a role now played heavily by corporations, and of course, by pop records.  We can react against or embrace the authority that dictates these identities and meanings, but without it, we are either autonomous but isolated and incompatible through the historical, or in the case of an irrational world, we aren't even certain who we are on the some rather fundamental levels; we are nobody.

And so the role of the legendary is psychologically important, which is why it resonates as true even when we know it is faked, or rather, when we cannot know for sure that it isn't.  In practice, while some particularly cynical music listeners might take all of this truth they hear as a failure on their own part to discriminate what is real and what is not, the vast majority of home audiences prefer not to insult both the music they hear and themselves simultaneously, and instead when the truth of omniforeground production resonates in them, they attribute their own swelling of identity to the success of the music.

By this point, crowd noise is no longer the exclusive focus of this inquiry, but instead, my point has been to explore a model of analysis than can be applied not merely to concert recordings, but to music production as a text.  Beyond that, through Auerbach and Baudrillard, this recontextualization of the mimetic model into the hyperreal can in fact be applied to any number of texts, musical or otherwise, because the structuralist questions of parts relating to one another, to their whole, and to the world outside their whole is one that, appropriately or not, are just as easily applied to Chinese history and they are to a tuna sandwich.  It is my humble hope though that record producers can begin to see into these larger implications their work might have, starting with the ultimately simple, but particularly meaning-rich sound of hands clapping.

  (1) Gracyk, Theodore. “Listening to Music: Performances and Recordings.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, Vol. 55, Issue 2, March 1997.

  (2) Baudrillard, Jean Paul. America. London: Verso, 1989., p.32.

  (3) Ibid, p. 15.

  (4) Pakulski, Scottie. “Live Sessions: Making It Work In A Clean Way.” Live Sound International. , viewed December 2005.

  (5) Berlioz, Hector. Evenings With the Orchestra, trans. Jacques Barzun.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956., p. 95-98.

  (6) Holcman, Jan. “How Live Is ‘Live’?” Saturday Review, October 27, 1962., p. 58.

  (7) Tascam. Tascam Application Guide for the 2488 Mixing Console. Montebello, CA: TEAC Corporation., p.2.

  (8) Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953., p.5.

  (9) Ibid, p. 6-7.

  (10) Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996., p. 211.