Reproduction or Production?
This is where things get interesting. For certain types of music, reproduction is the goal of reinforcement. In other words, the FOH engineer is attempting to re-create the original event on a larger scale or in a different venue. Exactly what he or she is trying to re-create is an interesting question in itself. If the original event is purely acoustic music such as from an orchestra, an opera singer, chorus, or big band jazz group, then usually the goal is to do what was described in the paragraph on reinforcement. This includes some internal balancing with the addition of greater volume for a larger space. In other words, the original intent of the music is preserved.
A very different situation, but still reproduction in my opinion is when the original event is a recording. In many cases, a touring act wants to present a live sound event that is similar to the recording in many ways. The same vocal effects, drum sounds, basic mix, etc. are all part of this approach. Often times, FOH engineers listen carefully to the recordings in order to glean these specifics so that there is a good starting point.
Where the live sound becomes production, in my opinion, is when the engineer makes choices that take the overall effect in a different direction than either the original acoustic event or the reference recording. The reasons for this approach are many, and include trying to achieve an effect, perhaps the original would be considered “dated” or just the fact that the artist wants to present something unique to the audience. Often this is accompanied with new arrangements or “extended” versions of songs. It may also coincide with other production effects such as lighting or pyro.
In fact, this reminds me of when I saw the Metallica tour in the late 1990s. Although the overall mix was reminiscent of their albums (I’m thinking of Master of Puppets, And Justice for All, and the “Black” ablum specifically), there was a decidedly different element to the live mix that simply couldn’t be captured on the recordings. Some of that effect was just simply that it was friggin’ LOUD.
But in contrast to a lot of shows that I’ve seen that were loud, this one was very clear, punchy, and had the effect of transporting the audience to another planet: the Metallica Planet. The lights, the pyro and the arrangements of the songs were specifically designed to accomplish this goal along with the mix done by “Big” Mic Hughes. I’ve seen a lot of good shows over the years but this one sticks in my mind as being excellent. It didn’t hurt that Suicidal Tendencies was one of the opening acts… they rocked, too! My only disappointment was that Alice in Chains had just fallen apart and thus was replaced by Candlebox, who did not fill the admittedly large shoes very well. But I digress…
It’s All About Intent
To me, it all comes down to making decisions about how you will approach your craft of live sound, and it should be different depending on the various types of music and different audiences. If you are trying to create the illusion of Glenn Miller on stage for the blue hairs, well, I’d advise reproduction so that the audience hears what they expect to hear. But for different audiences and different acts, it’s really up to the artist and up to you how to best approach this question. And it goes beyond mere mixing – it extends into the speaker system design, what effects you might want to bring, and your selection and placement of microphones. Think holistically and realize that you are the key to what the audience ultimately hears. So what do you want them to hear?