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Live from NYC: Great-sounding live music on the radio

WNYC radio host John Schaefer delivers more than 10 hours of provocative music and talk every week.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves performing live on Soundcheck
Steve Guttenberg

Regular readers of this blog know that bad sound comes from a variety of sources, and not just MP3s; there's no shortage of crappy-sounding CDs and LPs. But I know one place that delivers great-sounding music day after day: Soundcheck on WNYC. Right, it's a radio show, but one that features live music, and I certainly can't name another daily show that's as entertaining as Soundcheck.

I dropped by the WNYC studios this past Tuesday and Wednesday to see the show in person and chat with the show's host, John Schaefer, to find out why Soundcheck sounds so good. Musical genres featured on the show are as eclectic as they come, one day you might hear Adele, next time it might be Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, or The National, The Jazz Passengers, Jakob Dylan, or The Decemberists. Musicians are interviewed by Schaefer between tunes, and I have to say, the man sounds like a guy who's hosted an eclectic radio show for going on 30 years. He's a great interviewer.

Technical director Irene Trudel and head of concert recording Ed Haber typically have a mere 90 minutes to dial-in the band's sound before air time. To my ears the sound frequently surpasses the band's CD sound, just because it's more like the way the band really sounds, without the assistance of Auto-Tune or other tricks. On Soundcheck you'll hear what they can do on their own. I love that! Trudel's favorite recent show featured Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, which Trudel found "electrifying."

Tuesday's show featured the desert-blues collective Tinariwen, from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali. The beats and rhythms sounded awfully good over the control room's Genelec monitors. Most Soundcheck performances are done in the studio.

Wednesday's Soundcheck was broadcast from The Greene Space, which is in the same building as the WNYC studios. That show was more like a concert, with a studio audience. First up was the legendary Del McCoury and his group playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The show was described as "the king of bluegrass meets the kings of New Orleans jazz." The vibes were great and the live sound was perfect.

Soundcheck host John Schaefer Steve Guttenberg

That same show also featured mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and guitarist Michael Daves' "progressive bluegrass" music. Their high-energy duets completely blew me away, so I ordered their new CD, "Sleep With One Eye Open," from Amazon the second I got home.

The range of genres covered on Soundcheck is vast, so I had to ask Schaefer is there any form of music he doesn't like, and he said, "Left to my own devices, you'd probably never hear anything resembling Broadway on Soundcheck." Even so he covers show tunes from time to time.

Senior producer Joel Meyer told me that a few young bands are a bit disoriented by the experience. It looks like they're in a recording studio, but they're working without a net, so their mistakes will be broadcast live to tens of thousands of people, and many more who will hear it later on podcasts. But the band doesn't get any live feedback from the listeners like they would at a "real" concert. In addition to WNYC, WDET in Detroit also airs Soundcheck.

John Schaefer has hosted Soundcheck since the show's inception in 2002. He has also hosted and produced WNYC's radio series New Sounds since 1982, which if anything covers an even wider range of music, 7 days a week! If you can't listen to Soundcheck and New Sounds live, check out the show archives on the WNYC Web site.

Corrected July 25 at 1:22 p.m.: This story initially gave an incorrect figure for the number of listeners of Soundcheck's live programming. A more accurate figure is in the tens of thousands of people. It also initially said that WDET airs Soundcheck live, but it does not.