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Live Recording

Frequently Asked Questions By Paul White
Published February 2000

Modular digital multitrack tape recorders such as Alesis' ADAT and Tascam's DA88 and DA38 (left) are popular choices for location recording.Modular digital multitrack tape recorders such as Alesis' ADAT and Tascam's DA88 and DA38 (left) are popular choices for location recording.

There are some recording jobs that simply can't be handled in the average bedroom studio. Paul White answers questions about recording a rock or pop band on location.

Although home recording studios enable anyone with a little patience and musical talent to create superb‑sounding recordings, most are too small to allow the recording of complete bands. What's more, the amount of noise created by a drum kit and several guitar amps is probably more than most neighbours can tolerate. One way around this obvious limitation is to record the performance on location in a suitable village hall or rehearsal room. Doing this to a multitrack recorder, of course, still allows you to overdub or replace parts back in the comfort of your studio if you need to. It also offers the possibility of recording a live performance in front of an audience, which can generate a unique feel and excitement.

We receive frequent enquiries from anxious readers who are about to break out of their studio and into location recording for the first time. This article aims to answer some of the most common.

Q. What equipment do you need for recording a band on location?

A good pair of enclosed headphones, such as Beyerdynamic's DT770s, is vital for checking recordings made on location.A good pair of enclosed headphones, such as Beyerdynamic's DT770s, is vital for checking recordings made on location.

Location recording can be as simple as mixing everything to stereo (for example, using a DAT or MD recorder); at the other extreme, you could take a stack of digital multitrack recorders to allow you to keep everything separate. Using one or two digital multitrack recorders, such as ADATs or DA88s, is a good compromise, and if you choose a simple mixer with direct outputs (I use the much underrated Alesis Studio 32), you can get all the flexibility you need using a relatively small amount of equipment. The Studio 32 can accommodate 16 source signals and handle a 16‑track monitor mix at the same time, which is important as you clearly need to be able to check what you're recording.

A tidy wiring loom to connect the multitrack(s) and the mixer is a better idea than a box of loose cables, and you'll also need a long multicore to provide you with sufficient mic feeds if you don't want to record sitting in amongst the band (a bad idea from the monitoring point of view). A good loud pair of enclosed headphones will help you monitor the recording, and you'll also need a suitable selection of microphones, stands and DIboxes. Note however that enclosed phones aren't ideal for making EQing decisions, so it's best to record everything flat. What the phones really help with is confirming that your signals are going where you want them to, and that they are free of buzzes, distortion and clipping. Also, if you're recording straight to stereo, don't rely on headphones for critical panning decisions. If you are mixing direct to stereo, then setting up a pair of playback monitors to allow you to check test recordings is preferable, and decent metering also helps

Q. What about recording a real live gig?

The simplest method of taking a recording feed from a mic being used for a live PA is to use a mic splitter such as this model from EMO.The simplest method of taking a recording feed from a mic being used for a live PA is to use a mic splitter such as this model from EMO.

The setup described is the minimum you'll need to record a typical band on location, but things get a little more complicated when you want to record at a gig, not least because you either have to put up a second set of mics for recording or you have to arrange to take a feed from the mics being used for the PA. Whether you can take a feed from the PA mics depends on how well you know the person doing the PA!

The simplest but crudest method is to make up a box containing several parallel mic splitters, each comprising an input XLR wired directly to two output XLRs. Providing your mics and DI boxes are all balanced, a simple splitter like this will allow each mic/DI box to feed both the PA and the recording mixer, but take care only to supply phantom power from one of the desks, not both! Some DI boxes have two separate buffered outputs, in which case these may be used instead of a splitter.

There is no electrical isolation if you use this basic method, meaning that earth loops could cause problems — so make sure the recording gear and PA mixer are running from the same mains socket if at all possible. Also, the impedance of some mic amps changes as the gain is changed, which could cause level changes on the other mixer! More importantly, a short‑circuited cable in the recording chain will also kill the feed to the PA — which could lead to the band or the mix engineer wanting to kill you!

There is a better way, but as with most 'better ways', it costs more money. When live recording is undertaken by professionals, they tend to use transformer‑isolated mic splitters, and the best of these have separate transformers for each output so that a shorted cable on one output won't kill the other. Some models have a single output transformer with two sets of windings, but shorting one of these will still affect the level of the other to some extent. Transformers also provide excellent electrical isolation, so ground‑loop problems are avoided. The stage mic simply plugs into the splitter and the two splitter outputs feed the two mixers, one for recording and one for the PA. As stated earlier, it is important that only one source of phantom power is sent through to the mic. Active mic splitters are also available with separate output buffers and ground‑lift switches, which again help avoid ground loop hum.

Q. How can you tackle the problem of spill with an entire band playing in the same room?

The biggest enemy of the live recording engineer is separation — if the band members are close together, everyone will leak into everbody else's mics, and stage monitor speakers will tend to leak into all the mics, as will the drum kit. What can be done?

If you're recording without an audience, you can improve this 'challenging' situation by moving the backline amps and drums further apart, and you may also be able to improvise acoustic screens between sensitive areas. Heavy curtains or blankets behind the stage area will help cut down unwanted reflections, while blankets, sleeping bags and duvets can be hung over wooden partitions to act as barriers to mid and high frequencies. Such barriers will bring about an improvement in separation, but the improvement may be fairly small.

In reality, separation isn't a big problem from the point of view of sound leaking into those mics picking up the backline amps or even the drums, as these tend to be used up close, and the source is pretty loud in the first place. The really vulnerable areas are mics used for vocals or acoustic instruments. Again, if you don't have to set up for an audience, you can move the vocalist(s) well away from the backline and ensure that the dead zone of the mic (the back for a standard cardioid, or around 45 degree off the rear axis for a hypercardioid) is pointing towards the monitors. Hanging more drapes behind the singer will also help stop reflections getting back into the mic.

If you're recording a live gig, you obviously can't go moving everyone around to suit the recording, but you can still try to ensure there's no backline facing directly into the vocal mic and that the singer's stage monitor is aimed at the mic's dead zone. It may also still be possible to arrange some acoustic absorbers at the rear of the stage.

What can you do when there simply isn't enough separation on the vocal mic? You'll find that this is often the case, and I know of several so‑called live albums where the vocals have been completely replaced back in the studio. Providing you don't have too much vocal monitor level near the drum mics (particularly the overheads), you can generally get away with replacing the vocals without being troubled by the 'ghost' of the original vocal part bleeding through on other tracks. Again, if you're recording without an audience, you can record versions of the song with and without vocals to give you the maximum flexibility when you move into the studio.

Q. What are the best mics to use?

Most live recordings are done using the same types of mics that would be used for live performance, which means mainly dynamic cardioid or hypercardioid models, though acoustic instruments and some vocalists benefit from using capacitor mics. Unless you're recording at an actual gig, it's a good idea to use separate pop shields with all the vocal mics, but in a performance situation where this isn't possible, you'll have to rely on a combination of good mic technique and your mixer's low‑cut filters to fend off the worst of the popping.

Q. Where's the best place to record from?

In an ideal world, you'd hear nothing but the signal through your headphones when recording, but unless you can set your gear up in an adjacent room and run the cables under the door, some spill from 'real life' is inevitable. All you can do is run out your cables to get as far from the band as possible. Don't worry too much: the main thing is to verify that the signals you want to record are all present, that there's no unacceptable hum or noise, and that your recording levels are set to allow around 10dB of extra headroom for when the adrenalin rush pumps up the on‑stage volume. If you can arrange limiters on your multitrack inputs to take care of unexpected peaks, so much the better, but in any event, keep a close eye on the meters at all times and adjust levels accordingly. If you can keep a written note of any significant level changes that occur mid‑song, it'll make things easier when you come to mix.

The biggest enemy of the live recording engineer is separation — if the band members are close together, everyone will leak into everbody else's mics, and stage monitor speakers will tend to leak into all the mics, as will the drum kit.

Q. Is it a good idea to process the sound while recording?

Ideally, I like to record sounds as flat and clean as possible, but there is a case for switching in low‑cut filters on those channels that aren't carrying any low‑frequency energy as it will provide you with a little more headroom. I'd advocate using EQ only if two or more signals need to be mixed on to one tape track (or a group of mics on to a stereo pair), as once these are mixed, you'll have no way of dealing with them independently. Otherwise, record flat, don't use compression unless excess dynamic range is a real problem, and even then, use less compression than you'll eventually need so you can add more when you mix. I'd be more inclined just to set up any compressors as limiters to prevent overloading the recorder. Effects should definitely be left to the mix — what you're aiming for is a tape full of clean, un‑tampered‑with tracks so that you don't have to try to undo earlier processing when mixing.

Q How much should you record?

Once the sound is as good as you can get it, the most important task is to get at least one good take of each song down. If you have the time to record two or more takes of each one, you'll have the opportunity of editing up the best bits from each after you've mixed — assuming you have access to a computer editing system. As mentioned, it's worth getting takes without vocals (the vocalist can still sing unamplified and conduct if necessary to help everybody keep their place in the song), but you should also consider recording versions with no instrumental solos, so that these can be added later if the live solo doesn't quite cut it. Leaving tricky parts to overdub in the studio can give you a lot more control, and may ultimately result in a better‑sounding recording. I'd also be tempted to add any acoustic guitars to a rock song in the studio — if they are needed during performance to hold the track together, you can probably still replace them without spill from the original part becoming a problem. However, don't forget to record count‑ins where applicable so the overdubbing musicians know where to come in.

Q. Any other tips?

Just one: always allow more setup time than you think you'll need, because if anything's going to go wrong, it will wait until you're a long way from home before doing so! With just a little practice, you can get studio‑quality results without suffering from the space limitations of a home studio.

Choosing Mic Positions

What's the best position for the microphones? Drum mics and guitar/bass amp mics can be used very close to the sound source, typically a couple of inches away or less, though you should also use a pair of drum overheads to capture the cymbals and the overall ambience of the kit. If you do suffer spillage into the drum mics, it's on the overheads where you'll notice it. Vocal mics can't be used as far away as you might like to in the studio, but at the same time, it's best not to record with the singer 'eating the mic' as many tend to do in live performance. A mic distance of one or two inches is probably better, but much depends on how good the singer's technique is.

Bass guitars are often DI'd, either directly from the instrument via a high‑impedance DI box, from a preamp out jack on the backline amp, or from the speaker terminal of the backline via a DI box that can handle speaker‑level signals. However, there's no reason not to close‑mike the amp if you prefer the sound. Keyboards are best DI'd (unless you're miking a Leslie cabinet), which means you get a full‑bandwidth signal with perfect separation. Acoustic guitars sound best miked, but when they're on stage competing with loud backline, this tends not to produce great results. A guitar with a built‑in piezo bug system or stick‑on piezo transducer will produce a more usable signal, both for the PA and for recording. You can take a DI feed from this via a splitter box.

Other acoustic instruments require more specialised mic techniques, and I'll refer you back to Hugh Robjohns' excellent series on the subject which ran from January to May '99. To improve the spill situation, you may have to move the mics a little closer than you might for studio recording, but try not to move so close as to compromise the sound to the extent that you can't rescue it with a little gentle EQ when you come to mix.