Nothing beats the feel of a superb live performance captured on tape... but exactly how do you go about it? SOS's Demo Doctor and live recording veteran John Harris considers what you need to get that classic gig onto a multitrack tape.
Multitrack recording live is a bit like gigging — a lot of organisation beforehand, a lot of gear to carry and set up, a lot of hanging around, and then a lot of frantic activity for 40 minutes or so while the gig's on! There's no doubt that certain types of music, particularly those with a lot of energy in the live performance, can benefit from a pseudo‑live studio performance, but this still lacks the atmosphere of a real gig. With a portable setup at the concert, you can capture that moment...
You can make excellent live recordings using just two mics and the natural acoustics of a building, but that will have to wait until another time. Another method of live recording involves taking a feed from the front‑of‑house (or FOH) desk direct to cassette or DAT, but this will only work in large venues where everything is running through the PA system. Even then, a loud backline will mean that less guitar and bass is put through the main PA system, which means you won't end up with a properly‑balanced mix.
A multitrack recording has distinct advantages — it gives you more control after the event, because you have the chance to get the balance right on the mix, and to patch up any glaring errors without losing the excitement of the live performance. However, it does require a lot more pre‑gig planning (of which more in a moment) — and a lot more equipment.
You will need:
- A microphone splitter.
- A mixer.
- A tape machine.
- Outboard equipment.
- Two microphones for recording the audience.
- An amp and speakers, or some headphones, or both.
- THE MICROPHONE SPLITTER
A mic splitter is a special kind of mic transformer designed to provide two or more isolated outputs from one microphone, so that one of the output signals can be sent to the FOfor PA mixing, while you take the other for recording purposes. The isolation is necessary to prevent possible ground loop problems.
The multicore should be high‑quality balanced cable with independent screens for each balanced pair. It is essential that the cable is designed to withstand constant flexing. Foil screen cables (as used in studio installations) are unsuitable, as they cannot withstand such bending.
Mic Splitter to PA Stage box
I said multicore, but that should really be multicores. Dependent on the size of the venue, and what other bands are playing, you could need up to 20 or more balanced connections to run between your mic splitter and the main PA stage box. In theory, you only need to plug the signals to be recorded into the splitter, and the rest can go direct to the main PA stage box — but in practice, it makes life less complicated to simply plug everything through your splitter and send it on to the stage box from there. The necessary wiring loom does not have to be very long, as the boxes are often positioned together at the side of the stage.
Splitter to Desk
This is your feed for recording, and it may need to stretch a considerable distance if you're set up away from the stage for isolation purposes (see 'Positioning your Equipment' below). The size of multicore is entirely dependent on the number of channels you are likely to use, which you should have worked out in advance. All the signals will arrive at your desk on male XLR connectors, because any line inputs from keyboards, DAT machines and other instruments on stage should have been plugged into DI boxes by the PA engineer and converted to balanced signals.
Desk to Multitrack
This can also be a short loom, as your desk and tape machine will be close together. Whether the loom is unbalanced or not will be dictated by your setup. Obviously, it's important to keep all your multicores away from any mains or power supplies — these could add noise to your system.
- MIXER AND TAPE MACHINE
As in a studio situation, the number of inputs the band requires will determine the size of desk, multitrack and loom between the mic splitter and desk, but always remember to allow two tracks for the audience microphones. A typical band will rarely need more than 16 tracks, but you may need to hire in a bigger machine, and obviously you will have to arrange this in advance. Your desk should have a monitor section (or some other means of playing back the soundcheck) so that you can test the signal integrity. If you have a desk oscillator, you can check the connections to the recorder before the soundcheck, by routing the oscillator tone to the tape machine. Insert points on the channels are useful for compression where necessary, and a sub‑mix section may be needed for drums, but most signals can be run to tape using direct outputs. EQ is not really important — you may need to use it very slightly, but I personally don't touch it until the mixdown stage.
These need only be minimal. I often use some light compression (for vocals and occasionally bass guitar), with a low ratio of between 2 and 4:1, just to keep levels to tape in check. A multi‑effects unit can be useful for monitoring playback with some reverb, but although I do take one to most gigs, it rarely gets used.
- ROOM MICROPHONES
Two decent condenser mics (or, as a cheaper alternative, a pair of Tandy PZMs) will suffice in most cases. You also need good‑quality stands that don't wobble when they're extended, and some long microphone leads to get the signal to the desk. I usually bypass the splitter, or disconnect the feed from splitter to PA stage box for these microphones, in case an unsuspecting FOengineer accidentally turns them up on the FOdesk.
Good mic positions include: at the FOdesk, hanging from the ceiling (difficult in most venues), or on the stage pointing towards the audience.
If you want to monitor the gig over speakers, you'll need to work in an isolated area, and this is rarely possible in small venues. In practice, most work ends up being done on headphones, although it's nice to give the band a quick taste of the recording after the gig over speakers — unless it went badly, of course! On the other hand, headphones save space in the car, and you can always take a headphone splitter if you want to run more than one pair. Obviously, in a professional outside broadcast situation, you would be able to work in isolation, but for the one‑man operation, the less you have to carry to the venue the better! This brings us neatly to:
- THE VENUE
If possible, it's a good idea to check out the venue before you do the recording, for loading access, parking, power points and a place to set up the recording equipment. For smaller venues like pubs and clubs, space will be limited, especially if there's more than one band on the bill. I usually feel that the best gig to record is the one where the band you're recording is either the only band playing, or the band headlining.
- THE BAND
Length of set should be another consideration, because it dictates your tape requirements. Try to arrange with the band a point in the set where a longer song introduction allows you to change the tape. Failing that, work out the priority songs for the recording, and change the tape during one of the others — a set list will be essential on the night.
- FRONT OF HOUSE PA
You will need to liaise with the FOengineer in a big venue where the band are not using their own PA system. This means tracking down the PA company and the engineer who's going to be doing the job, and telling that person exactly what you want to do, and the equipment you're going to be using. Most engineers are happy enough, provided it doesn't mean extra work for them in the invariably rushed situation of a gig. If you try to make the FOengineer's job harder by putting in a low‑quality, or, heaven forbid, home‑made mic splitter (which will worsen the quality of the signals the engineer has to deal with), you are unlikely to be in his good books, and he may even refuse to let you record. It's therefore important to emphasise the quality of your microphone splitter — ensure that it's transformer‑isolated, as this guarantees that the signals sent to the FO(as well as your recording setup) will be of the best possible quality. The magic words 'transformer‑isolated' usually set any FOengineer's mind at rest. Stress also that you can supply the multicore between the splitter and the PA stage box as well — don't rely on the FOengineer for your connections and cable. He probably won't have any spares, and even if he does, he almost certainly won't lend them to you!
Getting to the venue just after the PA has arrived is a good idea, because once people start putting up microphones, you will need to connect your mic splitter. It also gives you a good chance to talk to the engineer, and suss out the venue if you haven't already done so.
- POSITIONING YOUR EQUIPMENT
With a compact setup and long multicores, the chances of keeping out of the way are quite good. However, there are more things than mere sound isolation to consider. One is communication. Unless you know the PA people well, you will not be included in the talkback system between the FOand on‑stage desks, which makes checking difficult if there are any problems with the sound. Secondly, you will not be able to keep an eye on your audience microphones, and these are likely to go missing, unless they're suspended from the ceiling or positioned near the FOdesk! My advice is to set the recording equipment up near the stage monitor desk if you're on your own, as long as you don't get in the way. You can then communicate with the FOvia the monitor engineer if there are any problems. Likewise, you will be able to help sort out any on‑stage wiring difficulties, for which you will undoubtedly be blamed...
If you're not working on your own, you can take a more professional approach, by setting up the equipment backstage while your partner in crime liaises with the PA crew (or vice versa).
- SMALLER VENUES
All the above advice becomes academic in smaller venues. Here, you will have to set up wherever you can — usually amongst the audience. In this instance, you will still have to mic everything up, possibly using your own equipment if the band are only using a small PA. However, I have found that most bands prefer the credibility of playing at a larger venue for recording, where the audience is bigger and there is more of a buzz to the performance. In such cases, you are relieved of the task of finding a full complement of microphones, stands and leads.
- THE SOUNDCHECK
You're fortunate indeed if there's an extensive soundcheck — if there is, you should have very few problems to deal with once the signal is routed to tape. However, I must say that I can't remember one instance where there's been a thorough check — so be warned. Also, the bigger the gig, the less time you have for any kind of soundcheck, so be prepared to work fast after all the hanging round between setting up the PA and waiting for the band to turn up! If the band get a chance to play through one or more songs (unlikely at festivals), you at least have a chance to set up the peak levels. For line checks only, err on the side of caution, and make sure that all the signals are getting to the recorder. A quick playback after the soundcheck (if you get the chance) will put your mind at ease. In situations like this, it's also a good idea for the band to start with a song they're not so keen to record, in case some level adjustments are necessary while they're playing.
Mixing techniques for a live gig differ from a studio session in one important aspect. You must keep that sense of excitement which has (hopefully) been captured on tape. This is where the audience microphones really come into play.
- AUDIENCE MICS
I always try and position these so they get a good dose of the out‑front sound off the main PA as well as the audience, because this creates the atmosphere of the gig — the 'being there' aspect. When mixing, the mic signals are faded in at the start of the gig, and then brought down to a workable level once the music starts. If you take the audience mic signals out of the mix completely, you are left with the dry, on‑stage sound, which is not that exciting on its own. Leaving a little of the audience mic signal in the mix gives you the characteristic PA sound, plus some of the natural reverberation of the room — a much more exciting result. If you're worried about phase problems, don't be — the audience mics are usually too far from the stage ones to cause trouble.
Naturally, you can recreate a gig reverb to some extent at mixdown, by using a hall‑style preset, and editing the decay time and pre‑delay parameters for apparent room size. EQ and diffusion parameters can then be adjusted to recreate a room acoustic.
For a general instrument reverb, you would apply the same sort of techniques as in a studio session. However, bear in mind that you may be mixing in some live reverb from the audience microphones, and also that you may have spill to deal with.
Inevitably, there will be some spill from the backline amps and drum monitors through the drum kit mics, but you may be surprised at how little you get. Even on a small stage, as long as the amps are not positioned immediately behind the drums, and the drummer plays hard enough, you can usually get away without too much spill. In extreme cases, some gating may be necessary, as long as the drum note sustain is not over‑damped by the action of the gates.
Lead vocalists tend to sing right up to the mic in live situations, so the signal level‑to‑monitor‑spill ratio and potential phasing is minimised. Nevertheless, there can be more problems with microphone popping, grunting and wheezing! If any vocal replacement is necessary, it's really important to use the same microphone as the one at the gig (invariably a Shure SM58). Although this is most often necessary for out‑of‑tune parts, there may also be excessive popping which a momentary bass EQ cut can't deal with.
- REPLACING INSTRUMENTS
The most important and difficult thing when replacing any instrument after the gig is to try and recreate the feel of the gig — the performer needs to try and remember what it was like at the time, and preserve this feeling on the take. Also excessive spill can be a problem, particularly when an instrument was played in isolation — for example, as a song introduction.
As you assemble the tracks onto the master tape, you have to make a decision whether to just run the tape from start to finish, or do some editing if the gaps between numbers are long. Rambling introductions, retuning, and technical problems usually make the gaps between songs too lengthy, and I always find that some cuts are necessary. If you have no way of editing right up to the start of a song, then a smooth fade‑in to catch the introduction or audience just prior to the start of the music sounds acceptable.
Signals to tape have a tendency to fluctuate a lot, particularly on vocals in live situations, so during the soundcheck, keep a few dBs below the peak operating level. Once the adrenalin of live performance takes over, you will find those extra dBs are soon used up!
Depending on the size of the group you are recording, you may need to hire in some equipment, and obviously, this will have to be negotiated with the band.
Remember that if you use a bigger desk and multitrack, you will have to re‑hire for the mixing session. This usually takes the recording over budget for unsigned acts, so some compromises may have to be made — for example by using only one audience microphone, and sub‑mixing the kit toms.
If you'd like more information on live sound recording, the following books may be of interest to you:
- Sound Reinforcement Handbook by Gary Davis and Ralph Jones.
- Live Sound Mixing by Duncan Fry.
Both of these books are available from the SOS Bookshop, codes B105 and B256, and priced at £27.95 and £19.95 respectively (postage not included; see the Mail Order pages in this issue for current postage rates).