Recording gigs can be challenging, particularly given the constraints imposed by typical small and medium venues. But capturing a great performance, complete with all the atmosphere of the night, can be a hugely rewarding experience.
Recording a gig presents a unique set of challenges. You may be a dab hand at studio recording, but it doesn't follow that you'll have an easy time recording a gig. You can't ask the band to run through it one more time! It might be similarly challenging for a front-of-house (FOH) engineer, or someone who's in a band and wants to record their gigs. Sure, such people will be familiar with the pressure of a one-chance-to-get-it-right live event, but they'll be less acquainted with the intricacies of recording, and with the threshold of acceptability: a fleeting moment of preamp distortion or feedback might annoy an FOH engineer, but it's not something most listeners will notice (never mind remember), so it's no show-stopper. Yet this sort of thing can spoil a recording.
Whether your background is in studio or live sound, or you're a gigging musician, this article aims to take you through the key issues to consider if you want to start recording live performances. I'll explore a number of options, from the simplest stereo recording to an ambitious multitrack recording that can be edited and enhanced in a post-production stage. I'll mention some post-production processes, but that's a huge subject, the details of which we'll cover another time.
The recording side of things is similarly vast, so I've had to set some boundaries and make assumptions. I'll focus on gigs in typical small-to-medium venues of the sort you'll find in a city like London, simply because, firstly, larger venues already tend to have recording facilities, and the bands that play there will probably have their own, experienced engineers; secondly, large-venue and festival FOH sound generally requires everything to go through the PA, making it very different from the sort of venue in which you're likely to start out your live-recording career, where the focus is more on 'reinforcing' the sound of the quieter instruments; and thirdly, such small and medium venues happen to be the sort I have most experience of.
I'll also assume that you're already in touch with a band that you're planning to record, or with a promoter who's looking to capture recordings on one of their nights. Alternatively, you might be an FOH engineer looking to sell recordings to the bands whose gigs you're engineering.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that my own experience is mainly in pop/rock/punk music: the sort of thing that might have drums, synths, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, backing tracks and all manner of different parts. The demands of electronica, rap, hip-hop and various other urban styles are pretty much the same, if not simpler. Much of the advice should also transfer perfectly well to smaller 'pub' gigs. Recording an acoustic gig will often be less complex, as the on-stage sound should be rather better balanced (assuming the band's any good!). The same applies to choral and orchestral music.
You have to start by considering why you're doing the recording. That dictates the result you need and, consequently, the techniques and tools you'll want to use. From there, you can figure out what's practical, given the constraints of the venue, and decide what compromises and work-arounds will minimise hassle while still achieving a good result.
Let's start with the simplest scenario — recording your band's gig, so that you can analyse your performance. All you really need is a stereo recording in which you can hear all the parts clearly, and this is pretty much what the current crop of solid-state stereo recorders are designed for. Some, such as the Zoom H4N, provide XLR inputs and 48V phantom power, which means that you can use professional condenser mics. Bear in mind that you might be recording for an hour or more, though: supplying phantom power will run the batteries down very quickly.
The stereo approach looks simple, but it's not without difficulties. Getting a mate to stand in the crowd and record to a handheld stereo recorder will give you a sense of the performance, but you'll get little more than that. In fact, you'll sometimes get more crowd sound than music, and Sod's law says that there'll be someone doing a tone-deaf karaoke rendition of the song right next to the mics. Also, even if the crowd behaves, it's tricky keeping the recorder in a static position. It's easy to screw up the input levels, too: I've heard recordings that were ruined by clipping when the bassist turned up his amp. In this environment, you won't get the isolation needed for critical listening even with the best headphones, so you have to make judgments using the on-board metering, which can be impossible: in a dark room, even if you can see the screen, you might not be able to find the buttons and dials used to control the device!
Thankfully, 24-bit recorders allow you to leave plenty of headroom. The signal-to-noise ratio is good enough that you can set low recording levels, with plenty of room for things to get louder. I've had perfectly good results using nothing more than a 16-bit Hi-MD MiniDisc recorder and a plug-in-power mic, but 24-bit recorders are more forgiving. The key is to get to know the device inside-out and back-to-front, so that tweaking settings when needed becomes second nature.
Another way to capture a stereo recording is to ask the FOH engineer to feed your recorder from the outputs of the FOH desk, so you get the mix they feed to the PA. Although this is tempting, we're dealing with amplified music in a smallish space, which means everything will be running through the desk or PA. For example, it's common for there to be only a mic on the kick and snare just to reinforce the natural kit sound in the room, with other instruments amplified to balance levels against the kit.
A more viable approach is to place the recorder (or your mics) away from the crowd, somewhere you can get a decent balance between what's coming from the stage and over the PA. Often, a good place is somewhere quite high above the FOH desk (assuming the FOH desk is placed sensibly, which it isn't in every venue!), pointing towards the stage. After all, that's where the FOH engineer is making most of his/her mix-balance judgments.
There are some possible trade-offs. If you're using the on-board mics on a stereo recorder like a Zoom H4N or an Olympus LS10, placing the recorder anywhere near the ceiling will give you an unhealthy dollop of reflected sound alongside the direct sound. That's one reason why I like the H4N — it allows me to use phantom-powered external mics. Although external mics will still be exposed to those reflections, you can pick more appropriate mics for the job, and you have the option of using a spaced pair. To overcome the reflections issue, you could use a pair of PZM boundary mics, or for a natural sound, you could choose a spaced omnidirectional pair, which won't suffer from coloured off-axis response, as directional mics do.
When you hear a major act on TV, radio or a DVD, you're usually listening to the result of complex multitracked recordings. Live broadcasts might be a basic level, pan, EQ and compression job, but on a band's DVD the performance will usually have been edited and enhanced — to the extent that you might not even be hearing the bass performance from that night's show, but instead one from a different night on the same tour!
To achieve professional results, then, you'll probably want to do some post-production — correcting performance 'issues', reinforcing sounds that didn't come across strongly on the night, picking out crucial lyrics that got lost in the mix, and so on — and that means you'll want to capture a decent multitrack recording. The nature of the venues you'll most likely be working in will limit what you can achieve, because of the quality of recording gear available, for example, or constraints imposed by the night, such as five-minute changeovers between acts.
Before you think about specifying and setting up your multitrack recording gear, though, consider where you, pitching up at a venue with your gear, stand in the great scheme of things — because, unfortunately, you're not exactly the most important person in the venue. The utmost thing on a decent promoter's mind will be getting good acts on the bill, getting paying punters through the door, and keeping them happy enough that they'll want to come again and introduce their friends to the place. On the technical side, then, their main concern will be what creates a good vibe: FOH sound, lines of visibility to the stage, and maybe a light show. They'll share your desire that any recordings turn out well, but they're unlikely to care much about your needs as a recordist until everything else is sorted. If you need to borrow an extension cable, then, and the FOH or lighting guy or any of the musicians need one too, you're going to have to find your own.
Space in many urban venues is at a premium, too, so there's going to be no dedicated area for you to set up your gear. It was a rude awakening when I first started recording to be asked to balance my recording setup precariously on a stool, with cables trailing down the back! The same is true of the stage. I've recorded and played at some highly regarded small venues — the sort of place where the 'up and coming' bands play and you get A&R guys turning up (yes, it still sometimes happens in London... and no, they never offer to snap me up!) — which have extremely cramped stages. You wouldn't have a cat-in-hell's chance of squeezing in another band member, never mind additional mics and stands for recording each instrument.
Even where there is plenty of space, there are other reasons that the promoter, band or audience will want minimal clutter on stage. Maybe the band needs freedom to strut around the stage. Maybe someone's videoing the gig and wants everything to look right. Whatever the reason, you can't bank on erecting a forest of mic stands just to make your recording better.
Finally, there are plenty of venues and FOH engineers that use the night as an opportunity to record and video the gig, so that they can sell the recordings to the bands — so you could be seen as competition, and you might not even get permission to take your gear in, never mind set up where you want!
OK... I'm probably painting a bleaker than average picture, and with a little planning, you can easily overcome most of the issues I've described. In fact, there are some very switched-on promoters and venue owners out there who will welcome recordists with open arms. The reason why I've banged on about potential problems is that you absolutely must be prepared to cope with any of them. Otherwise you could end up with a stressful experience and a disappointing recording.
So what can you do? I've recorded and gigged at various venues in and around London, and the only two things most have in common are that money is tight, so they rarely invest in new audio gear, other than occasionally upgrading the mixer or PA; and that they're all different, whether in terms of stage size, room layout and acoustics, the audio gear (desk, mics, stands, DIs, PA), or the people involved in running the venue or specific night. I'm sure this isn't hugely different in other cities.
Find out in advance what you can about the venue and the people running the night. If possible, visit the venue when a similar gig's on (if it's a monthly night, for instance, try to attend the month prior to the gig). You'll be able to tell more about the acoustics of the venue with a typical crowd in there than you will during the soundcheck on the night. You'll also be able to spot if there's an obvious place away from the punters and out of the way of the FOH area that you could set up your gear. By being there when there's an event on, you'll be able to figure out whether your preferred spot is a realistic option: if it means trailing power, audio or data cables anywhere near customers, for example, then it's not going to happen. There's no harm in introducing yourself to the promoter or FOH engineer, but do pick your moment; if they're obviously busy, don't make a nuisance of yourself.
Ask yourself whether the place actually sounds good: do you really want to make a recording there? If it's cramped and an acoustic nightmare, the answer may well be no, and if that's the case, it's better to make that decision early on and line up a more suitable gig! Assuming that you decide to persevere, take notes on the gear they're using and how things are set up. You'll want to know things such as the model of the FOH desk (so you can consult the manual to answer questions you have later), specifically whether the desk has direct outputs and inserts on each channel, what instruments are being miked up and what mics are being used. Even think about the location of power sockets.
If visiting the venue isn't an option, contact the promoter and get what information you can. (You'll need to contact them in any case, to get permission to set up and record on their premises.) If they can't help with all your questions, get them to put you in touch with whoever's doing live sound on the night. I've already mentioned in passing the things you absolutely have to know in order to decide what gear you'll need, but to recap, you need to know:
1. Whether the desk has direct outs on each channel, and whether you'll be able to take a signal from these
2. If not, whether they have any mic splitters (see below); if not, what the model of the desk is, and whether you'll be allowed to take a feed from the channel inserts.
3. Whether you'll be allowed to put up any additional mics on stage
4. Whether there's anywhere convenient that you can set up your recording gear.
If you can take a feed from the desk's direct outs, I'd strongly recommend that you do. All you'll need then is a space to set up, a multitrack recording system (no mic preamps required!), suitably terminated looms to connect the direct outs to your system, and some form of monitoring. Unless the desk has been modded, the direct outs will typically be pre-insert, pre-EQ and pre-fader, so your recording won't be coloured by processing or level adjustments made by the FOH engineer.
The risk is that the FOH engineer needs to alter the channel input gain, but if so they usually need to bring the gain down (to compensate for musicians cranking up their amps when they're frustrated with the lack of 'me' in their foldback mix), so while you might end up with a quietish signal, you're not that likely to run into issues with clipping. In fact, it might save you from getting a clipped recording. Any gain changes will appear on your recording, so you'll need to compensate with automation later. It's just as well to give the FOH guy a polite reminder that your job depends on the gains being fixed if possible, and asking him to tell you when he's made changes.
If there are no direct outs, or they're not available to you, you'll either need to have a suitably wired loom to tap a signal from the insert points, or you'll need a mic splitter, so that the FOH-mic signals can be routed both to your system and the live desk — unless, of course, you have the rare luxury of being able to set up your own dedicated mics for everything.
I'd avoid the inserts option if possible, partly because not all desks' inserts behave in the same way (you might need a specially wired loom to tap off a send signal without bypassing the channel output to the group or main mix busses), and partly because some inserts will probably be needed for the FOH sound — particularly for processing sounds such as the vocals, kick, snare and bass, and it's these elements that you really need to capture cleanly. Some clever hardware recorders, such as the JoeCo Black Box Recorder, can be patched directly into the insert points to give you a clean feed without affecting the FOH insert processors, but such devices are not cheap.
Mic splitters take the signal directly from the mic cable and provide two outputs, and they're often used to provide a feed for recording or on-stage monitoring while the 'main' signal is sent direct to the FOH desk. If the venue has splitters already, great. If not, and you plan to do much location recording, it might be worth investing in some. Most are passive transformer-isolated types (see below), but if you've run out of proper splitters you can get out of trouble with a simple 'parallel split', which you can easily and cheaply make up a if you're handy with a soldering iron. Make sure you only send phantom power from one of the preamps to these, though. You'll often get away with it if you send from both, but you're leaving yourself exposed to unnecessary risks (the mic might not like it, or a cable fault may take down the other signal path — which will make you very unpopular!).
A transformer-isolated mic splitter is a much better option, and they're not prohibitively expensive if you're doing a lot of recording. You can buy an eight-channel ART splitter, for example, for £200$300. A transformer is used to tap off a clean, galvanically isolated signal from the line running directly between the mic and the FOH desk's preamp. As there's no physical electric connection — the signal is transmitted magnetically — there's no common earth between the two circuits. The practical benefit of this is that if there are problems with your equipment — poor earthing, faulty cables and so on — you're not going to cause problems with the front-of-house sound (nor they with your recording). The FOH guys are far more likely to let you feed their mics through your transformer-isolated splitter than a bunch of parallel splits!
The main disadvantage of using splitters rather than the desk's direct outputs is that you'll need sufficient mic preamps, which costs money, and means you have more to lug around. The positive flip-side of this is that you get to choose your own preamps, which may be better than those on a smoky battered old mixer.
It's good to use the FOH mics where you can, for the reasons I've outlined, but there are inevitably occasions when the mics aren't suitable, or when the FOH engineer doesn't need to mike something up that's critical to your recording. Also, FOH mics will typically be placed closer to the source than you'd like, as this helps with separation, so you might not get the perfect sound. The latter scenario causes no problems that a bit of EQ and ambience in post-production can't improve, but sometimes you will need to use your own mics.
If drum overheads aren't being used because the cymbals are loud enough in the room, for example, you might want to put a pair up to feed directly into your recording system. If you're not experienced in minimal drum-miking techniques it can seem tricky to get a good balance, so read up on suitable mic placement for one-, two- or three-mic drum-recording setups. I'd suggest bringing your own mic stands too (keep everything clearly labelled as yours!), as you'll otherwise probably have to make do with the saggy remainder — because the best stands will have been used for other things!
Something you'll probably have seen on stage is two mics stuck together on one stand, with one feeding a recording system, and another the FOH mixer. I'd warn against this: few singers will resist the urge to pull the mic off the stand (which is impossible with this sort of setup); it looks ugly; and you can run into problems with the mic bodies touching. Instead, if you think you have a better or more appropriate mic for a given job than the vocalist or the FOH engineer has, why not offer to let them use it and take your feed from that? Some will be receptive, others won't, but they have the final say.
Don't just think of what is or isn't close-miked on stage. Consider putting up a room mic, or a pair of room mics, to capture a bit of the venue sound, or erecting dedicated audience mics so that you can cut, paste and crossfade some applause when you're trying to augment the sound of the gig or disguise unwanted noises later. I'd suggest placement similar to that I discussed for stereo recording setups earlier on. Omni mics are a particularly good choice for audience recordings, given their natural sound.
It's always a good idea to have spare workhorse mics in your kit-bag. A stereo pair of omnidirectional or cardioid small-diaphragm condensers is always useful, and, adding to these, a good dynamic or two (in case the FOH engineer decides the bass or guitar amps don't need miking) would be the bare minimum I'd want to take along as insurance. It's worth having a couple of spare cables, and don't forget that if you want to erect mics on stage, you might need your own stage box — yet another reason to stick with the FOH mics where possible! A spare DI box could come in handy too, as DI is very much the most reliable way to capture bass guitar in this environment, and the FOH sound might be relying solely on the amp.
Once you know what signals you're dealing with, you can decide what sort of recording system you need. My first piece of advice is to keep your setup compact and simple. It's perfectly possible to take your laptop, audio interface and ADAT expander units if you need more inputs, but this will be a delicate and cumbersome system, with lots of trailing wires. If anyone inadvertently (or maliciously!) pulls out a Firewire, USB or ADAT cable, your recording will be a lost cause. Also, it's not unknown for computers — yes, even Macs — to crash, and a re-boot can take a painfully long time. Finally, with all these devices and cables, ground loops will probably rear their ugly, humming heads. They're usually easy to eliminate by powering a laptop from its battery, but you show me a laptop that's happy recording multitrack audio for two hours on a battery and I'll show you a real-life unicorn...
Dedicated hardware recorders, then, would be my first choice, where possible, with the 24-track Alesis HD24 (or, better still, HD24XR) and the Fostex D2424LV MkII coming top of my list when I need lots of I/O. These devices offer great value for money, but as we're not talking pocket-money they're only really worth investing in if you plan to do a lot of recording. Also, bear in mind that once you've added some good-quality looms, some mic preamps and additional mics, you could have laid out a good couple of thousand poundsfew thousand dollars! In this context, the JoeCo Black Box recorder I mentioned earlier starts to look reasonable. For those recording simpler, smaller gigs, with fewer tracks, something like the Zoom R16, which offers eight-track recording, should suffice... but I can't remember the last time I recorded a rock gig with less than 12 mic signals.
If you do decide to use a computer, consider putting all your rackmount gubbins in a small rack case. It makes it far easier to get your gear on site and set up, and it provides somewhere for you to tidy away excess cable. You can even place your laptop on top (secure it with non-slip matting or velcro!). At the very least, find a temporary way of securing any stray Firewire and USB cables, even if it must be with tape. I'd also be tempted to use a DAW such as Reaper or Logic that doesn't require a hardware dongle — even if I were to mix in a different DAW later on. A final tip is to create a project template that minimises the amount of fussing about during the session itself. Label tracks for the main instruments, and assign inputs from your interface. It's also worth ganging controls so that you can record-enable or monitor-enable all tracks at once. You might need to change a few things (for example, if you plug the vox cable into the guitar channel — easy to do with the pressure of time), but it should still make life easier. In short, do anything you can to take potential problems out of the equation.
With the gear set up, your job is to get all the signals to disk at a healthy level and to avoid clipping. Once you've pressed record, you shouldn't need to intervene much: just be on the lookout for problems and take action if required. Unless it's essential, resist the temptation to change gain levels during a song. One thing it's well worth doing to avoid clipping is to leave plenty of headroom for vocals — because loud plosives can usually be removed in post-production, but only if they've not clipped.
It helps to have good, clear metering, as the monitoring environment will be difficult, at best. One thing I do like about computer-based setups is that the on-screen metering can be large, clear, scrollable and user-configurable.
Your monitoring setup itself may vary from venue to venue, but your options will always be limited. If you're lucky, you may be able to run your system in a small room tucked away somewhere, where you could even set up a pair of speakers, but that's a rare situation in my experience. More likely, the only place available will be within the live area, probably somewhere near the FOH desk. A decent set of closed-back headphones with good isolation is essential here, because, at best, without good isolation, you'll get a sound you can't monitor accurately with, polluted as it is by the sound in the room; and at worst, you'll be tempted to turn up the levels such that it could cause hearing damage!
An over-ear design, like the Sony MD7509HD or MD7520, would be my preference over a smaller model such as the Sennheiser HD251 II. These sound good and don't leak much, but don't offer great isolation. In-ear monitors might be an option if you're happy using them — but they're not something I get on well with. Don't use open-backed cans such as the Sennheiser HD650. Though such designs have the most 'honest' sound, the signal will be drowned out by the sound in the room.
By the time the band are soundchecking, you need to be ready to check and set your recording levels — so you'll need to factor in some rigging time before that. For your first time out, find out when the FOH engineer is setting up, and turn up then. Wire everything up, load any project templates, test that your recording system is working (you should have done this the night before, but check it again!), scratch the mics and make sure you're getting a signal and so on. They should be testing this stuff for the FOH sound, working through each mic and instrument in turn, so make sure you're there to check you're getting a decent signal. (You might not get a second chance!).
In an ideal world, every band will get a soundcheck, but all too often this isn't the case: I've been at soundchecks where all the time is spent on the headline act, and the engineer has turned round and said to the rest: "sorry, there's no time to check the other bands... we'll use the monitor settings for the main act”. So don't wait for 'your' band to do their soundcheck. Chances are that the FOH engineer will use the same mics and DI boxes for each act, so take your first opportunity to check you've got a signal and set rough levels. That way, when your band do come on stage, you'll be ready to tweak what levels need to be tweaked, rather than spending all your time problem solving. Finally, don't waste time EQ'ing, compressing and so on. Just focus on getting a clean, healthy signal on each channel. You can do any balancing later on, and in any case you'll find that the sound changes considerably once the venue is full of sweaty bodies!
Believe it or not, you can make money recording bands playing at typical gigs if you have your business head firmly screwed on! Plenty of bands will see this as a quick way to get a demo together, and will pay for that convenience. Increasingly, bands are keen to have videos of their gigs to upload to YouTube, Vimeo and the like — and while iPhones and dedicated devices like the Olympus LS20 (reviewed in this issue) allow you to record high-quality video and audio, the result is going to be so much better if you combine video with a properly recorded and mixed stage sound. If you can demonstrate that you can do a good job, it shouldn't be that hard to find a regular gig with a band or recording spot at a venue. If you already do FOH sound for a venue, for a modest outlay on recording gear you should be able to make a nice chunk on the side. Just don't expect anyone to offer you a salary: it will be down to you to create your opportunities.
Here's a note of caution, though: I've seen plenty of contracts between venues/promoters and bands, and some of these assign the rights of all recordings made on the premises to the venue. It would be a good idea to pay attention to such things up front, so that you save yourself the time, hassle and potential cost of a rights ownership dispute.