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Live-Performance Recording - A Comprehensive Guide
Written by Mike Levine - 2005, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. Reprinted with Permission.
Live recording offers musicians the opportunity to capture the unique energy and ensemble interaction of a performance. It's especially beneficial for groups that excel on stage but can't seem to re-create the same musical magic in the studio. As almost any gigging musician will tell you, there's something about playing for an audience-especially a receptive one-that brings out the best in a band.

From an engineering standpoint, though, recording live is akin to working without a net. There's little margin for error, and unlike the controlled environs of a recording studio, the working conditions are often unpredictable.

Typically, an engineer recording a live show works in the midst of crowds, smoke, and excessive sound levels. With the exception of those occasions when the gear is set up in an isolated room or in a truck outside the venue, monitoring must be done with headphones in the room where the band is playing. Through all of this, the recordist must valiantly fight to maintain acceptable recording levels while keeping the twin demons of noise and distortion at bay.

Engineers on live projects also have to polish their diplomacy. Often they'll need to negotiate with the house sound engineer for permission to set up extra mics, install splitters by the stage box, or tap into the front-of-house (FOH) console.

These challenges notwithstanding, a live recording can yield quality tracks for a CD, MP3, or video at a fraction of the cost typically incurred in a commercial studio. Moreover, if the show is being recorded direct to 2-track, no mixing is required afterward-the project can proceed directly to the mastering stage, reducing expenses even further.

If you are contemplating doing a live recording, whether as a performer, an engineer, or both, you have many options to consider. I solicited the viewpoints of a number of live-recording engineers and found that although they agree on some issues-such as the importance of preparation-there is a great diversity of opinion regarding gear, formats, and methodology. Ultimately, the best approach depends on a number of factors, including the budget, the purpose of the project, and the type of equipment that you own or have access to.

The most fundamental decision is whether to record in stereo or to multitrack. The choice you make is likely to have a significant impact on the complexity and expense of the project as well as on the sound of the finished master. I'll start with the simpler applications and then proceed to the more complex.

A Stereo Pair
Generally speaking, stereo recording is the easiest and least-expensive way to capture a live performance-especially when using an affordable format such as DAT or MiniDisc. (Of the two, DAT is preferable because it has better sound quality and allows you to record for up to two hours without changing tapes.) All you need is the recorder, a couple of cables, a microphone stand or two, and a pair of identical mics (or a dedicated stereo mic). After setting levels, simply press Record and let it roll. Assuming you use appropriate, good-quality mics and position them well, you should end up with a recording that offers the listener a reasonable representation of what the music sounded like in the room that night, replete with audience members talking, glasses clinking, and other real-life sounds.

Depending on the distance of the mics from the P.A., you'll pick up varying degrees of room sound. In a venue with great sound, this can be advantageous; in a space with less-than-desirable acoustics, it can work against you.

Another problem inherent to stereo 2-track recording is that success depends on the house engineer doing a good job on the mix. If the mix in the room is substandard, the recording will be substandard, too.

Off The Board
Another method for making a 2-track live recording is to take a feed from the stereo bus of the FOH console directly into the recorder. If the goal is simply to make a rough document of the performance, this should suffice. However, producing master-quality recordings this way is extremely difficult.

The main problem with board tapes results from the fact that the sound engineer's objective is to get a good sound in the house. Typically, this means bringing into the mix only those instruments that need reinforcing in the room (for example, vocals, keyboards, and kick drum) and omitting those that are loud enough on their own (for example, electric guitar, bass guitar, and the rest of the drum kit). In such a case, a direct feed from the console's stereo outputs will produce a poorly balanced recording, with some instruments well represented and others barely represented at all. "You're really at cross-purposes with the people running the sound system," says Philip Perkins, a production sound mixer for film and television who does a great deal of location recording, "especially in smaller spaces."

The best way to record off the board to a 2-track recorder is to set up an independent mix. This can be done a number of ways, depending on the console. The preferred way-if the board allows for it-is to employ a secondary mix bus (such as Mix B on the Mackie 8-Bus series), which provides separate volume, pan, and even rudimentary tone controls for each channel.

Another option is to feed the 2-track recorder from two spare auxes. However, auxes don't provide pan controls, so you have to apply the auxes unevenly to pan the instruments across the stereo field. Panning hard left and right is easy-you simply send aux 1 to the left input and aux 2 to the right. However, if you want to position an instrument at, say, 9 o'clock, you need to dial in a portion of the signal from aux 2, but not as much as is coming through aux 1. This is an imprecise way to operate.This is an excerpt from the following article: Caught in the Act - Live Recording.


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