Recording your live gig: Part 1

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Translating your live music performance to record takes preparation and the right mix of gear and personnel. Here are eight tips to make the most of your live music recording.

LiveMix

Laying down your tastiest tracks in the studio is one thing – but what if you want to capture the raw spontaneity and audience energy of a live gig? Live recordings can be a real challenge, even for the most ambitious DIY indie artist, so here are eight tips to help you capture the vibrant tracks you need.

1. Know your purpose, and choose the right-sized recording rig to get you there
Are you recording your gig for a large-scale, multi-disc release? Do you just want to review your show with your bandmates over beers to see where you rocked and where you… could use a little more practice? Or are you planning on sending 30-second sound clips around to your fans as teasers for your next gig?

If you’re not making the recording commercially available, your easiest, and cheapest, gear option is likely going to be some variation of a handheld recorder, possibly with an extra mic or two to give you more choices when it comes to working with the sound post-gig. If you plan to get the recording professionally mixed and mastered, make 1,000 copies, and sell them for $20 each, definitely investigate something higher end – probably a multi-track recording system with multiple mics and high-quality pre-amps.

(Check out Part 2 of this article to get some gear advice to put together the right recording rig for your purposes.)

2. Befriend the venue and explore ahead of time
Touch base with the venue, and the sound engineer, several days before the gig and find a time when you can do a walk-through. Make special note of where electrical outlets are and be sure to ask the house manager where you’ll be able to set up. Being nice is key, and bringing chocolate helps, emphasizes Cookie Marenco, California-based producer, engineer, and founder of Blue Coast Records. Don’t even think about showing up ten minutes before the show, introducing yourself to the probably-overworked-and-underpaid sound technician, and expecting any sort of cooperation.

Marenco also advises that, if you’re planning on plugging anything into a wall socket, be sure to ask the venue about their power, and if they have problems with any particular outlets or circuits. “If you’re fighting for the same circuits with the lighting system, you can get a buzz,” she says. “Look out for dimmers, or find out if there are any video crews that will be plugging in as well, since those can create buzzes too.”

Be sure that you do your recon mission when the venue is quiet. “Know what your environmental noise is going to be,” says Marenco. “Is there a train that’s going to go by during the middle of the set? Are there air conditioners and buzzing lights? Especially if you’re recording something more quiet and acoustic, knowing where extraneous noise comes from can help you position microphones to minimize it.”

3. Start with the mixing board
“The least expensive way to record a live gig is to take a board feed,” says Marenco. “Most clubs have at least a little mixing console for their PA and sometimes if you call in advance, you can find out if they have a two-track feed going out, and what kind of cables you need to record from it. You can bring a small, portable digital recorder and plug directly in.”

While the board is a good place to start, it may not yield jaw-dropping recorded sound, Marenco also notes. If you’re in a smaller club, for example, drums might not be miked at all, and the mix you record from the board could end up being all vocals and bass. Plus, you won’t get any of the live feel of the room.

If you have the gear and resources to do so, try remedying this by miking the room as well. “I always try to put up room mics on front corners of the stage facing the audience,” says Michael Winger, who runs the live recording company Flying Kitchen and has recorded acts like Regina Spektor and Tom Petty. “A mic at the back of the room usually sounds pretty bad and never mixes well with a direct recording off the board.”

4. Plan ahead
If you’re expecting to use more than a hand-held recorder, make sure to draw a map of the whole rig from mic to recorder to monitor, says Winger, so you know exactly what you’re looking at come gig-time.

Especially if you’re working with new pieces of gear, Marenco says, be sure to set things up and do a test recording session at home long before you hit the club. “Play some music, or even talk into it,” she advises. “Some recording units have built-in limiters and compressors that can be helpful, but other times they can cause problems, especially when it comes to automatic level setting.” Better to futz with input levels in your living room than while your band is anxiously waiting to rip into the first tune….

5. Bring a friend, or hire an engineer, to help
If you’re leaning towards anything more complicated than a simple hand-held recorder that you can just turn on and forget about, bring a friend to man the rig, so you don’t have to worry about it. “Performing and recording can both be stressful and the most important part of a live recoding is having a powerful emotional delivery,” says Winger. “It’s even harder when you’re thinking about whether or not the hard drive has enough space or if one of your channels has a buzz in it.”

If your budget permits, and you want a high-quality live recording worthy of an album release, consider hiring an experienced company or recording engineer to do the dirty work for you. You may be able to bring in someone good for only a few hundred dollars – but just make sure that you know they’re good before you book the date. Ask other musicians, or well-reputed local recording studios, for personal recommendations, and make sure to get a credit list, references, and audio samples from anyone you’re considering booking – and bonus points if they have experience working at the venue you’re playing. If everything checks out, sign the check and be done with it. The peace of mind you’ll gain from not having to worry about extra gear and logistics, in and of itself, may be worth the investment.

6. Bring the right supplies
Make a packing list at least a couple of days before the show, recommends Winger, and think of everything you might need in a pinch. Depending on the scale of your recording rig, your bag o’ tricks could include extra batteries, headphones, extension cables, pencil and paper, and gaffers tape, to make sure nobody trips over wires or accidentally unplugs your system mid-set. Having a thorough packing list is super helpful after the gig, when you’ll likely be wiped out and more prone to forgetting things.

And finally, “don’t forget to bring a flashlight,” advises Winger. “It’s always dark when you’re trying to either set up or tear down.”

7. Make sure the music is the best it can be
Even the most amazing recording of a live show won’t do you much good if the show itself falls flat. “Never sacrifice your performance for the recording,” said Winger. “Rehearse and get the best musicians you can to play with you. Make sure all your instruments, including the drums, are in tune and practice a lot. A band that’s been on the road touring for months always sounds better than a band that plays once a month. If you can’t get out on the road to tour, rehearse every day you can before your live recording.”

8. Bring a backup recording system
Gear craps out sometimes – end of story – so make sure you have a redundant recording system running at the same time as your primary system. Even if all you have as your fail-safe is a hand-held cassette recorder, or the cheesy built-in mic on your laptop, it’s better than nothing. Make sure you record everything with both systems.

After the gig, if your recording is in digital format, be sure to back it up onto a separate hard drive, and burn a CD or DVD for good measure. “Remember the rule of digital,” says Winger. “If it doesn’t exist in three separate places, then it doesn’t exist.”

Photo of Vinita Formation by Fajno via ShutterStock.com.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

Learn How to Maintain Your Voice

Read More
Recording Your Live Gig, Pt. 2: 9 Affordable Gear Options
Help the soundman get you a great live music mix
Get a Great Live Mix – Eight Ways to Take Control of Your Live Sound
Ditch the pre-show performance jitters
Improving Your Music Performance Starts With a Vision

17 thoughts on “Recording your live gig: Part 1

  1. As I get older,I find that a checklist of all the things to bring and do for live recording is essential. I won’t tell you all the mistakes I’ve made but forgetting the cables was one…thank goodness there was a Radio Shack close by.

  2. I’ve never been satisfied with a board feed and/or a pair of mics in capturing a live band. My console with pre-fader direct outs allows me to multi-track record the band and get a truely usable recording. Afterwards, I have a lot of post production options like fixing mistakes, adding overdubs, etc, as well as mixing in a control room for a studio-like quality of a live event. Of course, this takes a bit more effort but well worth it esp when the performances are great.

  3. Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading the articles and putting the ideas to practice. Dealing on our own club right now and doing tons of paperwork. Tired of making money for someone else. How about some articles on that subject??

  4. Great article! I’ve gotten some good results coming out of the console and using a zoom stereo recorder and combining the 2 later. Its not ideal but if its not being released then its very good for handy give away tracks for fans. etc…

  5. Again, great article! In fact I think that this is one of the best ones I have read via “Echoes”. I’ve done only a few live recording dates with little success. Not exactly my forte, now studio recording thats a different story.

    Great read! Keep em’ coming!
    -Tim Smith
    The Soundscape Recording Studio
    Royal Oak, MI

  6. I think we really need two separate articles that stem from the first question!

    If you’re recording this as a reference for you and your bandmates ONLY to hear, then you DIY or “bring a friend.” And all the stuff about checking out the venue, finding clean power and getting a board feed applies.

    But if you’re recording this for ANYONE ELSE to hear and possibly pay for, you hire a professional engineer with professional live recording gear! That’s why they exist. 🙂

  7. Yeah, handing a scalpel to a child for brain surgery is about the perfect analogy!!!

    If someone really wants to record a high-pressure live show there’s a ton of stuff that one needs for a successful venture besides “scoping it out a few days ahead”. If anything tip #5 should be #1 or 2. How can anyone play AND run the gear at the same time? Simple 2-track palmcorder , sure… multi-track? No way.

    Regardless its almost always a bad bad idea to tie into the FOH board. The purpose of that board is to mix for the people attending the show. Even if the direct outs are clean (buzz free) and pre-EQ the gain staging is optimized for mixing the show and NOT for feeding a multi-track recorder. Multitrack requires a transformer isolated splitter and a dedicated rig… and yes, UPS for the computer and interface with the house crew basically as soon as the gig is booked.

    Simple somewhat DIY live recording would be taking the FOH board mix (matrix outs?) and combining that with a pair of mics on stage facing the audience. Blend to taste… master later. That can actually sound really good if there’s a good mix happening in the room and coming off the board. The real key to any sort of live recording is preparation. Have a backup plan, and a backup for the backup… and be able to pull stuff outta yer butt without hesitation! If thing go wrong its not like you can stop and do another take…

  8. Nice article. Fully agree with Kenneth Glaza’s “scalpel” comment and “iso split transformers” etc.

    Here’s a video we shot with the help of a bunch of cells phones (and a DV Cam or 2) synched up to the multitrack recording (Live CD coming out soon). Recording by Steve Jarvis and Dave Lichtenstein ( San Francisco Bay Area)..check it out with headphones!.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSxZJ1svWp4

  9. I always like optimists that hands a scalpel to a child to perform brain surgery. LOL If the budget will allow, it is always better to get some one that has knowledge, the proper equipment such as the iso split transformers the input compressors and the special accent mic’s with at least 16 tracks of recording. Arnie Rosenberg and I were in charge of the East Coast Westwood One recording bus. We did all major live concerts East of the Mississippi. If you shop around you will find it is very affordable when your bands’ branding and image are at steak. If you are good you are working. If you are working you have a crowd that probably follows you. If you have a crowd, than you have patrons that may purchase a CD. Work the cost from the back end. How many CDs would the crown purchase at what price? That will determine if a good to spectacular recording can be made. K&R built its reputation on providing local bands frugal and spectacular live and studio recordings.

  10. Bring your own UPS!!…Twice I’ve had the power go out during a live recording and was able to save without losing any data. The other things I would mention to someone new at live recording, if you’re getting direct lines from the front of house…they probably aren’t really “direct”. A few times I found myself with some crappy sounding gates on the Kick drum track or eq’s that were unusable. The only way to be sure you’re getting the mics, it so bring a transformer isolated splitter. The other thing is, unless there is a problem (clipping levels, or some other emergency) leave the inputs alone once you have them set. I used to have a tendency to fiddle with the input levels to get them “perfect”. This just makes mix down more difficult as you wind up constantly compensating. Sometimes I record and there is no sound check at all…so I try not to make any adjustments after the first song unless absolutely necessary. Just my $.o2. I haven’t been doing this long…but these were some things I wish someone had told me…

  11. Thanks for the info. I’m 86 and have been recording since I was 15 with my first Wilcox-Gay disc recorder. Next came a Webcor WIRE recorder recording on a spool of fine piano wire magnetically (anyone remember those?) then the first tape which was oxide coated PAPER which would tear easily and fiinally mylar and reel-to-reel) I can do 4 speeds. In 1954 I bought a iprofessional disc lathe and recorded the Buffazo Philharmoic with the 250 voice Buffalo Schola doing THE HOLY CITY by Vaughn Williams and he came fom England for the first American performance at age 83. I taped it with an Ampex 600 and sold many acetae disc I cut with my lathe.
    Then of course there were LPs and 8-tracks and cassettes and finally CDs and DVDs. I do a good business converting ALL forms of audio, including Edison cylinders and Diamond Discs to CDs and 8mm and 16mm to DVD’s which is the reason for my e-mail address. Recently I converted a wire recordeing of an old lecture by a college professor wo said he had tried all over the country to get a transfer. I doubt if there are many wire recorders still operating. I am sure I wilol be ordering soje of your blank iscs in the future.
    Thanks again for interest.

    Kirke
    2311 W 16th Ave #227
    Spokane WA 99224

  12. I enjoyed this article and am looking forward to part 2. I do live recording for DC rocker Margot MacDonald
    ( http://youtube.com/MargotMacDonald ) We use audio recordings mostly as soundtracks for her live concert video. The best advice I can add to that in the article is to practice every chance you get. The tendency with artists is to only think of high-quality recording when an important gig is coming up. In my opinion, that’s a bit too late to start to iron out all the kinks. A better strategy is to treat your recording gear the same way you do things like drum kits and guitar stands—just set everything up every time you play and turn it on. The experience you get recording all those lesser gigs will show itself in the one special gig you really want to get right.

    In terms of cables, plan for the most general case. Yes, you can call the venue ahead of time, but you’re likely to record in lots of different venues. I’ve found that most sound guys offer me either TRS female or XLR male to plug my cables into. How do I handle both? TRS cables with XLR adapters. I’ve also assembled a toolbox of attenuators, hum filters and a smaller mixer that allow me to adapt to whatever I find on the board. It’s nice to have some way forward no matter what issues you run into.

    The biggest single issue is recording levels. I’ve found that most shows tend to get more intense as the evening progresses; so, if your levels are fairly hot when the show starts, they’re very apt to be clipping before it finishes. Record with as much quality/resolution as possible and keep levels conservative.

    As for tip 8, “bring a backup recording system,” I couldn’t agree more. Not only will it save your butt in the event of a failure, even in the case where nothing fails, an alternative recording might actually end up sounding closer to what you wanted than the main one. I’m often surprised in that regard.

    Good luck!

    Den

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