We’ve got advice from an experienced audio engineer about how to prepare, record, and produce a great album from a live music recording.
Countless musical acts from Kiss to Joni Mitchell, Bill Evans to Beyoncé, have released great live albums of their work — and whether you’re an acoustic singer songwriter or an apocalyptic, cello-heavy metal band, producing an album of a live music recording is well worth considering for your own musical career.
While a live album can be a great opportunity to show your fan base a fresh and exciting side of your music, it can also be a risky endeavor. When you only have one chance to get things right, how do you translate the power and beauty of your live show into ones and zeros — in a way that will delight fans and not blow up in your face?
Aaron Percy is a Virginia-based audio engineer and recording instructor who has been tracking live concerts for over a decade. Here’s some of his hard-won wisdom on the topic.
Decide between DIY and outsourcing
You’ve got GarageBand or Pro Tools on your computer, a few decent microphones and preamps at your disposal, and a working knowledge of mic placement and compression. Does it make sense to engineer your live album yourself, or bring in a dedicated audio engineer to help you?
“What I tell my recording students is that, if it sounds the way you want it to sound, it’s right,” says Percy. “Let’s say you have a Shure SM-58 microphone and GarageBand on your laptop. If those tools are going to get the picture that you’re trying to take of your sound, then those are the right tools. If you want something more than what those tools and your level of knowledge can provide, then it’s time to go for an audio professional.”
Also, keep in mind that, if you are an artist or band member recording a live album, it may well be worth the investment in an experienced sound engineer for the simple reason that you don’t have to worry about recording and can focus purely on delivering a concert that you’ll be proud to listen back to for years to come.
Hire the right engineer
If you decide to work with a recording engineer, put on your casting agent hat and choose the right person for the project.
“Pick someone you’re comfortable with on a personal level,” advises Percy, “and choose someone who has done this type of work before, someone who knows something about the music you’re working on. Don’t hire a guy who only records rock shows to track your string quartet and vice versa. Pick the engineer who’s familiar with your style of music, is interested in all of the preparation, and has your best interest in mind.”
Often, venues will have a resident audio engineer who can help with a recording. Sometimes this is a good idea, Percy says, and sometimes it isn’t.
“While the house engineer might be familiar with the room and equipment on site, which is always good, you still need to check him or her out. There’s a coffee shop and music venue that I’ve recorded at nearby where the house engineer is an exceptional barista. He also knows what an XLR cable is, so now he’s also the house engineer, but he’s a coffee guy first and a fader pusher second. In other words, just because someone is a ‘house engineer’ doesn’t mean that he or she can necessarily handle the responsibility of managing a quality multi-track recording.”
Even if there is a house engineer, and you decide to hire someone outside, make sure that both engineers are on the same page. “It’s important that you put your engineer and the house engineer on good terms,” Percy says. “Don’t be afraid to take care of both of them. Make sure that they both have their questions answered and are comfortable with everything that’s going to happen. For a lot of live concerts, the person responsible for live sound at the venue is not the same person recording the show, and those two people always need to be chummy and in communication with each other.”
Especially if you’re hiring an outside engineer to help with your live album recording, plan as far ahead as possible. “There are a million questions that I, as the engineer, will have,” says Percy. “I’ll want to come see the room, for one, and I’ll also want to listen to your previous work, watch your videos, and get a good sense of what it is you’re going for. That’s a big thing for me, and it helps me figure out what equipment to bring and how best to record your show.”
Speaking of equipment, plenty of notice and forethought will help insure that the right mics, preamps, and cables end up in the right places to help you get the best sound possible. “Especially in live sessions, I can’t bring everything I own, everywhere, all the time,” Percy says. “It’s just too much stuff. Working with me ahead of time to answer some very specific questions can help me bring what’s needed.”
Knowing details like how many toms will be on the drum kit, what kind of amps the guitarists will be using, where the audience and players will all be positioned, what the size and make of the piano are, and whether there’s a hole in the kick drum will all help. This advice also applies to hard drive space — plotting out your set list, and knowing if you’re going to want to pre-record any of your soundcheck or rehearsal day of, will help your engineer make sure that adequate storage is on-site and ready to go.
Plan to capture as much as possible
“I always record everything, everywhere, all the time,” says Percy. “Just because the bass guitar goes into the bass amp doesn’t mean that I just record the amp. I also record a DI track from the bass itself.”
Percy also brings room and overhead mics, and makes a point of throwing an additional mic on anything that could make music. “It’s important to consider every single sound source and make sure that you’re recording all of them in all of their different fashions,” he says. “Whether it’s miking a guitar both DI and through the amp or putting on two different snare mics, the goal is to leave as many options for editing and mixing as possible. I want every source to be usable, and I want each one to be as clean and dry as possible.”
Make sure the recording rig can go the distance
Testing your gear ahead of time is more than plugging things in, hitting record, and hearing yourself say “one, two, three” on playback. In fact, Percy puts his entire system through a serious road test before recording for live albums.
“Live recordings are basically one very long record path and not every piece of equipment can go that long. Not every piece of recording software likes to run for two hours and make really large audio files and not every hard drive has room. Not every computer is happy streaming all of that data to and from disc.”
Before one recent live recording, Percy set up his entire system and let it record for four hours prior to the concert, just to be safe. “I’d used all of my gear before, but I needed to make sure that, in this room and in this combination, it wasn’t going to crap out,” he says.
Get your storage in order
The best live recording in the world won’t become a great album if your data isn’t safely stored and backed up, so pay attention to the hard drives that you use.
“I have a tested and tried hard drive made by Glyph that’s designed for production-level stream writing,” says Percy. “It works well for recording and is mounted in a nice case with a fan to keep it cool and happy.” Glyph isn’t the only company to make production level external hard drives; this article from Tuts+ gives some information on finding the right drive for your project.
Whether you’re recording to a computer’s internal hard drive or a high-quality external drive, make sure that you back up your data early and often. Breaks between sets, for example, give the perfect opportunity to get a backup going.
Play to your strengths
For Percy, the goal of a live album is simple: to capture your band or act as you usually are, live in concert. To that end, throwing in elements of potential musical chaos should be done with caution.
“Basically, don’t do anything that’s going to put you outside your comfort zone,” Percy says. “Don’t say that, just because it’s a live recording, we’re going to bring in a bunch of string players, even though we’ve never played with strings before. Don’t do anything that will throw you off of what you normally do.”
Percy has seen this happen all too many times, once with an extra percussionist stepping into a live album recording and stepping awkwardly on the rest of the band’s solos. “If you do anything like that to disrupt your normal flow, it can throw off the mojo of the whole performance,” he says.
All of that said, live album recordings don’t have to be conservative, and taking creative risks can add a great level of energy to a performance — but, if you do decide to add that electric lute player to your live set, make sure that the music is as thought-out, charted, and rehearsed as possible before the audience enters and the red light goes on.
Don’t let recoding compromise your performance
It can be easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of recording a live concert and forget that the core of any great live album is a great performance.
“As a musician, make sure that the presence of the recording and the engineer isn’t going to throw you off,” says Percy. “Engineers may be more concerned with getting great sound than with the aesthetics of the stage and how things look and feel to the performers and the audience. So make sure to protect your space — respectfully.”
In practical terms, that means that, if the engineer wants to put a huge microphone directly in front of you to capture a penny flute, for example, and you find that uncomfortable, work with him or her on an alternative. “If you’re a drummer, don’t let the recording engineer convince you to move your snare drum down three inches to help with miking,” Percy says. “Don’t agree to something that’s going to change your environment in a disruptive way and give you something to think about other than playing great music.”
Get your sound right in the room first
When it comes to recording live albums, “fixing it in the mix” can get infinitely more complicated, so make sure that what the microphones pick up is as close to possible as what you want your listeners to eventually hear.
“With instrument tuning in particular, there really is no fixing it in the mix,” says Percy. “I’m not going to throw AutoTune or Melodyne on any of your instrumental tracks, for example, so make sure that anything like a guitar, bass, violin, or piano is carefully tuned ahead of time. It has to be right on the way in so it’s right on the way out.”
Percy advises that guitarists and players of other stringed instruments check on their tuning and adjust as necessary, even between songs. “It never hurts to check, and any noise from the tuning doesn’t have to make it onto the final album.”
Percy’s advice extends to drummers as well. “It has to sound good at the source when you’re recording a live album in order for it to sound good on the recording. If a certain tom doesn’t pitch bend in a way that you like live, it’s not going to do it on the recording either. So make sure that you and your band mates take the time to tweak and perfect your sound live, in the room, before the concert begins.”
Manage timing the day of
First rule of day-of scheduling: give your engineer access to the space as early as possible to set up. “There’s always something weird to deal with,” says Percy with a laugh, “and that extra time can be a huge help.”
Even though engineers are typically paid an hourly rate, try to build in as much flexibility as you can. “Among other things, I like to have time to get my live rig put together and tested, and then to make sure that the client is happy and comfortable and gets to hear a little bit before the show, just to make sure I’m headed in the right direction.”
Needless to say, things don’t always work out perfectly in this regard. “I’ve done recordings where the show is at 7:00, doors are at 6:30, and nobody can get into the room until 4:45, so that’s one-and-a-half hours from load in to downbeat,” says Percy.
“That’s another instance where, as an engineer, and also for my clients, preparation is key to everything. I need to be able to walk in, plug in, and turn on. The session is already in Pro Tools, the cables and snake are already labeled, and I already know where every mic is going. But then, after all of that preparation, I need to be ready to throw it out the window when I get there and something changes.”
Help your engineer help you
One of the biggest things you can do to help an engineer capture a great live album recording for you is to know what you’re doing, and what you’re not doing musically, says Percy. “That, and have your gear in working condition, be on time, and don’t arrive in any altered state,” he continues. “Be your professional self and be prepared to answer questions on the spot from the engineer.”
“Be as nice as you can to the engineer, because the engineer holds the reins as far as the recording is concerned,” Percy continues. “No engineer I know would ever intentionally do a bad job, but if everyone’s feeling good about the situation, everything is always going to go better.”
Image 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.
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