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Live Recording Do’s & Don’t

How to capture that live performance... every time!

By

16 December 2013

Recording a live gig is a great excuse for studio folk to get out of the control room, breathe some fresh air, and mingle with the other side of the audio production team. It combines the fundamentals of studio recording with the rush of a live gig. There are no second takes here!

High quality live recordings are commonly broadcast on the radio, streamed online, and released on CD and DVD; whatever the final destination might be for your recording, the goal should be to capture the event as completely, and as clearly as possible. For me, this generally means going beyond a stereo desk-tape.

The first thing you will need is access to all of the channels being used on the stage.

SHARING CHANNELS

Deciding how you will share channels with the live sound crew usually depends on the make and model of the mixing consoles, so obtaining this information should always be your first port of call when planning a live recording. Remember you are potentially creating more work for the live sound crew, so always be as polite and helpful as you can!

Often it will be necessary to use a combination of the following methods to get the channels you need, so keep a pile of different looms on hand!

DIRECT OUTPUTS

Utilising the Direct Outputs on the live console is a simple way to obtain the channels coming from the stage, but beware of a few disadvantages of this method that can make the recording difficult to mix, or even unusable!

Firstly, be aware that many consoles come with their Direct Outputs wired post-fader, which means you will record all of the fader moves, EQ, and inserts that the live engineer uses; certainly not ideal! Most consoles have the option to switch the Direct Outputs to pre-fader, but this often involves opening the console to change jumpers, and sometimes soldering is required.

Secondly, using the Direct Outputs means you are using the microphone preamp inside the live console. This means you will record the sound of that preamp, along with any gain adjustments and clipping!

USB / FIREWIRE

Numerous live consoles now boast the ability to connect to your computer and record signals directly into your DAW of choice. This is a fantastically simple way to obtain a multi-track recording with minimal equipment, however there are disadvantages (of course!).

Firstly, recording this way means you are using a computer, which I simply cannot recommend as the safest way to record in a live environment, especially if you are being paid to do so.

Secondly, this method can make it difficult to record ambient microphones. If there are no spare channels on the console, an additional audio interface may be required; if your software allows this. 

DOUBLE MIC’ING

There are a lot of advantages in using your own microphones and cables; independent gain control and no need for splitters. However, it is only practical to mic guitar amps, and possibly the kick and snare drum independently of the live system. Placing two microphones in front of a singer, or on every single drum, is not an option.

MICROPHONE SPLITTERS

Using transformer isolated microphone splitters provides you with complete control over the microphone signals, totally separate from the live console. This means that you can set your own recording gains, and use whichever preamps you desire.

The drawback of this method is that microphone splitters and preamps don’t grow on trees, nor do they carry themselves to
the venue.

THE DO'S & DON'T OF RECORDING A LIVE GIG

Do contact the live sound engineer prior to the gig. Aside from it being polite, you will need to know the model of their console to decide how you will share signals.

Do use ambient microphones. The crowd is part of the show too, put a mic on them! My favourite ambient microphone setup is to use a pair of shotguns, one either side of the stage facing towards the audience. Place them above head height, and aim slightly upwards so the audience is captured off axis. Using a shotgun in this way captures the sound of the audience as a whole, rather than hearing only the closest few people.

Do use a backup. The recorder crashing is not an option; so use two of them! Alternatively, an excellent backup is a four-channel recording of the stereo FOH mix along with a pair of ambient microphones. I also make duplicates of hard-drives after each day of recording; all for Justin.

Do use a power conditioner. I have lost a few racks of microphone preamps over the years, and every single time it has been while not using a conditioner. Maybe it has been co-incidence, but I don’t take the chance anymore.

Do keep a pile of different looms and sex-changers on hand. Also remember that some looms can be joined together if necessary; an XLRF-TRS plus an XLRM-TRS can join to make a TRS-TRS for example.

Do leave the recorder running in Record if you have to leave it unattended for some reason; recording nothing is far better than missing something!

Don’t use direct outputs from the monitor console if you can avoid it. Monitor engineers tend to mute channels that aren’t used in the monitors, which will usually mute the direct output. Monitor engineers also don’t care too much about the gain levels of channels not used on stage, such as overheads and toms. Direct outputs from FOH are a much safer option.

Don’t send phantom where it’s not welcome. With all of the interconnecting systems, it is important to be aware of where phantom should and shouldn’t be sent.

Don’t use Y-split cables. These cables work, but can cause grounding and phantom power issues. Use a transformer isolated split instead.

Don’t put hard drives full of your day’s work in the boot of your car. Call me paranoid, but I don’t want my time and effort wasted because someone rear-ends me at the lights! Treat these things like cash.

DON’T FORGET TO PUSH RECORD!!!

INPUTS

Now that we know the Outs of a live recording, let’s think about the Ins! Most commonly you will need a combination of TRS line inputs and XLR microphone inputs; having enough of these inputs will allow signals to be recorded from virtually any source.

There are a number of choices for the recording medium, with most falling into one of two categories; DAW or Hard Disk Recorder.

DAW

Using a computer to record a live concert is not my preferred method, but laptop performance and stability has improved to a point where they can be trusted to do the job, providing everything is set up correctly.

Always run a test recording on the system to ensure it can handle the number of tracks and the length of time you hope to record for (studio guys might not be used to recording for an hour straight!).

HARD DISK RECORDER

Hard disk recorders are, in general, a very stable and reliable recording medium. They give me confidence that a computer has yet to deserve. The only downfall of the humble Hard Disk Recorder is their bulky size, but even this is changing with modern systems like the JoeCo BlackBox, and the brand new Allen & Heath ICE-16, both of which are 1U systems weighing less than 3kg.

TIP

Data management may not be a huge issue if you are recording a one-off show, but when recording festivals it can become a big headache. A 24-channel recording at 24-bit/48k will get to 10GB in around 50 minutes, which doesn’t sound like much until you are recording on six separate stages simultaneously for three days straight! Always know how much space you will need, and if you are recording with a DAW, never fill the drive more than 80% otherwise you are likely to get fragmentation errors.

TIP

An exciting live recording technique is to mix the recording on the fly, recording directly to stereo. This requires a mixing console, decent monitoring, a multicore, a two-track recorder, a quiet space near the stage, and a lot of skill. This method can be a whole lot of fun, and is an extremely efficient way of producing a (hopefully) great sounding live recording, but it only gives you one shot at getting the mix right! An extensive soundcheck is the key here.

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