Capture live music for fun and profit with these basic strategies
Text and photos by Paul Vnuk Jr.
These days, camping out in a studio for weeks on end is just not the way most bands operate—bands want to be recorded during live performances, not so much with a traditional album in mind, but rather for broadcast, internet streaming, concert downloads, for bonus tracks on albums and more. I can almost guarantee that if you are an audio engineer or a performing musician, the subject of capturing a live performance will eventually come up.
Back in RECORDING’s September 2007 issue, I wrote in detail about the process of multitracking a band live and then crafting that into a live CD. I highlighted the pros and cons of recording multiple live performances, the expectations that the band and performer should and shouldn’t have, as well as tips for creating the final live album experience.
I now do live recording on almost a weekly basis, mostly for internet streaming, but also for many of the other reasons listed above… downloads, bonus tracks, as well as the occasional full album release. With that in mind, it’s time to update my advice for a modern audience!
The rights and the wrongs
The question should be put to everybody involved: “Why do you want to make a live recording?”
A good answer: “Our band has a power and presence live that doesn’t come across as well in the studio.”
A bad answer: “It should be cheaper and less time-consuming to just record us at a live gig than going into a proper studio and going through all that hassle, right?”
Here’s what you’re up against: In live performance, wrong notes are played, equipment can be unpredictable, rhythms may fluctuate, bleed will be unavoidable, the sound of the venue will impose itself into the mix, and even if a performer remembers the show as one of the greatest nights of their life, a great live experience will not always translate into a recording that warrants repeated listenings.
On the other hand, mistakes could be the result of bold chances taken, good performers feeding off of each other, their gear, the audience and the room, and occasionally a live experience that we feel may not have been good at all while it happened may surprise us on playback with magic moments that can never be duplicated.
Multitrack or board mix?
When deciding what kind of live recording to make, there are two initial choices, multitrack or stereo. The direct-to-stereo recording is often called a board tape. Of course most of us would jump right away to multitrack, and it is a wise choice when the goal is a professional live album (or live single) or full-scale concert video, especially where multichannel audio (surround) may be involved.
However, let me give you a warning: Multitracked concerts can mean biting off more than one can chew (or, rather, edit and mix). I have been a part of many festivals, small tours, and even single shows that were multitracked specifically with the idea of a full-scale release, only to find that in the end nobody had the time or motivation to wade through the material and then mix the performances down! It was simply too overwhelming, and many of those recordings sit in the can to this day. This is a problem that has plagued even famous artists, and there’s no way around it other than either having someone with a lot of motivation and time on his hands (and who the artists agree will do a good job!) do all the work, or paying a pro to do it.
It’s for this reason that bands choose to go with a simple stereo mix of the show, done in real time. This is especially true for the new trend of instant downloads, and bands who duplicate CDs or USB drives and sell them minutes after a performance has ended. The downside of the board tape is that it’s rare that what goes to “tape” sounds exactly like what the audience experiences.
The medium’s no longer a factor
Recording a concert in the 1970s and 1980s usually included a big mobile recording truck parked outside the venue, complete with tape machines, a high-end console, tie lines and more. Back when I started recording live bands in the mid-1990s, it was the Alesis ADAT, Mackie’s 1604 mixer, and cables and snakes by Hosa that made it much more feasible and affordable to track bands live on a local level.
Fast-forward through the age of computers and now we can track full-scale live projects to an off-the-shelf laptop or even an iPad. All it takes is a multichannel interface, and the market is overflowing with them from companies like Arturia, Focusrite, M-Audio, Mackie, MOTU, PreSonus, Roland, Yamaha, and more. The whole recording rig can fit into a backpack or duffle bag. If you worry about the unpredictability of computers and iPads in the recording chain, companies like Allen & Heath, Cymatic Audio, JoeCo, and TASCAM offer devices that simply capture audio like a virtual multitrack tape deck.
If you’re going the 2-track route, there are handheld devices on the market from Alesis, Marantz, Roland, Sony, TASCAM, Zoom, and many more, that record stereo high-definition audio to internal memory or SD cards and the like. Of course there is always the old-school CD recorder, which is actually the best idea if you plan on onsite CD duplication. Lastly, live digital consoles from Allen & Heath, Behringer, Yamaha and others often have a USB port to simply capture audio from the master bus to a stereo WAV file on a thumb drive or hard disk.
Live mix or just capture?
The next consideration is: How will you get the audio from the stage to your recording device or interface? If you are not the live-sound person, you will need to find out who is and what they are using. Is it an analog console, a digital console? What size and layout? Does it have inserts, direct channel outs, bus outs, or will you need to bring your own mixer and run it side-by-side with theirs?
If you are multitracking, your primary goal is capturing as many channels as possible with good clean levels and sound, preferably in a state that is pre-fader from the front-of-house console. If you are making a board mix, you will need to get a good clean stereo feed from the front-of-house console. What would be even better would be to get multiple channels of audio from the board that you could then mix down on the fly in real time with your own console. This is sometimes a good middle ground between a full multitrack recording where you’re primarily watching levels and monitoring, and a straight board mix where you’re at the mercy of the live-sound guy.
Getting the hookup
Thre are a few things to consider about connections and hookups. If you want direct outs from the main console, know what kind of direct outs it uses and be prepared with the proper cabling. The more you stay out of the house engineer’s way, the better. Not only should your signal chain be transparent and essentially invisible to him… you should be, too.
On large-format live boards, direct outs are usually XLR, but smaller budget mixers typically use 1/4″ balanced jacks for their direct outputs. Some even make use of 1/4″ TRS connections that combine the direct out and channel insert on one jack, a space-saving trick pioneered by Mackie many years ago. Know which you are using! Otherwise you could sonically affect or even mute channels on the main mixer by mistake, which would not endear you to Mr. Front Of House Engineer.
Digital consoles are now changing the game, as you may have the option of getting direct outputs routed through traditional ADAT and AES multi-pin ports. Even cooler, many companies are working with network protocols like AVB, Dante/RedNet, HiQnet, and more which use CAT5 Ethernet cable to send and receive audio. This effectively turns a digital mixer into a big multichannel sound card that streams any chosen channels right to your computer. Some smaller digital consoles like PreSonus’s StudioLive series or the Soundcraft Notepads use USB to accomplish the same task.
In my work I use a Dante-equipped Allen & Heath GLD-80 to send 32 channels out to my MacBook Pro over CAT5 cable. Thanks to Audinate’s Dante Virtual Sound Card software, the GLD-80 sees my computer’s Ethernet port as a full Dante expansion card in its own right!
Splitters, snakes and redundancy
Of course you may end up in a situation where you need to use your own setup, be it a physical mixer or a virtual one in your DAW, independently of the live PA system. Maybe you want to use better, studio-grade mics. Maybe you need separate control of the mix for broadcast or streaming purposes. Or, frankly, maybe you just don’t trust how the front-of-house guy mixes…!
In this case you may need to add mics alongside and in addition to those on stage. Or another option is to bring your own collection of splitter boxes like the Radial JS2, where one mic input splits to two outputs without loss of signal or, worse yet, grounding issues.
When using multiple mics alongside the live venue’s collection, be aware that often the venue’s placement will take precedence due to the sound of the room, feedback and bleed issues. In other words, you may have to make do without getting the sweet spot.
Board tape brainwork
Mixing a board tape during a gig doesn’t have to be painful guesswork if you follow a few basic tips. First, if you can, be somewhere else. In other words, if you have the cabling to have your mixer/interface in another room away if you have to mix using headphones.
This will help you get a more accurate mix, as mixing in a live venue, even with headphones, often leads to false impressions of low-end bass response as well as high-end sources like cymbals, both of which you may over- or under-mix. Also, in my experience, vocals always sound louder on tape than they do in the room.
If you must mix next to the front-of-house desk, try and use good professional-quality in-ear monitors. The isolation will help you deal somewhat with the sonic issues mentioned above. Be careful, however, that you do not confuse the bass you are feeling with the bass you are hearing!
Occasionally you may be the front-of-house live engineer and the 2-track recording engineer at the same time, and using the same mix for both. As you try to capture the best sound for both, it will be a tightrope walk and you will compromise elements for each from time to time; just do it and don’t worry overmuch about it while you’re doing it. Timidity is worse than fast decisiveness in such cases!
Lastly, always mix in a pair of room mics for ambience and audience noise, as this keeps your recording from sounding too sterile, and makes it sound like the live concert it actually is.
Mixing a multitrack
Perhaps the nicest thing about a board mix is that when the gig is over, you are done. But if you have captured multitrack audio, the real fun and creativity can happen after the show is over. Here are a few things to consider when mixing down a live concert from multitrack audio files.
First and foremost: Bleed happens. Get over it and use it to your advantage! You will hear reflections of the PA in the room, you will hear the cymbals in the vocal mic, the guitar amps in the floor-tom mic and so on. I find it’s best to let that bleed help dictate your panning and instrument placement. If you have your floor tom panned left, and the guitar cabinet that was next to it and bleeding is now panned right, it won’t sound natural at all. I actually find it handy to take photos of the gig as it is happening, so I can be reminded of where everyone was.
Second: Avoid excessive gating or chopping out audio in your DAW. Remember that a live mix is a blend of everything, and if the ride cymbals were bleeding into other mics and you make those mics cut in and out, it will be more unnatural and noticeable than the bleed was in the first place. Similarly, when eq’ing an instrument, don’t overdo it! If you make it sound too different from the way it sounded while bleeding into other mics, you could have created a problem.
Third: Be careful of heavy-handedly “fixing it in the mix”. While I am fine with studio trickery to save a flawed note or bad drum fill, again remember that when overdubbing new parts in the studio, you need to be aware of ghost notes or leakage of the original performance on other mics still may exist.
For this reason, when bands are recording a proper live album, I recommend recording at least three performances of the same set over a few nights in the same venue if possible, with the same setup. Hope that they’ll keep the tempos from night to night… They should even wear the same shirts every night, due to fabric-based reflections. (OK, I’m joking with that last part.)
But really, try and get the band to think of it as actors would while filming a movie where the same scene might be shot over multiple days. This consistency will allow you to mix and match takes between nights, which is much more natural-sounding and believable than a studio punch-in. Avoid sample replacement, abusive auto-tuning and grid quantization, as they can often become apparent for what are hopefully obvious reasons. Hey—it’s supposed to be live, remember?
My main rule when crafting a live mix is not to strive for a perfect studio-like representation of a song, but to craft an exciting snapshot of a performer’s live experience. Save the spark and soul and energy, and you won’t go far wrong.
There is a lot to think about when recording a band live, from gear to setups and more—it’s a complex beast. The good news is that it has become infinitely easier, thanks to gear quality going up and gear size and complexity going down. All of this allows you, the engineer, to focus on your creativity and craft and not the tools!
Good luck out there!