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Sound Advice

Digital Recording In A Live Setting by Alec Watson

With a plethora of portable digital recording solutions at our disposal, some that you can tuck under your arm, I thought maybe I would pass along some findings and considerations. Let me also qualify these thoughts by saying that I have a wall full of shiny discs for studio recording; however, my experience with live recording is minimal. So let’s just say that these thoughts are slightly skewed towards the controlled environment. So, before you run out and buy a portable system to put out your live record, you might want to consider the following:

My first thought on hearing the tone coming back of tape: “Holy Crap! Not only do these microphones sound bad, but we have iffy cables and I can’t keep up with the sound guys’ re-patching. All I can hear through the drum mics is bleed from the monitors…” The list goes on and on. You would be amazed at what we accept sonically, in a live show, when the Front of House starts using compression to eek out more power from the billion-watt audio system and the lighting guy diverts power from the eastern seaboard (Ottawa to New York) to dazzle us with visual spectacle. No surprise, the recorded tones were small, there was more bleed than a TLC special on open-heart surgery and as much fidelity as the original mono version of the “Sound Blaster” audio card.

Maybe none of that is news to you. Maybe you are wondering why you have spent two minutes of your life reading this. Maybe you are also wondering: “Alec, where is the technical stuff?” For those that wonder, here you are:

Tech problem one: which of the many formats to use? For sheer no-nonsense reliability, you are going to be hard-pressed to beat the old stand-bys: the ADAT and DA-88. I am apparently the only person in the history of DA-88s that has had a tape completely eaten; yet, when the pressure is on, I would still go back to the archaic helical solution. When it comes to computer systems, and I do love them, they do fail. That once-a-week crash on a good solid system is going to be a ticking time bomb at a live venue. There are of course hard-disk solutions these days; I am waiting on time to prove these units worthy of capturing a “one-time only” event.

Tech problem two: how do I go about getting tone onto tape? My first choice here is a digital console. I was originally turned on to the Roland VM mixers by Lee Warren from Michelle Wright’s band. Though not a winner at retail, the Roland VMs are an outstanding choice for live recording. Much like the Mackie D8B, the console is a control surface for an outboard brain. Unlike the Mackie, however, all the patching goes into the brain unit, allowing you to leave the rack (brain) up on stage so you can patch directly to the analog to digital mic pres. From here you can take the control surface anywhere up to 200 feet away without loss of fidelity. Cool!

Tech problem three: What, if any, processing to use? For my money, live recording is the ultimate “fix it in the mix” proposition. There are enough different things going on in the first 10 minutes that any processing, such as compression or gating, is just bound to bite you in the ass later. With the abundance of fairly good, high signal-to-noise ratio mic preamps in modern gear, and the fantastic signal-to-noise ratio of the digital recording medium, it’s better to be safe when setting the levels. (Set ’em a bit low)
Important thought: just like a good live sound guy, as the songs start up, watch your meters in the order of importance. The lead instrument, whether vocal, guitar or piano, is the first level you need to assess when you see those dreaded red lights on the meter bridge.

Conversely, as things get under control, there is the overwhelming need to “optimize” low levels going to tape. Unless it is absolutely necessary, I would leave the levels low until the end of the song. You are going to have to mix this abomination sometime in the near future and level changes within a song are going to significantly compound the complexity of your task.
Quite simply, getting access to the recording gear and getting it to the venue is now, by far, the easiest part of the live recording. And for all you young bands out there contemplating big returns on a quick and easy recording, I guarantee that what you save on tracking time, you will more than make up for on overdubs and mixing when it comes to making a good live record.

Alec Watson has recently appointed himself the head of the “yodeling licensing bureau for pop musicians”. Any vocalist found breaking into head voice without a valid license will be fined. Find him online at alec@vinsynch.com.

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