Ever thought about recording your band at a gig, and producing a live CD? It’s not too difficult, and can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. Doing it yourself may not provide the sonic polish of a professional recording. But if your CD conveys how you sound live, that’s often good enough.
In this article I’ll describe some equipment and techniques that let you create a live gig CD.
Live Recording Options
Here are several ways to record your band on location, from simple to complex:
– Record with a handheld digital recorder (Flash memory recorder)
– Record off the board
– Record the board and two room mics into a multitrack recorder
– Record off the board’s insert jacks into a multitrack recording system
– Using a PA mixer with a built-in USB or FireWire connection, record with multitrack software
– Split the mic signals with XLR Y-cables, and record into a multitrack recording system
Let’s look at the pro’s and con’s of each option.
Handheld digital recorder
This option is simple, cheap and fast. You mount a flash memory recorder on a mic stand about 10 feet in front of your band, set the recording level, and press Record (Click on the button labeled Figure 1 on the left).
This technique captures the sound of your band as heard in the audience. The recording will sound muddy and distant compared to a commercial CD because the recorder’s mics pick up a lot of room acoustics. You will be recording a combination of the live band instruments, the PA speakers, room reverb and audience noise.
You might try placing the recorder/mics on stage (on a stool or mic stand) and record the sound of the monitor speakers plus the band. Some bluegrass or old-time bands sing into one microphone, so mount the recorder/mics next to that mic.
Before you go to the gig, make sure the recorder has enough memory for the length of the gig (at least 2GB for a 2-hour 24-bit/44.1 kHz recording). For best sound quality, set the unit to record WAVE files if your recorder’s memory is big enough.
Do a trial recording during a sound check. If your band is loud, set the mic gain on the recorder to low. Otherwise set it high. Turn off the automatic level control and turn off any low-cut. Wearing some good headphones, listen to the playback and make sure you’re picking up the PA speakers so the vocals are loud enough. If not, move the recorder a little farther from the band (or closer to a PA speaker) and try again.
After the gig, you can plug a USB cable between the recorder and your computer. Drag the files to your computer’s hard drive for editing, EQ, and CD burning.
Recording off the board
You can try recording off the “tape out” jacks in your band’s PA mixer into a portable stereo recorder (Figure 2 button…). The recorded mix might suck, though. Here’s why: At the Front-Of-House position, the sound mixer hears a combination of the band’s instruments, the stage monitors, and the house speakers. The sound mixer tries to get a good mix of all these elements. That means the signal is mixed to augment the band’s on-stage instruments and vocals — not to sound good by itself. A recording made from the PA mixer is likely to sound too strong in the vocals and too weak in the bass. Also, it will sound dull and lifeless because the audience and room sound are not captured with this method.
Board mixes can sound good if there is little sound coming off the stage (as with an acoustic group), or the venue is large or outdoors. Note that the recorded stereo mix you get is whatever the PA operator set up at the gig — there’s no mixdown session to improve balances or add effects.
Recording the board and two room mics
You can improve a board recording by adding a stereo pair of good mics at FOH. This method is fairly simple, fast and cheap; and offers pretty good sound quality. Connect a mic pair to two mic inputs of a multitrack recorder. Connect the PA mixer’s tape outputs to two other inputs (Figure 3 Button). Mix the recording to stereo back home.
The FOH mics pick up the band as the audience hears it: lots of room acoustics, lots of bass, but rather muddy or distant. The PA mixer output sounds tight and clear, but typically is thin in the bass. Luckily, a mix of all four tracks can sound surprisingly good. Tracks 1 and 2 provide ambience and bass; tracks 3 and 4 provide definition and clarity.
You might hear an echo because the FOH mics pick up the band with a delay (caused by the sound travel time from stage to mics). To remove the echo, copy the tracks using recording software, and delay the board tracks by sliding them slightly to the right. Align the highest waveform peaks of the board tracks with those of the mic tracks.
In Part 2, we’ll take a look at the last 3 ways to record live…
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Recording engineer Bruce Bartlett is the author of Recording Music On Location and Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition. He’s also a microphone engineer at www.bartlettaudio.com.