While editing Riley Wilson’s latest Solo Gigger blog on recording gig–less as a way to promote yourself and more as a way to improve your act–I started to insert a bunch of examples of hardware and software tools and then stopped, realizing that this really called for its own, stand-alone post. So, here ya go…
Recording gigs is a great way to get a real idea of how a show went. Let’s be real, in the heat of battle, it’s all but impossible to objectively gauge how things are going. An enthusiastic audience can make you think that a mediocre performance is world-class. (It happens. Especially in a bar/drinking environment. They may be hootin’ and hollerin’ because they are celebrating a birthday or someone’s pending nuptials or because their team won that night or just because they have been, you know, drinking.) Conversely, an empty room through no fault of the performer–it’s Sunday night in a place that caters to weekend tourist, maybe?–can make the best performance feel like it part of a bad elementary school talent show.
If you’ve never done this before then it can be a bit of a shock watching or listening to yourself in a recording that was not done in the controlled confines of a studio. But it is the #1 way to make yourself better at what you do. Even above rehearsal and practice. You can’t know what you need to practice to get to where you want to go if you don’t have some concrete idea of where you are right now.
So let’s get started. There are basically two ways to approach audio and video recording of live gigs: Using dedicated gear and using apps or software that are part of what you are carrying and using already. We’ll start with some dedicated gear.
HANDHELD RECORDERS: AUDIO
You can get a cheap “voice” recorder for next to nothing and find them virtually anywhere. I have seen no-name models in the 20-buck range at my local Walgreens. But it is important to find one that is made for music recording. The issue is not features or even the basic process of converting analog audio input into digital bits and bytes. (Although purpose built music recorders tend to use higher quality ADA convertors.) The issue is the mics. You need something with a quality mic that will take high volume levels without distorting or the unit has to offer the ability to control the overall input level or have auto level control. Here are three in the cheap, mid-priced and the “I have a great day gig and can spend whatever I want to” ranges
3. Line 6 Backtrack.
This one is actually not currently being made but you can pick up a new-in-box one on eBay for about $35. I still have and use one. The great thing about the Backtrack is the total ease of use which stems from the fact that it is purpose built and designed for use on a gig or in a rehearsal. If you’re a guitar or bass player, you can put it on your strap for super easy access.
Recording is as simple as pressing a single button and you can use the good-but-not-great built-in condenser mic or if your just worried about your own instrument, there is a looped, 1/4″ input and output. A big button on the side starts recording or playing depending on if the on-off switch is in the On position or the Play Only position.
There are two other switches that help set the BackTrack apart. A small one on the side is labeled Play Marked or All. In Play mode (and yes, there’s a headphone out so this is a totally self-contained unit if you want it to be) this allows you to play everything recorded to the unit one after the other or you can use it to playback one recording in a loop.
And speaking of Marked. There is a big button on the front of the unit called Mark. What this basically does is splits the digital file at the point in time where the button is pushed. What this can do is give you, at the end of a gig or rehearsal, a bunch of individual files for each song which is a huge timesaver on the backend. I have spent so much time splitting one file–or group of files if we are multi-tracking–into individual song files to be used for various purposes after the gig that it’s just depressing to think about.
Like I said earlier, you can use it stand-alone for playback by just plugging in headphones. Or, you can connect it to a computer–Mac or PC–via a mini USB port. You also use that port to recharge the internal battery. When connected, the computer will see the BackTrack as an external drive and the audio files can be copied or imported. The files are 24-bit 48KHz WAV files. So, higher quality than a CD for anyone who remembers those.
This recorder adds a ton of features and a pretty hefty increase in the price. Used ones go for a bit under two bills and a new one is closer to $300. You get a lot for the extra dough. Stereo operation. Four mics that are selectable in pairs for either a cardioid pickup pattern like a typical vocal mic or an omni pattern that picks up evenly from all directions.
You can also choose between options for bit depth and sampling rate so you can choose between optimizing for quality or for smaller file size. You get line inputs as either XLR or a stereo mini-jack. Recording is to an SD card which makes capacity literally limitless
3. Sony PCMD100
The gold standard of handheld digital recorders. And your gonna pay for it. About $750. The built-in mics are the best you’ll find on a handheld unit and the swivel into X-Y or wide stereo configurations. You get a bunch of accessories like a soft case and wind screen for the mics and a wireless remote. And the recordings are extremely high resolution. You also get 32GB of internal flash memory for recording to as well as the SD slot. If the Tascam DR-100 is a Lexus, then the Sony is a Bentley or a Maserati. Either one will get you where you want to go but one does it in a bit more style. And you pay a hefty premium for that style.
As the video camera built in to the average smartphone has become of higher quality than dedicated camcorders of just a few years ago, the bottom has fallen out of that market. But there is one company that continues to do pretty well selling portable video recorders while bigger name camera companies have pretty much abandoned the market. And they do well because the focus is on video with really outstanding audio. If you see a musician shooting video on a gig and it is not with their phone, then take a look and you will almost certainly see the name Zoom on the recorder. Again, three choices from cheap to pricey.
Form factor of a typical video camcorder but the emphasis is on audio which records at 24-bit/96KHz. Video is at 1080p (which is as good as most smartphones but not the 4K that some of the highest end ones record) and the frame rate is 30 frames per second. Good for viewing on a computer screen but high-motion stuff may feel a little jerky on a large hi-def TV. You get either auto or manual level control and a switchable low-cut filter. Under $200 new
Looks pretty much just like the Q4 but adds some neat extras. Video resolution increases to 2034 x 1296 and the frame rate goes up to 60fps for way smoother motion. It also supports five different video modes including 3M HD which will make uploads to YouTube much faster as it does not require extensive processing after upload.
But the big stuff is, again, audio. The mic capsule with a pair of condensers in an XY configuration is removable and can be interchanged with one of five different configuration option including a shotgun mic for capturing quieter sounds like speech from greater distances. And, there are two line level inputs on combo XLR-1/4″ connectors and the Q8 will record FOUR track of audio at once. In fact, you can use it as a 4-track audio recorder with no video.
Under $400 new.
The specs are actually a little lower than the Q8 in terms of video resolution but the physical format is something you can carry in a front jeans pocket. 1080p at 30fps and 720p at 60fps. But the same 24/96 audio. Line inputs but on 1/8″ mini jacks rather than an XLR-1/4″ And it only supports SD cards up to 64GB where the camcorder formats support 128GB cards. But users report they still get about 2 hours of video at 24/96 audio on a card of that size.
But you pay for the convenience of the smaller format. THe price is more than double that of the Q8 and triple a Q4. About $950 new.
So if smartphones are such great recording devices, why does so much band footage shot with them look and sound like crap? It can be a million things but generally lower frame rates don’t help and the hard truth is that the mics in even the most expensive smartphones are… Well, they have gotten a bit better over the past few years but they are still just not made for high volume situations or audio content with a lot of low-end. But there are a few add ons that can make an enormous difference. (Because the Rev. is an iOS guy this is all iPhone stuff. You Android folks will have to do your own research…)
The best 99 cents you’ll ever spend for your phone. Made by the good folks at McDSP who produce some of the most highly-regarded audio plug0ins for high end systems out there, Retro Recorder marries a cool cassette deck retro vibe to some rocket science audio processing to vastly improve the audio capabilities of an iPhone. You are still limited by the mics but we’ll get to that…
Probably my favorite piece of new gear from last year’s NAMM show. The MV88 is tiny. I carry one everywhere I go in the courier bag that holds my life for gigs. It plugs right into the Lightning/charging port of an iPhone and sport high-quality matched cardioid and bi-directional element in a mid-side architecture. All of that means that the stereo imaging is phase-correct and exceptionally clean. It swivels so it can be used with the the iPhone in various different positions and the app (that’s the only drag is that when you break it out of the box, you still need to download the app from the App Store) gives you five DSP modes for different types of recording ranging from speech to music plus you can adjust everything from input gain to stereo width to wind reduction plus five bands of EQ and compression/limiting. If you’re using it with a video app, it will make many of those adjustments automatically.