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REFERENCE DISC

May 1, 2005
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Given the many ways to exploit a good live recording, not recording your set is like flushing cash down the toilet. For example, a live recording can be turned into an album and sold at your gigs. Listening back to your live set is also an excellent way to pinpoint the parts of your set that need improvement, a sort of musical biofeedback tool. Of course, not every live set you record will be worth keeping, but if you don't come prepared to make the recording, there's no telling what you'll miss.

STEREO MIX VS. MULTITRACK

There are two ways to record your set: as a stereo mix direct out of the house mixer or as a multitrack recording. Recording the stereo mix is by far the simplest way to capture your live performance. However, individual instrument levels cannot be adjusted in the stereo mix. Although you can make global tone and level adjustments with a skillful mastering job, it's a case of “what you hear is what you get” when your set is recorded as a stereo mix. On the other hand, a multitrack recording, though a much more involved operation, will allow you to control the tone and level of each individual instrument through a studio mixing board after the fact. Consequently, you can achieve a much better-sounding mix from a live multitrack recording than you ever could from a live stereo recording.

Recording to a multitrack and a stereo mix simultaneously is ideal because it provides a backup should one of the systems fail. The stereo mix also serves as a quick reference mix that can be easily copied and passed out to band members for review, sidestepping the need to immediately jump into the studio to mix down the multitrack.

STEREO MIX

You can employ any good digital stereo recording device to record the stereo mix. A DAT recorder (such as the classic Panasonic SV-3700) or a stand-alone audio CD recorder (such as the HHB CDR-830) are both fine choices. Portability (such as that provided by the diminutive Sony PCM-M1 DAT recorder) is a big plus but not a requirement. When carrying your recorder from gig to gig, treat it with care because the recording mechanisms of these devices can be knocked out of alignment, causing the gear to malfunction (often resulting in digital errors in your recording). Stay away from MiniDisc if your goal is to make a high-fidelity audio CD. MiniDisc recorders employ a compression algorithm that does not store full-bandwidth audio, making MiniDisc audio inferior to the 16-bit, 44.1kHz audio of a standard audio CD. Also, make sure that your recording media is longer than the duration of your set. Because most bands play for less than 60 minutes, a 90-minute DAT tape or an 80-minute CD-R should provide plenty of extra time at both ends.

Most P.A. or house mixers have a dedicated tape out on RCA jacks, offering a consumer line-level (-10dBV) output of the mixer's main out. If your recording device has RCA jacks, the tape out is just the ticket. However, if you're using a device with only XLR connections, you should look for a professional line-level (+4dBu) output. Although the mixer's main out is likely of this type, it's probably being used to feed the club's sound system. If you have no other option but to use the tape out, then use a converter (such as the Rolls MB15 ProMatch) to change the consumer line-level signal to a professional line-level signal. Be prepared for whatever connections you encounter by packing plenty of adapters and carry cables that are long enough to stash your recorder in a safe corner, away from unsteady surfaces.

MULTITRACK RECORDING

You can also use a variety of multitrack recording devices to record your live show. This includes everything from an inexpensive, used Alesis “blackface” ADAT to a fully loaded, top-of-the-line Mackie HDR24/96. The multitrack recorder that's best for your band will have enough tracks to record every player without BREAKing the bank. If your band is small (such as a trio), an 8-track recorder will get the job done, but if your band is a symphony orchestra waiting to happen, a 24-track recorder will be more appropriate.

Not every house mixer will have the necessary connections to make a proper multitrack recording. Ideally, each channel of the mixing board should have a direct out that can be connected to your multi-track recorder on a channel-by-channel basis. On a mixer that does not have direct out jacks, there are usually buses available so you can submix the channels down to stereo stems (for example, a stereo drum mix, stereo background vocals and so on). Stereo stems won't give you as much control in the mix as individual tracks, but they're better than nothing.

As with a stereo recording device, all of the same commonsense rules apply to a multitrack recorder. Pack plenty of snakes with different ends (stay away from adapters when running multitrack cables to reduce the possibility of connector noise building up cumulatively across the tracks), and make sure that your cables are long enough to set up the multi-track in an out-of-the-way corner. Check that your multitrack tape is long enough to record the entire show or, if you're using a disk-based system, that there's plenty of hard-drive space available at the session's selected sample rate and bit depth.

Plenty of wonderful performers gig week after week without an album to their name. Generally, this is because recording a studio album requires ample amounts of cash and time — which always seem to be in short supply. Making a live recording is, without a doubt, the quickest way to producing a full-length album. Even if it's only for reference, learning to record your set is time well spent.

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