Bring 'Em Back Alive

Bring ‘em Back Alive reveals tips and techniques from recording professionals on the best strategies for making live recordings of bands or solo artists, either onstage or in the studio.
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Recording live bands has changed a lot since 2-track tape recorders first allowed overdubbing, but in many ways, the song remains the same. Instruments must be miked appropriately or recorded direct to achieve optimum results. Recording engineers must isolate drums and other acoustic sources, without inhibiting communication between musicians, to prevent sounds from spilling into other performers' mics. Vocalists require balanced mixes in their headphones or stage monitors to stay on pitch and to benefit from the energy generated by singing live with the band.

This article presents several tips for recording a band during a club or concert performance and live in a studio environment. Although a full discussion of tasks such as selecting mics and setting up consoles for live recording is beyond the scope of this article, many such techniques have been explored in past issues of EM (available online at; see the sidebar “For Further Reading”). Some of the processes I will discuss are familiar to studio veterans, but quite a few new tools — including low-cost, high-quality microphones, mixers, and digital interfaces — have improved these techniques.

In whatever location engineers record live bands, they strive to get a good sound from several performers at the same time. In the studio, bands are most comfortable performing exactly as they usually do in their rehearsal space or on gigs. A surprising number of singers, even experienced professionals, feel that their performance suffers without the presence of live players. If a band's performance takes place in a live venue, the recording engineer faces additional challenges that range from mixing the audience into the captured audio to ensuring that the recording setup doesn't interfere with the sound-reinforcement setup.

In the Trenches

For this article, I spoke with three engineers who have extensive live recording experience. Stewart Lerman ( has recorded a multitude of ensembles, including the Irish rockers Black 47 and New York singing-songwriting legends the Roches, who have recorded all their albums live since 1978. Lerman also recorded the big-band soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's film The Aviator.

I also talked with producer-engineer Arty Skye (, who has helmed recordings by musicians as diverse as James Taylor, Tito Puente, and Pink at his own facility, Skyelab, and other New York studios. In addition, I spoke with Dave Darlington (; see Fig. 1), who recently recorded small groups on albums by Joan Osborne and jazz legend Wayne Shorter (Darlington picked up a Grammy Award for the latter album), as well as several orchestral projects. A classically trained upright and electric bass player, Darlington was the composer and audio producer for the HBO TV series Oz.

On Your Mark

All of the recordists I consulted agreed on a principle that can be boiled down to four words: garbage in, garbage out. “The best thing a band can do for their recording is to be thoroughly rehearsed and prepared before a studio session,” Darlington says. “Taking care of details beforehand will not only save time and money during tracking, but also make the mixing process much smoother. And obviously, it will make a live performance better.”

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FIG. 1: Grammy Award winner Dave Darlington, whose credits include mixing sessions for artists such as Herbie Hancock and Madonna, warns, “Less experienced musicians sometimes don''t realize that noise levels that are acceptable onstage can be fatal flaws in a studio.”

A band that gigs regularly should have its sound together before going into a studio. According to Darlington, “Good preparation means that every player has made sure his instrument — especially a guitar amp, drum pedal, or anything with moving parts — is properly maintained and free of extraneous noise before attempting a session with microphones.”

Preparation involves rehearsal, of course. But many bands forget organizational tasks that can come back to haunt them when the studio clock is running. For example, if you're recording a band that relies on improvised solos, it's best to determine song lengths ahead of time, and every band member should be clear on the form and order of sections within the song. If songs have open-ended solos, each member should be clear on cues that will bring players out of a solo.

Although digital editing makes it easier to fix mistakes within a song simply by mixing in portions from another take, editing still takes time away from performance and mixing. With good planning, a well-rehearsed band can cut down on the amount of editing later in the process.

Bandleaders or producers should take care that all supplies are on hand for emergencies. Nothing ruins a session like a broken string or drumstick if someone forgot the spares. If the session involves previously recorded material that will require a sequencer or sampler, discs should be clearly labeled to indicate the location or content of a needed file.

Ultimately, recording quality depends on the musicians' sound and playing technique. Although creative engineering can bring out the best in a vocal or instrumental track and perform sonic tricks in the mix, there's no substitute for a tight band that plays together with the right equipment and a carefully crafted sound.

Get Set

The person in charge of recording also has plenty to do before the Record light goes on. Whenever possible, the engineer should check out the band beforehand to get a sense of what will be needed in the studio or at the band's next performance. Common tools to control sound in a studio, such as acoustic panels, baffles, and pop screens, may not be available or desirable for live performance (see Fig. 2). Mics used onstage are likely to be different from those used in the studio, especially if the band plays loudly.

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FIG. 2: Acoustic panels and pop screens are essential tools in studios that record bands live. A recordist capturing a live band onstage may have little control over the acoustic environment, but he or she can use windscreens to control plosives on vocal mics.

Onstage, “Black 47 uses a combination of drum machine, rocking guitars, uilleann pipes, and a horn section,” says Lerman. “There are a lot of open mics around, so I might use a [cardioid dynamic] mic like a [Shure] Beta 57 or hypercardioid-pattern mics to cut down on bleed. But in the studio, I use ribbons and condensers set to figure-8.”

The band's makeup will dictate the arrangement of players in the studio. If you're recording a band with two amplified guitar players, for example, those players will require more isolation than if you're recording a band with one guitarist and a keyboard player. You can usually plug keyboards direct into the recording system (most often through a mixer) and route them back to the players' headphones, avoiding the signal bleed that must be controlled with multiple guitar amps. Electric bass is often recorded direct as well, without miking the player's amp.

The more musicians whose instruments require mics, the more care must be taken to position the players in the studio. However, eliminating all bleed into nearby microphones is an unattainable goal. “In a project studio, unless you put a wall up between people, you'll never get rid of spillover,” says Lerman. “For me it's a performance issue, not a technical issue. The best thing is to rehearse the band fully, so you don't have to worry about bleed.”

Go Solo

Common sense suggests that the complications of recording a live band are significantly reduced if the artist is a soloist, such as a singer-songwriter. In the studio, that may be true on a technical level, but the more intimate nature of most solo performers' music means the recording will be more vulnerable to quieter noises from a squeaky chair, a bumped mic stand, or fingers on guitar frets, as well as other extraneous sounds that might otherwise be masked by a band's volume. Darlington recommends walking all around the room and listening for subtle, unwanted sounds while the artist runs through the material to be recorded. “That allows me to check that the overall room sound is as good as it can be, even before selecting the mics I'm going to use. It also lets the singer get properly warmed up, so that the first take is likely to be usable, instead of wasting recording time when the vocalist isn't really ready to sing.”

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FIG. 3: Portable isolation panels known as gobos can help control reflections on stages and in rooms that don''t have isolation booths. When drums threaten to overpower other players, acrylic plastic panels can help solve problems with spillover.

An inexperienced solo performer will be in much better shape to begin recording after this warm-up period. The performer must be comfortable with the positioning of mics, and they shouldn't be placed in a way that will interfere with the performance. Although it's easiest for the recordist if a guitar stays in a fixed position relative to its microphone, a singer-guitarist may deliver the best performance while standing and moving unpredictably. It's the engineer's job to capture a good performance, not to make the performer conform to what's best from an engineering standpoint.

When a soloist performs onstage, the challenges of a live venue can become more problematical than the ones facing a larger ensemble. With quieter music, the room sound and the audience's behavior may become more critical to the recording. In a club, stereo or wide-pattern mics can pick up sounds coming from the bar or kitchen. You might have to dampen a squeaky or boomy stage floor with carpet. Feedback from acoustic guitars is harder to control onstage, yet many engineers prefer a miked acoustic to even the best sound-hole pickups or piezo transducers. Occasionally, the artist's own instrument is not up to par, and someone might need to round up a substitute for the recording. As with a larger band, the key to handling such challenges is preparation. There's no substitute for a thorough familiarity with the artist, the instruments, the material, and the recording space.

Los Gobos

When recording an ensemble, although you can completely isolate the instruments by using overdubs or sampled sounds to build an arrangement, “the goal with a live band is to capture the performance as it sounds in the room,” says Skye. “A certain amount of bleed — for example, a little hi-hat on the snare drum track — is normal.” Only when a major mistake or series of mistakes by one player causes continual retakes by the entire band does bleed become a major problem, and then only if the engineer hasn't separated the instruments properly. An overdub can often mask the bleed from the original take.

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FIG. 4: A circular setup is an effective way for groups to perform and record live in ?relatively small studios. With the musicians facing one another and all the mics pointing outward, band members can communicate easily and the likelihood of significant bleed will be minimized.

Often the most difficult instrument to control in a small studio is a drum set, because of the volume and the number of exposed mics needed to capture the kit's full sound. Carefully placed baffles and gobos (mobile acoustic panels) can help control bleed to mics on the kick, snare, and hi-hat (see Fig. 3). In a tight space, drum overheads can double as room mics to capture the overall ambience as well as the sizzle of the set's upper frequencies.

Another way to control bleed (and enhance communication between musicians) is to set up the band in a circular arrangement (see Fig. 4). Most mics will be directed toward the circle's perimeter, reducing their sensitivity to all but their assigned sound sources. If mics such as drum overheads are exposed, or if they have broad pickup patterns, a high-quality noise gate can help to minimize spillage. As a last resort, for recorded passages when the main instrument isn't playing, you can digitally edit out audible sounds from other instruments.

Of course, if you're recording the band at a club, you'll be at the mercy of the environment. You probably won't be able to use absorbing panels around the drums, but as Darlington points out, the popular Plexiglas or acrylic shields that drummers use are a big help in isolating other instruments from drum mics and drums from other instruments' mics. “The shields are more reflective than an acoustic panel in a studio,” he says, “but they mostly surround the kick, snare, and hi-hat, which are close-miked anyway. It's not usually a problem if overhead mics pick up stage sounds. Sometimes it adds to the excitement of the recorded performance.”

Vocal Ease

Usually the most critical assignment is recording live lead vocals. As Lerman notes, cutting vocals live doesn't have to be a tedious series of full-band retakes. “You wouldn't want to put a female singer by a drummer's cymbals, but it's not so bad if you put a singer by an acoustic piano, because the spillover won't be as loud or as likely to produce unwanted [sounds]. With a rock band, you want to point the singer's mic away from the band” to avoid instrumental sounds bleeding into the vocal mic.

In many live situations, vocalists will be using handheld dynamic mics and won't want to lug a large-diaphragm condenser around the stage. Handheld condenser mics may lend a subtle richness to certain vocalists onstage, and standard studio condensers may work perfectly well for mellower bands and performances. Many engineers have no problem with standard high-quality dynamic mics like the Shure SM58, especially on rock gigs, because the somewhat contained sound usually works pretty well on hot vocal sources.

For some live recordings, a standard procedure is to record the band first and later overdub the vocals. You can record a temporary scratch track during an early take to serve as a guide vocal for the other musicians to accompany if there are subsequent takes. When you've finished recording the instrument tracks, the vocalist can focus on singing while the other musicians wait for the next song.

Chaos in Control

Accurately controlling the dynamic range of live performers, whether metal or mellow, often requires using compression on drums, vocals, and bass. Recording in a club or other performance space without at least minimal compression may make it harder to control levels and makes it essential that the band has full command of its own balance onstage.

For individual instruments, most engineers agree that in the studio, a high-quality mic preamp or channel strip can work wonders. A single mono or stereo unit won't help much on, say, a multiple-mic setup for drums, but it can sure help a focused track like a lead vocal shine.

As a band grows louder during the course of a performance, carefully monitoring individual instrument tracks becomes more important. In a best-case scenario, the recordist has separate feeds from each instrument mic to a multitrack recorder, which allows controlling levels independently of the band's soundperson or front-of-house (FOH) mixer.

Nonetheless, taking a board feed from the FOH console is one of the simplest ways to record a live performance. When the house sound company has all the proper gear in place, that method is probably the most direct route to take. The recording engineer will lose the ability to construct a more controlled mix later on, however, and is stuck with whatever combination of music and ambience the live sound crew provides. Alternatively, an experienced engineer can also capture a band's sound with a simple stereo mic setup.

For the Record

In most cases, the traditional method of routing microphones and direct signals to a mixing console and assigning channels to a multitrack recorder is the most efficient strategy. But many engineers agree that the type of recorder you use is less critical than it once was. Because digital recording has leveled the playing field, live-music recordists are using all manner of machines, from stereo CD-R and DVD-R recorders to mobile Digidesign Pro Tools rigs, to capture live performances. The engineers I interviewed agreed that the choices a recordist makes with microphones and their placement, the use of mic preamps and audio interfaces, and the handling of room sound have a greater impact on the final product than the type of recording device you use.

Beyond specifications such as 24-bit resolution and selectable sampling rates, the recorder you use is either a matter of personal preference or already installed in the studio or venue where the band will be playing. As you're well aware, recording gear continues to shrink in size while expanding in power. Recordists can use a top-shelf laptop computer with a multitrack audio application or a well-configured personal digital studio to capture the same quality of sound that once required a truckload of multitrack analog recording gear. The most important consideration is how you handle the signals being recorded.

Dead or Alive

To fully capture and enhance the sound of a well-prepared live ensemble, you'll achieve the best results in a recording studio with an expertly treated room that's big enough to allow multiple setup and isolation options. A well-equipped studio should have a full range of mics, from dynamics to condensers to ribbons. With experience, you'll learn to select the best mic to place on each instrument and vocalist. And everyone in the room will know exactly what it means to avoid garbage in, garbage out.

Rusty Cutchin is a former associate editor of EM and a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area.


Making Tracks: Good Audio Housekeeping, March 2005 issue of EM

Ribbon Mic Summit, August 2006 issue of EM

Successful Techniques for Recording Vocals