Captured in Concert - EMusician

Captured in Concert

More and more people are bringing quality 2-track recording rigs to concerts to capture the shows for posterity (and subsequent trading). Many acts allow this practice because of the publicity it brings. This Electronic Musician column takes an inside look at the strategy, tactics, and gear used by “tapers.”
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What do Phish, Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Zwan, and many local bands have in common? They allow taping of their live performances for personal use and trading. Today, there is an active community of concert tapers who go to shows, record them straight to mono or stereo, and share these performances for other people to enjoy. Concert taping is not bootlegging, because there is no selling allowed. Tapers just trade or freely distribute the recordings.

Many acts realize that by allowing taping, they secure some free promotion; the taper does all the work and spends all the money on equipment and distribution. Local and up-and-coming acts understand the promotional benefits of show recordings, as well as their value as tools to use to critique and improve their performances.

A few groups get smart and package their live recordings into a salable product. Frankly, I'm surprised that more local acts don't take advantage of this. So many unsigned bands build their reputation and fan base by playing in clubs, but then put out a studio album rather than an indie live CD. Recording, editing, and packaging a live CD is inexpensive and easy to do, so why not make one first, or in addition to a studio CD?

LIVE AND UNCUT

Some acts are known for the quality of their live shows that combine solid musical skills, onstage antics, and attitude. Unfortunately, their “official” live recordings often edit out the jams, banter, and other bits that make shows unique.

Concert tapers, on the other hand, strive to capture the complete, ephemeral experience that best represents what really happened. The idea is to record everything and keep the post-production editing and processing to a minimum. Tapers want the show to sound so immediate that the listener feels that he or she is actually there.

Joining the taping community can give you access to performances that you might not otherwise hear. And becoming an active taper yourself can be fun and interesting. If you get good, you might even be able to earn some money making quality live recordings for local acts.

CHECK THE POLICY

Because not every act allows taping, it's crucial that you get permission before you walk into a concert venue with your gear. When you're recording a local act, that might be as simple as asking the band or the band's manager if it's okay. Few acts will decline and most will ask for a copy of what you record. For well-known acts, visit their Web sites to see if you can find their “official” taping policy.

But even after you get permission from the band you should also check with the venue, because many have strict taping policies. In addition, expect to have your gear searched and heavily scrutinized by security before you're allowed in.

You can still run into problems even if you have secured permission, especially with name acts. Sometimes the venue's security personnel doesn't know about or understand the taping policy. If they shut you down, show them your permission. If they insist that you stop, ask to speak to their supervisor. If that doesn't work, don't make a scene; pack up and enjoy the rest of the concert without taping it.

Some shows have a designated tapers' section where you can set up your rig. It is usually behind the soundboard or on the floor off to one side. Don't expect to get a console feed, though. At some venues, you're allowed to tape from your seat. The farther back you're positioned from the stage, the more crowd noise you'll pick up and the more distant your recording will sound. Many tapers prefer to be close to a P.A. stack so that they get maximum music and minimum crowd noise. The resulting recording will be more enjoyable for the average music enthusiast but might upset purist tapers and listeners, who think the crowd sounds are an essential element of the concert.

Another way to improve the music-to-crowd-noise ratio is to elevate your microphones so that they're about 15 feet in the air. That can sometimes cause conflicts with security guards who feel that running a stand higher than head height will detract from the concert experience for others in the crowd. Actually, it's often much more distracting to people around you to run a rig at head height rather than high in the air.

Generally, you have greater freedom to place your gear at smaller venues, where you're more likely to be the only person recording. The club's sound personnel may also give you a soundboard feed or even run a separate DAT for you that you can subsequently combine (using digital audio software) with your mic recordings. Don't rely entirely on a board feed because, especially at small clubs, it may be missing elements or the vocals may be too prominent.

CROWD PLEASERS

One of the biggest hassles for tapers is fellow concertgoers. Inebriated individuals may use your mic stand for support; crowd members may complain that you're blocking their view with your mics. Some people even talk or yell in an attempt to ruin your recording.

Most tapers report being frustrated by the incessant audience chatter during performances. It seems particularly bad when an act is making a DVD; the crowds often get rowdy and try to make themselves heard on the band's recording. Another problem is the proliferation of cell phone usage. The sound of ringing phones and people talking into them can get onto your tapes, and the phones themselves can cause RF interference that can get onto your recording. Not surprisingly, asking nearby people to turn off their phones isn't always met with enthusiasm.

Once people realize that you're serious, however, many will ask for copies of your recordings. To accommodate their requests, ask for an e-mail address so that you can contact them about the details after the show.

GET EQUIPPED

You can get started taping concerts with a relatively minimal investment. You may even have some or all of what you need already. A typical taper's rig comprises microphones, a preamp, a mic stand or support of some type, and a digital recorder ranging in format from MiniDisc to DAT to hard disk. Remember, anything in your rig that requires power must be battery operated, because in most cases you won't have access to AC power.

Before you buy expensive gear, make sure that taping is something you enjoy. Start by recording a few shows to see how you like doing it. Don't be swayed by endless gear opinions from other tapers.

An affordable starter system might be based around a MiniDisc recorder or a portable hard-disk recorder like the Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox 3 (see Fig. 1). MiniDisc recorders made by Sharp — a popular model is the discontinued MD-MS722 — let you set recording levels; other brands have automatic gain control. Although many ingenue tapers may opt for an inexpensive stereo mic, you can get superior results with a pair of reasonably priced condensers such as the AKG C 1000 S.

Another affordable mic choice is the Core Sound binaural microphones set. True binaural recordings use microphones positioned in the “ears” of a simulated human head. Playing back the recordings over quality headphones results in an uncannily realistic sound that preserves the spatial ambience of the original concert. It's possible to mimic this effect using a pair of minicardioid mics placed on either side of your head and clipped to your glasses or hat.

A midpriced recording rig might consist of a portable DAT recorder, such as the Sony PCM-M1, the Sony TCD-D8, or the Tascam DA-P1, or even the Marantz CDR300 portable CD-RW recorder (see Fig. 2). The DA-P1 and the CDR300 have XLR mic inputs with 48V phantom power (which you'll need for condenser mics). If you're going to use an external mic preamp, the beyerdynamic MV100 is a good midpriced choice. The MV100 has 48V phantom power, runs on two 9V batteries, and has RCA outputs.

Many tapers like to use dedicated analog-to-digital converters because they offer better sound quality than the converters found in many portable recorders. Because of its compact size and low price, the Sony SBM-1 is a popular converter among tapers. Although the SBM-1 is no longer in production, it can often be found on eBay or on many taper message boards. Alternately, Sound Devices' USB Pre or Edirol's UA-5 (see Fig. 3) can be modified for battery operation, thus providing you with high-quality preamps and analog-to-digital converters to feed your DAT or other digital recorder (see Fig. 4).

When recording to DAT, some tapers use 180-minute data DATs because they offer more recording time than audio DATs. However, DAT-recorder manufacturers generally recommend against using data DATs for audio, because they're more prone to dropouts and other problems. (For more information on the topic of recording audio to data DAT tapes, see “What's Up with DAT?” in the November 1999 issue of EM or at www.emusician.com.)

There are plenty of midpriced stereo-microphone choices, including several from Audio-Technica: the AT822 (see Fig. 5), the AT825, and the AT835ST, a stereo shotgun mic. The Røde NT4 is another popular choice. Many tapers prefer to use a matched stereo pair of mics such as the Oktava MC 012, the Microtech Gefell M 300, or the Neumann KM184.

Moving beyond the 16-bit world to 24 bits carries a higher price along with the promise of increased fidelity. Some tapers use laptops to capture performances into 2-track editing- and recording software such as BIAS Peak or TC Electronic Spark on the Mac and Sony Pictures Digital Networks Sound Forge on the PC. With a laptop setup, you'll want a quality preamp like the Grace Design Lunatec V2 or V3, or the Apogee MiniMe.

To match up with that level of gear, high-end tapers reach for top-shelf mics like Brüel & Kjær 4022s, Schoeps with CCM 4V or MK 4V capsules, or even large-diaphragm Neumanns.

The collapsible Bogen Lightweight Pro Light Stand is a good choice for holding your mics. Add in an Audio Engineering Associates SMP17 Stereo Microphone Positioner, and top it off with Audio-Technica AT8410A shockmounts. Get a pair of good short XLR cables for connecting your mics to the preamp. A quality set of closed-ear headphones, such as Sony's 7506, are a must, too. And you'll also need to protect your gear from elements, people, and crime. Camera bags and backpacks are adequate; the Targus RakGear Slam Backpack is a popular choice.

RECORDING TIPS

Interestingly, stereo imaging isn't as important as it once was on the concert-taping scene. These days, many tapers will opt for a mono mic aimed at the P.A. stack to get the best clarity, rather than worrying about getting a good stereo image.

For mono recordings, or when using a stereo mic, the process is simple: point the mic at the sound, set levels, hit Record, and go. Should you choose the matched-pair approach, XY and ORTF mic configurations are the most popular. (For specifics on those and other stereo miking techniques, see “More Than the Sum” from the June 2003 EM and “Double Your Pleasure” in the June 2000 EM. Text for both articles is available at www.emusician.com.)

When possible, it's helpful to set preliminary levels during the opening act's set. It's best to set the levels a little conservatively, say peaking at -6 on the recorder's meter. Once the main act begins, push the level up slowly to peak at -2. That should give you a good level and some wiggle room to avoid clips. Once you find the right level, leave it there and don't be tempted to ride the gain unless a problem occurs.

CLEAN UP AND CLEAR OUT

Tapers who are purists prefer to leave their recordings as is — uncut and unprocessed. Others clean the recording up a bit, add some beginning fade-ins and ending fade-outs, normalize levels, and perhaps use a little highpass EQ to keep the subharmonic junk out of the final mix. Part of the excitement and uniqueness of these recordings is retaining the in-between segments, so as to keep the crowd noise.

If you're fortunate enough to have two sources for the same show, say a board feed and an ambient recording, you'll need to sync them up in a multitrack audio program such as Sony Pictures Digital Networks's Vegas or Digidesign's Pro Tools, balance the mix, and render a final stereo file. Usually a 60/40 board-to-mic mix is a good place to start; you can then tweak it from there until it sounds good to your ears.

When your recording is ready, you can burn it to CD or encode it to MP3. You might, however, consider another format, called Shorten (file extension .shn), which has become popular with the taper crowd. Unlike MP3, which compromises fidelity in order to achieve its smaller file size, Shorten is lossless audio compression that maintains full quality while reducing a WAV file's original size by 30 to 50 percent. For more information on the SHN format, see the FAQs at www.etree.org.

Finished recordings can be traded through the mail (most tapers ask for a blank CD and postage to cover shipping costs), or through e-mail, Web site upload and download, or FTP. There are several FTP servers that hold uploads (see the sidebar “Sites for Tapers”) and the tapers mailing lists are always unveiling new servers. These sites are very popular. One Friday night concert was downloaded more than 1,000 times by the time Saturday morning ended. What's especially nice is that tapers who post concerts often get early access to other shows before the public can grab them.

If there's a dark side to taping, it's that sometimes it starts to feel like a job. Even a dedicated fan can be distracted by the demands of taping and therefore not enjoy the concert. That said, many tapers notice that because they are more than casual concertgoers, they are often treated deferentially by other members of the audience. Whether you tape acts for your own enjoyment, to share with others, or to help local acts spread the word, it can be a very enriching musical experience.

Jeffrey P. Fishercomposes, produces, records, teaches, and writes about music and sound. See what he's up to atwww.jeffreypfisher.com.

Calvin Engelis an avid concert taper trying to balance the cost of concert tickets and taping equipment while staying on top of school work. Reach him atChitownTaper@attbi.com.

SITES FOR TAPERS

http://groups.yahoo.com

You can search Yahoo Groups and find various tapers' mailing lists that offer plenty of information.

http://research.umbc.edu/~hamilton/shnfaq.html

Get details on Shorten (.shn), a lossless compression format favored by tapers for Internet trading.

www.archive.org and www.etree.org

Sites that feature lossless trading.

www.dmband.com/legal_popup.asp

To see an example of a taping policy for a major artist , go to this link from the Dave Matthews Band site.

www.oade.com/Tapers_Section

A good information site for tapers.

MANUFACTURER CONTACTS

AKG Acoustics U.S. tel. (615) 620-3800; e-mail akgusa@harman.com; Web www.akgusa.com

Apogee Electronics Corp. tel. (310) 915-1000; e-mail info@apogeedigital.com; Web www.apogeedigital.com

Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) tel. (800) 798-9127 or (626) 798-9128; e-mail stereoms@aol.com; Web www.wesdooley.com

Audio-Technica U.S., Inc. tel. (330) 686-2600; e-mail pro@atus.com; Web www.audio-technica.com

beyerdynamic, Inc. tel. (631) 293-3200; e-mail salesusa@beyerdynamic-usa.com; Web www.beyerdynamic.com/com/index.htm

BIAS (Berkley Integrated Audio Software) tel. (800) 775-BIAS or (707) 782-1866; e-mail sales@bias-inc.com; Web www.bias-inc.com

Bogen Communications, Inc. tel. (800) 999-2809 or (201) 934-8500; e-mail support@bogen.com; Web www.bogen.com

Brüel & Kjær North America tel. (800) 332-2040 or (770) 209-6907; e-mail bkinfo@bksv.com; Web www.bksv.com

Core Sound tel. (201) 801-0812; Web www.core-sound.com

Creative Labs tel. (800) 998-1000 or (408) 428-6600; Web www.creativelabs.com or www.soundblaster.com

Digidesign tel. (800) 333-2137 or (650) 731-6300; e-mail prodinfo@digidesign.com; Web www.digidesign.com

Edirol Corporation North America/Roland Corporation U.S. (distributor) tel. (323) 890-3700; e-mail edirol@edirol.com; Web www.edirol.com

Grace Design tel. (303) 443-7454; e-mail egrace@gracedesign.com; Web www.gracedesign.com

Marantz Professional tel. (630) 741-0330; Web www.marantzpro.com

Microtech Gefell/G Prime, Ltd. (distributor) tel. (800) 322-4414 or (212) 765-3415; Web www.gefell-mics.com or www.gprime.com or www.microtechgefell.de/eng/home.htm

Neumann USA tel. (860) 434-5220; e-mail neumlit@neumannusa.com; Web www.neumannusa.com

Oktava/The Sound Room tel. (877) 425-0220 or (860) 228-8098; e-mail sales@oktava.com; Web www.oktava.com

Røde Microphones tel. (310) 328-7456; Web www.rodemic.com

Schoeps/Redding Audio (distributor) tel. (203) 270-1808; e-mail reddingaudio@aol.com; Web www.schoeps.de

Sharp Electronics Corporation tel. (201) 529-8200; Web www.sharp-usa.com

Sony Corporation of America tel. (800) 686-7669; Web www.sony.com

Sony Pictures Digital Networks tel. (800) 577-6642 or (608) 204-7680; Web www.mediasoftware.sonypictures.com

Sound Devices, LLC tel. (608) 524-0625; e-mail info@sounddevices.com; Web www.sounddevices.com

Targus tel. (877) 482-7487; e-mail info@targus.com; Web www.targus.com

Tascam tel. (323) 726-0303; Web www.tascam.com

TC Electronic tel. (805) 373-1828; e-mail infous@tcelectronic.com; Web www.tcelectronic.com