Stalking the Wild Stereo Image

How To Record Your Band with a Portable 2-Track
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Need a simple way to record a live gig? Try a portable stereo recorder. The process is easy, and the required gear can cost as little as $200. You can use a recorder with built-in microphones, or you can plug two mics (or a stereo mic) into a recorder. You’ll pick up the group as a whole from several feet away. The mics will capture not only the musicians, but also the room reverb and background noise. You could call it a documentary or “audio snapshot” recording. As you record, what you hear with headphones is what you get. There’s no mixing back in the studio.

If you place the mics a few feet from a folk group or jazz group without a P.A. system, the sound can be quite good. But most bands use a P.A. When you record the band, you’re also recording the sound of the P.A. speakers, so the mix you get often depends on the house engineer’s skill. Also, the sound will be more distant and ambient than what you’d capture using several close-mic positions.

The Gear

You’ll need a portable digital recorder. These typically record onto a Compact Flash or a Secure Digital card or hard drive. You can record mp3 or uncompressed PCM wave files, and prices range from $200 to $2,000. Some examples are the Sony PCM-D1 and D50, Korg MR-1, Marantz PMD660/670/671, Korg MR-1, Edirol R-1 and R-09, M-Audio MicroTrack II, Zoom H4 and H2, and TASCAM HD-P2. Available mic connectors are XLR, 1/4" phone or 1/8" phone, with or without 48-volt phantom power for the mics.

Headphones let you know whether the mics are working correctly, and let you hear what the mics are picking up. If the band and P.A. are loud, it’s hard to hear what’s being recorded unless you use isolating headphones (Remote Audio HN-7506) or earphones (Etymotic ER-4S, ER-4P and ER-6i; Shure E3 and E4).

Preparation

Before going on the road, install fresh batteries (and bring some spares), recharge any rechargeable batteries, bring along spare flash memory and an AC adapter, and clean the connectors with isopropyl alcohol or Caig Labs DeOxit. Do a trial recording to make sure everything works. If possible, record the gig in a room where the audience is attentive, and the background noise is low. You might visit some potential venues to check out the noise and acoustics. Avoid very live rooms because they can make the recording muddy. Be sure you have enough free space on your flash-memory card before going on location. Listed below are approximate recording times for a 1GB card (double these times for a 2GB card):

  • 24-bit/44.1kHz stereo WAV: 1 hour
  • 16-bit/44.1kHz stereo WAV: 1.5 hours
  • 256kbps stereo mp3: 9 hours
  • 128kbps stereo mp3: 16.5 hours

The recorder might have a record-level switch labeled Manual and Auto. Set it to Manual in order to retain the dynamics of the performance. If the switch is labeled AGC (Automatic Gain Control), set it to off.

The Gig

Plug in some headphones and turn on Record Monitor mode. You’ll hear the room acoustics and any background noise (audience, air conditioning, traffic). Room noises that you wouldn’t otherwise notice become obvious when you listen on headphones. Also listen for buzzes, distortion, and crackles from bad cables or connections.

Where do you place the mics? The closer the mics are to the group, the clearer and cleaner the sound will typically be. In other words, close placement captures more of the music, and less of the room sound and background noise. Try to place the mics as close as possible to the stage where you still pick up the house speakers—about a stage-width away from the stage (Figure 1). Keep the mics away from the bar and other obvious noise sources. If there are dancers near the stage, and the ceiling is low, you might try boundary mics (such as two PZMs) gaffer-taped to the ceiling, or mini mics hung from the ceiling.

To eliminate muddy room sound, you can record acoustic groups off the P.A. mixer into a line input. Or 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 and mics next to that mic.

To record a small folk group or an acoustic jazz group without a P.A., place the mics about three to six feet from the ensemble (Figure 2). If the group plays in a circle (as in an outdoor jam or rehearsal), try placing omnidirectional mics in the center. Or just walk around with the mics while monitoring the mics over headphones. Find a spot where you hear a good balance, and put the mics there. If you’re not working with your own band, ask the musicians’ permission to record them during a break in the music, and here’s a word to the wise: Get that permission in writing.

While the band is rehearsing a loud song, make a trial recording. Set the recording level so the meter reads about –6dB maximum. This allows some headroom for surprises. Peak levels above 0dB result in distortion. Some portable recorders include a limiter that prevents recording levels above 0dB, and others have a clip or peak LED that flashes when the recording level is too high. Pay attention to these levels, because while you can always bring up levels if they’re too low, fixing a clipped signal is extremely difficult.

Recorders often have a mic-gain switch or a pad to prevent mic-preamp distortion. If you have to set the recording-level control less than 1/3 up to achieve a 0dB recording level, use the low-gain setting, or switch in the pad. If you are using large-diaphragm condenser mics plugged into a phantom power supply, you might need to plug the output of the supply into the recorder line input—rather than the mic input—to prevent distortion.

You might be able to record an acoustic group on location without a P.A. system or an audience. This situation gives you some freedom to improve the sound:

  • If the room is too live (reverberant), put up some packing blankets, comforters, rugs, acoustic foam, or cushions. 
  • Often a good-sounding spot for the musicians is near the center of a large room. Place the musicians around the stereo mic pair where you want them to appear in the recording. For example, you might place two singing guitarists on the left and right, with the bass in the center.
  • Experiment with microphone height to vary the vocal and guitar balance. Try different mic distances to vary the amount of ambience or room sound. A distance of three to six feet is typical.
  • As the musicians are playing (and during playbacks), monitor the mic signals with headphones. If some instruments or vocalists are too quiet, move them closer to the mics—and vice versa—until the balance sounds right.
  • If someone makes a mistake, either record another take of the entire tune, or record starting from a few bars before the mistake, and edit the takes together later.

After the Gig

Back in the studio, connect the USB port in the recorder to the USB port in your computer. The recorder shows up as a storage device on your computer screen. Drag-and-drop the recorded sound files to the computer’s hard drive for editing and CD burning. The files transfer in a few minutes. Then, the flash-memory card is empty, and free to make more recordings.

Now you can edit the recording, and adjust its tonal balance with DAW software. You might cut a few dB around 300Hz to reduce boomy reverb, as well as to get a clearer recording. If your mics are weak in the bass, compensate by boosting a few dB around the 50Hz to 100Hz range. Try out these tips, and enjoy your recordings!

Tips For Savvy Live-Recording Engineers

Bring a Limiter. If you’re going to be recording from the mixer outputs, bring a limiter. Yes, most portable recorders have internal limiters, and if that’s all you have, it may be better than nothing—if you use it only to trap significant peaks, rather than compress the overall signal. However, a quality limiter will give quality results.

Consider a FireWire Mixer. Got laptop? Then a FireWire mixer can do double-duty for mixing your band, and providing a recording feed to your laptop. For live use, this saves a lot of gear lugging.

Avoid distortion. If you have enough tracks, it’s worth splitting crucial tracks (such as lead vocals) into two tracks—one trimmed down about –6dB to –10dB compared to the other. If the main track hits an “over” by exceeding 0, you can use the –10dB track to cover for you, and bring up the gain to match that of the main track.

Move Up. Several companies make portable multitrack hard-disk recorders with varying capabilities (mic preamps, expansion ports for external hard drives, etc.). These will let you add some audience mics, have a separate track for the lead parts, and the like. However, as you check out various units, make sure they’re fast on their feet. Some units make you wait for a while when saving to disk—which is not very helpful for live gigs. Also make sure there’s a sufficiently big hard drive to record entire sets, or, if not, the ability to expand via FireWire or USB 2.0 drives.

Multitask Your Camcorder. A typical miniDV handheld camera’s audio is basically a DAT, and most have line inputs so you can bypass the mics with either a feed from a P.A., or the output of a couple of preamps fed with quality mics (although the mics in camcorders can sometimes give surprisingly good results). However, before you do any recording, check the menus for audio, as there may be an option for 12- or 16-bit recording. Of course, you want the 16-bit version. Also, check whether “wind cut” is enabled. This is a lowpass filter that you don’t need if you don’t have to worry about wind in your recording environment. If you do use the internal mic, remember that they are mostly stereo, with two mics in the same capsule. As a result, keep side-to-side motion to a minimum, or you’ll hear phasing/flanging effects owing to the right and left channels being so close together.

Where’s the Audience? In a typical 2-track recording scenario, you won’t have audience mics, so you won’t capture applause very well. No problem: Invest in a sound effects record and throw some audience noises in the background. I won’t tell. Promise.

Read EQ. There was a really great article in the April 2007 issue about how to set up your mixer to do double-duty for P.A. work and live recording. Check it out for some great tips.
—Craig Anderton