RIGGING FOR THE ROAD
As your rig is one of the few things you can actually control during the live recording process, make it count. Look over your current inventory carefully; organize a complete list of reliable gear you own that can work for a live recording application, then assemble a block diagram utilizing all equipment, cables, and interfaces. Though it may be a no-brainer, go with roadworthy gear — not super high-end, finicky components that are liable to require maintenance halfway throughout the set. Tons of great gear is unreliable, and if that’s the case, leave those at home. That said, also be very cautious about obtaining new equipment for this specific application as that opens up doors for problems as well. You should work only with gear you know inside out. There’s no room for learning curves in a live recording context.
It is paramount to have a backup recorder of some sort to act as an independent redundant system. Make sure that your backup recorder isn’t tied to the outputs of any other recorder; if something should happen to the main recorder, such as a computer crash, this will kill the signal to your backup recorder, rendering it completely useless and causing you to forever regret ever messing with live recording in the first place. The ideal choice would be a track-to-track backup recorder. A Pro Tools LE rig with eight inputs capturing a blend from the front of house console and dedicated tracks for bass, vocals and guitars will do you just fine.
It’s super handy to have a two-track device recording your mix during the show as well; something like an Alesis Masterlink is ideal. This will save hours upon hours after the show normally spent making roughs for the artist. Using this technology also helps in drawing up a “plan B” diagram with a scaled-down version, in case something should happen to an essential piece of gear in transit (which is bound to happen if you do live recording often).
Setting up a video camera feeding to a small television that you can use to monitor onstage occurrences visually is also a good idea. You want to be able to at least be on the same page as any unwanted events that may arise, and it’s hard to navigate uncharted territory by ears alone.
Once you have your rig theorized and put to paper, it’s necessary to put it to test in a more controlled environment so that you will be that much more prepared when entering the netherworld of the live music venue. Give a test run by setting yourself up outside the studio, such as in your garage (the garage will also serve as a better example to the kind of sound you will get than your comfortable studio setting will). In doing this, ensure that you have all the necessary cabling and length (you can’t count on the venue for anything), and that your rig really is portable and ergonomically feasible. Set yourself up and play the silly little game of pretend wherein you envision yourself behind the board for Live At Leeds.
Now would be a good time to make sure to check all mic pres (and the whole system, for that matter) for ground hums and the like. Stress test the recorders themselves; feed them some signal and record about eight hours of it to make sure you don’t get any computer-related errors, and that your hard drives are big enough to handle the task.
After you’ve test driven your rig, tear it down, making sure to label each piece of gear with your name and contact info. For your cables, label them in terms of function (i.e., left speaker input). Doing this will allow for an efficient setup as well as a friendly venue departure, as no one wants to be stuck after the gig arguing over cables.
Note: When packing up your rig, be sure to include all necessary tools, an adapter kit, a flashlight, and extra batteries. You can never be too prepared.
TREATING THE STAGE AS A STUDIO
First off, if your goal is to record songs for a live release, talk with the client about the possibilities of maximizing both dollar and energy by scheduling two shows back-to-back, with rehearsals each day. There are so many variables to work through so if you can, stack the deck in your favor by recording two performances in a row, utilizing the benefits of recording in the same environment with the same settings. This will give you a better chance of getting consistent sounds. Viewing the stage as a studio, this approach makes total sense so — continuing in that direction — treat the live rehearsals much like you would scratch tracks in the studio. The takes during the rehearsals may very well come in handy; you’ll have four versions of each song and therefore more usable material to choose from in post-production. Also, tracking the rehearsals will give you ample time to troubleshoot any problems that may arise and will help to improve the overall communication between yourself, front-of-house, and the band.
GOING TO THE GIG
After loading in, and being real careful not to step on any staff member’s toes (they can make or break your entire experience, especially your FOH cohort), you may be tempted to start plugging things in. Do not, I repeat, do not do this! Not all venues are up to code — not by a long shot — so test each and every outlet you plan to use with an outlet tester. For a trip to Radio Shack and a whopping $10, you can save yourself thousands of dollars in repair and hours lost tracking down grounding issues. Trust me; take the extra time to do this.
Once the coast is clear, you’ve started plugging away, and it’s time to start laying cables down, break out some sturdy, wide black gaffer’s tape to secure any cables that cross doorways, or are in any danger of being tripped up. Be sure to watch your power strip placement, and make the effort to tape the plug of that down as well. An accidental unplugging will bring the entire project to a screeching halt, making even your cleverly packed backup recorder useless.
In the event that you place audience microphones around the venue to capture that particular aspect of the live performance, you’ll want to rope off those areas with yellow “caution!” tape, and make sure to check right before the band hits to make sure they haven’t been bumped around.
Concerning the audience: Try to get the venue’s management to place signs upon entrance demanding that all cell phones be shut off, as their use will interfere with your recording. After everyone’s assembled, see if you can get a moment to inform the crowd that they are participating in a live recording, and pump them up with the standard “how is everyone doing tonight in [insert town/city/principality/planet name].” Record their responses in case the awkward event arises where they “forget” to cheer after a song. This will also provide the perspective you need to set your audience mic levels, and it really goes a long way toward getting the crowd warmed up. And, as everyone knows, an enthusiastic crowd is likely to inspire a great performance and, just as in the studio, the performance is ultimately what’s going to count.