Back in 1927, a new idea changed the course of popular-music recording. Up until that point, most commercial recording was done using established performers with musical pedigrees at corporately controlled facilities. Recording equipment was bulky and temperamental, and each record company was protective of its own technology.
But that year, a producer and talent scout named Ralph Peer had the idea to “go remote” and make commercial recordings of rural performers in the South — regional musicians who could not or would not travel to the big cities to record.
Peer, who was under contract with Victor Records at the time, brought newly designed portable recording gear to an empty warehouse space in Bristol, Tennessee. History was made in that room, as Peer witnessed and helped create the awesome first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and others during a ten-day marathon of sessions. These sessions marked the veritable birth of the country-music recording industry. The runaway success of those records redefined the paradigm of recording popular music on through the 1950s, as again and again, hit tunes were recorded in hotel rooms, old garages, and back porches. Suddenly, it didn't seem to matter that the process took place almost entirely outside the technical control of the record companies.
Although big commercial studios were the dominant venue for recording pop in the latter half of the 20th century, the introduction and subsequent advances in digital audio and computer-based recording have changed the landscape in recent years. Today, individual musicians are increasingly taking more control of the recording process, and with a wide range of portable recording devices, we now can record wherever we make music.
Traveling musicians can turn hours of tedious downtime on the road into productive recording time. For musicians who attend various music conventions, jam sessions, festivals, and songwriter gatherings, having quality portable gear on hand makes it possible to record with players that they could only dream of collaborating with otherwise.
In this column, I'll offer an overview of the logistical problems and equipment issues faced by the traveling recordist. I'll start by focusing on the simplest approach — carrying a good-quality 2-track recorder — and then move on to multitracking.
IT TAKES TWO
It's been said that the best camera you can have while traveling is the one that's in your pocket, meaning that you can't take a picture if you don't have a camera. That same principle applies to recording; you can smack yourself in the head and whine about how great it would have been to have recorded that green-room jam session, but doing so won't bring the moment back. If you're a working musician, carrying a good-quality, portable 2-track recorder means that you're always prepared to record any musical situation you're involved in.
The recording device most analogous to that pocket camera is the portable MiniDisc recorder. Although it's easy to discount its power and usefulness, a MiniDisc recorder gives you credible audio (albeit compressed) and has the minimum features you need to make real recordings. For example, it records to removable media, which allows you to take the disc, label it, and find it again when you need it later. You can store it on a shelf and know the time, date, and other details of the material it holds. If you do field recording on a regular basis, cataloging your raw recordings is essential.
A good portable MiniDisc recorder usually has a minimal but usable mic preamp with level-setting controls and meters. The meters are often tiny but are reasonably accurate. Proper level setting — getting the input as hot as possible without distortion — is a must for quality music recordings.
Although you may think of MiniDisc technology as passé for recording musicians, remember that radio- and TV-broadcast industries have used the MiniDisc for years. And Sony's exciting new Hi-MD format may just revitalize the category. The company's top-of-the-line MZ-NH1 (see Fig. 1), which should be released by the time you read this, allows nearly 1.5 hours of uncompressed 24-bit stereo recording on a new high-density MiniDisc. The unit also offers a USB port for exchanging data with a PC. All the Hi-MD devices are ultralightweight, are capable of running for hours on lithium-ion batteries, and cost less than the original MiniDisc recorders of a decade ago.
Another option that provides better recording quality than the standard MiniDisc — albeit at a higher price — is the portable DAT recorder. These devices allow up to two hours of 16-bit digital recording with up to a 48 kHz sampling rate, and they offer the same advantages mentioned previously such as removable media, and useable mic preamps.
In theory, the most promising format for pocket recorders is the miniature stereo hard-disk unit. Few manufacturers, however, have shown interest in producing machines aimed at live recording. Numerous iPod-like hard-disk models are available, but it's frustrating to learn that they can't record analog audio — most of them can transfer and play back digital files only from other systems. If you are looking for a portable 2-track that records to hard disk, make sure that the unit in question has a decent analog-input section, including a mic preamp, level controls, and metering. (A pint-size hard-disk recorder that's been successfully used in the live-taper community is the Creative Labs Nomad Jukebox 3.)
Whatever format you choose, a good pocket recorder is an amazing tool for the musician or group to have during time away from home base. With the addition of a quality stereo mic, you have the advantage of setting up and recording almost anywhere, including at jam sessions, rehearsals, and gigs. If you want to notch up the recording quality even more, consider using an outboard preamp or A/D converter (or both), although doing so will make your rig less portable and more time-consuming to set up.
MULTITRACK TO GO
The 2-track is great for taking musical snapshots, but a portable multitrack setup lets you be productive on the road. The big decision you'll have to make is whether to go with a laptop-based digital-audio sequencer or an all-in-one multitrack (aka a personal digital studio [PDS].)
If you don't need advanced MIDI sequencing features, then the PDS is the best way to go. (Many models include some sort of bass and drum sequencing, and often loop sequencing, for putting together rhythm parts.) These facile units offer high-quality, uncompressed recording, mixing, and CD burning, and are completely self-contained. Of course you'll still need to supply mics, stands, cables, monitors, and so forth.
If you think that it sounds as though I'm biased toward this type of recording, you're right. I've seen laptops malfunction in calamitous ways too many times, causing the loss of untold hours of work. Conversely, I've seen dedicated workstations deliver the goods despite the rigors of travel. Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Tascam, Fostex, Akai, and Zoom are the major manufacturers in this market.
A PDS typically features 8 to 24 discrete tracks, with additional virtual tracks and varying degrees of automated mixing. The main value of any portable rig, however, is in its tracking capability. To this end, many all-in-one workstations feature multiple mic preamp inputs; phantom power; multichannel compressor-limiters; easy monitor-mixing and track-assignment schemes, direct high-impedance guitar and bass inputs; and, in some cases, advanced functions like onboard-mic and guitar-amp modeling. Self-contained multitracks offer unparalleled ease of setup and tear-down, which is essential to exploiting spontaneous recording situations.
If MIDI instruments are important to your production work, then the laptop route is an obvious solution. That's because you can record MIDI and audio and use a variety of software-based instruments. However, the built-in audio input hardware is substandard on many laptops, and for that reason you'll probably want an outboard audio interface to augment your setup.
In the past several years, a large number of audio peripherals have been designed as front ends for computer-based recording systems. The typical device connects to your computer through its USB or FireWire port, and is a combination mic preamp, A/D converter, and, often, MIDI interface. Many are small and feature great specs.
Although recording on a laptop offers many advantages, it does have a downside. For one thing, it's easy to overload a USB data stream with multiple channels of digital audio data. In addition, latency (the troublesome time displacement between live sound and existing tracks) can be a problem. Furthermore, with any computer-based system, you're liable to spend an inordinate amount of time troubleshooting software issues rather than actually recording.
My main gripe with using a PC as a recorder is the irksome user interface. There are no real knobs or buttons, just a screen full of virtual controls addressed by a mouse pointer. If, however, you're willing to shell out the extra bucks and expand your setup a bit, you can purchase a control surface to give you a more tactile experience. If you're on a budget, consider a mini-MIDI keyboard (such as the Edirol PCR-1 [see Fig. 2], the M-Audio Oxygen 8, or many others), which will give you control features and a small MIDI keyboard for one relatively low price.
It is unlikely that you'll take high-quality studio monitors on a road trip, and even if you do, it's difficult to get accurate acoustic performance from them. It is uncanny how speakers can sound so different in different rooms. A monitor sound that is calibrated and reasonably accurate at home can be virtually unrecognizable (and useless) in a foreign environment. So bring along some portable active speakers for listening, but don't plan to rely on them except as a rough benchmark.
A good way to check your mixes is to listen to them through a vehicle sound system (as long as you're intimately familiar with the sound system of the available vehicle). No matter that your car stereo is not studio accurate; you hear its sound so often that you're likely to know what sounds good and what doesn't.
Headphones are indispensable for recording on the road. Bring along several decent pairs and some headphone extension cables (10 to 15 feet in length) for tracking sessions. Also bring a headphone amp with individually adjustable outputs; many small models are available, including the ART HeadAmp or the Rolls HA43 (see Fig. 3).
OF MICS AND ACCESSORIES
Your choice of mics for your portable studio will vary depending on what you plan to record, what your budget is, and what your tolerance is for carrying around expensive mics in environments lacking security, like hotel rooms. At minimum, you should carry a pair of decent condensers (preferably two of the same mics, if not a matched pair). These days, you can get serviceable mics at reasonable prices, and having a pair will give you the flexibility to record two sources in mono or use a stereo-miking technique. Obviously, the more mics you can bring with you, the better.
If you are recording electric guitar or bass and you are not using a PDS with built-in instrument inputs and amp modeling, an outboard modeling processor will allow you to track without an amp, which is essential in a hotel-room scenario. If you are recording into a laptop, you could also use a simple direct box or mic preamp-compressor, and then process your guitar or bass with a modeling plug-in, such as IK Multimedia's Amplitube or Digidesign's Line 6 Amp Farm (for ProTools systems).
You'll also need to bring a selection of cables and accessories (see the sidebar “Checklist for the Traveling Recordist” for some suggestions).
Following the honored tradition of itinerant country-music record producers, you can get a lot done in a hotel room. Naturally, no hotel will tolerate the noise of an acoustic drum kit, so recording rock-band basic tracks is problematic. (If you do want to record new projects with drums, you'll have to use programmed MIDI drums or audio drum loops, or have your drummer record through an electronic kit.) You can get a lot of other recording work done, though, including overdubs on existing projects, tracking for projects on which the drums will be added later (make sure to use a click track), and recording acoustic projects that have no drums.
The typical hotel room is fairly decent from an acoustic standpoint. The basic room-dimension ratios (length to width to height) are reasonably good enough to promote an even response with no appreciable standing-wave problems above 100 Hz. Most hotel rooms include two excellent broadband absorbers (aka the beds) and floor-to-ceiling drapes on at least one wall. Hotel rooms generally sound good for vocal recording and aren't bad for small acoustic ensembles.
The acoustic quality of a room increases proportionately with the price of the hotel. Better rooms are a little bigger and have more absorptive stuffing, thicker carpets, and quieter heating and cooling systems. If you need to add more sound absorption, you can construct a makeshift gobo with a boom stand and a quilt from the bed (see Fig. 4).
Good sound isolation is a factor that's key to the quality of any recording space. It's even more crucial in a hotel, because you must minimize outside environmental sounds leaking into your tracks and avoid bothering other guests with your music.
The most problematic sonic intrusion is environmental low-frequency energy — this includes things such as the sounds of nearby cars, trucks, trains, planes, and machinery. Most hotel rooms are not bad at sealing out mid- and high-frequency noise, because they have reasonably good window and door seals; however, low-frequency and subsonic energy still leaks in. Be aware of that and don't be afraid to use the highpass filters on your input channels or mics. Doing so will help keep the noise level on your tracks to a minimum.
Remember that a hotel-room recording session is far more exciting for you than it is for other guests and staff who are staying there. Keep in mind that the speaker in a room's TV, even when near full volume, puts out less acoustic energy than a lone singer strumming an acoustic guitar does. Having three or four players cutting loose at the same time is therefore a good way to get a cease-and-desist order from the manager. All such noise-making falls under the category of “wild partying” according to hotel staff, and there isn't much explanatory middle ground.
Avoid confrontations by working with the needs and desires of staff and guests. When you check in, let the desk clerk know what you're up to. I've found that most people tend to be very accommodating; they might even find you a room in a sparsely booked area of the hotel. You can ask to use a conference room for a couple of hours and, if a room is available, you promise to leave zero mess, and the music you'll be recording is relatively quiet — you just might get permission. Hotels want to please guests, so give them the chance to do so instead of causing them think of you as “the problem in 412.”
CONFERENCE ME IN
The downside of recording in a hotel's or a public building's conference room is that those spaces generally lack the sound-absorbing material found in hotel rooms, and thus are not as recording friendly. With some slight modifications, they can be made workable. Use as many diverse surfaces as possible in the room to diffuse sound reflections, especially near the mic positions. Medium- to large-size cardboard boxes, randomly stacked, are good for that (check for boxes out near the dumpsters), but don't leave a mess if you're allowed to use a facility's public spaces.
I got good results in a Comfort Inn's diminutive conference room a few years ago, using many open pizza boxes as acoustic diffusers (see Fig. 5). A local Domino's was kind enough to give us a bunch of boxes when we bought some pizza. Making do with available materials is always a necessary part of recording on the road.
SAFE FROM DISASTER
When traveling, it's especially important to back up of your work. When transporting recording gear, many evils can come your way, including physical damage and theft. To guard against the latter, make sure that your gear is insured and keep it out of sight.
To ensure against losing valuable recording data, develop a good backup strategy and stick to it. Many recording systems allow you to make copies of an “image” of the multitrack performance and also to file copies of each individual track. Store your backups separately from your gear so that if your equipment is stolen, you don't lose all your work, as well.
THE NEW PARADIGM
In this Internet-driven and on-demand world, it's like 1927 all over again. Music-industry moguls and individual performers alike have been forced to reconsider all the basic concepts, from intellectual-property control and ownership to the sanctity of the professional recording studio.
Sophisticated laptop-based MIDI-audio recording systems, as well as easily transportable, personal digital studios, are now accessible to everyday musicians. We can record music anywhere and anytime, and in the coming years, memorable recordings will be made the way they once were — on a back porch, in a hotel room, in an old warehouse, or even in someone's kitchen. I wonder what Ralph Peer would think if he could see what he started.
Pat Kirtleyis a guitarist, composer, and recording artist with an extensive background in pro audio. His latest CD release is Brazilian Guitar (MainString Music, 2002).
CHECKLIST FOR THE TRAVELING RECORDIST
A multitrack recorder or a laptop computer with an external preamp-A/D converter front end.
Original disks for any necessary software in case reinstallation is needed.
Microphones and cables (plus extra mic cables for extensions).
Mic clips or shockmounts.
Foam or mesh windscreens.
Lightweight, collapsible mic stands and minibooms (fold-up tripod bases are easier to transport than weighted round bases).
General-purpose small monitor speakers, preferably active models.
Several pairs of good headphones.
Headphone multidistribution amp with individually adjustable outputs.
Headphone extension cables.
DI boxes, modeling processor-preamps (if necessary), and interconnect cables.
Multioutlet AC strip and extension chord.
Extra recordable media for backups, archiving, and rough mixes.
A pocket 2-track recorder (such as a MiniDisc, a portable DAT, or a hard-disk recorder) and a mini-stereo mic.
Blank media, spare batteries, chargers, and manuals.
Duct tape (don't leave home without it).