Nowadays, those all-too-geeky live electronic-music events have become a norm in clubs, complete with the ghostly, illuminated faces of nonanimated performers staring intently down at their laptop screens. But before you van-driving, guitar-cab-hauling band members scoff at this seemingly comatose musical activity, there's a lesson to be learned from those notebook-toting mannequins: I'll bet my pet cats that inside the vast majority of those laptops dwells a multitrack DAW of one kind or another that can record more tracks than all of the cassette 4-track recorders you've ever handled combined. And if one of those computers houses a slightly above-average CPU, it can likely handle all of those tracks simultaneously. Why is this important? With a decent laptop, a proper audio interface and a good sound engineer, you can not only record stereo files of live gigs for reference (or for sale on the spot), if the proper mixing board and cables are present, but also multitrack your live shows and mix or edit them later.
MOBILE FOR THE MASSES
Most musicians, even technophobes, at least know about Digidesign Pro Tools. But there are many other software and hardware choices beyond the world of Pro Tools making the different possibilities of a mobile-recording rig pretty vast. Pro Tools enjoys the distinction of being the pro recording industry's gold standard — any professional facility usually has at least one Pro Tools station that can import your entire prerecorded sessions for proper mixdown. The downside to Pro Tools software is that it requires the use of Pro Tools hardware, limiting your choices of audio interfaces (though those choices have recently been expanded to include many of M-Audio's units). Some of the most common full-blown DAW alternatives are Cakewalk Sonar (Windows only), Apple Logic and MOTU Digital Performer (Mac only), and Steinberg Cubase. A few lesser-known DAWs are Mackie Tracktion and Ableton Live (lesser known in the sense that though not a typical DAW, it is capable of unlimited multitrack recording).
Just about every software DAW out there besides Pro Tools supports a large variety of audio interfaces. That said, a ton of them are available, from PCI to USB to FireWire types. They come in all sizes and price ranges, from as little as about $100 to several thousand dollars. If your mobile-recording goals are to just capture a stereo mix, then almost any interface will do. However, there are a few features that I would highly recommend you look for: At least one pair of separate left and right inputs on either XLR or ¼-inch (preferably TRS) jacks is a good idea. These jack types will be most compatible with the majority of live-console outputs. Input trim controls are a definite help. Available headroom (clean sound before signal clipping occurs) can be limited with many digital audio interfaces, particularly less expensive ones, so it pays to be able to tame the incoming signal. Some interfaces even feature input limiters; these can provide an extra level of precaution. As someone who has recorded a lot of live performances, be-lieve me, nothing is worse than capturing a killer performance only to have a few isolated sections (like when a drummer smacks really hard) blow the whole recording. The next feature to look for is a headphone output (preferably a professional-quality ¼-inch type). This will be of tremendous use when you want to monitor the show as it is being recorded. Finally, though not absolutely necessary, it's wise to choose an interface that features no-latency monitoring.
PLUG AND PLAY
If you plan to go all out and record multitrack versions of your gigs, then a multiple-input interface is obviously essential. Again, I recommend looking for one with inputs on XLR or balanced ¼-inch jacks — especially cool are the ones that provide combination TRS/XLR jacks so that you can select which ones to use in different scenarios.
Once you have your multiple-input audio interface, how do you work it into a club's P.A. system? If you're lucky, the club's console will have direct-output jacks on each channel. In this case, it's a simple matter of running cables from each relevant console output to the different inputs on your interface. In most cases, direct outs on a console will be found on ¼-inch jacks, and they may or may not be balanced. If you choose an interface with balanced inputs (recommended) and use balanced cables, things should work fine. If the console has balanced outputs, you're almost assured of a clean recording. If the console has unbalanced outputs, you will still capture the audio, but you will sacrifice the balanced signal.
If you're not lucky enough to interface with a console that sports direct outs, some signal splicing is in order. In this case, it pays to have XLR inputs on your interface. You'll need some Y cables that can take the stage feeds to the board and split them; one wing of the Y will feed the console while another will go to your interface. Do discuss this with any house engineers before you start pulling cables, and do a soundcheck to make sure things are not noisy in the house or your recordings before you start the show. Y cables can be noisy, though if they are balanced throughout, you're probably okay. If your interface has ¼-inch inputs instead of XLR, you will need ¼-inch — to-XLR adapters. This is precisely the time when having balanced TRS inputs on your interface is the key to capturing a clean, noise-free performance every time.
Finally, if you need more channels than even the most robust single interface provides (and you're on a Mac), never fear. With Mac OS X Tiger, you can use multiple interfaces in a single application as if they were one (for details, see “Purring Along” in the August 2005 issue of Remix).