What's a Working Band to Do?
Part 4: Sound Decisions about Live Recording
by Erik Jay
“What’s a Working Band to Do?” is a practical series of how-to articles. It is not about describing the unified field theory or exploring the outer reaches of human philosophy; it’s about working in the music business in the real world, so it’s not even about being a star, okay? It’s practical, do-able advice.
Okay, so you’ve decided what three tunes you want for your demo, but you can’t decide whether to just record a gig or go into the studio. In this article, we will look at how to set up some low-cost equipment for doing your own demo of a live show; in the next article, you’ll be shown how to set up your own, modest “project studio” for multitracking your demo. However, assuming you don’t want to do either of these deeds yourself, you can wait just a bit longer for a later article in this series, which will teach you what to look for in a studio for hire, whether for mobile recording of your live show or in-studio construction of your demo.
Right now, of course, you have already gotten your arrangements together, rehearsed the tunes a million times to get ‘em tight, charted out the songs the way that you need them — so you’re ready. Now, the big question: Ready for what?
Recording a live show presents a unique set of challenges: The main drawbacks are that the sound is less controllable, it is next to impossible to fix any band errors or sound-equipment glitches, and if one of your selling points is your live show, you will also need a video of a live gig, so you will have two such recordings. The upside to recording a live show? It has an excitement level hard to achieve in the studio, it is faster and cheaper to make, and if done right it can cover all the bases, selling your songs and your show.
There are a ton of 8-track digital recorders on the market from Korg, Fostex, Yamaha, and other manufacturers, ranging in price from $300 to $3000 or more; you don’t need the best, but the least expensive might not have all the options you need. To record a live show, you will need at least four microphone inputs and a couple of direct (line) inputs; the former will capture the drums (in a perfect world, two or three mics would be on the drums), vocals, and the guitar amps; the latter can take the keyboards (if any) and bass as direct inputs. You may need direct-input (“DI”) boxes or not, depending on the specs of the recorder you’ve chosen. You might also want to take the house PA and feed that to a line-in as well. This article can’t be exhaustive on these options because there are so many, so do your homework before starting — the Internet, of course, is a great library, or talk to knowledgeable friends or acquaintances about your plan.
If the venue has a good mixer on-site, you could also take a stereo line out to your mobile recorder, or even (with the right number of inputs) take direct outs from each mixer channel — drums, vocals, etc. If the club has a good sound guy, use his expertise as well (and for crying out loud, at least find out what his favorite imported beer is and get him some, preferably after the recording’s done, of course).
If your recorder has a hard drive, it will be plenty big enough in the current models of these digital 8-tracks to record your whole show, after which you can pull out the tunes you want for your finished demo. If the recorder uses flash memory of some kind — Compact Flash (CF) is most common, although it could be “memory sticks” or Secure Digital (SD) — make sure to get enough to do the job. CF and SD modules are under a hundred dollars for the 2GB size, which will get you plenty of recording time. The recorder manuals will tell you how much time each size module is good for, based on the recording specs (a sample rate of 44.1 kHz at 16 bits, for example, is CD quality). Your recorder may offer higher sample rates (48 or 96 kHz) and more “bit depth” (24), and these higher specs can double or quadruple the size of your sound files.
Once you have your show recorded, you will need to do some “large scale” editing, meaning you will chop the good tunes out of the show. Make sure to take a good 15 seconds before and after each song, and save the rest anyway, since you may need some crowd noises (and more applause) to insert in the final mix. Ah, there’s the word I’ve almost dreaded arriving at — “mix.” Yep, it’s time for The Mix!
The better portable digital recorders have on-board effects like reverb and compression, but you won’t want to go overboard on effects with a live recording; it already has its own natural reverberation going, thanks to the room that you recorded in. You may need some compression on some tracks, but the major challenge will be to adjust the levels of the various parts. This isn’t easy, and you will be stuck with what you recorded, plus you will have tons of “bleed” across the tracks; the vocal microphone was picking up everything else, right? And the other mics did the same thing. A final hurdle for mixing a live show on the portable recorder is the limited data display; you will not be looking at wave forms on the little display of an 8-track Korg recorder, so it’s a tough job. You may need to beg, borrow, or bribe some help for this step.
Of course, you could also transfer (“dump”) all your tracks into a computer DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and do the editing and mixing “in the box,” as they say. This would allow for much greater control of the material, although you are still limited by what the recorder captured, with all that bleed and everything. But this would be a better way to work with the sound files, and if you have a bandmate who has any halfway-decent audio software on his computer (even Garageband on a Mac or Cakewalk Home Studio on a PC), then this is the route that you should take.
Well, there you go, the basics of making your demo from a live recording. You will need to study up on mixing if you don’t have someone who knows how to do it (with the tools now available, even a talented amateur can get fairly good results). Never just slap something together; this is your career you are working with, remember? Now, if the live recording option seems a little loose and unpredictable to you, you might want to consider going the project-studio route, yours or someone else’s, so make sure to come back for the next article in this series, Part 5: Sound Decisions about Studio Recording. See you then!
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.