December 29, 2021
Sometimes the energy of a live show just can’t be matched in the studio – especially if you’re great at what you do on stage. This has long been known and the “live album” has been a staple of record label catalogs for ages.
Now there’s even more reason to record live shows properly – to get killer audio to go with great footage. It’s no secret that video is king when it comes to online promotion and not only that, viewers watch live footage more than music videos. So, it pays to get a great audio recording while you’re at it, rather than just whatever the camera audio captures in the room.
Here are a few general tips for recording your live show as professionally as possible.
Whatever you do, don’t throw the house mix on tape and call it done. In fact, that’s the easiest way to get a terrible recording, since the acoustics of the room influence what’s actually showing up at the mix console’s outputs. In many cases, a direct two-track output from front of house will have very little drums, for example – since the drums are loud enough in the room.
Instead, split the signal from every track out to a multitrack recorder and record it raw so you can mix in the studio later. The easiest way to do this is to use a mixer that has direct outputs on every channel. Many mixers substitute inserts instead, but you can use the output of an insert as a direct out – just don’t return the signal to the input side.
Send those signals to a multi-track interface with a laptop, or for better reliability in a tight setting, use a hardware multitrack recorder. Nowadays, you can even opt for a mixer that has recording capabilities built in, or a built-in interface that allows you to connect your laptop directly. Then you can fire up your favorite DAW (digital audio workstation) and capture tracks directly to the platform you’ll be mixing in.
Depending on the size of your group and your budget, you may find you don’t have enough channels on your recording device to record everything separately. If that’s the case, see if your mixer has busses with separate outputs or auxiliary outputs with separate mix controls (often knobs instead of faders).
Use headphones to create buss mixes separate from the house that you can record in groups. For example, if you have 8 channels to work with and a full band, you may need to combine drums on one stereo buss, all keyboards on another buss, guitars on another, and all vocals on the last. You may also be able to combine instruments on single channels, further maximizing channels. For example, two lead vocalists who rarely sing together can be comped to one mono channel.
Just be sure to plan before the gig, and account for every instrument in the group.
Speaking of accounting for everyone, make sure every instrument is miked or wired up. It may seem obvious, but there are plenty of instruments which won’t need any reinforcement in many venues – like horns. Believe it or not, these instruments are often forgotten in the recording plan until later when it’s discovered they aren’t there. “We don’t actually have a bagpipe track!”
With some hardware recorders, you may get away with simply hitting record and doing the show. In other situations that might not work so well. If you’re recording to a laptop, for example, you could run into trouble if you try to record for too long at a stretch. Having a tape operator on your team means that person can stop, save, start again, even change over to a new project at intermission.
When you’re planning, make sure to plan for enough hard drive space to get the job done. It’s easy to forget that step and just plug in your laptop, not realizing that the hard drive doesn’t have all that much available space.
For reference, CD quality audio (44.1 kHz, 16 bit) takes up 5 MB per track minute. That means a typical 3-minute song of 16 tracks takes up 240 MB. After an hour or two, you’ll be using up some serious hard drive space.
As a final thought, we all know recording reveals every flaw. If you’re preparing to record a live gig, you’d do well to work out kinks that you may not have bothered to otherwise. Even in a studio setting, things don’t always need to be perfect, because you can punch in and fix. But for a live show that you hope to get a great record out of, you’ll need to be able to play through entire songs and sets flawlessly.Pro tip: record many rehearsals. This will give you practice with the recording process as well as reveal things you need to work on to tighten up for show day.
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