Live for the Record
How to record a cheap live album — an easy way out with direction courtesy Richard Elen.
Last month Richard Dean told us about releasing your own disc. Now Richard Elen describes a cheap and easy way of getting that all-important master-tape.
The big problem involved in producing your own albums, or getting together a demo tape or acetate to persuade the record companies that Your Thing is something worthy of their investment, is actually recording the songs in the first place. This can be an expensive business, as if the cost of cutting and pressing wasn't enough already.
It is fair to say that the average record company or music publisher is likely to prefer a studio-recorded demo, and these days probably a tape — 7½ or cassette — in preference to a disc (even Eurovision is done from cassettes these days). This immediately means the whole thing of recording studios, albeit 4- or 8-track. But if you intend to produce a limited-edition album for sale at gigs, friendly record stores, and so on, there's no reason why you shouldn't release a live album.
Omigod, you shout, but live albums mean mobile recording units, hundreds of mics, pounds, reels of tape, hours of mixing, mistakes you can't remove... but we're not thinking of hiring the Basing Street or whatever mobile at this point, we'll just use a 4-track machine. So any reels of tape will be a quite normal size. And you'll need just a couple more mics than you usually use for the PA. Mixing will probably take about the same time as the total running-time of the tracks, and the only thing you'll need apart from the 4-track recorder, stereo mastering machine, and normal PA equipment will be an extra stereo recorder with varispeed, for the mixdown. Weird? Bizarre? Strange? Yes, perhaps, but the system will offer an exceptionally cost-effective method of producing the all-important master-tape you'll need for your private album project.
Before we get on to the practicalities of recording the said live gig, let's think about live recording in general. These days it's not at all unusual to employ a full 24-track mobile, record a fair number of gigs, mix down at a large studio and come out with a double album. That is, if you've already had about half a dozen top-selling LPs released over the previous few years. None of this is for us. We are considering releasing a live album as our 'first offering'. This gives us a number of advantages.
To start with, we don't have the time or money to do what a number of bands do these days, and that is to partially re-record a live album in the studio. It is not unusual for the band to listen through the multitrack tapes of the gig and find, horror of horrors, that the string synth is at least a semitone sharp, for example. The obvious solution is to re-record the synth. Fine. Now unfortunately there's a bit of leakage from the old string synth on to the acoustic guitar (it must have been blasting through the monitors). No problem, overdub the acoustic. It was a pretty bad performance anyway, especially that string breaking in the fifth number... Very soon this top-notch band have re-recorded practically everything in the studio that they played at the gig — apart from the audience mics which they fade up at the end of each number for the 'live' effect (they can't be kept in during the numbers because of leakage from the PA). It might as well have been a studio album. It certainly bears no relation to the original gig. One definitely feels that this type of album release — which is very common — should not be called a 'live album' at all. The Trades Descriptions Act might be called in. Better to say: 'The Bloggs Band, adapted from their performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in June 1997', or something similar.
However, we digress. The point is, a live album might as well be a true representation of the band's live performance. In our case, this is particularly important: members of the public can buy a copy of an actual performance, perhaps even one they attended or at least something very similar. And what the tape lacks in technical accuracy it will more than make up for in feel. OK, so there will always be that odd phrase that's duff, or that bit of bad timing, but all in all it scores 'cos it's real. Obviously it needs to be a tape of a good gig, so we'll have to record a few and get the best: maybe even select tracks from a number of concerts (though it will be better for continuity and general sound if we select 'an album's worth of tunes' from the same gig), but the effect will be pretty impressive. So let's get the gear together.
For the concert itself you'll need a 4-track recorder — the Teac A-3340S is a goodie for this type of work — and a good supply of tape. As a 10½in NAB spool with standard studio-type tape on it will run for about half an hour, make sure you've got enough! Don't forget that someone may well have to change reels in a hurry just before your 20-minute number and they may not have got to the end of the reel before the changeover. Obviously there will be some loss of recorded time when reels are changed: whether or not you lose the first few bars of a piece will depend on how much time there is between numbers, of course. Ideally you'd use two 4-tracks, paralleled-up so that overlapping segments may be recorded, but it's unlikely you'll find a second machine. Never fear: if you miss a bit you'll just have to extract the song from another gig. It's not any real problem.
You'll also need a couple of microphones, ideally the best you can obtain, hiring if necessary. A good bet is the AKG D202, or the new 222. Both these mics are dynamic, so they require no power supply (unlike condenser types). They also have a 'cardioid' characteristic which makes them ideal for stereo applications like this one. Alternatives to the dynamic mics are good quality 'electret' microphones like those made by Sony. These have an internal battery power supply and are relatively cheap. In addition you'll need a suitable assortment of mic cables, to connect the mics up to the appropriate inputs on the tape machine, plus a mic stand and some kind of stereo mounting bracket to take the mics (though two separate stands will do instead).
Stereo mounting brackets are available commercially (AKG again) and consist of a bar which mounts horizontally on the mic stand, fitted with bolts to take a pair of clips for the appropriate mics. Obviously you can make one out of a piece of wood as an alternative. The requirement is to be able to support the mics firmly in a 'crossed cardioid' configuration with the mics pointing forward horizontally, one just above the other, with the mic capsules crossing at right angles (see fig 1). This configuration produces a very realistic stereo image which is capable of capturing all sorts of ambient effects caused by the acoustics of the venue, giving added realism to the tape. On headphones it also provides a good second-best to surround-sound. If you elect to use two separate mic stands, you'll have trouble balancing them in the crossed position, but an alternative is to have the mics pointing forwards about six feet apart. This will give a wider and more impressive stereo image, which you may find preferable to the inherent subtlety of a coincident pair.
All you require then is a pair of cables to run from the mixer's record outputs to the line inputs of the 4-track. If there is no record output on the console, you'll have to make up splitter leads for the main group outputs, splitting the signal between the PA and the recorder. A simple parallel arrangement is usually quite sufficient if the desk has unbalanced main outputs. If only a balanced output is available, you may need your technical guy to build a couple of matching units with a transformer in each to unbalance the line to the tape recorder without affecting the PA feed. A couple of passive di boxes plus two XLR splitter leads will do instead; see fig 2.
Now, before we go on to actually recording the gig, a word of advice for the sound engineer: don't let the band persuade you to do the PA mixing and handle the recording. It is absolutely necessary to have someone around whose job is operating the 4-track, setting levels and changing spools. It's impossible to do a good job mixing and recording at once, as can be imagined. So get someone on hand who knows about tape recording and can cope with the high pressure that will occur, especially when changing reels at an awkward moment. Familiarity with the particular 4-track will help here.
At the venue itself, the tape machine should be set up near the mixing console, but not in the way. Mixers usually end up in appalling places, but try and get it in the centre (left to right) of the hall on this occasion at least. Try and ensure that there is room round the machine and in front of the console: put the 4-track on its own table with plenty of room for reels of tape, separating used from unused. Make sure there's enough room in front of the console to place the mic stand(s) — obviously there needs to be access to the sockets on the desk for both recordist and mixer, but leave extra room so people can fiddle with plugs and sockets without knocking the mics. The mics themselves should be placed as near to the centre-line of the hall as possible, except when using the separated 'space-mics' when they should be arranged equidistant either side of the centre (see fig 3).
Plug the mics into two adjacent channels of the recorder, both to minimise crosstalk and to ensure that it is obvious which levels are which. You can allocate, say, tracks 1 and 3 to the mics and 2 and 4 to the PA feed, for example. On the A-3340 this'll give you the top pair of meters reading the mics and the bottom pair indicating PA feed levels. This makes it far easier to see what's going on without having to work it out. Ensure you've got a reading lamp or something on the recorder table so you can see the knobs, amount of tape left, and so on. Meters are usually illuminated, but this ain't enough.
Plug the PA feed-lines into the console and terminate them at the line inputs of the two spare channels of the recorder. It's easy to plug mics and lines into the same channels, especially if there are separate sockets for each type of input: make sure you don't.
With any luck you'll get a sound-check or something to set levels on. But if in doubt, set the record output controls on the desk to about half-way, and the same with the machine levels. You'll probably have to turn the mic levels down and the PA feed levels up: do this on the tape machine, unless you run out of PA feed level, in which case get the sound engineer to give you more. Obviously, throughout this article, I've been assuming that you've never tried recording like this before. If you know all this already, OK. But not everyone does. The only requirement for the 'tape-op' is that the signal gets on to tape without going over the top or suffering hums, nasty noises, and so on. Thus a pair of cans connected to the machine monitor output is a good idea. On the Teac, a stereo headset can be switched between each pair of tracks, or you can have a mix of all four in the centre switch-position. Just monitor one pair or the other: don't worry about how they compare with each other. Just listen to the signal being recorded by the mics, or what's coming off the PA feed. Never both.
Of course, having taken my words in vain, you'll now do so. The result is a mess. Why? Well, the sound leaving the stage has to travel through air to reach your mics, while the PA feed gets its signal at the speed of light. So there's a delay between the PA signal reaching tape, and the mic signal arriving. The further your mics are from the stage, the longer the delay will be. Don't worry about it. Just go ahead and record the gig(s) and... best of luck. You could ask the sound engineer to be a bit more adventurous with the stereo positioning than usual, as the PA mix will form the basis of the final master.
So now we come to the mix. This will require a few technicalities, but nothing serious. Ideally, book some time into a cheap little 4-track studio and do it there: all you need, as described earlier, is a third machine with variable speed. A Revox is fine for this. If you can't get into a studio, I don't really see how you can afford to produce the album, but if you're really cost-conscious, you can use the PA mixer. Better not to, though. Spend the bread. It'll only be a couple of hours of studio time, at the most.
Plug up the two channels from the 4-track which you used to record the microphone signal at the gig into two channels of the desk. Then take the other two outputs (carrying the recorded PA feed) to the input of the varispeed tape machine, which should have off-tape monitoring. Take the outputs of this (stereo) machine to two more desk channels. The varispeed machine should by fully loaded with tape (blank), as this will supply the delay required to bring the PA and microphone tracks back into sync. The desk outputs should be connected to the stereo mastering machine, running, of course, at 15in/s. See fig 4.
Fade up one of the direct channels and one of the mic channels to about the same level (the vari machine must be running, of course, and switched into record hut replaying simultaneously off-tape). Start with the vari machine running at about 7½in/s, and turn the speed up until the delay disappears. If necessary, go up to 15in/s. As the primary signal is being sent through the vari machine, which must be up to spec and have good, new, tape on it, correctly aligned, otherwise the quality of the master will suffer. Ideally the delayed signal should be brought up so that it is just a fraction ahead of the non-delayed signal from the microphones.
On the final tape, therefore, the PA feed signal should just precede the mic pickup signal in time. The PA mix forms the basis of the master and the mic recording adds guts and ambience to the 'clean' PA feed. If the mic and PA signals 'arrive' at exactly the same time, bizarre phasing effects will occur: not complete phasing, because of the extra ambience on the microphone tracks, but enough to produce a useful special effect if required. This can be done by advancing and retarding the varispeed knob on the delay machine carefully, so as not to cause noticeable pitch-changes. But in general, keep the PA signal just ahead of the mic signal.
For the mix, the two pairs should be routed left and right, so that either signal, PA or mic, on its own, provides a stereo picture. Alternate the two pairs and ensure that left and right are the same side on each pair (unless you want to cross them as a special effect). Then mix away. In general, use the PA mix as the main signal, with the mic tracks as backup; mix according to taste. You may end up with both pairs at the same level: whatever you like, it's your album.
After the mix, just take a cassette or whatever away and decide which tracks to use. Edit them together, with 3-second leaders, or just keep your chat from the gig (edited down, of course: it is supposed to be a music album after all), and divide it into two equal sides, preferably not much over 20 minutes each in length. Then all you need to do is to get hold of a company that does tape-to-disc in the quantity you require (they advertise in all sorts of places: try our own or Studio Sound's classified ads section, Exchange & Mart, or Kemps Music & Recording Industry Yearbook or local equivalent) and get your cover artwork together (hopefully you took some pics of the gig for example). Then proceed as Richard Dean suggests, in the August issue. Good luck: perhaps you can send us a review copy?
Feature by Richard Elen
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