About to record yourself live?

Check out our tips for ensuring a successful live recording.
Recording a band's gig is easier now than it's ever been, especially if you're working at a live music venue with a digital desk. Here are some tips to make sure that you're gig recording comes off without a hitch.

1. Plan your recording and your equipment.

Sit down and work out how many inputs or microphones you're going to need based on the instruments that you're going to be using during the gig. You may have a 4 piece band, but what if the guitarist is going to use an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar and a Uke? That's 3 separate inputs into the board. Sit down and plan it out something like this:

1. Kick in / out
2. Snare top
3. Snare bottom
4. HH
5. Tom 1
6. Tom 2
7. Tom 3
8. Floor tom
9. OH L
10. OH R
11. Bass DI
12. Elec Guitar (DI or mic?)
13. Acoustic Guitar DI
14. Uke
15. Lead vocals
16. Backing vocals 1
17. Backing vocals 2
18. Tamborine
19. Keys L
20. Keys R

etc etc.

You can see how you could quickly run out of channels at the venue if you take a 16 channel interface (8 channel interface + ADAT). This'll help you decide whether you need to buy/hire/borrow additional equipment to be able to get the number of channels you need.

This plan will also inform the engineer at the venue how many microphones (and stands and leads) you'll need, and what types of microphones you'll need.

2. Research.
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Call or visit the venue and find out what equipment they have. It's more than likely they'll have a mixer big enough to mic up your band, but how are you going to get the mic signals from the mixer to your recording system? Learning what mixer they have with inform you. If it's an analogue mixer, will you need to use sends to get the signal out of the mixer? Does each channel have a direct out? Can you steal the signal from the inserts (you'll need a custom cable!)? Can you steal the signal from a stage box with a splitter?

If you're lucky enough to find out they have a  digital mixer like the Behringer X32 - it's easy enough to just plug a firewire cable in and steal digital multi track streams. But does the engineer know how to do that? Does he know how to set it up?

Also ask the venue if they have enough microphones or DI boxes for you to achieve you goal. Discuss your mic'ing strategy that you planned out in step one. Will you need to get/buy/borrow any more microphones to record everything you need?

Although maybe a little pedantic, ask for the profile of the in house engineer. Is he an audio engineering or sound engineering graduate or is he a guy they brought in from the bar to 'run the sound'. Whereas a few self taught engineers are pretty good and have learned about the art of engineering from elsewhere, many are not very knowledgable. Maybe they can get an OK sound in the venue but will they understand signal flow, good mic placement and gain staging to get you a good recorded signal. Will he also be able to solve problems thrown up by the recording requirement as they arise?

3. Consider bringing someone in to supervise the recording system. 

You'll be on stage playing and the engineer should have his focus on the band's stage sound. It's unlikely he'll be able to watch the computer all the time so consider paying someone to sit in front of the computer to make sure it doesn't 'hiccup' and stop recording. Although I'm a Pro Tools engineer, I will always use Logic to track live gigs because it's slightly more stable. What happens if someone trips over the power cable and pulls it out? Or your hard drive cable becomes dislodged? Things can happen during a recording pass and having someone there to solve issues may save your recording. Best to lose one song than an entire night's work.

4. Sample Rates, Bit Depth and DAW choice. 

I mentioned before picking a stable DAW. Ask yourself whether your DAW is stable. Does it stop during recording passes at home? If it does at home, it will at a gig - especially when you're recording high track counts. Buying or borrowing a backup DAW might be a good idea, even if it's only for tracking.

For live recording, I would always use 32bit float and 48k to record. 32bit float files are clever and will allow you to recover a recording if digital clipping occurs during a live take - which can frequently happen. You may spend a little more time on the sound check than usual to get the gain staging right, but you may not be able to account for the drummer or vocalist getting excited during the gig and going that little bit further! With sample rates, I don't think there's any need to go higher than 48k (88.2 is the next choice). The recording is unlikely to be clean and it's unlikely you'll be doing any timing corrections during editing.

5. Make sure you check your hard disk space

If you're recording 20 tracks of an entire gig, you're going to need epic amounts of hard drive space. Assume you're recording 20 tracks x 2hrs, which is 2400 minutes of recorded audio. At 32bit / 48k, this works out at close to 27GBs approx. Make sure you have way more space than you need on your computer's hard drive. It's also best not to record to your system drive, unless you're using an SSD, as you can put excessive wear on the mechanical parts of your hard drive. Use a FireWire drive, or Thunderbolt drive, where possible. If you're taking a tower with you, use a second internal drive.

6. Make sure you play the best and most cohesive show you can! It's on tape now. 

7. Consider hiring a professional engineer to mix it. 

Mixing a studio recording of live instruments is hard (forget it if you've only ever 'engineered' loops) and mixing a live show is even harder. The spill from all of the mics makes a very big editing and prep job to get all of your instrument elements clean enough to give you a great mix. Pro engineers understand gating and expansion. They understand effective editing. Sample replacement, etc. Give it to your mate to mix 'for free' - and it's likely they'll hash it up, unless they have training and/or experience.

8. Consider videoing the gig too. 

If you're capturing HQ audio, why not capture some HD video too. Even if you don't use it for a music video, it would make great content for your website or social media and even better - promotional material to get more work.

Better yet,
hire a professional to oversee the recording and mixing of your live record. It may not be as expensive as you think. It would take all of the stress out of the process for the band. A good engineer would do all of the homework and research. They'll likely have all of the right equipment - and if they don't, they wouldn't think twice about buying more stuff... we are gear heads after all.

You may notice that the process in this blog is mainly about knowledge, planning and preparation. Professional engineers have great skill in capturing and producing good music, but they also have great respect for the need for effective and thorough preparation to ensure that they aren't going to waste anyones time (and money) trying to overcome problems when they're on the clock at the gig.

If you want to talk about a live recording for your band, find me at www.davephillipsmusic.co.uk or tweet me to @theprotoolsguy .

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