Growing up, I’d stay awake each New Year’s Eve to watch the telecast of the Times Square ball drop. It was always a bright, colorful spectacle.
In my teens, I visited Times Square in person. Standing in the middle of New York City, my gaze followed someone’s pointed finger towards the top of a distant building. “That’s where the ball drops.”
Really? How underwhelming.
Once you see it in person, you realize that the ball drop is a better presentation on TV than it is in real life. A wide-angle camera shot showing an accurate perspective – a relatively tiny object from relatively far away – would be pretty bland on TV.
You could say that the philosophy governing this production is not to seek to convey a truly accurate representation of being there in real life, but rather to create an engaging, larger-than-life viewing experience that in some ways is may be more “ideal” than the event itself.
Think about how studio recordings were made in the 1940s and 50s. The recording industry was dominated by a handful of major labels that operated their own studios, usually in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood.
Making a record basically consisted of putting the musicians in a big room and letting them play, with a couple of microphones to capture the proceedings. Philosophically, the goal was to simply record whatever it sounded like in the room. The acoustic environment of the studio was an inseparable element of the recording, which was unprocessed, un-doctored, un-romanticized – a wide shot of Times Square.
Today’s popular music recordings can take advantage of all sorts of electronic tools to enhance performances themselves – pitch correction, quantization, overdubs – and create interesting sounds and sonic environments that couldn’t possibly exist in real life. I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing, it’s just a different approach.
It’s the difference between a documentary about ancient Sparta and the movie “300.” A rich, polished production – zooming in on the Times Square ball – is what many listeners have come to expect.
Setting The Agenda
What about live recordings? They might seem, by nature, more in line with the “old school” recording philosophy – an accurate, real account of a performance. I submit that this is not the case.
Stand in a room with a friend and have them talk. Record the speech on your smartphone. Pay careful attention to the acoustic experience in person, then put on some headphones and listen to the recording. Many people are shocked by how much reverb and reflections dominate the recording.
If the goal was simply to capture what you would have heard in the room, slap up a pair of microphones at front of house and call it a day. Lots of engineers do this regularly via a smartphone XY-pair attachment or the ubiquitous Zoom H4 and recorder. The problem is that the resulting recording bears little resemblance to actually being there. Most listeners would be disappointed by a live album of this quality.
This was there all along, but when you were in the space, your brain used directional cues from your pinna to key in on direct sound from the source and de-emphasize everything else.
Psychoacoustically, we can “refocus” our auditory perception, like eavesdropping at a party, without moving our heads. (By contrast, we have to point our eyes at whatever we wish to see. We can “listen to” but we have to “look at.”) It’s sometimes called the “cocktail party” effect.
Recording the source with a microphone short circuits our directional mechanism, and reverb becomes a nuisance. So we can therefore deduce that the “perfect amount” of reverb in a live venue (good luck with that) is not the ideal amount for a live recording of the same show.
Even in a nice recording studio, the reverberant field is what it is, and we get what we get. And I doubt a hockey arena is an optimal acoustic environment for any recording.
So my live recording strategy is to try to minimize the contribution of the actual venue acoustics and replace it with artificial reverb that suits my purposes.
This might seem dishonest, but sound engineers routinely idealize things.
Think about what we would consider the “perfect” rock kick drum sound. How many real, physical kick drums have you encountered that sound like that?
No one in their right mind would listen to a concert with their head inside a kick drum, or an inch from Steven Tyler’s mouth for that matter – but that’s exactly where we consider an optimal mic placement!
Then we add a nice reverb of our own, and we end up with a version of the source that sounds better than the actual source in the room.
Can I Have Another (Mic)?
Once we’ve come to terms with the inherent “romantization” required to create a pleasing recording, we can look at what we need to do technically to accomplish it.
First, put a mic on everything. We will seek to minimize room sound, so we can’t count on ambience to pick up stage bleed. If we don’t mic something, we won’t have it in the final recording. We also need to capture the response of the audience, for this is the heart and soul of a live recording. I use directional condenser mics placed to reject the mains and isolate the crowd.
Further, while multi-tracking a club gig, I deployed a pair of hypercardioid large-diaphragm condensers, positioned on the downstage edge, adjacent to the main stacks. Precise aiming placed the PA in the mics’ null zones, and I was pretty surprised by the minimal bleed from the PA considering the proximity.
It helps to use a healthy number of audience mics because we want to hear people, not persons. A more representative sound will result with more mics, and there’s also a better chance of being able to edit out “screaming drunk guy” (there’s always one).
Since we want to capture the audience, not the room, my mic placements are relatively close and point away from the stage.