Study Hall

Backstage Class: How Not To Record A Live Album

A case study in breaking the "golden rules" of recording -- and getting away with it...

Whenever we record music there are certain “golden rules” that aid us in getting the end results we require. These rules are based on years of experience and have been handed down from engineer to engineer as a useful guide to the best practices. While they’re not rigid, experience has taught us that it is wise not to break them if we hope to produce a recording of the required standard (i.e., to be released).

When recording a live concert we tend to rely heavily on these rules because we’re no longer in the controlled environment of the recording studio. The needs of the recording are secondary to the immediate requirement of running the show and providing a pleasing live experience for the audience, not to mention the fact that there’s only one take.

For a few years now I’ve been working as front of house engineer for a band that produces vibrant and energetic live shows, so I suggested trying to capture that energy by recording a live album. An upcoming European tour presented an opportunity but there was no budget available so I had to borrow what equipment I could in order to achieve this aim. The process caused me to pretty much break every one of the golden rules, yet the result was a releasable album.

Making The Math Work

The band consisted of seven musicians playing 10 instruments: full drum kit, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, charango (a 10-stringed South American instrument traditionally made from the shell of an armadillo), strum stick (a three-stringed instrument designed to be simple to play), violin, melodica, trumpet and clarinet. Combine all of that with two additional floor toms (used for the encore) and three vocals, and there was a grand total of 27 inputs. We had a Korg D888 (eight-track, eight-channel, eight-bus) hard disk recorder, and this is where I broke my first rule…

Rule 1: Always record all inputs separately.

Due to the inherently fleeting nature of live performance, it’s wise to record every single stage input on a separate channel because this enables maximum flexibility when it comes to treating and blending the individual elements into the final mix. It also provides the ability to repair any mistakes and even overdub replacement or additional parts – believe it or not, very few live albums are “warts and all” unaltered depictions of the actual event. In the context of a live concert any wrong notes or mistakes are fleeting and soon forgotten, all part of the immediacy of live music.

But if those same mistakes are captured on a live recording and replayed multiple times they quickly become glaringly obvious, jumping out every time you listen to it. So the ability to separate individual instruments and repair, if necessary, can be vital.

However, the recorder afforded no such luxury. I had to find a way to get those 27 inputs down to eight. The key was the realization that while there were multiple instruments on stage, there were still only seven musicians, and while they’re a talented bunch, none of them have yet figured out how to play two instruments at once (Figure 1). All I had to do was assign one channel to each musician (while separating the lead and backing vocals), which resulted in the following track listing:

1 – Drums
2 – Bass
3 – Guitars (acoustic, electric, charango and strum stick)
4 – Violin (plus melodica)
5 – Trumpet
6 – Clarinet (top and bottom microphones)
7 – Lead vocal
8 – Backing vocals

Figure 1: Live and recording inputs.

The hardest decision I had to make was to record all of the drums to one channel. This would be a major issue in the final mix, but there was simply no choice. A drum kit comprises multiple elements that cover the widest frequency range of just about any instrument (with the possible exception of the pipe organ). It’s also a physically wide instrument that benefits from spatial separation of the individual elements via panning, an option which would now be denied because I was recording all 11 inputs in mono on one track.

Rule 2: Always record the raw input signals.

The common practice when recording a live show is to use a splitter to take a complete copy of all of the stage inputs and thus record them before they’re relayed to the front of house/monitor consoles. This ensures capturing the raw signals unaffected by any processing employed for the live mix.

The reason for this rule is that the demands of the recording mix are quite different from those of the live mix. The live mix is comprised of those elements required to reinforce and enhance the ambient sound coming from the stage to create a clear, precise and above all visceral experience for the audience.

The recording mix is much more about presenting a coherent sound that attempts to reproduce the energy and excitement of the concert that will withstand repeated listening.

The live mix is also designed to work on a specific sound system in a particular room, whereas the recording mix needs to take into account the fact that the end result will be listened to on a wide variety of reproduction equipment in various environments. The requirement of recording to eight tracks meant a splitter was not an option.

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