Capturing live events has never been more straightforward. Digital consoles have simplified the act of making a multi-track recording to the extent where you can just plug an Ethernet cable into a laptop and you’re good to go (assuming everything is set up correctly in the digital domain).
This is great because while the pandemic made all the gigs go away, it also increased the demand for streaming performances as the industry attempts to fill the gap of demand for live music. Therefore, I believe this is a good time to go over some live recording tips.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on a typical scenario where a performance is filmed/recorded “as live” then taken away to be edited/mixed before being broadcast in some form. Check out the sidebar (here) for some advice on live-to-air mixing.
I was recently preparing to pre-record a streaming show and it occurred to me that once the show was finished, the precious multi-track would exist in just one place – my laptop. This made me nervous – what if something happened to my laptop on the way home? I realized that I needed to include some form of redundancy in the system to avoid the risk involved in the data existing in only one place.
So I asked the hire company to provide an extra laptop with a large hard drive and DAW software installed that I could run concurrently with mine to ensure I had a back-up in the event of disaster. Digital networking makes it easy to route the preamps to both laptops and the large hard drive on the back-up laptop meant I could just start it recording at the beginning of the session and forget about it. Once the recording was complete, the back-up laptop went back to the hire company (thus taking a different route to mine) where they held onto it until I got home, made a backup and told them it was safe to erase.
As an additional measure I also took a large external USB hard drive with me and did a full back-up of the data before I left. Thus I felt much happier leaving the venue knowing the audio now existed in three separate places.
Once you’ve set up, sorted out the digital routing and line checked all the inputs the rest of the event should be relatively straightforward – the only requirement being to press record at the right time. However, you might also be required to provide a rough mix.
This could be necessary for the artist to be able to pick or approve the songs which are going to be used, but it might also be required by the film crew or director in order to monitor the performance as well as after the recording is done to provide a rough guide as the footage is prepared for editing. I’ve also been asked to provide a rough mix to a sound recordist who’s present in order to capture any scripted or improvised dialog.
Obviously, a console is needed to do this and ideally you want to be acoustically isolated from where the performance is happening in order to be able to put together a decent mix using monitor loudspeakers. But often you might end up on the side of the stage doing it on headphones and guessing – hence the word rough.
Even if you don’t have a dedicated console, there may be other options. One trick I used when we only had the monitor console available was to set up a rough mix on it, but rather than bother the monitor engineer with an extra mix (who usually has their hands full as it is) or try to have two operators on the same console, I just connected my router and controlled the rough mix using a tablet.
Mistakes are inevitable in any live performance. For an audience at a live show, they’re often barely noticed or quickly forgotten, but for a streaming show that could potentially be played again and again, any mistakes will quickly become glaring, and no performer wants those moments immortalized forever. Therefore, you might be required to do some “repairs.”
My choice of terminology here is quite deliberate; you could just as easily call them errors or mistakes but when it comes to discussing such matters with the artist, I always take care to call them repairs. This helps reinforce the idea that you’ve managed to capture a solid performance which just needs a little touching up to best convey the material without any unwanted distractions.
It may sound to some like an unnecessary lightness of touch but it’s important to keep the performers on your side in order to get through the repair phase quickly and move on to the all-important mixing. This is why it’s important to get rough mixes out as quickly as possible so that the performers can identify any parts they’re not entirely happy with.
I usually divide repairs into two categories: technical for clear errors (such as wrong/unwanted notes or playing something out of time) and artistic (for things that were played fine but weren’t what the performer intended). I often get into the technical repairs while waiting for feedback from the performers, and there’s a lot that can be done with editing, copying and pasting as well as pitch shifting and time stretching. Anything else may well require a visit to the studio for overdubs, or if the performer is DAW literate, you might be able to send out stems via email and get it done that way.
One thing I’m always careful to do is to keep a full list of all the repairs I do. I usually do this in a spreadsheet where I record the song, time index, what was wrong and what I did to correct it. While I started doing this for my own personal reference, I soon discovered that it can be useful to send the repair list to whoever’s editing the footage so they can make sure they avoid showing any musicians playing something that contradicts what’s heard.
Make A Mix Template
The turnaround on live streaming shows can often be extremely swift. Once the performance is recorded, you might only have a few days to do repairs and get the whole lot mixed, so one key way you can streamline the whole process is to prepare a mix template.
Think of this as the recording equivalent of a show file that can be set up in your DAW software at your leisure prior to the recording. Obviously this requires a multi-track recording of the artist in the same configuration as the live stream in order to set it up, but given the ease of live recording with digital consoles and the prevalence of virtual sound checking, this shouldn’t be too difficult.
All that’s needed is to run the audio through your DAW, set up all the channel processing, routing and effects, and then save it as a template. Once the performance is recorded, just insert the audio and you’re good to go.
To make this whole process easier I find it useful to carefully name the tracks when you’re recording to make the files easier to manipulate as a block. I always start the names of the tracks with the number of the original input when live recording and keep my mix template in the exact same order so I can literally just drop the whole chunk in with minimum fuss.
Obviously, the mix will still need to be tweaked to make it work but using a mix template provides a massive head start compared to building the mix from scratch each time.
When it comes to getting into the mix, an approach I like to use is to keep all of the songs together in one linear timeline, which enables me to jump from song to song as I start to build a “global” mix that works across the board. This enables me to use certain songs which feature different elements of the mix, such as the drums or backing vocals, to focus on those elements and better build a sound that works for all the songs.
After a while, I get to the point where I’ve taken the global mix to its logical conclusion, so I start to focus on the needs of individual songs. This is when I begin to split them up, enabling me to apply effects, tweaks and automation to achieve the desired mixes.
As with any type of recording, it’s always important to consider the medium on which the finished mixes will be played. For streaming shows, it could be a television, laptop or even a phone, so it’s always a good idea to listen back to your mixes on these devices to ensure they come across as intended.
Always Keep A Log
DAW software makes it very easy to quickly dip in and out of a project as your schedule permits, but this approach can make it difficult to identify exactly how much time you spend on the project. Therefore, I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a log of what I do and how long it takes me in any given work period making it much easier to account for my time – which is particularly handy when it comes to invoicing for my work.
If you’re working on a large project with multiple songs and versions a log can also be useful to not only keep track but also back track if necessary. I typically make a copy of the project file at the start of each work period, or if I’m doing anything complex, number things sequentially and note them on the log. This makes it easy to go back to an earlier version if a particular song or mix isn’t coming together as it should.
Once your mixes are done, make sure to allow enough time in the schedule for the appropriate people (be they the artist, management and/or the director) to hear and approve them before you send them off to be added to the edit. With careful planning and a good awareness of all stages of the process, you should be able to meet the deadline and ensure the finished product sounds as good as possible.
While the skills for recording and mixing a streaming show might differ from mixing a live show, the end result is invariably the same: a great live performance for both the artist and the audience.