A couple months ago I got a gig recording a live concert. It wasn’t your typical show. One singer, one piano, in a big old church. In addition to recording the concert, I was also in charge of running sound.

Everything turned out really well, but there was a LOT to do and think about to ensure a smooth concert and a great-sounding recording. For one thing, the singer was going to sing several songs with a handheld mic, and several more songs without a mic (opera stuff), but I still needed to record her voice for that.

I don’t do a ton of live concert recording, but if you’re a home studio guy, chances are there are opportunities for you to take your gear “on location” and record a live concert. Might be a new opportunity you hadn’t considered before.

To that end, I’ve got 7 tips for you to ensure a successful live concert recording:

1. Bring more gear than you think you need

You will always need another cable, another adapter, a longer power cable…you name it. If you’re not sure if you need it, bring it.

I packed up my iMac, Presonus StudioLive 1602 mixer, all my mics, all my stands, all my cables…everything I could squeeze into my car, EVEN if I think I wouldn’t use it.

Another tip? Make a list. I wrote down a list of things I absolutely needed for the concert, and I’m so glad I did. As I was getting ready to walk out the door, I looked at my list realized I forgot to pack my mouse and keyboard. (In case you didn’t know, it’s really hard to drive an iMac without a mouse and keyboard.) ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a quick rundown of what I used:

  • Vocal (for handheld stuff) – AKG D5 (dynamic)
  • Piano – pair of Earthworks SR25’s (small-diaphragm condensers) in XY configuration on a single mic stand with a stereo mic bar
  • 2nd vocal mic (for opera stuff) – another Earthworks SR25, placed 5 feet in front of the singer
  • Room mics – M-Audio Luna (condenser) and AKG C5 (handheld condenser)

2. Set up a room mic

If you have the extra mics and inputs, make it a point to set up a room mic or two. You never know when a room mic will save the day. For example, at one point during the concert the pianist did some audience participation stuff. The recording turned out MUCH better because I took the time to set up the room mics, so you can actually hear the audience.

I initially wasn’t going to bother with room mics. I didn’t even have a matched pair of mics available, and I had used all my mic cables and stands on the vocal mics and piano. So what did I do? I grabbed a couple of the church’s cheap mic stands and cables, threw them up in the choir loft and set up a pair of room mics. One was a handheld condenser mic and the other was a large-diaphragm studio condenser mic. You know what? They worked wonderfully.

Even ONE room mic can make a difference…so try your best to capture the room.

3. Know everything you can about the show

Don’t just assume you know what’s happening during the concert. Even if they give you a nice, printed program, ask questions. I didn’t do this very well. Here’s what I mean.

I got to the church early and started setting up. Due to limited cable length (and the fact that I don’t own a snake), I had to set up fairly close to the musicians. So? I set up on the organ behind the piano. Close enough to run cables, but mostly out of site of the audience.

The show was going great, the recording was happening perfectly, and then the pianist announces that he was initially going to play a piece…get this…on the organ, “but the sound man is set up there, so I’ll play something on piano.”

Doh.

Granted, one of them should have probably told me about that way back when I was setting things up, but it could have been avoided if I had simply asked a few more questions.

Will there be any other musicians singing or playing? Will there be any other instruments? Is it okay if I set up on the organ? Okay, I did ask that last one, but obviously it didn’t help. ๐Ÿ™‚

4. Set conservative levels

Once the show is underway, you never know what’s gonna happen. The piano player will play louder than he did at sound check. The singer will sing louder, too. So do yourself a favor and set very conservative levels into your recording software.

The last thing you want to do is have to go back and try to “fix” a bunch of nasty clipping sounds in the recording. It’s a live event, so you can’t stop them and have them “do it again,” so set nice, low levels with plenty of headroom. I tend to want the levels to peak at just a little over halfway up the meter. That gives me plenty of wiggle room, and it doesn’t really effect the recording sound quality at all.

5. Don’t set up behind the musicians ๐Ÿ™‚

Okay, this should be obvious. I touched on this in #3. I set up my rig behind the musicians. Ideally (of course) I would be out in front of the musicians, so I can hear what things sound like through the PA system. Sadly, the way the church was laid out (and my lack of really long cables) meant I had to set up behind the musicians.

The result? I honestly don’t know. ๐Ÿ™‚

Since I wasn’t in front of the speaker, I really couldn’t tell you if her voice was too loud or too soft. I could tell you how the recording was sounding through my headphones, but I had no idea if I was sending the right level to the audience.

Luckily, I snagged a friend of mine right before the show and asked her to text me if something needed to be turned up or down. Primitive, I know, but it helped a little bit.

6. Press record during sound check

I had very little time for sound check, so I had the good foresight to hit record while they ran through one song. This allowed me to go back, listen to each mic, and move the mics as needed.

This saved my butt with the piano mics. The first position sounded okay, but was a little thin. So I moved the mics closer to the hammers and angled the mics out a bit wider (to catch more of the lower and higher notes). Then I had the pianist play a quick 30 seconds while I hit record. After that I let them go get dressed for the show.

Then I went back and listened to the two piano recordings. The 2nd one was MUCH better than the first, so I stuck with that setup. Being able to record and play back (using the StudioLive as both my live mixer AND my audio interface), I was able to adjust the mics and get a great sound without having to simply set up the mics and simply HOPE for a good recording.

7. Check your DAW’s open-ended recording allocation

This is a simple one, but sometimes your DAW (I was using Pro Tools at the concert) has a limit to how long you can record simultaneously. Take two seconds to check that preference. If your DAW is set to 20 minutes, then the recording WILL STOP at 20 minutes, whether the show is at a stopping point or not. NOT good.

Remember to check this. I leave mine set to “use all available space” on the hard drive rather than a hard time limit. That way I know that as long as my hard drive isn’t almost full, I’ve got plenty of room to track the concert.

Ear Candy

All this talk about recording, I might as well share a clip from that concert, right? Here’s one:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

It’s almost 6 minutes long, but listen through to the end. GOOD stuff. I recorded, mixed, and mastered it.

Comment Time

What live recording tips do you have? Have you thought about using your home recording skills to start recording and mixing live records? It’s a lot of fun. You should try it.

Be sure to leave a comment below. Thanks!

  • James Burton

    One other question. How would you record the audio for a situation where part of the concert is just a single person speaking (at normal listening levels), and part of it is extremely loud music (almost like rock concert levels)?

    • You basically have two options: you can change the gain level to accommodate the louder and quieter sections, or you can record at a quiet enough level so that the loud sections don’t clip, and then you can turn up the spoken word sections later in mixing.

      • James Burton

        Ok, Maybe I need to change my mic setup around too. What sort of setup would you suggest I use? I’m mostly a video-oriented-guy.

        • Honestly man just put mics in front of the things you want to record. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • James Burton

    Quick question. How would you suggest recording at a concert or recital when the main instrument is the piano (mic’d), but the singers supporting it are not mic’d by the venue? Using my Rode shotgun at the back of the room got pretty good audio (and the organizer was happy), but I felt disorganized by it, and was somewhat unhappy with the final result. The setup was a piano (mic’d), moving emcee/host (mic’d), with singers behind the piano (un-mic’d).

    • I would set up mics or something like a Zoom H4 (recorder with built-in microphones) on stage to capture the vocalists.

      • James Burton

        What would you suggest for pattern and placement? Would placing a couple of cardioids between the piano and vocalists work? Forgot to mention, but it was about 5-6 singers.

        • I’d say try just a pair of mics and see how it sounds.

          • James Burton

            Ok, I’ll try that.

  • Scott Thorn

    Thanks for this great article. I like that you mention to know everything about the show where you are performing at. I imagine it would be pretty frustrating to not have something function the way you had envisioned it. I would think that having someone brief the performers before the show would be a good routine. http://reliableave.com/audio.html

  • Connie Tripp

    Awesome post…

  • Solomon

    Thank you, really clearly written article, just bought a dictaphone/camcorder and will bare your tips in mind when using it, especially about levels.

  • Kandi Klover

    I had to use a single recorder. Did have a external mic but it was attached to the recorder. One of those little olympus ones.

  • Herschel

    I found this site a couple of weeks ago and have been spending way to much of my free time reading all the great material.

    I’m a one-man videographer and aspiring sound recording engineer. I really like combining both skills and recording live bands.

    I started out with an old 8 channel recorder, then purchased a Tascam US-1641. For some of my jobs I can’t get individual feeds from the FOH mixer (live sound engineers don’t like messing around with a videographer) so I go with one matrix out into a Zoom H4N and then do a EQ at home (no stereo).

    Live recording from the FOH sure makes my videos “professional”.

    Zoom H4N Recording Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ncqdm06AlLU

    Tascam US1641 Recording Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9SDN8T6tt8

  • Jay Plemon

    My live recordings are mostly classical and jazz. We have a medium sized concert hall and generally use a matched pair of Beyerdynamic MC 930’s which are wonderful for picking up a truthful representation of any instrument even from a distance.

    Depending on what the customer wants we can also, mic individual instruments. For example, Live Jazz usually takes up about 16 channels. My rundown as of late has been:
    -Room (Beyerdynamic MC 930)
    -Room (Beyerdynamic MC 930 )
    -OH (ADX-51)
    -OH (ADX-51)
    -Bass (Behringer UltraDI-100)
    -Piano (Earthworks Piano Mic System)
    -Piano (Earthworks Piano Mic System)
    -Guitar (sm57)
    -Sax 1-5 (CX-111)
    -Trombones (Senheiser 421)
    -Trumpets (Senheiser 421)
    -Speaker (Audix Om5)

    All to the presonus 16:4:2 and straight into Logic Pro.

    I have learned all of the above on the fly and have become a better engineer by being able to be flexible and proactive in the field all of which translates nicely to controlled home studio environment. The ability to incorporate both skill sets in each environment allows for a better product while working in either situation.

  • Graham Legge

    Check out the Joeco Blackbox recorder – http://www.joeco.co.uk – not cheap, but it just works…

    24 channels of 24bit 96k recording to an external hard drive – 1U rack mounting – plugs into the channel inserts on your FOH mixer…

    Just hit ‘Record’ at the start of every song (you can even use a footswitch)…

    After the show just plug the hard drive into you studio set-up and drag and drop the files into your DAW of choice…

    And, No, I don’t have any connection to the company – I’m just a very satisfied user…

  • Eduardo Curi

    HI Joe

    Iยดm from Brazil, and Iยดve been reading your website for quite a while. Very good stuff in here, congrats to you.

    Iยดm writing because Iยดm an enthusiast of bootleg recording and everything you said is just so right.

    I spent the last two years recording dozens of bands here in Belo Horizonte at an underground club and put the recording here: http://tecnoartefde.wordpress.com/bootlegs/

    Please, do have a listen and send me a comment, is always nice to have feedback ๐Ÿ™‚

    abs!

  • Charles

    Thanks for sharing the recordings. Good stuff!
    I’m curious what monitoring headphones you were using during recording?

  • Cush

    Joe, Great little article the entire process CAN be quite scary but your mindset saw you through. Wish I had been there peeking over your shoulder. I don’t leave the house before my list has been triple checked. And I agree bring everything it is the last thing you need to happen running out of 10 feet of AC extension cable. I’m afraid I can’t comment about iMac the Mac Pro system and SSL Matrix I was quoted ran $46,000 – ouch! I’ve no worries about you and would hire you in the blink of an eye. wait – ta- go.
    Cush

  • Chelo

    Joe,
    Good stuff, I was wondering, can you check out a recording of mine and give me some advice, it was live too, in a small club though. Let me know.

  • You should invest in a snake for your live set up at least 100FT but other wise you got a great set up and everything else sounds good whit what u recorded and most of all you used what you had and made good use of everything

  • *** Check your DAW’s Record ARM focus settings and TEST them ***

    I recorded a Heavy Metal Album Launch recently by taking 15 line outs from the desk (into my RME Hammerfall) and one room mike for audience.

    Luckily I checked Cubase’s settings for what happens when you select a different track whilst recording. The default action in Cubase is to drop the track out of record mode!!!! I tested them during sound check.

    Conservative levels saved me also. you can’t hear a thing so you can only monitor VU levels.

  • Scot

    Really sweet recording Joe…sometimes Opera leads me to deep REM stage, but this did not – I’m a sucker for beautiful piano, and you really captured it…to expand on Dan’s requests, do you have any pics of your mic setups? I love the descriptions, but am curious about the piano mics – was it an open grand or an upright? Also, you mentioned using X/Y and then increasing the angle which I assume began at 90 degrees…how much did you increase it? Thanks!

    Scot

    • Like a true idiot, I forgot to take pics of the mics before tearing them down after the show. The piano was an old baby grand (poor thing couldn’t really handle how loudly the guy was playing it), with the lid only open a little bit. Mics were right at middle C, maybe 8-12 inches away from the hammers, and yeah, I angled the mics out to more like 120 degrees or something, they were picking up ALL the mid notes and not much of the lows and highs, so I angled ’em out a bit more.

  • Noah

    Great job joe. Now let me hear a live recording of a full band with drums ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I’m not recording opera any time soon.

    • HA! As soon as I record it, you can hear it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Dan

    Way to preserve the dynamic range of the performance! The mic on the vocals really sounds good (especially the distance). I’d love for you to do a show on how you mixed this – how much room you added in, what processing (if any) each track required to get this result. Also, what problems you had to fix (if any).
    Thanks, Dan

  • Good job, Joe. Sounds great.

  • Awesome, Joe!

    What was your final mix decision for the songs with the handheld mic? Did you just use the handheld track?

    Gabe

  • Jim Park

    I’ve had some experience recording live shows, and as Joe suggests, be prepared for anything, because anything that can go wrong will. I’m the “sound guy” with a semi-pro musical theater company, and record all our performances and then mix a CD for the cast and crew — we can’t sell them because of royalty agreements with the publishers.

    Usually, I’m working with an orchestra pit full of mic’d musicians — 10 to 20 of them depending on the show, and a dozen or more actors with head-worn wireless lav mics. The prospects for calamity are high.

    We use a Mackie TT24 digital console, and sometimes two separate pit mixers to get the orchestra up to the sound booth on a limited number of snake channels. Since the TT24 is a 4-bus digital job, I can pull everything together there.

    Because of my DAW’s limited capabilities, I often need to record to two or more separate hard drivers and then pull the tracks together later.

    The prime objective is good house sound, and if we manage to make a good recording, well, all the better. But among the challenges we’ve run into are, heavy breath noise with the headworn mic’s, RF, mics left on while actors are off stage — my fault, I admit — and assorted mystery sounds picked up by the orchestra pit mics. Some of these range from what sounds like musicians eating Doritos, to instruments being knocked over, shuffling feet, and the more than occasional curse when a cue is missed or a sour note escapes.

    Recording is the easy part. Mixing and mastering is a whole other challenge. But like Joe says, keep the levels moderate, leave yourself lots of headroom, and many of those odd sounds and interference become easier to mask.

    Do very thorough sound check and once its running, leave it running. Why do you think your car won’t start the next time you turn the key when it was running just fine the last time you shut it off?

    Thanks for the reminders, Joe. Always useful.

    Jim

    • Xan

      Hi Jim,

      I’m interested in this statement you said here.. “Because of my DAWโ€™s limited capabilities, I often need to record to two or more separate hard drivers and then pull the tracks together later.”

      I’m just wondering what is the procedure you use when you do this later on.. i.e how do you make sure the tracks are lined up & in sync?

      • Jim Park

        I have to use the analog outs on the mixer(s) so it’s basically 2 channels out times 2 or 3. That gives me 4 or 6 stereo tracks to work with, and I try to group them so I’ve got instruments, vocals, drums, etc. as separate as possible by panning right and left each channel right or left. I record through two Rolland UA-25EX interfaces into a PC and a mac laptop, and I go line-in direct into a Marantz 660 recorder.

        I record everything in the same format, 16-bit 44.1 WAV so I get the same output files to work with. You could have difficulty clocking everything the same way, but so far I haven’t had that problem.

        With the recording done, I separate the right and left tracks from each device and save them as single mono files. I then import those files, 4 or 6 tracks, into Adobe Audition and very carefully align them in the multi-track view.

        I use the peaks to line up the tracks, usually a snare drum beat or some other loud noise. Not all the tracks have the same peaks, but somewhere on all the track there will be peaks you can use as markers.

        When I’ve got all my tracks lined up, I trim the beginning of each song track so that all tracks stay in sync by pushing them all far left on the multitrack screen. Then I save them as a session, and they load the same way next time I open them.

        It’s primative and time consuming but it works. I’m saving my pennies for a Rolland Octa-Capture or a Presonus Fire studio.

  • Andrew Bauserman

    Joe,
    Excellent tips. And your recording came out nicely.

    Being a FoH guy, I read your posts and listen to your podcast with Graham for ideas from the home recording world that I can translate to FoH.

    When I run FoH for my church, we mix, record and “master” a stereo CD for reproduction by the time the service ends. No DAW, no Pro Tools. But having a digital board, I’m making use of EQ, effects and serial, parallel and multi-band compression plus a limiter to get a poor-man’s “mastered” CD sound – in real time!

    Then I started listening to FoH with new ears to get that same great sound in the room.

    Thanks in part to the tips, tricks, and explanations you’ve shared from the home recording perspective, my FoH mixes are better than they’ve ever been.

    Blessings to you for the holidays!

  • Freek

    Great! Thanks joe