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.)
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
All this talk about recording, I might as well share a clip from that concert, right? Here’s one:
It’s almost 6 minutes long, but listen through to the end. GOOD stuff. I recorded, mixed, and mastered it.
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!