Live taping HOWTO
I've been taping shows since early 2000.
This page is intended to provide some basic advice about making
decent-sounding audience recordings of live, amplified music and
avoiding some common mistakes. This applies to my recording setup
(Core Sound binaural microphones w/flat frequency response battery box
and a Sony PCM-M1 DAT recorder), YMMV. It's kind of a cheat
sheet of useful things I've learned, including the many mistakes I've made
and how to avoid them.
I generally tape shows with the mics clipped to my shoulders, as far
apart as I can get them. I've also tried clipping them to my collar,
but found the stereo separation lacking. Some people like to clip
their mics to hats or eyeglass frames (the thinking being the higher
they are the less likely they are to be blocked by other people), but
I haven't tried this.
Where to stand
Many tapers consider the "sweet spot" in many rooms to be right in
front of the soundboard (a.k.a. "FOB"), unfortunately people also tend
to congregate and talk there. There is nothing like taping to make
you aware of all the things people do at a show aside from listening to
the music! I prefer to get as close as possible to
the speakers: the closer you are to one of them, the more difficult it
will be for people to carry on a conversation nearby during the show.
Generally my best-sounding tapes have come from standing right next to
a stack, literally about a foot away, so close that there's no room
for anyone to stand between me and the speakers. Tapes made even a
few feet further away begin sounding distant and echoey. The
volume right next to the speakers may be well be uncomfortably loud,
bass in your face and all that...bring earplugs (seriously).
A note on stereo
As one reader pointed out (thanks T.R.), counseling you to stand
really close to one speaker may sound like dubious advice if the show
is in stereo. However, in my experience this has not been a big deal.
Depending on the event and venue, the stereo effects may be
simplistic, or the show may even be mono. Regardless, your
microphones will pick up reflected sound from around the room. I
usually try to stand right next to a stack, slightly towards the
center of the stage, so that the mic on one shoulder is pointed
directly into the nearby stack, while the mic on the other shoulder
points across the room towards the other stack.
IMO, the clarity of recording up close more than makes up for the
loss of stereo. When recording with CSBs, moving away from the
speakers soon results in a recording that sounds like it was made in a
gymnasium -- distant, muddy, and echoey. If you don't believe me,
compare and contrast for yourself: while a band you don't care about
is playing, move from standing right next to the stack to somewhere in
the middle of the room. Then listen to the tape later, and make up
your own mind.
If you are very concerned about stereo you would probably be
better off with cardioid microphones.
Setting recording levels if you can get near the speakers
If I can get close to the stacks, for loud rock music I like to use
line in, with recording levels set to max. This is usually pretty
safe but you might still get clipping, be careful! For quieter music
I use mic in, always at the "-20" setting (be very wary of the "0"
setting, it's actually an amplifier). I'm starting to use the "mic
limiter" feature of the M1 as a safety net: a number of my early
recordings have some clipping, which is extremely annoying and is
difficult to fix even with clip-repairing software (a-la Cool Edit
2000). Recording so that a typical volume level reaches -12 works
pretty well for me. Watch your levels very closely as the show begins
and make adjustments as necessary. Don't fiddle: quickly get them
about right and make only minor changes during the show.
Setting recording levels if you can't get near the speakers
A different approach is required if I can't get close to a speaker or
am in a seated show. In this situation, recording at a fixed level
using line-in often leads to unacceptably low levels for the music.
Likewise, using mic-in can lead to clipping, particularly during the
applause between songs, which may reach your mics at a higher level
than the music. In these situations I've become a big fan of
using mic with auto recording levels (AGC). The M1 does a good job of
getting decent levels for the music but throttling back during loud
bursts of applause. On the M1, AGC only works with mic in and so is
still vulnerable to brickwalling with very loud music.
Use of auto recording levels (AGC) is considered heresy by some
tapers, because the full dynamic range of the performance is not
preserved. This sounds reasonable, as tapers are after all at heart
preservationists. But in some situations this stance is just not
practical and leads to sub-par recordings. Trust me, I've been bitten
more than once by this. You only have one chance to record, and
getting acceptable levels is very important. Capturing the music at
very low levels just because the crowd is relatively louder seems
foolish to me, as does clipping the audience's applause if the levels
are too high. Ask yourself which you would rather have: a
thin-sounding tape where only the applause sounds clear, a slightly
better-sounding tape where the applause clips and distorts, or an
actual good-sounding tape with solid levels throughout?
It should be noted that use of cardioid rather than binaural
microphones in these situations might provide some relief: unlike
binaurals, cardioids are directional and so be pointed
directly at the sound source, thus picking up less of the crowd. However,
I don't own a pair. <g>
This is a hot-button issue among tapers. Many audiophiles sneer at
DAT's LP (32k) mode, which has a frequency response up to 16k and has
a slightly compressed dynamic range when compared to 44k or above. On
the other hand, I think it passes an important real world test: it
sounds pretty good. Several points in favor of LP recording:
On the other hand:
- in many situations the stage microphones and PA system are not
reproducing a lot of very high frequencies anyway.
- Radio broadcasts only reproduce sound up to 16k, and I think LP DATs of those sound great (which is why many people who wouldn't otherwise use LP use it for FM).
- Recording in LP mode uses half as much tape.
- If you record in LP you'll have to resample to 44.1k to put
your recording onto CDR. Doing this properly with decent software
- DAT decks tend to be much more finicky about playback of LP tapes
than those recorded at 44k or higher.
- I think there is an indefinable something to using a higher
sampling rate; as the French would say, a certain
Rechargable NiMh batteries with a capacity of 2200+ mAH are now on the
Distributing carries them (no affiliation, just a happy customer).
I think the batteries that came with the M1 were only 1300 mah. I
always change them between sets just to be safe.
Everyone screws up their first recording. Don't feel bad about
it. To reduce the chances this will happen:
- For your very first show, try taping using line in, with levels set
to maximum. Your levels will probably be pretty low, but on the other
hand your tape will probably come out and not clip during that really
loud part you didn't anticipate.
- Use mic in with caution. I like the higher levels you can get, but
there is also a substantial risk of overloading and clipping.
- Using mic in with bass roll-off can give you more headroom. Bass
is usually a large component of the signal in rock shows; removing
some of it before it reaches your deck makes it less susceptible
- I have never needed to use to use the "0" mic-in setting (amplifier).
Classic mistakes to avoid
The following are all blunders I've made which have either marred or
ruined my tapes, or even prevented me from recording altogether. Don't
say I didn't warn you!
- Be sure you bring all the pieces of your rig with you
inside. I once went to a show in a "no re-entry" venue and left my
battery box in the car. No tape that night. This advice may seem obvious,
but there can be so many things to remember that it's easier than
you might think to forget something (deck, battery box, microphones,
tapes, batteries, earplugs, not to mention whatever other items you usually
carry on your person). (unable to record: luna 2/9/01)
- Double-check to make sure your equipment is working before you go to the show. If you discover
your battery box is run down when you're already inside the
venue you're probably sunk. Change your battery box's 9V as needed.
I try to write the date I changed it on the cell with a felt tip pen so I
know how old it is.
- Battery recharging: when the batteries appear to be fully
charged, put each set in the other bay to make sure they're topped
off. Occasionally I've gotten only partial recharges, apparently due to
a loose connection. It's also important to occasionally condition your batteries (drain and recharge them) so they will hold a full charge.
- Always use the "hold" switch to lock the deck's settings while
recording or transporting the deck. I once wore my batteries down
when the light was inadvertently switched on.
- Check your levels carefully at the beginning of the show and
during particularly loud sections. If using the mic limiter, remember
that the meter will usually show no higher than -2, even when your
levels are way over!
- Don't rest your deck on the stage of a small club, it may be
subject to vibrations that disrupt the recording. (mangled
recording: pierson/parker/janovitz 5/18/03)
- Beware of a loose connection to your battery box. Test for this
by jostling your recorder around while making a test recording
before the music starts, watching for sudden sharp spikes in
the recording levels. These can be dropouts and pops that
will absolutely mangle your recording. This started to be an
issue for me when my equipment was about 3 years old.
In any event, try to otherwise avoid jostles while recording.
(ruined: Yo La Tengo, 10/11/03).
- Try to avoid fidgeting while recording. Try to keep checking
levels or battery power to a minimum -- every time you move the deck
around you run the risk of interrupting the signal, creating a
horrible glitch on the recording. (a few self-inflicted dropouts: Yo
La Tengo, 10/12/04). You might want to use a rubber band to lash the
microphone cable to your recorder, preventing play in the cable.
- Get to the venue early, leaving plenty of extra time. This is
especially important for small, sit-down venues where seating is
first-come, first-served. There have been times I've wound up with
a mediocre tape from a venue I'd had great luck with in the past,
simply because I arrived too late to get a seat close enough to the
speakers (distant recording: 3/15/02).
- Try to avoid tightly coiling your microphone cables, and never
store them coiled. Over time this can cause shorts in the cabling,
requiring expensive repairs. I had to have my mics completely
replaced after 4 years, not because I'd used them heavily, but
just because I'd stored them thoughtlessly.
- The M1 is very slow to load the tape, and will unload it automatically after a few minutes of inactivity. It's better to record a few minutes of filler before the band comes on than miss any of the show.
- Be sure to have at least a minute of tape rolling before any music starts. The beginning of the tape is particularly vulnerable to glitches during playback.
Michael Edmonson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Last modified: 10/16/2004