Record Your Live Gig
Low Cost. Use a reel to reel or cassette multi-track recorder.
Here's the problem; your band needs a demo tape to pass around to the local bars, but no one in the group has the thousand dollars needed to pay for studio time. Bummer!
Here's the solution; spend a couple of hundred bucks for a good used four-track reel to reel recorder and record your next gig live. Then mix down the best songs of the evening for your demo. Why use an open reel recorder instead of a 4-track cassette? One of the answers is time. Some of the better r.to r. recorders produce acceptable quality recordings at slow tape speeds (3 3/4 ips). Using this speed provides ninety minutes of recording time on one fifteen-dollar reel of tape. Editing your tape during mixdown is also easier and quicker at this speed. Also, you'll only need to change an open reel tape one time during a four hour gig. With high speed cassette you'll be putting a new tape in the recorder every fifteen minutes, and you WILL run out of tape right in the middle of the best song. Of course with open reel recorders, if you record at a higher tape speed the sound quality is better, so the question becomes one of economics versus sound quality. I suggest using the slower speed during your first attempts at live recording, and using the faster speeds once you refine your techniques. Yes you can use a 4 track cassette recorder, but the budget models are marginal at best for live recordings. However, there are some very nice cassette recorders available.
Another benefit of r.to r. is headroom. Regardless of what the spec sheet says for cassettes, I believe that open reel recorders can handle sudden, loud music spikes much better than cassettes. Less distortion is better.
One important word of caution. Almost any open reel recorder you find will be at least twenty years old, so you should test it out completely before you buy it. Replacement parts are nowhere to be found, and you may end up having to use a vacuum cleaner belt for the main transport drive.
Why use obsolete technology for recording? Because it's fun and works well enough!
Congratulations! You found a good reel to reel 4-track recorder and now you're ready to record every gig you'll ever play. Keep your interest high and please don't become frustrated. It takes time to perfect your recording skills.
For your first attempt at recording the band on stage you should allow two hours for setting up the recorder and volume checks. Place the recorder to the side of the stage where you can watch the VU meters as you play the gig.
If you are the person who will be doing all the mix down and editing required to produce a good demo tape, then you are also the person to be setting all the input volume levels. DON'T ask your good buddy to help control the volume levels going into the tape deck! Ideally you should find input levels that can be set at the beginning of the gig and left alone for the entire gig.
Now for the set up. You will need two good microphones, preferably two identical mics. Shure SM 57's or SM 58's are good choices. These two mics will be located above the band and a few feet in front of the bandstand. They will provide the guitar, keyboard and drum signal going to the recorder. They also provide the ambience (audience chatter and applause) for the demo. Either hang the mics from the ceiling or use tall boom stands so that nothing can come between the mics and the drums or amps. Microphone placement is most critical in obtaining a good stereo recording. Both mics should be located near the center stage, one facing slightly left and downward, the other facing slightly right and downward (downward means toward the amps and drums). Don't put the mics on the floor, keep them higher than the band members heads. These mics will be plugged into channels one and two (or left and right front) of the recorder. Their input levels should be identical.
Next you should run a direct line from the P.A. to channel three of the recorder. Use a line out from the P.A. head so the vocal effects (reverb, echo) will be recorded. Monitor outs usually don't include the effects. If the P.A. system is stereo you will need to either use a stereo to mono adapter or mixer. Don't combine a vocal track with one of the mic. tracks or the bass track (the bass will be track four). Keep all the vocals on one track; you'll understand why when you work on the mix down.
Finally, the bass gets channel four all to itself. Use either a direct line from the bass amp, or mic the bass amp. I prefer a direct line out from the amp to the recorder.
Here are a few important points
1. Plug the line outs for the P.A. and bass amp into the line ins of the recorder (not the mic inputs).
2. Keep the input levels lower than they were set during the sound check. Too low is better than too high.
3. Don't adjust the input volume levels on the recorder during the song--you'll just mess up the recording of that song. Wait until the song is finished. It's better to have the level constant through the entire song, even if the VU meters are peaking out.
4. Don't let any other person adjust the levels on the recorder. Your knowledge is the one constant in this whole thing.
5. Remember that the P.A. vocal mics are also picking up the amps and drums. The signal level going to the recorder can quickly double in strength when everyone is playing and singing. Keep the input levels set LOW.
6. If you mic the bass drum and run it through the P.A., it will destroy the vocals on the tape. You must find your own solution to this problem.
So now you've got three or four hours of tape. Your band is recorded on a permanent medium. Did you listen to it as soon as you got home from the gig? Did you remember to turn off the recorder during the breaks? Did you listen with headphones and hear what those chicks at the front table were really saying about the band? Were you happy with your performance on stage? These questions and many more will be answered during the next few days as you mix down the gig-tape and create the master for your demo.
If you are truly interested in creating a good demo then you should expect to spend many hours listening and mixing down. Some songs may require more than a few tries before you get it right. Be patient and be happy that you have the opportunity to learn a new and valuable skill.
Each time you record another gig you'll learn something important. Probably the first thing you'll realize is that it's a waste of time to be turning the tape on and off during a gig. Just let it run for a whole set at a time (yes, do turn it off during the breaks). You also might be embarrassed by something you said on stage that you never even thought twice about while saying it. Don't worry. Don't give up.
For mixing down it's a good idea to have a good quality graphic equalizer on hand so you can easily modify the tone of the mix. Use it sparingly and try to keep the mixes at flat response. You should mix down only a few songs at first and then play them back on someone else's stereo to get a perspective on the tone characteristics of your equipment.
Practice mixing down to cassette a few times to get the hang of it, then, when you're comfortable with the routine, start creating the DEMO MASTER on CD, Mini Disc or High Speed Cassette. Remember that the master will be played many times to make copies of your demo, so digital is better than tape.
I won't get into specifics of mixing down because this is where your own personal tastes come into play. I will tell you that for my demos I usually have the drums centered, the vocals slightly left and the bass slightly right. The rhythm guitar and lead guitar are extreme right and left. I'm no recording engineer but the demos I've made are still pleasing to my ear many years after they were recorded. I'm sure you will feel the same many years down the road. Use the pan pot wisely and good luck.
Image used by permission.