Recording the Band, July 2003SIMPLE REFERENCE OR TOMORROW'S RELEASE? 5/17/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
There was a time, not so very long ago, when nearly all “live albums” were recorded by remote trucks. Typically, a performer or group (or, more likely, their record label) would hire the truck to follow a tour, and then the album would be culled from the tapes of that tour. Occasionally, you would find a band — such as the Grateful Dead — who were serious about keeping an archive of all their performances for posterity and so made simple stereo recordings from the soundboard's feed, but they were the exception rather than the rule in the '60s and '70s. When the Dead would put out live albums through Warner Bros. or, later, Arista, they were always from multitrack tapes, often involving a remote truck.
Needless to say, things have changed. Now, there are many groups who routinely record all of their concerts — some in multiple formats — and an increasing number even release an entire tour's worth of shows to their fans, either on CD or over the Internet, or both, without using a remote truck. Stereo DAT is probably still the most prevalent medium for simple archiving of shows (having replaced the vastly inferior analog cassette), but increasingly, we're seeing bands capture shows on various multitrack media, from MDMs to disk-based systems such as Pro Tools. Recently, we contacted a handful of engineers to find out what recording equipment they're carrying gig-to-gig to capture the music for their private vaults or for future release.
The popular Colorado jam band String Cheese Incident have released in the neighborhood of 70 CDs of their live concerts (most encompassing three discs) on their own SCI Fidelity Records label during the past couple of years. Basically, fans can own just about any SCI show they see on a tour, and because each night is different (in the Dead/jam band tradition), there's plenty of incentive for hardcore fans to collect many or all of their shows.
When Jon O'Leary started mixing the band in 1996, “I just ran a stereo soundboard every night because I liked to hear how it came out for my own sake,” he says. “Most of those are on DAT. It wasn't until a year or two into taping that the band started listening much. But then what I also did is I made a tape for them with my audience microphones, which would usually be at the soundboard, if the soundboard wasn't in the last row under a balcony in a theater. If that was the case, I'd usually hang my mics from the front lip of the balcony and then run a couple of cables back to me. I have a pair of B&K 4011s that I use for the audience mix. Anyway, the group likes hearing the hall mix more than the soundboard because they realize that soundbard tapes sometimes are the opposite of what you're hearing in the hall. In other words, if someone is too loud off the stage [amps], they're going to be quieter in the soundboard mix, whereas the audience mics let you pick up the way the music sounds in the hall. They like to hear the ambience, and the bass usually comes out a little more realistic on the audience tape.
“Then, what I eventually started to do was make what the kids call ‘matrix’ tapes — combining the soundboard stereo mix and the audience mix — and that goes directly to DAT. We did a tour or two with the DATs, but now we record it onto a Fostex DV-40 4-track digital hard drive [recorder], which sounds really good. The converters are really good in that machine and that's really important. So we put the two audience microphones on there and the two soundboard channels, and then we send those to a mastering facility and they do a quality-control check to make sure any ticks or digital noise comes out. They do some EQ'ing and compression, and they time-align it.” (O'Leary notes that Peter Dressen is the primary recordist, as O'Leary has his hands full at FOH.)
“On top of that, we also multitrack every show; we've been doing that for several years. We started out on DA-88s, then we graduated to DA-78s when they got up to 24-bit. And now we're doing it on a pair of Mackie 24-channel hard drives. I also back up the 4-track onto four channels of the hard drive. So now, instead of dealing with boxes and boxes of tape, we pull two hard drives and mail them [back to their office in Colorado] and put two new ones back in; we're storing them all at our archive in Boulder. I have no idea what will happen with those, but we'll probably need them at some point for something.” O'Leary mixes the band through one of the new Gamble DCX digital boards.
As for future plans, O'Leary says, “I want to start mastering on the road myself, on a workstation I'm going to put together. I'll get up in the morning, pull my workstation into wherever we're playing, find a little room, put some baffling and remaster the previous night's show, because what we want to do is get the product out about 72 hours after the show. Right now, we can't do that. Our grand plan is to get it so people can download it on either MP3 or .shn within 72 hours of the show, and then for people that want the CD in the package, they can still do that later through our Website. But even that will be quicker, because we're thinking of pressing our own CDs on the road, too.”
When jazz/fusion bassist and reedsman Marcus Miller was in Japan a couple of tours ago, says the musician's principal live sound engineer, Dennis Thompson, “A fan came up to him and gave him a CD to sign. Marcus looked at it and said, ‘Hmm, I don't remember making this CD.’ It turns out it was a bootleg that had been recorded entirely from [in front of] the bass speakers and it sounded horrible. So we decided rather than having bootleggers put out this stuff, we'd listen to what we'd been recording and put it out ourselves.”
The result is Miller's vibrant and exciting new live album The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg, which captures Miller and his six-piece band (along with guest singer Lalah Hathaway) during their spring 2002 tour. Thompson, a Jamaican who has worked with Miller for the past several years, records every show on a Sharp 702 MiniDisc Recorder. (He previously recorded to DAT.) The two-CD set was compiled from those stereo recordings. “No fancy multitrack mixes, just direct from the mixing board,” Miller writes in his liner notes for the set.
Thompson generally mixes through either a Yamaha PM4000 or a Midas Heritage console. “You'd be surprised how good that MiniDisc can sound,” he notes, “if you take care of the sound that's going to it. Obviously, we use good microphones and have the good console every night. If you listen to the CD…I really didn't have to do anything to it; there's just some EQ after the fact.” Thompson did not put up any audience mics: What's on the CD is coming through stage mics.
Thompson admits that not every performance he records in stereo through the soundboard would be usable: “Certain venues you know it's not going to happen. Sometimes things are so loud onstage, you have to compensate for it in the P.A. mix. It's hard to get musicians to turn down sometimes. So it's kind of a ‘luck of the draw.’ Sometimes a guitar is missing here or a drum there, etc. Musicians turn up and down during the night. There are a lot of things that can change over a night onstage, and that will usually be on the tape, which isn't always good.”
This is a major reason why Thompson is now considering taking a multitrack Pro Tools rig on the road to record each night's performance. “Marcus is such a fantastic player, and he plays differently every night,” Thompson says. “It would be nice to [record] every show and have a little more control over it afterward. That's probably where we're going.”
The Dave Matthews Band is the most successful touring group in America right now and they're very serious about recording and archiving their shows, which they periodically release on CD such as last year's Live at Folsom Field two-CD package, a forthcoming set from The Gorge in Washington and various DVD-Video releases.
From Matthews' new studio outside Charlottesville, Va., engineer Jeff Thomas described the group's live recording setup: “Every show on tour is redundantly multitracked,” he explains. “We run 48 tracks of 24-bit, 48k audio, and we do it on two different formats: Tascam DA-78 tape re-corders and MX-2424 hard disk recorders. The 78 tape is considered the redundant backup tape. Then we mail off the hard drive to a gentleman in Charlottesville who does a data-transfer service for us; he transfers all of the data to compact disc, which creates a very long-term stable storage format for the multitrack audio. We use about 100 to 120 compact discs per show, which sounds like a lot — and it is — but megabytes per dollar, it's the most cost-effective and time-stable [method] you can use. We vacuum-seal it in these heavy-duty food bags to remove air and we seal it in a PVC tube that protects it physically. Mitsui is the supplier of the CD media and they guarantee us over 100 years of shelf-life, storing it at 70°, 40-percent relative humidity. During the transfer, there's [also] two different tape-drive formats — AIT-3 cartridge and On-Stream cartridge — that we make, and that's good for five to eight years. We also make a DAT reference and a compact disc reference of every show, so if we need to look at the songs played or a quick check of the performance of the show, we've got that in simple form.” The different media are stored in three different locations.
Thomas says the feed for the multitracks is “a nontransformer-isolated split off a snake. We use API 212 mic preamps. We've modified the output transformer to give us a dual-output line, so one output goes to the DA-78 and one goes to the MX-24s.” As befits such a serious operation, the DMB records four tracks of audience for maximum flexibility later.
Until recently, Ryan Nichols ran the group's live recording operation, and Thomas notes, “It's definitely its own job. Everything has to be shipped out the next day, and the transfer process occurs within two to three days of the show; then the disks are shipped back to us. We have 25 to 30 hard disks that rotate between shows on tour.” Where do they keep the recorders? “The machines have been all over the place,” Thomas says. “We've had them in monitor world; at front-of-house for many years. Now, we've got them onstage.”
Photo: Noel Hastalis, Courtesy Warner Bros.
Veteran engineer Robert Scovill, currently out with Matchbox Twenty, has been recording Tom Petty from the FOH position for many years. “These days, I have my own Pro Tools rig that I carry with me — a 64-I/O 888 rig — and we do multitrack most nights,” he says. “If we think we caught something good, we'll save the multitrack, but if not, we don't save it, because the process becomes so intense if you want to go back and find anything. If we decide to keep it, we dump it off to AIT-2 the following day, and that takes about half the show time to archive it. I'll usually run it at 24-bit, 44.1. I can usually get one entire show at that bit rate and sample rate on one AIT-2 tape.
“Every night that I track Pro Tools, I have other things running in conjunction with it,” he adds. “I'll have a couple of CD-Rs going with a wet 2-track mix; in other words, it has all of the ambience. I'll also run a timecode DAT to save as a review for the Pro Tools. The one downside to archiving to some sort of backup media is that, since you're archiving an entire session, if you want to audition one song, you have to pull up the whole archive. So we try to get something that's synchronous [the timecode DAT] but you can listen to it. Then I also record Samplitude 2-track files, so I've got a lot going on.” Scovill says that his audience tracks go to both the Pro Tools multitrack and get blended into the stereo mix.
“I try to take copious notes on song quality,” he adds. “Can you imagine what it would be like, say 30 years down the road, for somebody who had no affiliation with the music to come in and start sorting through all of this? It would be impossible. I've done that getting ready for a live Rush record. The sorting process was backbreaking; the hardest work I've done.”
Scovill has recorded shows on a number of different formats through the years, from 4-track and 8-track Tascam cassette to ADATs. “It would've been great to have a couple of nice 24-tracks, but it's really difficult to maintain those night after night, and, of course, the tape cost would have been astronomical.”
Petty's infrequent live albums have been recorded using remote trucks, but Scovill notes that on the High Grass Dogs video, shot at San Francisco's Fillmore nightclub, Petty's management “didn't feel the need for the ADATs recording the show because they had hired a mobile recording truck for the event. To make a long story short, the truck failed on one of the keeper nights, and management called me up and said, ‘You didn't by any chance record those on ADAT, did you?’ And I said, ‘No, I didn't.’ But I always record something 2-track, and those ended up being used.”
On the road with Matchbox Twenty, Scovill now finds himself occasionally releasing live mixes “right off the front-of-house console. They're putting them up [and selling them] on the Apple Website. So my time put in on all of this is paying off, because I've figured out a way to make it sound pretty good. They already have a track from opening night of the tour on there and there'll be more. It seems like it's heading in that direction.”
Jazz keyboard great Chick Corea has played thousands of performances in dozens of different bands and groupings over a career spanning some four decades. His longtime engineer Bernie Kirsh says, “We don't do anything very elaborate [for archiving the shows]. The live performances are basically just stereo DAT; years earlier, they were just cassette. Normally, rather than go through the mixer, I just put up a couple of mics because what the [soundboard mix] usually tells you is what is being changed in the room so that it sounds right coming out of the speakers. Generally, we found it's better to just pick up a couple of mics.”
Kirsh's mics of choice for that purpose are the ol' reliable: Shure 57s. “I place them by the mixer usually, assuming that's convenient; just an X-Y pair usually, based on the space available and where it is in the hall,” he says. “The good thing about 57s is they tend to take the room out of the equation. If you use condenser mics [as opposed to dynamic mics], then you're more reliant on the acoustics of the room, and when you're going from place to place [for gigs], it's much easier not to rely on that because there's no guarantee you're going to get a perfect acoustic environment. The purpose of these recordings is to hear the music, to be able to review the performance, maybe hear some new ideas that occur within the improvisations. They're not meant to be released.”
In fact, for Corea's most recent live album — the amazing two-CD Rendezvous in New York, which features him playing at the Blue Note in duets (with Bobby McFerrin, Gary Burton and Gonzalo Rubalcaba), trios, his Akoustic Band and with Origin — was recorded DSD using a pair of DAWs based on Merging Technologies' Pyramix systems; the December 2001 concerts were the first 16-track recordings of that type. Clark Germain engineered and Kirsh mixed the tapes at Media Hyperium Studio in Torrance, Calif. Currently, Kirsh is working on a surround video taken from the Blue Note shows (which celebrated Corea's 60th birthday) and on a series of individual CDs featuring each lineup from the weeklong celebration. Kirsh is mixing those on the Yamaha 02R96 at Corea's home studio in Florida.