Remote audio comes in many flavors, and “guerrilla” aptly describes this sonic challenge. Getting to the next level is like playing a videogame where experience counts: You learn to recognize and collect both useful and odd adapters along the way. Of course, a cool demeanor and good troubleshooting skills are also keys to success in this genre. This month, I'm spotlighting three recording pros who are comfortable outside the conventional control room/studio environment and have taken a different path in their approach to the craft.
FEED THE GUERRILLAS!
A live performance that requires P.A. support generally implies that the mic signal must be split between that and the recording preamps. This can be accomplished in many ways — put up extra mics or take a feed from a mic preamp via the insert send, or even use fiber optic or Cat-5 digital snake/breakouts — but let's focus on the traditional.
Transformers are very good at rejecting induced common-mode noise. Two pieces of gear can have their chassis grounds at different potentials. If this causes power-related hum and buzz, then a mic-level isolation transformer can be inserted between them. And thanks to the isolation between primary and secondary windings, it's possible to break the ground connection and stop the current flow (and the accompanying noise).
The figures show two flavors of transformers designed to isolate and split a mic signal. Isolation transformers, for audio and power, can solve common audio problems. The 1:1 ratio transformer in Fig. 1 allows a mic signal to drive two preamps — live and recording mixers, for example. Switch S1 breaks the connection between the two system grounds, eliminating noise current — if it exists and causes problems. Multiple winding versions of such transformers are also available. The transformer in Fig. 2 has four identical windings, so one mic signal can be routed to three preamps (plus direct/mult). Switches SW1, SW2 and SW3 break the ground connection when necessary.
Digital audio has changed two primary aspects of location recording. Laptops have made workstations portable, and digital consoles have allowed most of the signal wiring and electronics to remain onstage, while only the control surface and its cabling go out into the house. Harboring a desire to capture that ever-elusive live performance are a number of road warriors who have combined new and old technologies to create their own personal recording systems. Each has their application-specific rig, and laptops play a key role in two of the three applications.
STAY IN THE ROOM WITH THE MUSICIANS
After more than a decade of working within the confines of traditional major recording studios, Bryce Goggin took a different approach to the recording environment in his Trout Recording (www.troutrecording.com) in Brooklyn, N.Y. The room has no defined control room; Goggin shares the studio space with the band.
“It took nearly 10 years before I finally managed the discipline to not tweak signals on their way to the multitrack,” says Goggin. “Recording in the same room with the band forces me to rely more on mic placement and selection rather than get distracted by whatever gear is around. Though I haven't eliminated the need for processing — an occasional highpass filter or a gentle limiter during the tracking phase of a production — bare-bones tracking yields a result much closer to what I perceive is occurring while the musicians are playing.”
But Goggin takes his pursuit of the live performance an extra step further. “I keep the tape machines rolling all the time and may even walk around the room, adjusting mics or repositioning amps. This approach seems to counteract the instinct to tense up because there is no official transition from rehearsing a song to shooting for an actual take.”
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
Joe Hannigan's Weston Sound (www.westonsound.com) has become one of Philadelphia's leading sources for classical, jazz and choral location recording.
Hannigan keeps his rig simple, running Magix Sequoia V8 on a Sony VAIO laptop. The front and back end is a Mackie Onyx 1640 with FireWire option. In an SKB road case is an HHB Burn-It CD recorder, power supplies and cables, and for safety — always important during live recordings — a Tascam DA-38 digital 8-track deck connects to the Onyx via balanced D-25 connectors.
“As many as 16 tracks can be recorded this way,” says Hannigan. “Our 16-channel snake has four returns back to the stage for talkback and headphone feeds, which is perfect for classical, jazz or pop sessions, and concerts. It all goes in and out of the van to the venue quickly on a hand truck.”
It's surprising how many recording essentials can be found at your local mall. Hannigan's hand truck was a $50 Office Depot purchase, as was a Rack-n-Roll plastic carry case for cables and paraphernalia with collapsible handle and tilt-back wheels — a steal at $19. “However, custom reinforcement of the bottom tray is strongly suggested,” Hannigan warns. One more mall treasure? Quick-fold aluminum tables that come in easy-to-carry black canvas travel bags — another $19 bargain at Bed, Bath and Beyond. “Our clients walk away with a temp CD copy (made from the console's various stereo outputs) and we take home a pristine multitrack recording,” Hannigan says.
LIVE FOR LIVE
“A laptop is a very useful live television tool,” says Fritz Lang, who makes sound cues happen on time for live programming. “For award and other entertainment shows, I use two Apple PowerBooks: a 15-inch as a virtual cart machine and a 17-inch for my DAW.” Although Ableton Live is geared toward the gigging musician and DJ, “It does an excellent job of replacing four cart machines,” Lang adds.
“For the front end, I use the MOTU Traveler FireWire hardware that provides four analog stereo outputs. The first channel pair is for voice-overs — presenter intros or bumper teases — in or out of a segment. Bumper music and play-ons are on the next pair. I'll use two ‘tracks,’ as Live calls them, when crossfading between cuts, but they output to the same analog outs. The third pair of outs are used when an artist sings to a backing track. Sometimes I'll add audience sweetening to the mix on the fourth pair so that a segue out of a live performance to the next element isn't littered with room mics.”
Lang has discovered other useful features in Live. “You can set a loop in music and turn it on and off at will while playing,” he says. “This comes in handy when someone takes a bit longer to get to the podium or to thank everyone involved.”
On the recording side, “The Traveler has four good mic preamps and Live lets you record even while simultaneously playing back other cuts, which is very handy,” Lang continues. “I also take advantage of the Traveler's MIDI capabilities by using a MIDI fader console to control the fades and crossfades ahead of the production mixer. This helps reduce the number of extra hands required to get through the 96-plus inputs that are so typical on shows of this type.”
Lang's system — the 15-inch PowerBook, MOTU Traveler, a FireWire drive and a trackball — fits in a small backpack. The 17-inch PowerBook is the control side of a very portable DAW package, with a Magma external CardBus chassis plugged into the PowerBook's PCM-CIA slot. “This combo gives me enough firepower to easily record 48 tracks at 48kHz/24-bit.” The entire rig fits into a small Pelican case.
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