Okay, so you’ve decided what three tunes you want for your demo, but you can’t decide whether to just record a gig or go into the studio. In this article, we will look at how to set up some low-cost equipment for doing your own demo of a live show. Of course, if you don’t want to do it all yourself, you can always find engineers and studios for hire, whether for mobile recording of your live show or in-studio construction of your demo.
But if you are playing live regularly, have already gotten your arrangements together, rehearsed the tunes a million times to get ’em tight, charted out the songs the way that you need them — then you’re ready. And the fact is, a good recording of a live show is an excellent way for new fans to hear what you really do, and for other music professionals (including, perhaps, someone who might want to invest in your efforts) to gauge your talent and marketability.
Plenty of challenges Recording a live show presents a unique set of challenges: The main drawbacks are that the sound is less controllable, it is next to impossible to fix any band errors or sound-equipment glitches, and if one of your selling points is your live show, you will also need a video of a live gig, so you will have two such recordings. The upside to recording a live show? It has an excitement level hard to achieve in the studio, it is faster and cheaper to make, and if done right it can cover all the bases, selling your songs and your show.
There are a ton of 8-track digital recorders on the market from Korg, Fostex, Yamaha, and other manufacturers, ranging in price from $300 to $3000 or more; you don’t need the best, but the least expensive might not have all the options you need. To record a live show, you will need at least four microphone inputs and a couple of direct (line) inputs; the former will capture the drums (in a perfect world, two or three mics would be on the drums), vocals, and the guitar amps; the latter can take the keyboards (if any) and bass as direct inputs.
You may need direct-input (“DI”) boxes or not, depending on the specs of the recorder you’ve chosen. You might also want to take the house PA and feed that to a line-in as well. This article can’t be exhaustive on these options because there are so many, so do your homework before starting – the Internet, of course, is a great library, or talk to knowledgeable friends or acquaintances about your plan.
Set and setting count, too If the venue has a good mixer on-site, you could also take a stereo line out to your mobile recorder, or even (with the right number of inputs) take direct outs from each mixer channel – drums, vocals, etc. If the club has a good sound guy, use his expertise as well (and for crying out loud, at least find out what his favorite imported beer is and get him some, preferably after the recording’s done, of course).
If your recorder has a hard drive, it will be plenty big enough in the current models of these digital 8-tracks to record your whole show, after which you can pull out the tunes you want for your finished demo. If the recorder uses flash memory of some kind – Compact Flash (CF), Sony “memory sticks” and Secure Digital (SD) are all popular formats – make sure to get enough to do the job. CF and SD modules are around $10-15 (as of the beginning of 2009) for the 2GB size, which will get you plenty of recording time, and the prices continue to fall. The recorder manuals will tell you how much time each size module is good for, based on the recording specs (a sample rate of 44.1 kHz at 16 bits, for example, is CD quality). Your recorder may offer higher sample rates (48 or 96 kHz) and more “bit depth” (24), and these higher specs can double or quadruple the size of your sound files.
Once you have your show recorded, you will need to do some “large scale” editing, meaning you will chop the good tunes out of the show. Make sure to take a good 15 seconds before and after each song, and save the rest anyway, since you may need some crowd noises (and more applause) to insert in the final mix. Ah, there’s the word I’ve almost dreaded arriving at – “mix.” Yep, it’s time for The Mix!
Mix and master The better portable digital recorders have on-board effects like reverb and compression, but you won’t want to go overboard on effects with a live recording; it already has its own natural reverberation going, thanks to the room that you recorded in. You may need some compression on some tracks, but the major challenge will be to adjust the levels of the various parts. This isn’t easy, and you will be stuck with what you recorded, plus you will have tons of “bleed” across the tracks; the vocal microphone was picking up everything else, right? And the other mics did the same thing.
A final hurdle for mixing a live show on the portable recorder is the limited data display; you will not be looking at waveforms on the little display of an 8-track Korg recorder, so it’s a tough job. You may need to beg, borrow or bribe some help for this step. Of course, you could also transfer (“dump”) all your tracks into a computer DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and do the editing and mixing “in the box,” as they say. This would allow for much greater control of the material, although you are still limited by what the recorder captured, with all that bleed and everything. But this would be a better way to work with the sound files, and if you have a bandmate who has any halfway-decent audio software on his computer (even Garageband on a Mac or Cakewalk Home Studio on a PC), then this is the route that you should take.
Got video? Well, there you go, the basics of making your demo from a live recording. You will need to study up on mixing if you don’t have someone who knows how to do it (with the tools now available, even a talented amateur can get fairly good results). Never just slap something together; this is your career you are working with, remember? Now, if the live recording option seems a little loose and unpredictable to you, you might want to consider going the project-studio route, yours or someone else’s, so read up on studio recording if that’s what you think will work best for you.
Now, it really should be a separate project, since making a video is a whole different challenge, but you could also have someone videotape your performance while recording the audio. It is a tricky job to get the audio and video to stay synced, and if you intend to do an MTV-style video — the kind that MTV really isn’t showing much of anymore — then it really does have to be planned out with at least the precision and care that this audio project requires. But if you just want a few clips to post on your website with a tune or two, you can probably pull that off without too much fuss.
You can do this The main thing to remember is that, if you want five or ten minutes of good video — to post to YouTube, put on your band website or what-have-you — then you will need at least 30-60 minutes of video. If you only have one camera operator, he or she should make sure to get a lot of different angles, from different distances, with different pans and close-ups and tracking shots. If you can get two cameras to record your show, all the better. Just make sure up front that you have extra battery packs, enough Mini-DV tape or flash memory or DVDs (whatever the cameras need), a tripod or two, etc.
It will be for another article to go into editing and constructing your video clips, but you can do it on either a PC or a Mac, and there is even low- and no-cost software available for editing and file conversion. It’s not easy, but anything good takes time and effort. You may be surprised at how do-able it really is, as long as you are not overconfident or careless about how you proceed. Make a plan, set up a series of possible shots and angles, discuss the particulars with your bandmates and camera operators, and go for it.
There is no reason that you should feel anything but excitement at the prospect of making an audio recording of your live show and even capturing some of it on video. As long as you are not averse to hard work and long hours, you can do this. And since you’ve probably put a Herculean effort into your music for 25 hours a day and eight days a week, you can probably do this pretty well, as a matter of fact.