Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rules of the Tape - Louis R. Carlozo

A technical and artistic blueprint for quality live recording on a budget.

You've got the worship team, a solid band of musicians and you've got the opportunity, but you're a little short on know-how, when it comes to recording your own live CD. Look no further than this practical, low-budget blueprint for quality live recordings.

Recently my six-member band, the Blue Lit Souls, faced a creative dilemma. We wanted to release our first CD, but didn't have enough money to work in a big studio. Nor were we sure a studio recording could capture our unusual sound, which includes mandolin, tin whistle, log drum, a stack of flower pots played like marimbas and a digeridoo made of PVC pipe.

It didn't take us long to settle on a cost-effective, exciting alternative: recording in concert. Using Alesis ADAT machines, we taped a live show and as of this writing, we're polishing the tracks in my home studio. Will a similar strategy work for worship bands? Absolutely. In fact, if there's any genre ideally suited to live recording, worship music is it. It not only features colorful interaction with an audience, it requires it.

Speaking to recording experts-including a worship artist who has made a name with his live CDs-we've assembled an outline for making your own album, even on a bare-bones budget. Of course, that should not imply skimping; the preparation can in fact be more demanding, as we'll see. But if you and your worship team follow this blueprint, you could find yourselves reaping musical, ministry and even monetary rewards.

Technically Speaking, Less can be more, and there's no place like home.

Tim Vear, a senior applications engineer at Shure microphones, has plenty of experience helping houses of worship bring their technology into the 21st century. Here are his tips for getting set on the knobs and wires end.

1. First time out? Consider a two-track recording. It's simple as recording to a CD burner or a DAT machine. "A lot of big acts will drag ADATs and DA88s along and record every microphone. But that's a very time consuming process," Vear says. If you feel you need more flexibility, "There's kind of an intermediate approach where you can submix certain parts of the live mix-the drums, the vocals, and some of the other instruments-onto eight tracks... Again, the philosophy is not to allow punching in or overdubbing, but you do have some means of balancing."

2. Don't forget crowd noise. Because your live tape will likely come off the sound mixboard, it could be stripped of crowd response if you use just stage mics. "One of the most obvious thing is the audience mic, or congregation mic. Typically you'll bring up more of that room sound towards the end of the tune, and lower it during the bulk of the song." If your engineer is mixing live to two track, "You either have to do it on the fly," Vear says. "Or, if you record it on a separate track, you can edit in post production."

3. Vibe first, perfect audio second. Don't forsake a moving performance because of a small technical glitch or some mild distortion. "It's like those Chuck Berry records; guys who go back and record those tunes 20 years later can never get the same result. It may be cleaner but the energy is gone. People are pretty tolerant of some technical imperfections in live recordings."

4. Play on the home court. You'll likely do better in a familiar setting than some strange venue where comfort level and acoustics are unknowns. "If I was comfortable with the congregation and the setting I was in, I'd definitely do a direct-to-two-track mix," Vear says. "If I'm not that familiar and coming in cold, I'd probably request a four-track mix and record the congregation with a stereo mic, and let the band rip on a two-track. If it gets any more complicated than that, you're going to have to have two people [record] it. It's not going to be possible for the guy who's mixing the sound to do a good job recording."

5. Tech Speak: Use auxiliary busses and great mics. The auxiliary busses-those knobs on the mixboard that allow for a totally separate mix-can mean a cleaner signal to tape or CD. Don't forget to mic the full drum kit so that tom fills can be picked up (again, it doesn't have to go over the PA, just to the mix for tape!) "A couple of nice condensor mics over the drums will help pick that up," Vear says (Shure condensors mics include the SM 81 and KSM 137). Other Shure mics Vear suggests: for vocals, SM 58s or Beta 58s; acoustic instruments, SM 81s or KSM 137s; guitar amps, SM 57s. Bass can use a DI box. "Piano is difficult to mic, and a lot of guitar might bleed into the mics. Get the lid open to put the mic in there."

6. Get the recording engineer decent headphones. What better way to make sure you're getting a balanced mix? Larger churches may also have a splitter that send a separate signal out for radio broadcasts. Using the broadcast splitter can guarantee a cleaner recording, Vear says.

Artistically Speaking. Practice, prep work and prayer!

Among West Coast artists, Tommy Walker has a reputation as someone who knows how to translate worship energy into musical electricity. Together with his C.A. Worship Band, Walker cranked out a double-CD of live material in 1999; he's known for songs such as "He Knows My Name," "Mourning Into Dancing" and "That's Why We Praise Him." Here's his advice on live recording.

1. Record the same set at least two or three nights. Doing so, "You can alleviate a lot of the pressure," Walker says. "The more pressure and nervousness, the less authentic worship you will be able to capture."

2. Use a great drummer. In a multi-track format Walker uses, bad performances can be fixed later. "But the tempos that the drummer sets and the sound from his drum kit will be irreplaceable. On that note, keep the drums, more than anything else, as isolated as possible. For example, if the drum mics are picking up mistakes from other instruments and vocals you won't be able to fix those mistakes later."

3. Record backup singers on separate tracks. "It has been my experience that even with the greatest singers and the greatest monitor situation you will almost always have to re-do all background vocals," Walker says. "It can be very freeing to know that you don't have the pressure to make that aspect of the concert perfect. This will allow you to use different people if you want and or any number of people because you will be re-doing them in the studio later."

4. Save horns and percussion for the studio. "In this case it's definitely better to put the icing on after the cake is done," Walker says. "I have rarely had a percussion performance that I was able to keep because everything leaked into the percussion mics. The less cluttered and added sounds on the recording night, the better. On this note, every instrument should be as well baffled off to eliminate as much leakage as possible.

5. Be prepared to do your best lead vocal live. "Lead vocals and lead instrumental solos are performances that need to be kept. If you re-do everything to make it perfect you will lose the energy and electricity from the live performance-so that's where I draw the line. All keyboard comping, guitar parts, bass, all those arrangement aspects can be re-done. But the drums, lead vocals and the lead instrumental performances should be kept. Because of this, I like to put the lead vocalists and lead guitarists or sax player as far away from the drummer as possible.

6. Use vocal tuning software such as VocalTune. "Thank God the age of tuning
lead vocals has finally come," Walker says. "I suggest everyone who does live recording purchase a vocal tuner. What makes them especially great is that you are able to keep those passionate, energetic performances and tune them up. People don't realize that even the greatest singers on the planet all have pitch problems somewhere in a live performance... Vocal tuners are also very helpful for single line instruments, like bass guitars, saxophones and lead guitar solos."

7. Use in-ear monitors as opposed to monitor wedges. Shure makes a PSM series that has become a huge hit with bands from The Strokes to Big Head Todd and the Monsters. "In-ear monitors are definitely the way to go with a live recording," Walker says. "Though many churches can't afford to own them, they are worth renting for the recording. Not only can you hear yourself better, but they alleviate a lot of stage sound. This enables you to have less leakage in the microphones." One note: Have the sound engineer mix in some crowd noise so you can hear that in your in-ear mix!

8. In closing: capture the real stuff. "More than anything what we are trying to accomplish in a live recording is to capture those holy moments," Walker says. "I have found that holy moments never seem to happen when I'm nervous and concerned about what's being recorded to tape. Therefore, I suggest much, much rehearsing and even recording your rehearsals before you even get to the recording nights. Do your best to stay focused on what ministry God is doing in the moment. By the time the red button is turned on, you need to be able to forget about all technical aspects of the recording."

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