For engineers with a taste for adventure, nothing beats the complex challenge of live recording. On location, anything can happen and often does. It can be a test of one’s wit, preparedness and skill. Here are a few tips on how to be ready for it.
Surveying today’s equipment landscape, one might think recording professional quality audio on location would be easier than ever. To some degree, it is. Gear is lighter, better made, has higher specs and easier to move around. But the gremlins that await engineers on locations are still there and can easily bring the unprepared to his knees.
Rule #1 is every live recording experience is unique and different — even at the same venue only a week later. A slight change in environment or logistics can cause havoc. What worked last week might not work today. This is why on top of thorough preparation, the engineer must have the skills to navigate change and adapt to it.
Bring a sufficient number and type of microphones, and cable, lots of cable.
Whatever is being recorded, most engineers are always responding to the needs of someone else. It may be a voice talent, a band or an event. Whenever other people are involved, things change and sometimes the engineer is the last to know about it. Be aware of what’s going on around you and pay attention to what’s being said by others. Don’t assume that because you recorded someone on an earlier date, they they will act the same way. Human beings are always full of surprises.
In any live recording situation, ensuring enough headroom is essential. With digital recorders, overload peaks can totally ruin any recording. This is where high-quality gear comes in. Use transparent converters with a high signal-to-noise ratio.
Maintain conservative levels to avoid clipping. Don’t just depend on compressors and limiters. Some added noise from boosting gain in post is always preferable to distortion.
Be careful of dependence on batteries. They can die at the most awful moments. Use AC power from a clean source if it’s available. Most modern, high-end gear works well on AC without interference. But always be ready for problems with interference or whatever. Always keep multiple battery backups nearby just in case of trouble and change all batteries at breaks.
Rule #1. Think backup. Rule #2, Follow Rule #1.
Before any live recording, make a checklist of the gear you need and ensure you you have everything with you. On some items, like small power supplies, I bring a backup unit just in case a prime unit it fails. That backup rule also applies to essential cables. Always bring extra mic cables and mics. I’ve also learned to always have at least three professional-grade microphone splitters and cables for them. You never know when you will need them.
Depending on the location where the recording takes place, there may or may not be room for mic stands. In tiny spaces, sometimes clamps are better to use. If you get to scout the location in advance, note such issues. If not, have an assortment of mounting options with you. Does the venue have a mic snake? If not, do you need one. If so, bring it.
Also, are you recording multitrack for later editing, stereo or mono? Knowing this can shape the gear you bring. For example, I record small groups in a multitrack mode with a Sound Devices MixPre 10T and AEA ribbon mics, a very compact package. I record each channel down separately and edit in post. If I were doing a stereo recording, I would record in a different way using a stereo bar. Be prepared for the method you are recording going in and bring the right gear.
Some people take a stereo mix from the house audio board. I have always found this a very bad idea. First, the house mixer is doing sound for the room and not for recording. What you are getting is hit and miss. His focus is on the house sound, not your recording. If you want a good recording, control every aspect of it yourself.
Sometimes, even the most conscientious engineer must take part of the feed from a sub-mixer. Even if it’s a digital feed and it offers a clean signal, what’s going into it might not be so clean. Recently, I heard noise and hiss on a channel and traced it to an old piece of analog gear in a sub-mix. It was needed by an artist in his performance and I had to live with it, even though it sounded like bacon frying in a pan.
Despite an engineer's desire for a perfect recording, you cannot control every aspect. Usually there are others who have an even larger role. Control what you can, let go of things you cannot.
Sometimes, because we have to work with others, live sound recording is not perfect. This is where the engineer’s personality comes into play. It is best to work with others for the best result possible even though there are flaws in the recording. Try to clearly communicate your concerns and then keep quiet. Often, there are greater concerns than the live recording and engineers must live with them.
The best rule for a location engineer to be prepared for everything possible, but always be flexible enough to change on a dime. View every location recording as a giant puzzle and enjoy the game.
Some of the most chaotic set-ups have resulted in some of my best recordings, while seemingly “perfect” set-ups have resulted in mediocre recordings. One never knows and that’s where the fun and challenge is.
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