Recording Live Events

live-events_FEATURED

Live Events

EventRecording-outside1Radio listening may have started out as a communal activity, with the family gathered around the HiFi, listening to radio drama and variety shows. But in recent years, listening to the radio, or podcasts, has tended to be a more private activity, a solo experience during a commute, sequestered from others by earbuds, or by the insulating confines of one’s car. It’s a little surprising that many broadcasts have come full circle, and more often are again becoming social events. More and more radio programs, even podcasts, are performed in front of a live audience, and interplay with the people in attendance becomes part of the production.

Recording an event in front of a live audience so that it still sounds good to the folks listening on earbuds, or in their cars, or at home on their stereos, is a challenging balancing act.

I recently had an opportunity to record a few live spoken-word events for broadcast or podcast, and learned some lessons along the way. And more importantly, I was lucky enough to get some extremely helpful advice from an engineer who has very likely done more recording of live spoken-word events for radio than anyone: Paul Ruest, who is probably best known for his many years recording events for The Moth.

Getting broadcast-quality audio on stage involves a combination of particular equipment, techniques, and coordination with the venue. Balancing all those elements should allow you to get a high quality recording that will work both for the performers and audience at the live event, and also for listeners to the program on the radio or internet.

The Microphones

The first important element is the microphone. Radio reporters in the field commonly use either omnidirectional or shotgun microphones. Neither is especially well-suited for use as a voice mic on stage. In a recording studio, the announce mic of choice tends to be a large, very sensitive mic. The attributes that make that type of mic appealing in a sound booth make it problematic on stage.

cardioid2In most cases, live performances in front of an audience require amplification, and that changes the equation when picking mics. The most common choice for a vocal mic when on stage with a PA system, is one with a cardioid pick-up pattern. It’s difficult to get an omnidirectional vocal mic loud enough on stage without causing feedback, because it will pick up the sound from house speakers and monitors. Shotgun mics are too specifically directional: even small movements tend to put the performer out of the mic’s “sweet spot,” causing uneven volume. Such highly directional mics are also extra-sensitive to wind, and P-Pops and vibrational noise, making them generally troublesome when paired with speakers.

There are good reasons that cardioid mics are the most commonly used mics on stages. The sensitivity pattern is tailored to highlight whatever is directly in front of the mic, and to reject sound from behind, so feedback can generally be controlled with careful placement of the mics and balancing of levels. Cardioid mics also cause a bass-boost when used up-close, a phenomenon known as the “proximity effect,”  which is flattering to many voices.

Dynamic cardioid mics are most commonly used on stages, partly because they’re very durable and can smoothly deal with loud sound sources. However, for spoken-word performances, such as storytelling events, or other productions that aspire to keep the more detailed sound of a studio production, a cardioid condenser mic is often a better choice.

Condenser mics tend to have a brighter, more sensitive character than dynamic mics, a sound similar to the larger mics commonly used in studios. Condenser cardioid mics designed for vocal use on stage are usually markedly more expensive than their dynamic counterparts, and they’re significantly more fragile, so the venue’s own sound department may not have these available. You, as the recordist, will likely want to have your own mic (or mics) for this purpose. Not only can you assure that you’ll have the right kind of mic, but you can also avoid the unpleasant surprise of encountering a noisy or otherwise defective mic from the venue’s inventory.

ShureBeta87APaul Ruest prefers the Shure Beta 87A. It’s a great sounding mic, relatively affordable (approx. $250) and capable of handling a wide dynamic range. Although spoken-word performers tend to be quieter than singers, a storyteller can still get quite loud, between laughter and other excited exclamations, especially when they may be speaking over an enthusiastic audience, so you need a mic that can handle loud peaks. The Beta 87 fits that bill.

Buy a Shure Beta 87A from B&H>>

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There are surprisingly few cardioid condenser mics designed for this kind of live stage work, and many of those are very expensive. The less-expensive basic entry-level mics may work in some circumstances, but will not be as robust as the Shure Beta 87A.

The Shure SM87 and Beta 87C are very similar to the Beta 87A, and may work adequately, but Paul found the Beta 87A to be the best fit for recording storytellers on stage.

I’ve had very good luck with the Neumann KMS 104, and the Earthworks SR20, but those microphones sell for $600-700. They give excellent sound, but they could receive some rough treatment on stage, and worrying about a very expensive microphone might be counterproductive.

I would not recommend skimping on this part of the audio chain, but if your budget doesn’t allow for the Shure Beta 87A, you might be able to get by with the more affordable Shure SM86, The AKG C5, the Rode M2, or the Audio Technica AT2010. Although all those mics will display the louder, crisper, more detailed sound of a condenser mic, they might not have as balanced and pleasing a sound as the Shure Beta 87A, and they’re not that much cheaper.

It’s increasingly common to use wireless mics on stage, but they should be avoided for this kind of recording. Wireless mics often have a low-level steady background noise, and are much more likely to suffer from interference, or battery problems, than a simple wired microphone. Its best to eliminate those potential problems.

Lavaliers are visually appealing, but never sound as good as a properly-placed microphone on a stand, so unless the person speaking cannot possibly speak into a standard microphone, skip the lavalier.

Following from that those two cautions, wireless lavaliers are especially unwelcome! Of course, there are occasional circumstances when the person speaking has to move around freely, and in that case, a wireless lav may be the least of several evils, but it’s also likely to result in less than ideal sound quality. Try to convince the performer to use the mic on a stand.

Pop Filters

Pop FilterMost small cardioid mics designed for live voice work, including the Beta 87A, have multi-layer windscreens built-in, which the makers claim will prevent P-Pops and other breath noises. However, these mics still seem to be fairly susceptible to P-Pops, and can benefit from additional pop filters. The large disc-shaped fabric or metal mesh filters typically used in studios are very effective, but unsightly and hard to keep in place on stage. Even foam pop filters can interfere with sight lines, but they’re a necessary evil, especially for storytelling events, where the performers might be relatively unfamiliar with ideal mic technique. So a good foam pop filter can help reduce P-Pops and other rumbles from breath noise.

Positioning the mic slightly below the performer’s mouth, pointing up, can mitigate any visual obstruction from the foam pop filter, and perhaps keep the mic out of the direct path of P-Pops and other breath noises.

Mic Stands

The Moth requests a simple weighted mic stand, just a simple single pole, not a stand with a boom. Stands with tripod legs can work, but those legs are more likely to get kicked, or stepped-on, than a smaller weighted base, and any contact with the mic stand can create rumbles in the recording and in the house sound.

Mic stand booms can provide a greater level of control over placement, and can be angled to keep the performers away from the stand base. But if not set correctly, a boom makes it more likely that the stand would tip over, or the boom itself might droop, and there are more moving parts that the performer can fiddle with, which can create noise on the recording.  So, the simpler, the better.

LiveRecording-ShockMountThe mic clip is also important, and shock-resistant mic clips can help prevent vibrations from reaching the microphone itself. Whenever possible, you should secure the mic in the clip, on the stand, so that the performer does not remove the mic from the stand to use as a hand-held. Although some performers prefer to hand-hold the mic and wander the stage, that almost always results in unpleasant noise on the recording — the result of handling the mic itself, breath noise from holding the mic extra close to the mouth, and noise from the cable rubbing or banging against other objects.

On top of that, hand-holding the mic can, occasionally, lead a performer to consider dropping the mic, a trendy way to punctuate a particularly forceful final statement. No mics benefit from being dropped, but the condenser mics that we recommend will almost certainly be severely damaged if dropped. Whenever possible, I go to the extreme of actually taping the microphone into the clip with gaffer tape, so that it’s virtually impossible to remove the microphone from the stand.

Recording Outdoors

EventRecording-outside2Occasionally, these events might be held outdoors, which introduces even more complications into the recording process!  In that case you definitely want a robust foam pop filter on the main announce microphone, and a furry cover on your audience mic!  Even a light breeze can create distracting rumbles on directional microphones, especially shotgun mics, which will sound bad both on the recording, and over the speakers. If your mic has a low-cut filter you may want to engage that switch, to reduce bassy noise from wind.  If it’s very windy, it may be impossible to get a good recording, and you should encourage the event organizers to move to plan B!  But a light breeze should be okay, as long as you are ready with sufficient wind protection on your mics.

Audience Microphone

EventRecording-gallery1When recording in front of an audience, it’s important to capture the sounds of applause, laughter, and other reactions. Some audience sound will be picked up by the main microphone, but not enough, and it will have an odd character, because the cardioid mic’s sensitivity pattern is designed to reject sound from behind it. So you need a dedicated mic, or mics, to record the sound of the audience.

Paul Ruest suggests using a shotgun microphone, placed on stage, pointing out into the audience. He specifically recommends using an Audio Technica AT897 short shotgun mic. This is a good-sounding microphone, commonly used for interviews by field recordists, so many independent producers already own one. It’s relatively affordable (approx $250.) The Rode NTG2 is a very similar microphone, and would be a viable alternative, although Ruest prefers the sound of the Audio Technica.

This recommended mic and placement, specified by The Moth in their recording guidelines, initially seemed counterintuitive to me: shouldn’t audience mics be out in the audience, and shouldn’t there be more than one? But this single shotgun mic and its placement actually makes sense for a few reasons. Placing the mic on stage, pointing out toward the back of the audience, will pick up the audience, while minimizing the sound from the PA speakers, which can add a hollow, echoey sound when mixed with the main microphone. A mic or mics placed out in the audience would include more of the sound of the PA system than is ideal. And the distance between the microphones will require time adjustments to be made when mixing, to compensate for the delay that will exist between the main announce mic and audience mics placed any distance away.

Using only one mic for the audience is also practical in several ways: the main mic and the audience mic can be recorded directly onto the two channels of a standard stereo audio recorder. Complicated, expensive, multitrack recorders are not required, and transferring and archiving the recordings is greatly simplified. A standard stereo audio file can contain the main mic on the left channel, and the audience mic on the right channel, which allows the levels of each track to be adjusted individually when the show is edited and mixed. Additional audience mics would require keeping track of more audio files, and would make recording and mixing more complicated.

Surprisingly, a single, mono audience mic is usually sufficient to give a good sense of the crowd’s reaction.  More important, it’s worth keeping in mind what the final delivery format of the program will be. Many radio programs and podcasts are mixed and delivered in mono, because the file size is half of what it would be in stereo, making storage and delivery much more efficient. There’s no sense recording your audience in stereo if the final program will be in mono.

Stereo Audience Mics

EventRecording-StereoAmbiMicsDespite the perfectly valid arguments for a single audience mic, there is some appeal to the wider, more vivid sound of a stereo recording of the audience. Applause, murmurs, laughs, gasps, and other random audience ambience feel much more “real” and immersive in stereo, especially when heard on headphones. Recording these additional channels adds complications, but there are several relatively simple ways to handle those issues.

The first solution is to use one of the small audio recorders that can record more than two channels at the same time. There are several affordable recorders that can record multiple tracks. The Tascam DR-70D has four microphone inputs on XLR jacks. The Tascam DR-60DmkII has two XLR microphone inputs, but also has a stereo microphone input on a mini jack; if you have a stereo mic that can connect via a stereo mini, you could record multitrack audio into that recorder. The Zoom H6 has four XLR inputs, with individual controls.

Buy the DR-70D from B&H>>

Buy a DR-70D from Amazon>>

Buy the DR-60DmkII from B&H>>

Buy a DR-60DmkII from Amazon>>

Buy a Zoom H6 from B&H>>

Buy a Zoom H6 from Amazon>>

These multitrack recorders would allow you to record the main microphone, along with a stereo audience mic, or two mono mics aimed at the audience. Even better, four channels allow you to record the main mic, a mono audience mic, and a stereo audience mic. These recorders can create two, (or in the case of the H6, three) stereo sound files which can be easily aligned in your editing software.

There are several single-point stereo microphones that simplify mic placement by combining two mic elements in one body. The Shure VP88 is a favorite, but it’s pricey (about $800). The Audio Technica BP 4025 is a little less expensive (about $650) but not by much. The Audio Technica AT 8022 is more affordable ($400) and comes with both XLR and mini output cables. The Audio Technica AT 2022 is an entry-level microphone with only a stereo mini connector, but it could be sufficient for this use.  The Rode NT4 is a popular XY stereo mic in a similar price range ($530). It too comes with both XLR and mini cables. The Cascade X-15 (pictured above – $450) contains two ribbon microphone elements, which can soften the often harsh attack of applause, but the figure-8 pick-up pattern of the ribbon elements create a larger area of sensitivity, so a mic like that must be positioned carefully.

There are many more stereo mics, including stereo shotgun mics (which tend to be expensive) or matched pairs of identical mono mics that can give good results. In fact, Miles Smith, now consulting for The Moth, recommends using two mics, fully left and right on the stage, for the audience ambience.

Keep in mind that positioning these microphones at live events should take into account the visual impact of additional mics and stands. Audiences at live events won’t mind seeing a little bit of behind-the-scenes tech, but you don’t want to block anyone’s sightlines, or make the stage appear cluttered. And it’s important to stay away from speakers, even the backs and sides of speaker stacks or suspended arrays radiate some sound.

As always, the golden rule is to listen carefully through headphones during a soundcheck, to make sure that you’re recording clean sound that will be useful in the final mix.

EventRecording-H6-wired
Zoom H6

Built-in Mics

Recorders such as the Zoom H5, the Zoom H6, the Tascam DR-70D, and a few other models, not only have multiple inputs, but the recorders themselves have stereo microphones built-in. These mics, especially those on the Zooms, are sometimes very high quality. The major downside of using the built-in mics on one of these recorders is that placing the mics, therefore the recorder, in an ideal position will result in the recorder being inaccessible during the event, making it impossible to watch the input meters, or make any adjustments. This is not really an acceptable situation: you really need to be able to monitor and tweak the levels should they change. Audience levels, in particular, are unpredictable. The only practical way to make use of the built-in mics on such recorders is to record with input levels set conservatively and hope you stay lucky. This is perhaps acceptable as a back-up recording, but it’s quite unwise to leave a recorder running without the ability to monitor it. Not only could your levels need adjusting, but some other unexpected event could happen: the recorder could stop, or have power or memory problems — which could be addressed quickly if you were looking at it, but not if the recorder is out on the stage.

Buy the Zoom H5 from Amazon

Buy the Zoom H5 from B&H

WIFI-enabled Recorders

TascamDR-44WLThe Tascam DR-44WL has built-in stereo microphones, as well as two XLR microphone inputs. It can be controlled via WIFI on a smartphone. Levels can be monitored and adjusted, and the unit can be started and stopped remotely. When this recorder was first announced, I was mystified as to why one would need to control a recorder like this via WIFI. Now I see a scenario: this recorder could be placed in an unobtrusive spot on stage, with the built-in microphones pointed out into the audience. The main microphone could be plugged into one of its XLR inputs, and a mono audience mic, such as the AT-897, could be connected to the other XLR input. The recorder could then be monitored and adjusted remotely, creating a recording with the main performer mic, a mono audience mic, and a stereo audience mic, each on discrete tracks that can be balanced later when mixing.

Buy a Tascam DR-44WL from B&H>>

Buy a Tascam DR-44WL from Amazon>>

 

Distant Audience Mic Placement

Placement of the main audience mic on, or near, the stage, pointing out into the audience has many benefits, but if you decide to augment that microphone with an additional stereo mic, or a stereo recorder with built-in mics, you might consider alternative placements. Sometimes the sound from the very back of the venue (or up high in a balcony) can give a pleasing audio picture of the audience. Running cables from a distant microphone can be inconvenient, but when using the built-in mics on a field recorder, that device can operate on its own. That will require you to synchronize the recording from this remote recorder with your main recording, but in most multitrack editing software that’s not too difficult a task. Placement of a recorder in a remote location can make starting and stopping the device inconvenient and monitoring levels impossible, although a WIFI-enabled device as described above solves both those problems.

Other Multitrack Recorders

zoomF8-collage
There are more and more field recorders being released that can handle a large number of individual inputs. The Zoom F8 can record eight separate microphones or line inputs simultaneously, in a small package that sells for about $1,000.

There are several very expensive recorders that are more commonly used in the film industry that can record many simultaneous tracks. If you’re considering a multitrack recorder, be sure to verify how many tracks can be recorded simultaneously, and what connectors are used. Some devices can record fewer tracks simultaneously than their total track capacity, and others have unconventional connections that might be inconvenient.

Buy a Zoom F8 from B&H>>

Buy a Zoom F8 from Amazon>>

Multitrack Computer Interfaces

Of course there are almost unlimited input channels available on computer interfaces, for recording directly into a laptop computer. Four to eight microphone inputs are available on relatively affordable computer interfaces that connect via USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt. Additional channels can be added via optical connections, or combining multiple devices. These interfaces can route audio to separate tracks in most audio workstations, such as Pro Tools, REAPER, Audition, even Hindenburg.

EventRecording-OctoPre-500We’ve had good luck with the Focusrite 18i8 which has four XLR mic inputs — with the option to add eight more by connecting a device such as the Focusrite Octopre via an ADAT optical interface.  Or, the Focusrite 18i20 is an interface with eight XLR mic preamps built-in, with the option to add eight more via ADAT optical.

 

The Split

EventRecording-Splitter2After picking and placing your microphones, it’s crucial that you connect these mics to your recorder, or recording interface. Do not send the mics to the house PA system, and then take a feed from the PA mixer. The one exception to that rule is that you can send your mics directly into the house system if that system can give you a split of each input at some convenient location. Some venues have these splits built-in, often with a drop of all the inputs on the side of the stage where a monitor board might be. (A great reason to make contact with the venue and sound staff early on, to make sure a split will be available.)
It’s safer to bring your own splitter: even if the venue can provide a split from each mic, you might want to split them again, to feed your primary and back-up recorders. Plug the main announce mic into that splitter, take one of the outputs of that splitter into your recorder, and send the other to the house PA. If you have it, take the third output into a back-up recorder.

If you’re only using one or two mics, some single-channel mic splitters are probably your best bet. If you’re likely to use several mics, you might want a larger, 8-channel mic splitter.

EventRecording-Splitter3

The venue is not likely to be able to provide you two outputs from each channel, so if you want to feed your main recorder and a backup, you should have your own mic splitter. You will still need to coordinate with the house sound engineer: to determine which of you is sending phantom power to the condenser mic(s) and to troubleshoot any noise that can arise from splitting the mic signal. Even when using transformer-isolated splitters, grounding issues can create hum or buzz on both the recording and in the house, so be sure to check for these issues well ahead of the live performance, and be ready to use ground-lifts or to change the source of your AC power. Your splitter might have a ground-lift switch, or you might need to lift  the ground of your power cable, or plug into another circuit. Bring a long power extension cord (or two) and a ground-lift adapter. And plenty of gaffer tape to secure your cables.

ART makes a very good, yet affordable eight-channel mic splitter. The S8 splits each input into two outputs — the S8 Three-Way splits each input into three outputs.

If a single-channel splitter (or two) will do the job, the Whirlwind SP 1×3 is very good.

Other brands, such as Radial, Drawmer and Whirlwind, make excellent single and multitrack mic splitters, but they are significantly more expensive.

Buy an ART S8 (2-Way) Mic Splitter from B&H>>

Buy an ART S8 (2-Way) Mic Splitter from Amazon>>

Buy an ART S8 (3-Way) Mic Splitter from B&H>>

Buy an ART S8 (3-Way) Mic Splitter from Amazon>>

Buy a Whirlwind SP 1×3 from B&H>>

Buy a Whirlwind SP 1×3 from Amazon>>

When I’ve recorded live events, I have always recorded directly into a computer via a USB interface, and also recorded directly into a hardware recorder at the same time. For some events, a DR-70D’s four channels is sufficient, for others, a recorder such as the Zoom F8 is required. For more than eight channels, more than one recorder could be used, although re-synching them later can be tedious. But making these redundant recordings is for backup, in case the computer recording fails in some way. Computers being computers, they sometimes crash, or stall, or their hard drives fail. So, especially for very important events, it’s important to have a backup.

For less complicated recordings, simply running two recorders might be sufficient. Having an individual split for each recorder and the PA system is ideal, but if that’s not practical, you can probably feed the output from one recorder into the inputs of the back-up recorder.

Getting a Feed From the House PA

Connecting the mics directly to the house PA system and relying on getting a feed from the front-of-house mixer is a big risk. Having the mixer as your main sound feed is not what you want. The main output of the front-of-house mixer will combine multiple mics together, but what you want is each individual mic on its own channel.

Many front-of-house mixers have ways to create that kind of output send for you, but that usually takes some configuring by the house sound engineer. Older analog mixers might have direct outs, or group outs, or aux sends that could send each microphone’s signal to you on a discrete cable, but this relies on the sound tech having the time, and the knowledge, to configure this properly.

Newer digital boards often have configurable outputs that can be assigned from within the mixer’s software. But this requires even a higher level of expertise from the house sound engineer, and the time to set up these routings. These boards have a finite number of outputs, and depending on the complexity of the set-up, there might not be enough physical outputs to send you the kind of feed you want.

There is often some level of chaos during set-up, and the house engineer’s priority is the sound in the house; configuring feeds to someone making a recording is a lower priority, and sometimes doesn’t get done. Even if the feeds do get configured, there might not be enough time to test them, or troubleshoot problems. So it’s risky to count on getting a properly-configured clean feed from the front-of-house mixer.

More important, you’d be getting a signal after going through a few connections, perhaps some EQ or other processing, each of which has the potential to add noise or some kind of audio degradation. It’s much better to route a signal directly from each mic into your recorder. Use mic splitters, so you can get a signal from each mic without having to hope that the house sound engineer will give you what you need.

Processing

On one hand, you want to get a simple, clean recording from the microphones and save most manipulations for the editing and mixing stage. However, audio levels, even at spoken word performances, can be unpredictable, with loud peaks from laughter, or dramatic emphasis of certain words or phrases, or from unexpected crowd reactions. Because of that, it might be useful to apply some compression or limiting, to avoid distortion from an unexpectedly loud peak. Some recorders have good built-in limiters, or you may want to add an outboard compressor or limiter if your set-up allows it. If you’re connecting directly to an audio recorder, there’s not really any practical way to insert a hardware compressor. But if you are recording via a mixer, or an external preamp, or certain computer interfaces, you may have a hardware “insert point” that will allow you to patch external hardware into the audio path.

There are many external compressors and limiters used in studios, but one of the more convenient devices is the RNC (the “Really Nice Compressor”) from FMR Audio.  It’s small, easy to carry and connect, affordable (under $200) and it sounds great.

You can probably avoid using a compressor/limiter if you set your levels conservatively, leaving a little headroom open after a realistic soundcheck. Then, monitor the levels carefully, backing them down if it seems like the performances are becoming more animated in front of the audience. As a rule, performers will indeed get louder when before a live audience, as compared to at a soundcheck.

Coordination With the House Sound Engineer

As referenced above, there’s usually some coordination required with the house sound staff. If the house sound is terrible, your recording will suffer. You need to make sure that they will keep the house sound loud enough that the audience can hear clearly, but not so loud that there’s excessive echo or ringing in the room. Depending on the size of the venue, the performers may need a monitor speaker on stage sending their voice back at them. It can be disorienting to speak into a void, and to only hear yourself bouncing back off the walls, so some reinforcement via a stage monitor can be helpful. However, that monitor sound can interfere with the quality of your recording, so you may need to adjust the position of the mic and/or the monitor speaker. Try to keep the monitor wedge directly in back of the direction the microphone is pointing, rather than too much off to one side. And try to keep the volume as low as is practical — the less sound from that monitor, the more natural your recording will be. In smaller venues, you may be able to avoid using one at all.

House engineers might be resistant to you using your own microphones, or may not be ready to provide the kind of mic stand you need, etc. But most of these problems can be solved by contacting them ahead of time and making sure everyone understands what needs to happen. Don’t leave it until the last minute; the sound staff is often busy, or perhaps not working every day, so try to start the discussion as far ahead of time as possible. In most cases, if you politely explain what you need, they’ll be helpful and in fact can be a huge help at the event itself.

More Complex Events

The scenarios above describe a typical storytelling event, where one performance microphone and one audience microphone would be sufficient. But many events include a few more elements: even a simple event might include a band or DJ providing intros and outros and continuity. The performers or producers of the event might want to play back some additional pre-prepared audio. A live podcast production might have multiple hosts and/or guests, requiring additional microphones.

EventRecording-LaptopZoomBU
Laptop Recording With Zoom F8 backup

Even a relatively simple production can become complex from a recording standpoint.  Multiple hosts, guests, an emcee, and prerecorded sounds, can lead to a very complicated recording, requiring elaborate riding of levels up and down when mixing (too many mics open at the same time makes everything sound hollow and echoey). So it’s crucial to get each input recorded to its own track, at a healthy level, but without distortion, to allow maximum flexibility when mixing-down.

LiveRecording-MultitrackMix

It’s always best to assume that there might be the need for an extra input or two: better to be able to add a track or two, rather than be operating at your absolutely maximum capacity. It’s not unusual for one of the presenters to decide to play back some pre-recorded audio, or for a surprise guest to be added at the last minute. If there’s a band or a DJ, you probably want to record that audio even if the producers of the program indicate that they don’t intend to use it — it may overlap the spoken word content in such a way that you’ll need a good recording of it in order to make a smooth transition in or out of the voice.

And always have some kind of backup: don’t rely on your computer, or any one recorder, to always work perfectly at a live event. Bring batteries, and then extra batteries, even if you’re pretty sure that you can plug in. Make sure you’ve got plenty of open disc space, and then bring some empty memory cards, just in case.

Recording these events can be fairly straightforward.

  • Use a cardioid mic, preferably a condenser, as your main announce mic. A Shure Beta 87A will serve you well.
  • In a pinch, the trusty Shure SM58 dynamic cardioid mic can do a fine job. It’s a standard for a reason.
  • Use a shotgun mic to record the audience reaction. Place it on stage, pointing out at the back of the crowd, to maximize the sound of the audience, and minimize the sound of the PA speakers.
  • Use mic splitters to send a direct signal from the mics to your recording rig, and to the house sound system. (There’s no need to send the audience mic to the house PA, just record that mic directly.)
  • Record each of the mics to its own track on a recorder or computer recording software.
  • One mic for performers and one audience mic can be recorded on a basic stereo recorder.
  • Additional microphones for multiple performers, or stereo ambience, or a musical act, should be recorded to individual tracks, requiring a multitrack recorder and/or a multitrack computer interface and software.

Thanks to Alex Lewis from Every Zip Philadelphia, and Eleanor Kagan from BuzzFeed Audio’s Historical Event for providing opportunities for some real-world experiments.  And especially big thanks to Paul Ruest at Argot Studios for generously sharing his vast experience recording for The Moth. By the way, The Moth Radio Hour is produced by Transom’s Jay Allison & Viki Merrick at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Jeff Towne

About
Jeff Towne

Jeff Towne has been producing radio programs since he was a teenager, back then with a portable Marantz cassette deck and a Teac four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and now with digital recorders and computer workstations. After honing his broadcasting skills at high school and college radio stations, Jeff has spent over two decades as the producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Echoes. At Echoes, he has done extensive recording of interviews and musical performances, produced documentary features, and prepared daily programs for satellite and internet distribution. As Transom.org's Tools Editor, Jeff has reviewed dozens of audio recorders, editing software, and microphones, and written guides for recording, editing and mixing audio for radio and the web. Jeff has also taught classes and presented talks on various aspects of audio production. When not tweaking audio files, Jeff can probably be found eating (and compulsively taking pictures) at that little restaurant with the unpronounceable name that you always wondered about.

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  • Flawn Williams

    8.16.16

    Reply

    Great description here of real-world details that can make or break live event recordings. Thanks, Jeff!

    For anyone who (despite Jeff’s advice) is getting feeds of individual mics from the house sound board instead of splitting, make sure those feeds are ‘pre-fader’ rather than ‘post-fader’. You don’t want your recordings to be affected by the PA folks running their volume faders up and down. In either case what you get WILL be affected by the PA board’s preamp trim settings, but most operators adjust those into a safe zone and then leave them be. If you get pre-fader sends and record them cleanly, then you’ll have what you need to mix down the show after the fact.

    Unless it’s a live broadcast that has to be mixed NOW, don’t worry about mixing during the show. Just make sure everything is captured cleanly to individual tracks, and save the polishing for later when you KNOW what you have to work with.

    • Jeff Towne

      8.16.16

      Reply

      I was waiting for you Flawn!

      Good advice as always. thanks for chiming in! I have taken feeds off of house sound boards successfully, but in the last few years, I’ve had several instances of that going south. And it wasn’t even due to evil or incompetent sound guys, it was usually just last-minute complications taking up their attention, and consequently running out of time to configure and test anything beyond the main live mix. Or – increasingly – I’ve run into digital boards that have highly customizable outputs, but not many of them! So it’s sometimes physically impossible for the sound tech to send me each signal on a discrete channel, there simply aren’t enough (available) outputs!

      I agree wholeheartedly that if you can get direct outs, or sends from each input (more likely on an old-fashioned analog board!) you should ask for them to be pre-fader, if possible, so they are not affected by the live mix.

      Much of the time, the success or failure of getting good sound in a live situation comes down to communicating politely and respectfully with the house sound crew. If you’re friendly, and acknowledge that they might not be able to drop everything to deal with your issues right when you want them to, I’ve found that most of the house staff want to help, to make sure that everybody has a successful event.

      And while I agree that it’s usually not necessary to mix the elements live, as the show happens, I have to admit that I sometimes do it anyway. There are three reasons for that:
      1 – if I get lucky and get the mix right during the live show, it’s a huge time-saver. I’m done.
      2 – doing a mix live makes me feel more comfortable that all of my elements are going to work in a final mix, and there won’t be a crackly cable on one of my mics that’s masked by applause, or other problems I won’t discover until it’s too late to fix them!
      3 – That live mix serves as yet another back-up, just in case something goes wrong with the multitrack recording. I once had a firewire-connected mixer suffer a sync problem in the middle of a live musical performance. There was no indication that anything was wrong at the time of recording, but later, I discovered that every few minutes, the tracks would suffer from a strange metallic ringing, gurgling sound. Luckily, I had managed to get a decent mix, live, on-the-fly, and had recorded the stereo output of my mixer, so the session was saved. On another occasion, the multitrack recorder’s power-supply blinked off unexpectedly, but the mixer remained powered-up, so the stereo recorder connected to the mixer’s stereo bus once again saved the day.

      Of course, those are rare occasions, and in most cases, the multitrack recording turns out fine, so it’s true that it’s more important to assure that you’re getting clean signals on all your tracks, than it is to do a perfect mix live. But it never hurts to try and get a live mix!

  • Ct3lle

    10.10.16

    Reply

    Ok, I need some help.

    I am a podcaster new to the audio space. I have an AudioTechnica AT2005USB mic. Right now, I record directly to my computer via the USB connection and typically I am doing interviews remotely (so the best I have come up with is to hold them via Skype and use a Skype recorder, which captures the other side decently and I then just stitch together the direct recording of myself).

    I’ve been wanting to get a digital recorder both as a backup to recording directly to my computer and to open up the input possibilities if I ever decide I want to get a mixer and do more fancy production with sound effects, etc. However I do not currently have a mixer and have no experience with them or how to use one.

    The other use case I have been thinking about is recording a live podcast in a setting like a small auditorium where audience members would have the opportunity to ask questions, and I would want to capture both the individual question from the audience as well as the audio from me (and perhaps one other person with me as the podcast “guest”).

    All this being said, I’m not sure what I really need here or how the heck the setup should work. I’ve tried reading some of the other intro articles but quite frankly I get way too lost in all the detail and my lack of knowledge on all of this. I feel like my scenario is pretty simple. Do you have any basic recommendations for me based on this? For example, I was thinking to buy a Zoom H5 and then perhaps a shotgun mic for the audience scenario. Does that sound reasonable? Would I need a mixer at that point, or for my online interviews could I connect my mic to both the recorder and my computer?

    I apologize if you cover these details somewhere on this site, but I’m overwhelmed with all the information combined with my lack of experience in this area. If there is a more “beginner level” site you could recommend, I’ll gladly take that too!

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