My Live Recordings…an Overview
I have always loved live recordings. Something about the energy, immediacy, and honesty they convey appeals to me. Now I know some can be less than totally honest with post production fixes and all, but you get the idea. To this day I have never quite understood the appeal of the piecemeal, overdubbing approach to creating music. It always seems better to me to have everyone playing in the room at the same time. To me, that is the way its supposed to be, and live recordings provide this. A couple of examples of my favorites would be one, arguably the greatest live recording ever; The Allman Brothers Band Live at Fillmore East and two, Jimi Hendrix and Band of Gypsys, again at the Fillmore East. Must be something about that room!
I got into producing live recordings myself basically out of my love of music, and the desire to document the shows of my friend Michael Landau and his various bands. I always thought it was cool that way back when (and to this day), people took the time and effort to record the shows of such artists like Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead by any means possible, and we could hear the results after the fact. Not to mention the field recordings of archivist and musicologist Alan Lomax who traveled around the country documenting all types of music. I find this stuff fascinating. I could hear through the imperfections in the actual recording itself to get to the music. I know there are plenty of people that share my interest in this. Just look at the number of tape trading communities on the internet for bands such as Govt. Mule, Phish and the Allman Brothers Band, just to name a few.
So anyway, I started out recording Mike’s various musical collaborations with a simple stereo mic. First, back in ’83 with a Sony Walkman Pro analog cassette recorder, and later, with digital DAT machines, but still 2 track stereo,one microphone in the room. Probably my first recordings would be of the band Dog Cheese at The Baked Potato,a club in LA. This was Mike’s band with Vinnie Coliuta on drums, Larry Klein on bass, and Steve Tavaglione on sax and EWI. I think I still have a tape of this somewhere.
As my interest grew, I graduated to better gear and eventually included video in my adventures as a Michael Landau “documentarian”. I got an Aiwa portable DAT machine and an Audio Technica AT-825 stereo mic, and used this setup for years. Over time the Aiwa crapped out and I got a Sony TC-D10 pro DAT recorder, which seriously dented the wallet, and I continued to record shows all over LA, and sometimes out of town, too. One memorable trip was to San Francisco with the band Burning Water, and another was a road trip to Texas with The Raging Honkies. There is video of these trips as well, and I will get to this stuff in future posts!
I will always be grateful to Mike for allowing me the opportunity to hone my skills, using his bands as guinea pigs in my recording endeavors. As my interest and skills continued to grow, I wanted the recordings to sound better…and more immediate. The 2 track “audience” recording was cool, but I wanted something more. And that meant to close mic sound sources. Now it was becoming more intrusive on the band for me to set up my gear in order to do this. And it got more expensive for me. At this point you could call this interest a “hobby” as there was never money involved, and I was doing this at my own expense. I started adding more gear, like the awesome Alesis Masterlink (and said goodbye to DAT tape forever) and started developing techniques to try to make better recordings. By this time the venue of choice had become The Baked Potato, a small jazz club in Studio City, California. Both for Michael for performing, and me for recording. The owners, legendary keyboardist Don Randi (The Wrecking Crew, anyone?) and his son Justin graciously allowed me to set up gear in places normally provided for paying customers.
Whenever the opportunity came to record a Mike show, I jumped on it. Usually it was once a month, sometimes more. He and his various groups were pretty much the only people I wanted to record mainly because I loved the music and wanted to document his musical progress. And since I was doing this for free, the pressure was off me and I was free to experiment . And I experimented a lot. I would spot mic various “sections” of the band onstage, as well as close mic some sources, especially vocals, and do a live mix of these to 2 track. All while seated next to the band playing onstage! With headphones!
I had varying degrees of success with these different approaches, but one thing that worked really well was to hang a mic above the drums and drive a reverb unit with this signal. The reverb return was then mixed with the main room mic ( usually my trusty Soundfield stereo mic) to give the drums some ambience. That was the one thing that always bugged me about the audience (ie: room) mic only recordings at the “spud.” Everyone except the drummer had ambience on their rigs, and the drums would be dry sounding, as the PA in the room is not located on either side of the stage as in most places. It is off to the side. And often there was no reverb on the drums in the PA anyway. My drum reverb recording technique helped solve this problem, at least in my recordings.
The mighty Soundfield Stereo Microphone
So now I would make a recording, see how it turned out, take notes, and make adjustments the next time. This being 2-track, you only get one chance to get it right. Sometimes, since at the time my shop was close by, I would go back after setup and sound check, and listen to the mix prior to the show on proper monitors and make adjustments for the show that night. After awhile, I got pretty good at it. Sometimes though, the mixes would really suck, for whatever reason, and it was back to square one. I called it a bucking bronco. Some times you just hang on and hope for the best, and other times you get bucked off. I would have to make mix decisions wearing headphones, which everyone knows is no way to mix properly, and being right next to the band playing didn’t help. Eventually I wised up, and moved my entire rig to the storeroom out back, ran a mic snake to the stage, and now have isolation, but it means bringing more gear (monitors, stands, etc).
This video is of the current live recording rig as of March 2009.
Audio courtesy of Ed Roth of “Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats”.
Now I was deep into it. People started hearing these “tapes” and started hearing about these recordings, and I started doing this for other select artists. For money. This meant my “hobby” was becoming a side line, and the pressure to do better was on. I couldn’t fuck up. My techniques and gear continued to evolve and I got more work, often from recommendations from Don and Justin Randi.This was before the Pro Tools/ laptop recording revolution and even then, some people sometimes just want a simple decent sounding document of their performance for personal reasons, not necessarily for “release”. And I would bring a lot of gear to insure at least a decent recording. Certainly, when the recording would match the performance we would have a winner, but that wasn’t always the case, for whatever reasons.
All this 2-track stuff was fun, but I was under intense pressure, mainly out of my own perfectionist nature when it comes to this recording thing. It is hard mixing on headphones, right next to the band playing. I had to fight myself from making adjustments as the night wore on, and my hearing would shut down. I had to convince myself that everything was fine and hope for the best. Then I could hear it back after my ears recovered. At home on speakers.
This meant one thing: multi-track. And mixing later on proper monitors in a controlled environment.Therefore, my rig evolved yet again. I would bring multiple mic preamps each chosen for their unique contribution (ie: coloration) to whatever sound source I happened to be recording. See, I was going to be recording to a digital medium (at first ADATs and later Tascam DA-78s then much later Mackie MDR/SDR Hard Disk Recorders) and wanted as much analog coloration as possible going in. I am not afraid to add compression to a recording, but try to keep it minimal, but for live recording it is often essential on some instruments to tame their wide dynamic range. The one thing I tend to avoid is EQ. I generally record flat, and with proper mic choice and placement this works for me nine times out of ten. The other thing is signal bleed. At the “spud”, its a bloodbath. Thats just the way it is.There is not much you can do about it, so you just have to go with it. And frankly this is what gives these recordings their “vibe”. So the musicians had better be “on”, as its tough (but not impossible) to do fixes. But by multi-tracking, at least you can adjust relative balance to achieve a greater result.
16 Track Studer ADAT rig for the first Jazz Ministry recording
What is funny though, is even with multi-tracking, I continue to do (and perfect) my 2-track mixes at the same time I am multi-tracking, mainly for fun and the immediacy of it all, and to provide a reference mix for whomever I am recording, in order for them to choose performances worth mixing. My goal with this is to be satisfied enough with the 2-track as to not want to go to the time and trouble of mixing. And sometimes that has been the case, as some clients have actually released the 2-track mixes after a little mastering. But I prefer to turn over the multi-track files for others to mix. I get option anxiety when it comes to mixing where I can take my time!
Following are some of my favorite recordings I have done.
All of these have been “released” by the artists. Some may still be available for sale. See their respective websites for details. I have done well over a hundred more over the years, but those would have to be considered “private” and not necessarily available except from the artists themselves. In future posts I may document select favorite recordings I have done, just for fun. After all, that’s what it’s all about, or it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.