Recording Techniques – On a Budget!
Tutorial by David Breton
years ago when Mini Disc (MD) recorders first came out, I thought it would
be neat if musicians and singers could have their own Archival CD Recording
of a live concert that they had invested so much of their time over several
weeks to rehearse for, but never heard from the audience's point of view!
twenty or so recordings later, I decided to write down the techniques
I use, some of which have been learned through hard experience. The techniques
described here of course do not rival a recording studio with multi tracking
and multiple takes, but focus on how to do a live recording, with no chance
of a re-take, how post processing will let you "polish up" the
final mix, how to make a professional looking product and how to cover
your costs, which includes your recording equipment investments.
Step One – The Live Recording
course you want to have a high quality live recording, keep your equipment
purchases on a budget, and as portable as possible. An MD recorder can
help to address these requirements, the quality is far better than cassette
tape, and the portable version of the MD recorder is very small, requiring
no AC power.
most important components in the live recording process
are the microphones and the room acoustics!
For classical and jazz performances the room should have the right
amount of natural reverberation to make for a "live" sound.
An acoustically dead room makes
for a "dull" live performance and, although you can add some
artificial room reverberation into the final mix, will never match the
Selecting the Digital
invention of the MD recorder made live recording an affordable hobby.
There are many types and brands on the market today, but only the portable
models made by Sharp appear to have the right advantages for live recording
namely, a proper recording level meter calibrated in dB, no AGC (a live
recording killer). Another important consideration is that the MD recorder
has the right level of input level
compression that prevents the dreaded overload condition. I set my Sharp
MD recorder's recording level once by clicking my fingers hard right next
to the microphones so the recording level just goes over 0 dB and then
leaving it at that setting for the rest of the concert. Even a large orchestra
will not clip the recorded signal (if the mics are set back at least 15
feet) and the dynamic range is good enough to pick the quietest vocal
do you buy the MD recorder? I got mine at www.minidisco.com
My first Sharp lasted for a while until it got kicked off the top tier
of a chorus riser, five feet onto a wood floor. Thankfully, it was connected
to plenty of microphone cable and finished recording the concert, but
its eject mechanism never worked properly after that traumatic experience.
This gave me an opportunity to examine the insides; the thing is a marvel
722 MD Recorder - with stereo "T" microphone
Selecting the Recording Microphones
microphones should be the small condenser recording type. These have a
flat response to capture from the lowest bass to the high pitch harmonics
of the female singing voice and also preserve the clarity and position
of all the reverberances in the live room setting. The small size of the condenser diaphragm allows
it to respond quickly to fast sonic attacks.
other important requirement of a live recording microphone includes the
ability to withstand high pressure levels. It is amazing how loud a large
orchestra can get, especially with percussion and horns! The one thing
that will absolutely spoil your live recording is a mic or recorder overload,
since you can not go back and retake it again. The other most important
parameter is the condenser microphone's self noise. This coupled with
the MD recorder's microphone preamp, always ends up as a slight hiss in
your recording, but modern post-production hiss reduction techniques can
reduce much of this to a very low level.
Where do you buy these
microphones on a budget? My favorite vendor is the www.soundprofessionals.com
Web site, which will show the numerous recording microphone options available,
ranging from the single point stereo microphone that is fitted inside
the same box that encloses your Mini Disc recorder to binaural microphones
that fit on top of a microphone stand. You can kit
out your microphone requirements for anything between $80 to $250.
I have had some good
success with the single point stereo (in rooms that have natural good
acoustics) but prefer the Binaural type that sit on top of a microphone,
spaced the distance between ones ears.
Locating the Microphones
Since you are making
a live recording of an entire group of musicians and/or singers, then
the microphone recording location should be far enough away to get the
entire mix of sounds without a single instrument or voice drowning out
the rest. The concert producer should have made the appropriate arrangements
for any sound reinforcement to ensure that the audience hears the right
balance, although on occasions this may not happen – typically a soloist
is too quiet against the accompaniment. Don't worry too much if the balance
is not quite right as there are post processing techniques to address
room, especially large ones, has a sweet spot, where all the sounds reverberate
just right. Walking around the room with headphones fully covering the
ears and a single point stereo microphone plugged into your portable MD
recorder during a rehearsal will help you find the room's sweet spot.
If the ideal recording
position is right in the middle of the audience seating area, you have
two options. Either sit in the ideal listening position with the MD recorder
on your knee (and a single point stereo microphone) or put the microphones
high up on a tall pole to clear the audience rustles and coughs. My budget
microphone pole is actually the ˝" diameter poles from two living
room stands screwed together to clear 7 feet using one
of the original light stands as a base! I then use a 20 foot extension
cable bought from the Sound Professional guys (above) to run to my MD
recorder. I don't bother putting on my headphones (looks geeky, and hard
to do while performing!) but just keep an eye on the MD recorder level
meter. Remember also the Sharp MD recorder input level compression is
very good at handling peaks.
Step Two - The Post Processing
you've got home and listened to the live recording. You should be amazed
at the recorder's stereo clarity, if it is your first time. However there
are some things you can do to "polish up" before burning a CD,
this step is called post processing.
Transfer to PC Hardrive
absolute best way to post process to transfer from the MD player to the
PC over a fiber optic cable. Most portable MD recorders cannot do this.
In my early days I used the recorder's analog output to my sound card's
line input. This would give me a noise floor of about –59 dB, which you
can hear as a very quiet hiss under normal listening levels. Later on
I invested in a Sharp home MD/CD deck with fiber optic output (because it was on
sale for $130) from Minidisco (above).
This drops the noise floor to –90 dB, a very respectable number
for amateur recording.
second advantage of using a fiber optic cable is that there is no sound
card input gain to adjust. If you are using the analog method, find which
setting avoids any overload of the sound card's analog input. Don't bother
maximizing the sound level track by track, that can be taken care of in
the post-processing mix.
Where can you buy a cost
effective sound card with fiber optic inputs? I bought a DiO 2448 for $110 at www.soundprofessionals.com (I
should really get a discount for free advertising!) and run it at the
same time as my SoundBlaster, which is used for output to my studio amps.
There are many programs available for transferring
your MD recording to hard drive. One favorite is N-Track Studio, since
it has input VU metering and live monitoring while recording. Another excellent choice is Total Recorder
which is available to download at www.highcriteria.com. The Total Recorder program also
has many other advantages such as being able to simultaneously record
to WAV file any music or sound being played in real time by a software
though the MD recorder has editing facilities, don't use them on your
precious live recording MD! One mistake can ruin every thing (if you do,
eject the battery so the recorder
cannot write the changes back to the disc). The easier way is to use the
PC program to create a WAV file which a bit extra at the start and end,
you can always trim and fade later in the post mixing step.
a doubt, the absolute best program for post-processing live recording
WAV files is Syntrillium’s Cool Edit Pro. It is worth every penny of its
$399 price. The DEMO version lets you do anything but save for 30 minutes.
Failing that Cool Edit 2000 1.1 (with preview) for $69 from the
same company is a good alternate.
Edit Pro's Effects Menu
The post-processing sequence (described in detail
later) is as follows, with some
steps avoided for certain recordings.
Remove "bad" sound artifacts
2. Tone down
any overbearing voices or instruments
dynamic processing for a better balance between instruments and voices
any extra room reverb
5. Rebalance left and right to widen or narrow the
6. Normalize the maximum sound level to about 85%
the start and end of the track.
8. Save the new file as a separate file from the
#1 - Your ears can easily get used to overdone effects. Too much filtering
can "dull" the sound, too much reverb makes for unnatural echo,
too much compression can give the sound a "squeezed" feel. Take
frequent breaks and go back to the original MD track to reset your ears
to the original recording.
#2 - Filtering effects should first be used to REMOVE unwanted information
rather than boost other parts
1) Remove Sound Artifacts
artifacts are basically impairments ending up in the live recording. The
Minidisc's ADTRAC compression process adds some very slight high frequency
scratching around 8.7 kHz when the music program has a lot of sonic energy
(e.g.. a majestic church organ). To eliminate this artifact, you use the
sound editor's parametric equalizer to create a narrow -12dB notch (Q
= 18). Sweep the filter to find exactly where the artifact is and click
the filter in and out in preview mode to make sure you are not compromising
the recording. Once the preset has been saved, just use it for every MD
Edit Pro has a good Hiss Reduction effect. If possible, select a short
portion of a recording with no music and adjust just enough to lower to
an acceptable level. Listen carefully to other parts of the track to verify
no dullness or warble has been added by Hiss Reduction. Cool Edit Pro
remembers the Hiss Reduction setting for subsequent tracks.
down any overbearing voices or instruments
the level of bass or percussion can be a little overbearing. I normally
use the Parametric Equalizer to adjust the levels, because it is easy
to click a specific filter in and out. Be careful with how much high frequency
you tone down since this can also remove the live feel to a recording.
3) Apply dynamics processing to achieve better balance between
instruments and voices
Edit Pro has an excellent Dynamics Processing effect. With some careful
compression you can "pull" out a quiet solo voice against much
4) Apply any extra room reverb
you don't need to do this step, but in the case of organ recitals you
can make the organ appear as though it was in a magnificent cathedral.
If the live performance was in a "dull" room, you can add some
artificial room reverb, but do it carefully and double check on headphones
and studio monitors that it doesn't sound phoney!
5) Rebalance left and right to widen or narrow the stereo image
can use this step to create a more rounded sound for large choruses. Compare
between headphones and studio monitors to ensure you
haven't made the image too wide or turned it into mono!
6) Normalize the maximum sound level
nothing more annoying when you listen to your finished CD then to find
that one track is much louder or softer than the rest. Normalize every
track 85% of maximum. Why 85%? It's because some (cheap) CD players can
not handle dynamic sonic "bangs" very well.
7) Trim the start and end of the track
Edit Pro allows you to zoom into the start of the WAV file. Highlight
the section before the music program starts and delete. Go to the end
of the track and highlight 3 to 5 seconds. Use the Envelope effect to
taper down to zero by listening to the preview to hear the effect of the
Now save your work as a new WAV file!
Step Three - CD production
all your WAV files have been processed, you are ready to make the CD.
Remember that this article is focused on how to make an Archival CD Recording
of live performances for the benefit of furthering the education of the
performers. It is illegal to make CDs for commercial sale without the
permission of the copyright holders.
That said, there's no
reason not to make your CD recording look professional. There are several
vendors of CD labeling products, including AVERY who are carried by the
likes of OfficeMax. Make sure you clearly
indicate on the CD label and jewel case cover that this is an Archival
Recording - not for commercial sale. A charge of about $6 will be sufficient
to cover your expenses, offset some of the costs of wear and tear on your
equipment and go towards some of the expense in purchasing the recording
equipment in the first place.
Well that's about it!
I have always been surprised at how many performers appreciated being
able to hear themselves as the audience does. It has helped them improve
their styles and, for amateurs, gives them another reason to participate
in performing live music. I get comments from people who say they still
play their Archival CD Recordings years later or when they are a little
down. Performing live music makes a nice contrast to the "spoon feeding"
of TV and movie theatre commercialism, enough said!
David Breton is a degreed software engineer with experience
in audio and video processing. He is a participant in performing live
vocal music and a strong supporter of community-based performing arts.
He lives in the Newport, Rhode Island area and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright David Breton 2001