The Ultimate Board Tape

July 25, 2012
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by Stephen Fortner

Anyone else see two stun guns and a
police radio? All can make arresting
live recordings of your next gig.
SO YOUR BAND IS DOING SOME GIGS, AND YOU RECKON THE BEST WAY TO GET MORE OF THEM
is to cut a good demo. Booking studio time isn’t in the budget, your home studios are all small, and you want to capture the magic that happens when you play for a crowd. Plus, if you’re a working cover band, chances are a live (read: paying) gig is the only way to get all you ringers in the same room at the same time.

Existing Approaches
So, just record a gig, right? Anyone who has tried it is probably familiar with these approaches, each with its own pitfalls.

Standalone stereo. Today’s handheld stereo field recorders (or for that matter, iPhone mic attachments) have great sound quality and effective auto-level control so volume peaks won’t blow out your recording. Still, you get what you get, crowd noise is a factor, and the mix will sound different from what you heard live. They’re great for solo piano, a singer/songwriter performance, or a jazz combo, but less ideal for a large rock or dance band.

Stereo board tape. You take a stereo feed from the front-of-house mixer into your recorder. In smaller bars and clubs, though, often not everything goes through the mixer—the guitar amp or snare might be plenty loud on its own, for example— so except for bleed through the vocal mics, those won’t get recorded. Mike them up anyway and just not turn them up in the house? Nope.

On most compact mixers you’ll find in clubs, you’ll get your stereo feed from the RCA-jack “tape out” or a duplicate of the main outs. Those tend to be post-fader—what’s low in the house is low on the recording. Pre-fader aux sends will be in use for monitor mixes, so don’t ask.

Splitsville. Th e traditional pro way to do live recordings is to split every signal upstream of the house mixer. One split goes to the house and the other goes to an independent recording system. Let’s assume that the level of cabling, setup, and potential distraction from the main job of rocking the gig (not to mention the expense of good splitters) makes this a non-starter.

Digital mixer heaven. Compact digital mixers such as the PreSonus StudioLive series and Yamaha’s new O1V96i (we’re working on full reviews of both) can send a pre-fader multitrack stream over FireWire or USB (respectively) so you can capture now and mix later. If the club has one of these, bring your laptop-based DAW and be nice to the sound engineer. Otherwise, keep reading.

Field Is the New Four-Track
Handheld fi eld recorders have multiplied like Zerg from Starcraft over the past few years, and three—the TASCAM DR-40, Zoom H4n, and Roland R-26—got our attention for recording not just in stereo, but on four channels at once (or six for the Roland). All three let you get a solid live recording without superimposing a full-on multitrack project onto your gig night. They can record one stereo track from their builtin mics and another from the XLR combo inputs each one has. So, the idea is to “split the diff erence,” capturing room sound from the integrated mics while direct-recording the best stereo feed you can get from the house mixer.

The result is dual stereo files: one for the built-in mics and one for the external inputs, which you can dump into your DAW and mix after the fact. While this won’t let you address every problem that full multitracking would (like a keyboard solo that was just too darned low), you can get a lot of mileage out of blending the line mix with the room mix and riding their levels relative to each other. Since you’re working with just a couple of stereo files, they’re also a great sandbox for trying Craig Anderton’s desktop mastering tips from page 40 of this issue. And who doesn’t like being able to fade up the applause and chants of “One. More. Song!” sure to happen at the end of your set?

Cool Features
These days, almost all handheld recorders do the fundamentals well: auto-limiting, low-cut filtering for wind noise and rumble, letting you set markers while recording (say, for the beginning of a song or solo), and so on. Each one in our trio also has its own useful tricks up its sleeve.

An alternative to four-channel mode on the TASCAM DR-40 is dual recording, which makes two files, one at six to 12dB below the other. If you get distortion, you have the quieter fi le as insurance and can boost and replace the off ending bit in your DAW. In four-channel mode, the DR-40 lets you set a delay for what gets recorded through the inputs relative to the built-in mics. Th is corrects for how far the DR-40 is placed from the stage, and can reduce phase issues and the need to nudge the “room” and “line” tracks around in your DAW. Th e TASCAM is also the price leader of the bunch.

Both the Zoom and the TASCAM feature non-destructive overdubbing, onboard mixdown, effects, and a mixer screen that evokes a little desktop multitrack (engage MTR mode on the Zoom or press the Mixer button on the TASCAM). Th e Zoom goes a little further in that its eff ects include modulations (chorus, phaser, etc.) and amp simulators compared to the TASCAM’s reverb-only roster. Th e Zoom also lets you plug a guitar directly in, and includes Cubase LE software.

The Roland R-26 is a different beast, recording on up to six channels at once through nearly any combination of sources you specify: built-in X/Y cardioid mics, built-in omnis, XLR combo jacks, and/or an external plug-in powered stereo mic. Th e touchscreen, dedicated “Sens” button for setting gain, and large input trim dials make using it luxurious. Those dials aren’t hardwired to left and right— depending on your recording mode and selected input sources, one might tweak the onboard mics while the other adjusts the line inputs. Th e R-26 eschews onboard mixdown and effects, assuming you’re going to do all this post-production—for which it bundles a copy of Cakewalk Sonar LE.

A final word: This article is certainly not a full roundup of handheld four-tracks—just a guide to one cool thing you can do with them. In the course of using them, though, we’ve become intrigued enough that you can expect full reviews soon at keyboardmag.com

TASCAM DR-40

MAX. RECORD CHANNELS AT ONCE

4.

FORMATS

MP3, WAV, Broadcast WAV.

MAX. AUDIO RESOLUTION

24-bit/96kHz.

BUILT-IN MICS

Cardioid, switchable coincident X/Y or A/B position.

EXTERNAL AUDIO INPUTS

XLR-1/4" TRS combo w/ 48V phantom, mic/line.

PLUG-IN POWER 1/8" STEREO MIC JACK?

None.

BATTERIES/AC

3 AA (included) or optional AC supply.

WEB

tascam.com

PRICE (LIST | STREET)

$299.99 | $199.99



Zoom H4n

MAX. RECORD CHANNELS AT ONCE

4.

FORMATS

MP3, WAV.

MAX. AUDIO RESOLUTION

24-bit/96kHz (48kHz in 4-channel mode).

BUILT-IN MICS

Cardioid, coincident X/Y with switchable 90° or 120° spread.

EXTERNAL AUDIO INPUTS

XLR-1/4" TRS combo w/ 48V phantom, mic/ line/guitar.

PLUG-IN POWER 1/8" STEREO MIC JACK?

Replaces built-in mics when used.

BATTERIES/AC

 2 AA or included AC supply, USB (storage mode only).

 WEB

samsontech.com

PRICE (LIST | STREET)

$549.99 | $299.99



Roland R-26

MAX. RECORD CHANNELS AT ONCE

6.

FORMATS

MP3, WAV, Broadcast WAV.

MAX. AUDIO RESOLUTION

24-bit/96kHz.

BUILT-IN MICS.

2 omni plus 2 cardioid conincident X/Y.

EXTERNAL AUDIO INPUTS

XLR-1/4" TRS combo w/ 48V phantom, mic/line.

PLUG-IN POWER 1/8" STEREO MIC JACK?

Replaces omni mics when selected as input source.

BATTERIES/AC

4 AA or included AC supply.

WEB

rolandus.com

PRICE (LIST | STREET)

$599.99 | $499.99

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