How to: DIY record a live band

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How to: DIY record a live band

Clouds Hill Studio
Words by Jarrah Saunders

We’ve all come across those bands who can walk on stage and rip through a gig, electrifying the room with a tightly synchronised blast of energy.

Reproducing this feeling in the studio or in a home recording situation is one of the greatest challenges of recording – whether it’s the absence of a crowd, the robot-like chops required to be able to play to a click track, or the disorienting experience of hearing yourself isolated in headphones, some musicians struggling tremendously to find their groove, especially if they don’t have a whole lot of recording experience.

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For the well-rehearsed band, it can often be a much better idea to track live, allowing the band to groove together and produce a more cohesive performance. These days, the conventional wisdom is to separate instruments as much as possible so that you can go back and fix things later on. To this end, amps are sequestered off in a separate room or cupboard somewhere and bass is DI’d. The musicians play either in the same room as the drummer or in the control room, with each wearing headphones, ideally with some way of managing their own headphone mix so that they can control how much of each instrument they hear. 

This is setup is great for a number of reasons. Having line of sight brings back some of that intangible live feeling, producing better energy and cohesion, plus tracking everything at once means you can finish songs quickly without spending days on overdubs. There is, however, a very obvious drawback – we don’t all of access to a studio with a bunch of rooms to isolate amps, or half a dozen sets of headphones with artist mixers. Plus, if your band isn’t used to tracking this way, playing in headphones to a click can still be a big old vibe killer. 

Vance Powell

The solution? Get rid of the headphones, the click, and the multi-room set up. Chuck everything in the same live room, but do it carefully – if you get the setup just right, the band will be able to hear each other perfectly without any headphones whatsoever, and the spill between drums and guitars will be minimal. We may not have multi million dollar studios, but we access to a lounge or garage more suited to home recording!

I was first introduced to this technique by a mate who read that it was favoured by legendary engineer Vance Powell, who in turn credits Glyn Johns, but it seems as though it was relatively common practice in England in the 60s. The basic principle involves setting the guitar and bass amps up in line with the resonant head of the kick drum, separating them with gobos. This mimics the setup of a band performing live on stage, enabling the musicians to hear each instrument and have a clear line of sight with one another. 

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for questioning how such a setup could possibly hope to minimise bleed, with the drums placed so close to the guitar amps – the gobos might help a bit, but surely the overheads will still be more like guitar room mics…? There’s a few factors at play here, so I’ll address each of them in turn. 

Recording studio isolation

The first thing to consider is the dispersion pattern of the amps. Without going into too much detail about the physics behind it all, the speaker of your guitar amp doesn’t disperse sound evenly in all directions, with most sound directed out towards the front and less at the top and sides. This is especially true at higher frequencies, which are more directional, with lower frequencies dispersing a bit more omni-directionally.

Ever noticed how when you stand right on top of your guitar amp at practice, it’s super hard to hear yourself clearly? This is the reason why. Sit opposite your amp so your drummer doesn’t keep yelling at you to turn your amp down.

Positioning the amps this way means the majority of guitar sound is directed out into the room, towards the musicians and away from the drum overheads and spot mics. 

Recording gobo

Another thing to think about is the size of the amps you’re using. It goes without saying that the quieter you can make the guitars, the less bleed you’ll have into the drum mics. For this reason, you’ll want to go with smaller amps – I’ve found that little 5W tube practice amps are perfect because you can hit the ‘sweet spot’ at a much lower volume, rather than running big amps quietly and not driving the valves enough. What’s more, the smaller speakers on these little amps produce less of those pesky omni-directional low frequencies that find their way into the drum overheads. It might be a hard sell for the lead guitarist who’s just lugged their Vox AC30 on a tram all the way from Coburg, but convince them to forget their pride and the results will speak for themselves. I’d even go so far as to recommend using a practice guitar amp for the bass – try filtering out the low frequencies, pushing the midrange, and blending the result with the DI’d sound to beef out the low end. Whichever amps you decide to use, try to match their levels as much as possible – this will mean that the bleed into any room mics and overheads gives you a relatively balanced stereo image and also that everyone can hear properly. 

The last consideration is the directionality of your microphones. While cardioid microphones are what most people tend to have an abundance of in their mic locker, and can still produce some decent results in a pinch, for the best isolation you’ll want a handful of mics with a figure-8 (bi-directional) or hypercardioid polar pattern so that you can make use of their rejection points. For best results, use figure-8 mics on the amps (ribbons work great!) as the null points will be directed towards the drum kit, minimising bleed from the drums. You can do a similar thing with drum overheads, positioning the mics so that the null points face the closest guitar amp.

Mic polar patterns

I’ve even had success tracking vocals with a cardioid mic, running them out into another little amp in the room – you’ll probably want to take a split with a DI though, unless you know you want to commit to a super lo-fi sound. 

Tracking in this way will save you a fortune on recording gear and/or studio rates, and is a great option for recording bands in less-than-desirable locations – I tracked a punk band in a storage unit the other day and we came up with some great sounds. You’re never going to eliminate all of the bleed; you’ll likely hear faint drums in the guitar spot mics and definitely a healthy dose of riff in your drum overheads. But part of tracking live is about learning to embrace spill, which occurs at studios and at home recording – it’ll glue your track together and impart some of that palpable excitement, energy, and ‘vibe’ intrinsic to a band performing live in a room. 

For more studios essentials, keep reading at E-Home Recording Studio.