People sometimes ask me why I do it. Why I keep making these recordings. Every performance requires hours of post-production audio work, which is over and above the initial recording. Often times I’ll need to drive to some far off city, multiple hours each way, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how expensive gas is these days. Food money is out of pocket. I’m lucky and grateful for all my friends who have let me crash on their couch when I’m in town. But occasionally I won’t have any other option to find a cheap hotel room in the area. That all adds up to a whole lotta time and money for something for which I’m not getting paid. (Yes, it would be nice to be paid for my work, but I know the score, and the reality of the situation is that most every artist that I record is as poor as I am. But hopefully I won’t be doing this for free forever.) Sometimes I won’t have to pay the club’s cover charge, which really helps out. So I’m out, what, hundreds of dollars every road trip? Probably not that much. But lots. More than any reasonable person would spend on such a thing. But when it comes to me and live music recording, you can throw reason out the nearest window.
Let me try to explain.
Why do I do it? Because I’m addicted to it. I can’t stop and I won’t stop. I do it for the music. I love recordings of live music. And because nobody is paying me for any of these recordings, I’m pretty much free to choose who I record (given their permission, of course). So on top of my love of live music recordings, generally speaking I love the music that’s being performed in the first place, whether I’m recording it or not.
I’ve been going to shows for a few decades now, and have witnessed some incredible performances. Back in the old days (80s), what were we left with after the show? Outside of the word of mouth from the people who went, I mean. Maybe, if we’re lucky, a couple pictures and/or a review in the free weekly newspaper? Not good enough. We don’t have to live by those standards any more. We have such ridiculously advanced technology at our fingertips these days, and all it takes is someone like me who will go to great lengths to bring the concert home, and to deliver it to a worldwide audience via the internet.
We have more (and better) ways of documenting club shows and other concerts than dozens upon dozens of snapshots of smiling, drunken 20-somethings posted on the local ‘drunken-happy-people-at-the-club-last-night’ websites. That’s not good enough for those of us whose primary (and often times only) motivation to go out to the show is the music. First, a little history…
We can credit The Grateful Dead with popularizing/revolutionizing the live tape circuit, and understandably, that spilled over to all bands who played live, in giant arenas and weekend festivals all the way down to local clubs and dive bars down the street. Portable recording technology back in those days was pretty primitive (obviously compared to today, but even by its own standards, it was a sad state). But every once in a while, somebody would pop out a decent sounding recording which might sound better than AM radio, and might retain some of the stereo separation (although stereo microphones were the minority with portable recording setups, and even then, fat chance keeping anything intelligible given the venue’s acoustics, the volume, the crowd size, and the position of the person doing the recording…). Even more rare, but which was the gold standard in olden times, was when somebody like The King Biscuit Flower Hour would record a show. As a teenager in the 80s, I was a regular listener of the KBFH just before they ceased operations, because they played exclusive live recordings of bands that I liked at the time, often times only a week or two after the concert actually took place. I would even listen to live recordings of bands that I thought totally sucked, because there’s something special about live albums which is impossible to capture with studio recordings, and it’s more than just that there’s a cheering audience. It’s that excitement and that energy. It’s the rawness. It’s the crazed fanaticism. Studio recordings are nice, but they’re just songs. Concerts are monumental events, and live albums capture that excitement in such a way that is impossible with studio recordings.
I think back to the 80s and 90s when I was going to shows but before I had the equipment of the know-how to record them. Some legendary shit went down when I was living in LA in the 90s. But how would we know that it’s legendary? Because I said so? Ya, I guess, because that’s all we have to go on. Well, we don’t have to settle for that any more. I remember some of those shows that left me in awe- Scanner at the Knitting Factory, Venetian Snares at The Smell, Not Breathing and DVOA at The Smell, Phoenecia at the Silver Lake Pet Store, Phthalocyanine at various locations all over town. But the one that stands out in my mind (as well as many others) was the monstrous lineup of Man Is the Bastard, Babyland, Neurosis and Crash Worship at a renovated movie theatre called the Las Palmas in Hollywood. That was one for the ages, yet no recordings of that show exist, audio or video. But I want to focus on Crash Worship, because they more than anybody else exemplify my view on live recordings and why I do them.
That band’s name is spoken with a certain reverence by all of us who had a chance to see them live. Those who didn’t get that chance only know them by their studio recordings, which are simply a pale representation of the frenzied, cacophonous, fire-breathing bacchanalia that their live show was. Luckily, they were still at it into the late 90s when portable recording technology advanced by leaps and bounds- with portable DAT and minidisc recorders for audio and VHS camcorders for video. And we are further fortunate that a certain (small) number of people had the capability and the wherewithal to record a couple of their shows and throw them up on Youtube. Would Crash Worship still be as legendary if those live recordings didn’t exist? Ya, probably. Because their shows were consistently spectacular, and there will never be another band like them. Which brings me to today…
The artists that I record make some incredible music; the stuff that inspires fanaticism. And every one of the shows that I record might end up being one of those legendary shows that people talk about a decade later. And I wanna be there to record it. I’m happy to say that I’ve turned out some notable recordings. First, let’s talk about Babyland. Like Crash Worship, their live shows were legendary, and it was always my goal to capture some of that magic on tape. I’ve been friends with them through my association with Los Angeles’ preeminent college radio station KXLU. Sadly, Babyland disbanded a couple years ago, but from the mid 90s to about 2009, I recorded them more than any other artist. Dozens of times. Many of those recordings are crap and not worth hearing at all, because it was a long learning process for me and I’m grateful that they would allow me to record their performances. I wouldn’t be the engineer I am today if I hadn’t gone through that learning process. But the best news is, that in the late 00s I was getting pretty good at it, and a couple of their final shows that I recorded sound impressive, and as far as I know, I was the only person putting in the effort to make a proper live recording of them.
I say ‘proper’ because of course everybody has a smartphone these days, and Youtube is littered with those shaky, awful sounding 30 second cellphone bootlegs with which we are all familiar. I wanted to do better than that, and with the tools I had at my disposal and with my audio expertise, I knew I could. So I did. Despite the legendary status that their live shows reached, the band never had a chance to record a live album, outside of my attempts. So when I unleashed the best sounding of them that I had made onto the interwebz in early 2013, long after the band had broken up, the people went nuts. A hundred listens in the first few hours it was up. Hundreds of purchases through the band’s Bandcamp. This is the reason why I record these shows. At the time, it was just another show. A couple years down the line, the recording becomes an important document.
Similarly, there was an artist in LA called This Song Is a Mess But So Am I which took the city by storm in the late 00s. This Song’s sole member, Freddy, doesn’t perform those songs anymore. His primary musical project these days is called Former Ghosts, and I don’t get to record him that often any more because, not only does he not play as often, but he now lives in Prague and I’m still in southern California, which presents a bit of a problem. He made some incredible music and was (and still is) an incredible performer, and I was lucky enough to record a few of his TSIAMBSAI shows. Freddy is one of those musical artists whose performances set the standard for others to aspire. As an audio archivist, I like to think that with these recordings, I’m collecting evidence of the performer’s greatness. But still, as I said with Babyland, at the time, those This Song Is a Mess shows just seemed like another show, but now the recordings take on a new importance.
Technically speaking, the way I make live albums is the superior method, especially when it comes to electronic-based artists. The days of renting giant trucks equipped with a full multi-track recording studio are loooong gone. That goes for the rock bands too, but especially for the electronic artists because the vast majority of the time, there’s only two channels of audio coming off the stage anyway. You can still spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to rent a truck if you’d like, but they’re gonna record the exact same number of channels as I will with the equipment that fits in my backpack. At the same time, anything less than what I use is a mistake, and I’ll tell you why-
For the longest time, audience bootlegs were pretty much the modus operandi for non-professionals to record concerts. Bootlegs generally sound like garbage. The one aspect of the concert that you’ll never capture on a bootleg is the instrumental presence; that is the sound of the mics having been placed close to the amps; how ‘close’ the music sounds to our ears. It sounds great us at the show, but the microphone hears differently than our ears. Blame our brains. The microphone doesn’t have a brain. Our brain subconsciously doesn’t listen to all the natural room reverb and other acoustic anomalies, nor the constant din of the crowd. The microphone takes it all in equally, and it all ends up on tape (or hard drive these days). Then when you listen to the recording the next day, the band sounds like they’re playing a mile or two away from where you were standing. We have some fancy software with audio filters nowadays that can minimize that effect, but a bootleg is never really gonna sound all that good. Never mind that unless you’re using a professional quality microphone, the low end response will most likely be nil. So what’s the solution? Well, the obvious choice would be to feed the audio signal directly from the mixing board into the recorder, like the same way we would record records to cassette back in the old days. Well, that solves the presence problem, as well as keeping 100% of the the stereo separation, which will be all but lost in the bootleg recording. But the tradeoff is that with a board tape, you lose the live concert sound of a bootleg. Because electronic artists rarely have open microphones on stage when they play, what we’re left with is sterile, lifeless, uninspiring recordings which, as far as we know, could have been recorded in the artist’s bedroom, because without the audience in the recording, we have no way to know that this recording is an actual concert.
The most glaring example of this that comes to my mind is the recording of Autechre when they played Coachella in 1999. They were the primary reason why I went to that inaugural Coachella, the one and only Coachella I attended. The tent was packed with hundreds of people all of whom were going nuts for the entire hour and 35 minutes Autechre played, but as far as we know they were playing to an empty house because the only surviving recording of that performance is a board tape. These days, that’s unacceptable, because they way I do my recordings, by getting the best of both worlds, is easily accomplished.
The best example I can offer to illustrate my point is the recording I made of Somatic Responses in summer of 2011 in Los Angeles. There are a handful of Somatic Responses live recordings floating around the internet (Boston, Rome, Ghent, London…), of shows both prior and following my recording of them. But all those other recordings are board tapes. Mine is the only one which is a combination board tape and audience capture. And my recording is clearly the best. Why? Because those other board tapes sound lifeless. Like the band is playing live on the radio in some soundproofed room. My recording captures all that frenzied excitement and the raw power that makes the legendary shows legendary. Those other Somatic Responses shows were probably just as good as the LA show to the people who went, but will anybody be talking about those shows 10 years from now? Doubtful. The music is just as good, but none of those board tapes come close to capturing the excitement of the show. Will anybody be talking about the LA show 10 years from now? I don’t doubt that they will, primarily due to the quality of my recording of that show, and my method of combining the board tape with the room mics.
Some people have said that the crowd sound gets in the way of the music, or is distracting. I’m well aware of those concerns, and pay very close attention to that when mixing. I want the recording to sound like the concert, and there was a whole room full (or stadium full) of screaming people at the concert. At the same time, at no point should the audience sound push the music into the back round. The music must be front and center always. I will still leave a small amount of crowd sound in the mix to keep the sound of a live concert. But at no point should the crowd sounds be so loud that our brains have to work to listen through it, or listen over it, to hear the music. Much like I mentioned before, when listening to one of my recordings, your brain should be able to effortlessly filter out the crowd sounds while the music plays. But yet it has to be in the mix at least the slightest bit, or else we just have another sterile board tape.
So I don’t know if I’ve adequately spelled out my reasons for being addicted to making live recordings. I guess the TL:DR version is (1) live albums are way more exciting than studio albums, (2) monumental, important, legendary performances could (and do) happen at any time, and when they happen, I want to be there to record them, and (3) board tapes aren’t good enough any more, and bootlegs are even less acceptable than board tapes. Never mind that bootlegs have pretty much fallen out of favor these days anyway, in favor of short cell phone-recorded snippets which usually look and sound so bad that they’re not even worth using the battery power to record them, much less the time and effort required to upload them to the internet.
I live by the archivist’s credo- record everything and sort it out later. And not recording is not an option. As I say, ‘no performance should go unrecorded.’
Go to mixcloud.com/humorlessproductions for many full-length concerts that I’ve recorded/produced over the years.