Distorted recordings of live music
May 22, 2012 8:42 AM   Subscribe

How do we fix the problem of an over driven microphone recording live music in bars.

My friend is recording live music (mainly in bars) for online radio pod-casts. She is recording directly to her MacBook via a Blue Snowball microphone. This does an adequate job in many situations, but when the music is loudly amplified, the microphone signal maxes out and the recordings are clipped and distorted. There is a gain adjustment on the microphone, but the lowest setting often does not do the trick. Is there software that will help? How about physically muffling the mike somehow? Any help would be much appreciated. Please assume we know nothing about the technical aspects of recording because we know almost nothing. Inexpensive solutions get extra credit!
posted by txmon to Technology (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Depends where it's being maxed out. With a USB mic like yours, the A/D converter is on board, so adjusting the input volume (in System Preferences -> Sound -> Input tab) or adding on software probably wouldn't help. Worth a shot though.

Really, you probably want a separate USB audio interface like this one (no experience; just an example) and a mic that can handle high intensity, like a SM-57 (though most decent microphones will do the trick).

I don't think a physical object to muffle the sound will help more than it will hurt-- it will affect different frequencies differently, so you'll lose all the highs and keep all the lows and miss, for example.
posted by supercres at 8:49 AM on May 22, 2012

Maybe ditch the laptop altogether and get a Zoom H1 or H4n? I don't know how well they handle live loud music, but the quality is pretty universally lauded.
posted by supercres at 8:57 AM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have an M-Audio digital audio recorder which I've had at time expertly record live music off the sound board. I've also done it myself off the sound board and it didn't sound very good. A good sound engineer probably could help you record live music off the soundboard which would be way better than an open air mic. Trust me!
posted by Mikon6 at 9:02 AM on May 22, 2012

Sorry for the grammar mistakes in my post.
posted by Mikon6 at 9:05 AM on May 22, 2012

You want to record off the soundboard, trying to record off a mic is a terrible idea.
posted by empath at 9:37 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, recording of the soundboard is always preferable, but sometimes she can't get access to the soundboard and other times there isn't one. thanks for answers so far!
posted by txmon at 9:49 AM on May 22, 2012

Response by poster: off the soundboard
posted by txmon at 9:49 AM on May 22, 2012

get a Zoom H1 or H4n? I don't know how well they handle live loud music, but the quality is pretty universally lauded.

I have recorded loud live music with a Zoom- sitting it at the back of the room and setting the Gain to "low." It worked great.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:20 AM on May 22, 2012

Best answer: The problem with using a USB mic is that it's difficult to get around this... if you were using a regular mic you could just throw on an attenuator cable, but that's not an option here. I agree with others that muffling the mic won't help, but one thing you could try is moving the mic as far back in the venue as you possibly can -- distance cuts volume to a surprising degree.

I agree that a stand-alone recorder (preferably with an external mic) is a better solution. Zoom and Tascam both make cheap digital recorders (~$100 new) which will make good live recordings, especially if paired with an external mic.
posted by vorfeed at 11:44 AM on May 22, 2012

If the problem is that your microphone is distorting, the most inexpensive solution is to move the mic to a place in the room where it won't distort. If the room is very small, or the music very loud, this might not be possible. If you have to move the mic so far away to prevent distortion that it affects the sound quality to the point that you're not satisfied with the recording, then you are using the wrong microphone for the job.

I own a snowball and have gotten nice results from it for vocals and acoustic guitar. It is a "podcast" microphone designed to record a few people sitting around it talking, so I don't think it would work well for recording a live band in a bar.

Maybe ditch the laptop altogether and get a Zoom H1 or H4n?

If you were going to spend any extra money, this is where I'd invest it (rather than software, or an audio interface and new mic). I've recorded my loudish rockband in a small club with the Zoom a few times (don't remember the exact model), and I've always been pleased with the results.
posted by grog at 12:12 PM on May 22, 2012

In audio editing software to improve the recordings you already have, equalize to bring down the bass low frequencies - lower the level of the range under 200Hz on the recording. That will not fix them completely, not even close, but they could be made listenable.

The Blue mic has its own amplifier which is getting overloaded. You'd have to open it up and put a proper resistor in there at the right place to cut down the sound coming right at its microphone element, and that might not work anyway. That mic is just not intended for a loud live music situation.

Experienced bootleg tapers - think all those Grateful Dead tapers - found the best ways to do this type recording, but that is all old stuff now, old equipment. But the principles apply.

This widespread problem actually came up on lifehacker yesterday, which linked to this simple inexpensive tiny microphone kit for just this problem. The kit is intended for a cell phone, it's almost just what you need. But for your computer it would need a small power source and a plain stereo plug, not the 4-connection plug used by phones that taps power from the phone. I hope the little company realizes what it has and just makes an assembled version with a button battery and stereo plug for computers and digital recorders.

How is this for inexpensive and easy: You might try a really cheap mic right into the computer, like this one for 99 cents free shipping. I am not kidding, I have a few of these and I have used it into a digital recorder and results are very good mono. It has a wide range and relatively low sensitivity, which is just what you want. (Not a recommendation of that particular seller, several ebay sellers sell the same thing or similar copies.)

If this is a regular thing, get a Zoom model, which has a switchable attenuator already built in for just that use, with excellent mics that can handle it. It's just the "Mic Gain" setting, High, Medium, or Low. You would want Low, for low sensitivity.
posted by caclwmr4 at 1:02 PM on May 22, 2012

On the website for that mic, it says there is a switch for a -10db "pad". Have you tried this?

Otherwise, you need a different microphone designed for recording louder things. The mic element could itself be clipping, and no amount of attenuation will fix that.
posted by gjc at 7:22 PM on May 22, 2012

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