Looking for info on basic but good music recording
August 29, 2007 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm a musician and interested in doing well done field recordings of mostly acoustic (but sometimes electric) music. I'm interested in doing it with a minimum of equipment, but producing good quality recordings. In the past I've used a minidisc and a small microphone, sometimes with pretty good results. But I'm looking on ways and equipment to do a better job.

I'm hoping to build a rig of some sort for less than $1000 and be able to record small and large groups in addition to doing some radio (this-american-life type stuff).

To be clear...I'm planning on doing this digitally. Either with a flash recorder or a laptop.

I'd be thankful for any leads on places to research this (as well as any straight ahead tips).
posted by sully75 to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
definitely check out taperssection.com. i used to be into the scene and the people on the forum are pretty knowledgeable.
posted by uaudio at 7:35 AM on August 29, 2007

I want an ultra-portable (fits in your hand) Zoom H4.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:04 AM on August 29, 2007

Don't get an Olympus VN 4100. The sound quality is the pits.
posted by LN at 8:14 AM on August 29, 2007

I too used to be into the taper scene. God bless the tapers for without them there would be no live music.

I am assuming that you want to tape using microphones and not something that would plug into a soundboard?

Creative makes a jukebox hard disk player that allows recording directly to MP3 or WAV. This seems to be the DAT recorder for the new age. Check out the Creative website or taperssection.com for more details.

To see what most tapers of live music are using you can browse through the live music archive at archive.org you can even download live music for free to see how a tapers rig sounds.
posted by remthewanderer at 8:33 AM on August 29, 2007

Naturerecordists often comes up as a key resource when people ask this question on music mailing lists I've been on over the years:

naturerecordists Yahoo group
posted by galaksit at 8:55 AM on August 29, 2007

I'm actually interested in hearing what other people recommend, as I do field recordings myself, and getting decent sound quality in a live performance setting is always a challenge.
posted by LN at 9:02 AM on August 29, 2007

This page, from the website of field recordist Quiet American, is another excellent resource for links to gear info. I would recommend checking out his web site in general.
posted by galaksit at 9:32 AM on August 29, 2007

Finally, a question I can offer some help with!

Firstly, you mention that you plan to do this digitally, and that's good. The laptop is the only way to go. But you also mention a thousand dollar price ceiling. I'm going to assume that budget doesn't include the laptop, since it would eat all and more of it up with nothing left over for the real stuff!

Now then, onto equipment. I've been doing this sort of thing for a while now, and I use the following:

MacBook Pro
Digidesign Mbox2, which comes bundled with ProTools LE 7.3
Two SM58 microphones
Two 20 foot (i think) XLR cables
One pair headphones
Two microphone stands

A brand new Mbox2 with the protools bundle is 500 bucks. You could probably find one on ebay for less, but be careful. I'd recommend getting a more recent one: the pre's are better.

Including the mics (SM58s are great, standard, and cheap!) and other stuff, you're looking at about 700 bucks.

This rig is very flexible. For large band situations where they are playing through a console or other sound system, you're Mbox has two line level inputs that can be used to take a direct stereo mix out from the board into your laptop. If the sound guy is doing a good job, your mix will sound pretty good.

For smaller groups that are playing "acoustic", I've been able to get really good sounds out of just two microphones. You'll have to experiment a little bit, but the best thing I've found to do is just set up the two 58s in an "XY" stereo-pair fashion, with the two microphones pointed at about 30 degree angles to the left and right. Separate them anywhere between 6 inches to 2 feet, depending on how huge you want your stereo field to be. Make sure the capsules are on the same horizontal line though.

For broadcast-y type stuff, you can just set up one mic on a stand and have your source speak into it.

All in all, ProTools LE with an Mbox and 2 mics can be a surprisingly functional setup for many different "sizes" of projects.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:56 AM on August 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Addendum: I took "minimum of equipment" to mean you probably want to work "in the box" on a DAW. If you aren't into Digidesign, let me know what kind of laptop you are working with and I can probably find an alternative software / interface solution for you. For price and quality though, the sm58s are where it's at.
posted by lazaruslong at 11:21 AM on August 29, 2007

( lazaruslong, I'm surprised that you're recommending SM-58's as general recording mics. I used to use Shure 545SD - close to SM-57 - many, many years ago - and results were good, but nowadays i'm using electrets or condensers for the higher mic output and better highs. So, I'm curious...what do you love about the 58's for field recording? maybe i've missed da boat...)

I still use minidisc mostly, cos it's small, cheap and fast. I've built a small arsenal of adapters to power electret and condenser mics and provide switchable low-cut. I also have a small home-grown mixer that is capable of mixing a stereo board feed together with 2 or 3 room mics.

I would say the next step up is a good USB audio interface with built-in mic preamps, and a laptop. Here's a bunch of em. For stereo recording, the laptop DOES not need to be state of the art. In fact it shouldn't have top-of the line graphics, since the graphics sometimes steal cycles from the PC bus. So you could successfully use an older laptop. Don't run Vista (yet), use Windows XP.

For software, a number of people are successfully using Reaper for live recording (as well as production). It's super-stable on most systems.

The most important things are the mics, and where you put'em. Google "stereo recording", it's a big topic and there are many options.

I have one book by Bruce Bartlett called "Stereo Microphone Techniques" or similar, but it might be out of print. I notice however that he's got a more recent book out called On Location Recording Techniques, which is probably even more useful.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:38 PM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Artful Codger: I'd like to say it's the frequency response curve, that sort of has built in cut for artifacts 150hz and below, a nice 5db boost for stuff between 2k-7k, an overall just pleasing quality to the sound. But really, I've just been using them for so long, they are ingrained as my "reference".

I know what they should sound like when used correctly, and I know I can make them sound great with the library of plugins, outboard gear, and monitors I have access to. If I'm setting levels on a couple players playing acoustics, I can know exactly what they should sound like recorded with 58s and playing through NS10s. *

They are really durable, also. I've only destroyed a capsule once, when I drank a little too much and...well, I destroyed one.

Reliable sound, durable build and cheap (easily replaceable), the 58 is just what I like in a field mic.

Anyways, back on topic:

I have to disagree about a couple points, or maybe just offer a few extra modifiers. No, you're laptop does not need to be state of the art to do stereo recordings. However, if you plan on mixing these recordings, adding any type of digital signal processing or effects, and bouncing these for use elsewhere, you are going to want some RAM. And a fast processor. And a fast harddrive. And a fast firewire external harddrive. Graphics is unimportant, and as artful codger mentioned, can actually hurt you. Get a good soundcard.

All in all, a core 2 duo MacBook Pro laptop with upgraded RAM would be all you need. Heh.

Re, software:

Reaper is...well. It's a good idea. And it's getting better, because it is much more open than software like ProTools or even Reason / Logic / Nuendo / Qbase. But it's not there yet, in terms of funcionality. And learning curve. It just isn't. My best advice would be to learn ProTools LE, and get either an Mbox2 (NOT the Mbox2Pro) or a 002 from Digidesign.

I actually have that Bartlett book too. It's solid. Dallan Beck has a good book on recording acoustic guitars, but you could probably search around on the net and find enough tips to get you by in field recording. The coolest effects with stereo micing are accomplished in acoustically designed environments, but you can get some nice stuff at a club I suppose.

*All my home studio stuff over at MefiMusic is recorded using the exact rig I described above. Too bad my current apartment is SO LOUD the noisefloor is ridiculous. I'd never use them in the "real" studio, unless maybe a 57 on the snare. They sound fucking awesome on snares. But out and about, 58s are pretty solid mics.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:28 PM on August 29, 2007

I record live jazz (I'm a jazz trumpet player) in small settings (bookstores and small bars), and I use a Fostex MR-8 with two Shure 57 mikes.

I set the mikes up in the usual X-Y crossed configuration. I made a little doohickey that holds both mikes at the correct angle, so only one stand (a boom) is needed for both mikes. Putting the mikes on a boom reduces the odds that someone will bump one.

What I like about the setup is that it's simple, easy to setup, and sounds wonderful. The MR-8 records standard CD-quality audio (44100 samples/sec., 16-bit linear) on a compact flash card. It takes standard AA cells so I don't have to string a wire to the wall that someone will trip over. It can record for about 2 hours on one set of AAs.
posted by phliar at 2:49 PM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the tips, this is very helpful.

I should have been a little more clear...I'm not interested in taping bands that are playing live shows as much as I'm interested in recording people I know (and myself) playing music in a simple/good way (if one exists).

My laptop is crapped out at the moment, I have to get a new one. I had a T41 thinkpad. I had an mbox for a while and I could never get it to work with the thinkpad. Mbox1 that is. It was very frustrating.

I was thinking about going with a minidisc or flash recorder...but I do plan on getting another laptop so I'll have to think it over.

Thanks for all the leads (still happy to hear more though).
posted by sully75 at 2:57 PM on August 29, 2007

Not exactly field music, but I once recorded the Mattheus Passion in a stone church using only three 58s (one to fill the centre, the other two were spaced pretty widely) semi-close, and a pair of AKG 451 small condensers hung from the ceiling (way, way high, like 130-160 ft or so).

I guess 57s or 58s are alright if you're not exactly expecting any high end; in my case the 451s helped out on that quite well. I wouldn't recommend them for field recording on their own.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 3:16 PM on August 29, 2007

Forget the Zoom H4 -- the H2s have just been released, and unless you need the 4-track capability (and higher price and larger form factor and unreadably small display) of the H4, the H2 is the shit. $250, excellent built in mic, etc. We're moving to all H2s (from H4s, Edirol R-09s, and Marantz PMD-671s) in my shop. They fit in a shirt pocket. Great rig. Add a decent external stereo condenser (Audio-Technica AT-822 for $250 is a good choice) and you have a rig to beat anything costing less than $1000 or so.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:33 PM on August 29, 2007

I'd like to agree with the Mbox2 setup, but the SM58's might be underpowered unless they're fairly close to the source. Then again, depending on conditions, it might work for you. All this audio stuff is so subjective what you really need is a sympathetic music store clerk who will let you take home mics to test out and make a few recordings with in a few different situations and A/B (/C etc etc). Unfortunately most major music chains don't offer returns on microphones for health reasons. This policy can be avoided with a little sweet talking, so just explain you're looking for a particular sound and you need to try a few different mics out and they should let you.

Also very important: Kensington locks for the laptop and the MBox. Save yourself some stress or worse.
posted by knowles at 5:24 PM on August 29, 2007

The pros all use Sound Devices recorders, but they're quite a bit over $1000. I really want one.

Core-sound makes outstanding tiny binaural clip-mics and also offers a bundled pre-amp/system for using a PDA (even a slightly out-of-date one) as a portable 24-bit recorder. They call it PDAudio.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:23 PM on August 29, 2007

For stereo field recordings a pair of rode NT-5s are the way to go, since they're sold as a matched pair the reproduction of the stereo field(assuming they're set up correctly such as the standard x-y placement(image)) is very good. They're also fantastic for close mic'ing acoustic instruments. They're condensers so whatever soundcard you use will need to provide phantom power.
posted by TwoWordReview at 5:11 AM on August 30, 2007

For this budget and setup, I'd put the majority of my money into the mics and not to the interface or recorder. You'll need a preamp of some kind (especially if you're using condenser mics that require power). But to capture a live performance using just a stereo pair of mics, going to something like the Rode NT-5 will result in better sounding recordings (that are clearer and span a wider frequency range) than a pair of SM-57s.

But if you're recording yourself and friends at home and could set up mics for each instrument and voice, then you might be better served by not treating it as a field recording, but by getting a mixer with USB or Firewire that doubles as an audio interface, like this Alesis along with a bunch of SM-57s, SM-58s and a condenser mic or two. Depending on the acoustics of the space where you're playing, the sound may be better by close micing the instruments and voices for the recording instead of recording the overall room sound.
posted by andrewraff at 9:52 AM on August 30, 2007

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