On-the-Spot CD Release

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, Mix, By Sarah Benzuly

Out the Door, That Night's Show In-Hand

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Advances in technology have made the ability to do our jobs easier and — more importantly — faster. Why FedEx when you can e-mail? Why wait until you get home to call loved ones when you can do it on your cell phone while stuck in traffic. Go to the bank anymore? Why? You can hit an ATM or hop online to transfer funds. However, this technology has altered our collective minds — we want it now.

The same idea is now pulsing through the live sound industry. Why wait for a band to release a live CD or — better yet — hop online the day after the concert and download the set's tracks from their Website when you can shell out $20 for a CD of that show as you walk out the door. Amazing.

Though the practice of burning instant CD-Rs to be sold to fans as they walk out of the venue is in its infancy, the concept is raising some serious questions. What new responsibilities and issues lay beyond the front-of-house engineers' ability to just be in the “here and now” and mix a show? On the business side, will the engineer get a cut of the profits, much like a mechanical royalty for a studio-produced CD? On the tech side, will engineers need to re-learn their job? The answers are, we just don't know yet. Mix spoke with FOH engineers and two companies that are offering this service to discuss this relatively new idea.

MEET THE PLAYERS


Recording shows is nothing new to front-of-house engineer Robert Scovill (Def Leppard, Rush, Matchbox 20, etc.). He's been hitting Record for the past 15 years, going back to his 4-track cassette days. “My goal at that time was to hone my skill at pulling off a live recording, as well as do a concert at the same time,” he says. “And I think subconsciously, or just underneath the skin somewhere, I always knew that we were going to be able to mass-produce and mass-distribute music after a show to an audience.”

This thinking led him to become involved with DiscLive (where he currently serves as an advisory boardmember), a New York City startup in the concert merchandising and live recording industries that has been offering same-night live CDs since February 2003.

DiscLive supplies tours with a self-contained rig that incorporates the company's patent-pending file-transfer technology, in which an audio feed from the FOH board is cleaned up and distributed to a scalable number of servers and a CD-R is burned to produce 800 discs in less than 20 minutes post-show, with the first batch available in under five minutes.

“We consider the FOH engineer in a way a member of the band,” says Sami Valkonen, president of DiscLive, “because of the level of input he has on how the CD sounds. Our specialization is what we term mastering: the sonic post-processing of the artistic vision of the artist and their FOH engineer to make the best-sounding CD possible.”

Working almost exclusively with one act can solidify the “becoming one with the band” mentality. Front-of-house engineer Kevin Browning has mixed for Umphrey's McGees for many moons, burning in real time for himself and the band for more than three years. “I have always been conscious of trying to produce a high-quality live recording, as well as the live mix,” he says. “The bottom line is that it's the engineer's primary responsibility to provide the best sound for the ticket-buying audience.”

For the past six months, Browning has been burning CDs of Umphrey's McGees' shows to sell to fans via UM Live, a three-CD set of that night's entire performance available at the merchandise area for $15. “The recordings are high-quality matrix mixes containing the clarity of a soundboard feed with the ambience of a live show,” Browning explains. “Sign up upon arrival as there are only a limited number of copies available. CDs will be available only minutes following the conclusion of the encore.”

Front-of-house engineer Steve Young, who has been touring with .moe for the past nine years, has been recording that band's live shows for their live CD series called Warts and All. “They're just left/right mixes from the console with audience mics [a couple of 414s onstage] to record the crowd and that goes right to the DAT,” he explains. On .moe's recent fall tour, the audio crew was accompanied by Clear Channel's Instant Live reps to record concerts using a combination of ambient mics and feeds from the soundboard. Fans can pre-order when purchasing their tickets; those who don't attend the event can buy Instant Live CDs at designated Best Buy stores.

“This is about more than just technology expanding our ability to bring live entertainment to music fans in new forms,” said Steve Simon, Instant Live project director and executive VP at Clear Channel Entertainment, in a release. “We are leveraging technology to improve the concert experience for fans and enhance the connection between them and their favorite artists.”

Gearing up for Instant Live, Young consulted with reps from Clear Channel on how the racks were configured to make sure that the additional gear was road-worthy. On tour, Young worked with Clear Channel's Dave Tessler, who was situated at FOH and was responsible for recording the shows, “putting in the CDs, making sure of the levels, tracking the songs,” Young recalls. “He was a .moe fan, too, so he could tell when they were going to go into a song while in the middle of a jam. All I had to do was make sure the mix was right-on. I took a couple aux sends so I did have control over certain things. The only thing I turned down was the effects return for the vocals, because they were a little too apparent on the tape. The left/right mix went to a TC Finalizer to perform simple mastering and it went right to the CD burners. It was real easy.

“They had road cases with CD-burning towers — three towers to a box — and each tower did a dozen CDs,” he continues. “They had six of those cases at front of house. They would burn three masters: the first set at intermission, the first CD of the second set at the end of the show and the third CD after the encore. And with those three masters, in 15 minutes, they would have 100-and-something copies of the show already packaged. Usually a half-an-hour after we were done, the kids had the CDs in their hands and were already out the door.”

IS IT TOUR MERCHANDISE?


One of the main challenges that Scovill raises is the classification of the CD-R when working with a major recording artist. Is it tour merchandise or a master recording for retail, or both? Scovill believes that, to some degree, if you are selling the item to concertgoers as they exit the venue, then you are treating the end product as merchandise, which means that the merch vendor and/or the venue may ask for a percentage of the sale. “Where it can get complex is when you consider that most major artists are going to have a recording/exclusivity clause in their contracts, meaning that if the artist wants to sell re-recordings of songs that have been recorded exclusively for that label, the label will mostly likely ask for a fee to do so. There will certainly be a need for somebody to mediate and negotiate all of this for a given tour. That's going to put more strain on the tour managers/accountants/artist management to cut those kinds of deals, not only for a given tour, but in terms of settlement every night.”

If the CD-R was defined purely as a “master recording for sale,” would the mixer deserve a mechanical royalty? “As much as it pains me, probably not,” explains Scovill. “I'd love to tell you there is some kind of standard setup that we could borrow from the recording industry, but there's obviously not, in that in that side of the industry, not all mixers get points; they're more often than not paid a flat fee. My gut instinct tells me that it's one of those things where the artist will say, ‘Well, we're already paying you to mix the show. Why should we pay you this much more just to hit the Record button?’ In the end, they will have to see ‘added value’ in your work and feel you were truly contributing to the success of the product. I think as the concept starts to blossom, and reputations of mixers and their various results start to grow, you could see some value in ‘who mixed the disc,’ much as you do in recordings concerning producers and mixers. As for the live mixers and royalties, whatever gets established early on in the game will most likely stick around for quite a while until somebody is in a position to break from the tradition.”

Browning agrees that engineers should receive some sort of royalty for their work and adds another reason why: “Mechanical royalties depend largely on who owns the gear being used. Obviously, engineers need to be paid for their time, but it varies after that. If an engineer is providing the gear to make the live sales happen, he should be compensated for that.”

“I try to stay away from all of that,” Young adds, “but I think we should get a royalty. The show's first and everybody's there working and making that happen. The tape is just a photograph of the show.” Young did receive a credit on the CD, but the royalty checks haven't arrived.

CONSUMER MENTALITY


Because of the need to catch consumers before they leave the venue, these discs will not be reviewed by the artists nor are they necessarily mixed “for the medium” in which they are recorded: Will consumers buy the CD purely from a novelty standpoint or will they expect a studio-quality finished product? Scovill insists that consumers will maintain a bootleg outlook. “What they really want is to walk away from the show with the disc in their hands and listen to it in the car on the way home — warts and all,” he says. “‘I want my night, I want my town.’ They don't want the perfect performance; they want the one that was special to them. And if it has mistakes in it — if the singer is singing flat, et cetera — the artists have to let down their vanity a little bit and relax. If you don't play to the impulse buy — somebody can walk out of the show with a disc in their hands — then I think you've really missed the golden goose.” DiscLive hones in on this “grocery store checkout line impulse buy” by providing individually numbered CDs in a customized, pre-printed case.

“The fans really love the fact that they can drive away from the show listening to that night on CD and have it sound real good, be real clear and be able to hear all the nuances,” Young adds. “Even stuff that they hear on the CD that they didn't really hear in the room just because in the room, it gets kind of lost. Ever since we stopped doing it, a lot of people have asked, ‘Hey, where do I get a CD tonight?’ And I say, ‘Oh, it was just a limited time.’ I think they really, really enjoyed it and definitely want more.”

RAISING THE “BOOTLEG” BAR


“My guess is some fans expect a studio-quality disc while others expect bootleg quality,” Browning says. “I'm trying to make them one and the same. I have just added a TC Finalizer to try and give our discs a more consistent, better-sounding edge. Mastering to some degree is possible live, and as time goes by and standards are raised, fans will begin to expect more from the sound, as they should because it only encourages us to work harder.”

Young also used a TC Finalizer to help in on-the-fly mastering. Also knowing that he will be providing the mix for the CDs over the course of numerous shows allows Young to “tweak” for the next night. “If you do it on a set of aux sends, then you can make adjustments over a couple shows,” he says. “Like if you do the first night and you listen to it, if you decide something's a little too loud or a little too buried on the CD, you can go ahead and change that the next day.”

While the industry may be a few touring seasons away from selling a fully mastered CD post-show, FOH engineers are going to have to become more conscious of how their mixes sound on the “small speakers.” “I don't feel we should hold this process to the same bar or the same standard that we now hold when we're mixing records,” Scovill says. “But this process is going to redefine some of the methodology at the front-of-house mix. [Front-of-house engineers] are going to have to think in terms of that 2-track mix and understand that what they're doing during the show is being printed. For my money, if there's an Achilles heel for this model, it is just this: A large percentage of the quality is reliant directly upon that front-of-house engineer's mixing abilities.”

That's okay with Browning, who says, “Sound companies and engineers are there to provide fans and audiences with high-quality-sounding music in whatever context; formats make themselves available as outlets. There is no doubt that the demand for live recordings has increased and it has given us a unique opportunity to provide. It provides a needed service and can be a lucrative source of additional revenue for companies and bands.”

“Overall,” Scovill says, “it could stand to raise the bar of concert sound in total, because now you're going to have guys really concentrating on making that mix sound right and good coming off the console. You're going to see the focus of the band be a little bit stronger, because now they're going to know, ‘Hey, I can't just get up there and sleep through it tonight. It's going to be on record to the public.’”

LONG AND WINDING ROAD


At the highest levels, things that seem simple on the surface can get very complex at their core, “especially in terms of money distributions and fees, labor, royalties, publishing, et cetera — even distribution of it after the show,” Scovill says. “It very easily swirls into this very complex arrangement, where somebody has to be in charge of managing all of this activity, not only between the artist and the disc-makers, but between the venues every night, the promoters, the unions.”

And even beyond the politics, this brings the “taping community” — especially within the jam-band scene — under scrutiny. “I do know of a lot of tapers that, when we were doing Instant Live, were really excited because they left all of their gear at home,” Young says. “They just brought their $20 and walked out at the end of the night with a recording of the show. A lot of [artists] don't even let them tape their shows, but they might think differently if they can sell it to everybody at the end of the night.”

In a sense, then, in this age where every company is looking for new revenue streams, same-night distribution can be seen as “free money.” “The artist doesn't have to work one inch harder for it than they did before it was happening,” Scovill says. “The venue doesn't have to work one inch harder than before. The labels don't have to put out one dime to get money coming in. From that perspective, it just seems like such a simple process and concept, but in the end, everyone will have an appetite for a piece of the proverbial pie. It's really in its infant stages — we haven't seen it really bloom into what it could be. It's going to be fascinating to see if the whole thing eats itself alive before the aforementioned pie even comes out of the oven.”


Sarah Benzuly is Mix's associate editor.

KEVIN BROWNING'S RECORDING CHAIN

“I take a stereo matrix feed from the console, preferably Midas, and run it into a pair of channels on the Allen & Heath 14:4 Mix Wizard. I believe subgroups are the key to a balanced-sounding live recording. I start by assigning a healthy dose of the L/R mix to the matrix, but then fine-tune with subgroups. I do not assign the subgroups to the house, only the recording. That way, when I find I need a little more drums to tape, for example, I can boost them without crushing the house mix. If vocals seem to be excessively hot going to tape, I will increase the entire band behind them to even and smooth things out.

“Once I'm happy with the direct soundboard mix, I mix in a pair of microphones at front of house, usually Schoeps with 4V capsules, using another two channels on the Mix Wizard. I then send the soundboard feed to the delay unit using pre-fader aux sends and return it to another pair of channels on the mixer. I then time-align the soundboard feed with the mic feed to ensure a tight fit using Smaart, SpectraFoo or, more typically, by ear.

“I then put additional microphones onstage for crowd/stage ambience. Microphone choice and placement depend on venue size, sonic characteristics, FOH position and about a dozen other factors. For example, the Neumann dummy head works exceptionally well in many venues, but not all. Some spaces call for very directional hypercardioid mics, while others sound great using a wide omni pattern. The Focusrite compressor is inserted on the crowd mics, sidechained off the soundboard feed so that they'll remain squashed while the band is at a louder dynamic but open during lulls in the music to allow applause to cut through.

“Finally, I have just started to run the entire mix through the TC Finalizer to give it a mastered, more professional sound. The resulting 2-track mix goes to DAT and CD-R, which I track in real time.

“That is the basic setup, but it varies almost nightly in small nuanced ways: a different mic here, different placement there, varying EQ and compression details and so forth. I try to capitalize on the pros of each individual venue while minimizing the cons.”






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