The Changing Landscape of Remote Recording

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Janice Brown



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It's almost impossible to exaggerate the pandemic effect that plunging record sales and low-cost recording technology have had on recording facilities and engineers. Location recording professionals who have survived the loss of their traditional live album business have adapted their offerings to suit an industry in which the small laptop-based live recording system has become an unlikely competitor. Smaller secondary trucks and high-end portable rigs, along with expanded post-production services, now support the “big rigs,” which, by the way, still handle plenty of big jobs.

To David May, VP of DVD audio and video production for Warner Bros. and Rhino Records, professional audio trucks remain an absolute necessity. “We have a huge volume of work going on — we did about 160 DVDs last year, several of which involved live concert recordings for accompanying CDs,” May says. “It's an old joke that sound is always the last consideration when it comes to producing films or television, but we're a record company, and when we're shooting a concert for DVD and TV sound is just as important, if not more so, as the visual.”

Indeed, location recording mainstays such as Karen Brinton and David Hewitt's Remote Recording Services, Randy Ezratty's Effanel/Sirius XM Productions, Guy Charbonneau's Le Mobile, Kooster McAllister's Record Plant Remote and Guillaume Bengle's Studio Mobile bring a quality assurance to producers like May, whose jobs may not only hinge on fiscal responsibility, but also depend on quality product at the end of the day. Some bands may hook up a Pro Tools rig to the digital console at front of house or rely on the video truck's audio booth or touring personnel to record a concert, but this is risky business, fraught with many possible pitfalls.

“Live recording is high-pressure — you only get one shot,” says Larry Hamby, Sony/BMG senior VP of A&R, Commercial Music Group. “By the time I want to hire a professional recording truck, there's already an imperative in a project — it's usually an expensive, high-pressure project with a lot of commercial demands built into it, so you really don't want to blow it. You want as much of a safety net as possible, and by appealing to the best in the business that's what you get.”

Much like the biggest and best recording studios, the best in the mobile recording business face the difficult challenge of justifying their existence to the new wave of clients, many of whom are trying to achieve greatness on a shoestring budget. “Instead of the band management or record label comparing our bid with a bid from one of our competitors, they're comparing it to how much it would cost to plug a laptop in at FOH,” says Brinton, owner and manager of Remote Recording. “It's comparing apples and oranges. I've had clients who've wanted to use us and been overruled, and then had to deal with the aftermath when the computer at FOH lost the signal and they ended up with no audio.”

May has used small portable rigs when the budget is just not there for a truck, but will hire a qualified crew to capture the show. As most of the mobile recording specialists do offer smaller vehicles or portable solutions, relying on a totally makeshift rig or a laptop recording off the board seems foolhardy in a one-night-only situation. “I did a show in Los Angeles recently where four bands were performing, two of which I was responsible for recording,” says May. “I told the production company for the other two bands that I was hiring Le Mobile and offered that if they used the truck as well, we would all save money. They said their budget was too tight; they were just going to record from FOH. Halfway through their first band, they realized they were getting no signal and they ended up with no audio except the mix CD from FOH.”

That other producer might have opted for Le Mobile's more economical 48-track portable system, which features Pro Tools HD with Apogee converters and Grace Design preamps, as well as a backup hard drive, UPS power, a full splitter, intercom system and timecode generator. “It's a real system and will be operated by a real engineer [namely, Ian Charbonneau] who knows about mic placement and crowd-miking,” says Le Mobile owner/operator Charbonneau. “If you were to lose power, you'd have 20 minutes of backup power for your system while you find the source of the failure.”

Hamby adds, “People are watching money everywhere in this economy, but there are other ways to skin that cat — I'm not going to compromise when it comes to the recording if the product is audio.”


Selling Effanel Music to XM Satellite Radio (now Sirius XM) in 2005 was Ezratty's way of adapting his business to the changes he saw happening in the industry. “I saw a tightening up of the business model: A lot of bands were beginning to record themselves and smaller companies were popping up as the technology became so obtainable,” he explains. “It was pretty analogous to what was happening in the studio world. The client base for Effanel was changing, and it was companies like XM and Sirius and the big television networks who were becoming our bread-and-butter clients.”

In the past few years, operating as XM Productions though still a service-for-hire, Ezratty notes, “The major uptick in our business has come from festivals — we do Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits.”

The large-scale technical capabilities of a professional audio truck and the seen-it-all experience of the engineers onboard are integral to a huge music festival being covered by several multiplatform media outlets. Ezratty explains, “We go to Bonnaroo, for example, as a stand-alone recording company, and while our feed happens to be going out on XM that is not the main thrust of the gig. Each stage has nonstop coverage, and we become a central clearinghouse of audio and video for all the stages — whatever outlets have made arrangements for picking up any act at any given time, it's all there waiting for them. AT&T Blueroom, for example, had a live Webcast going off a few of the stages, and Fuse was covering the show, as well.”

Charbonneau handles the massive Coachella festival each spring, bringing his main Pro Tools HD3 and Neve 8058-equipped truck and that 48-track portable recording system to work two stages, while Gary Ladinsky's Design FX and Seattle Recording capture the other two. “We've done a Webcast for the past three years, which Hank Neuberger [of Springboard Productions] produces, so each site has to feed a live mix to the Webcast,” notes Charbonneau. “I am in charge of all the audio and supply all the drives to the various outlets, plus I'll pull and mix the music for the festival DVD.”

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