Confessions of a Small Working Studio—The New Role of Remote Recording Professionals

Aug 10, 2010 3:18 PM, By Lisa Horan and Kevin Hill

Eric Heil of Atlanta's Angelic Productions/The Loft

Eric Heil of Atlanta's Angelic Productions/The Loft

Think back to your favorite live album. You know, the one that was recorded a few decades ago but just never seems dated. There's something really special about the way it makes you feel, right? It transports you to another place for a few minutes and gives off that "you're right there" kind of vibe.

While audiences still love the live album feel, thanks to technology, their expectations about what they want to hear are not what they used to be. These expectations, as well as the marked changes in the music industry, have contributed to significant shifts in what is expected of remote recording professionals. These shifts are not only forcing small to mid-sized outfits to develop new approaches, but to also wear multiple hats. Read on to find out how three remote recording specialists from opposite sides of the country are adapting.

Considering that every one of us who listens to radio has been, in a sense, brainwashed to expect sonic perfection, the expectations placed on today’s artists and bands are higher than ever before. If you think of some of the greatest tunes recorded 20 or 30 years ago, you have to admit that there were sound quality issues and the vocals were sometimes less than pitch-perfect. But nobody was protesting. In fact, it gave the recordings character and a sense of authenticity. Well, today, according to the live recording professionals we spoke with, authenticity has taken a back seat to flawlessness, with few exceptions. "Now, when bands record live, they're not content with the quality that is produced authentically; they want to go in and change the way things sound, whereas before they were happy to just go to tape," says Donald Setaro, a Modesto, Calif.–based live recording specialist who records everything from bands and singer/songwriters, to orchestras and church performances and has aptly been dubbed The Recording Guy.

Setaro, who's been in the business since the 1970s, has seen a dramatic shift in the trend toward perfection. "When I first started out, we used big consoles and tape machines—sometimes 2- or 4-tracks—and we would mix right then and there while the artist or band was onstage, and we'd work with whatever we captured from the P.A. into the splitter," he recalls. But today's bands expect more. They expect to create a sound that is similar to what they are used to hearing on the radio. Fortunately, Setaro can accommodate. He uses a variety of equipment to capture sound, including a Tascam X-48 digital recorder, PreSonus Digimax 8-channel preamps, dbx 166XL compressors, a Whirlwind 48-channel splitter with isolated outputs and Mass W4 connectors, as well as multiple microphones, including AKG, Countryman, Shure and Neumann models. But it’s the process that follows collection that Setaro says many clients ultimately request.

"We're able to enhance live recordings using tools like Sound Replacer and Drumagog. In fact, I used some of these tools for a performance by singer/songwriter Dirk Hamilton that I recently recorded. His producer/bassist, Eric Westphal, wasn't happy with the sound of the kick drum, so I went in and used sampled replacements. Fortunately, Eric didn't want to lose the live performance feel of the recording, so we didn't go too far beyond that."

While making fixes in the studio after a live recording is standard practice, the process itself has undergone some serious alterations. "When I first started doing live recording in 2003, we would do the recording—usually at a big venue—and get paid pretty well to see the project all the way through," says Allen Kyle, the owner of Austin, Texas' Night Owl Recording, which specializes in live and remote recording. His one-man remote outfit operates from recorders and preamps that are all racked up, patched in and ready to go. He simply uncases on-site, plugs the runs from his splitter to the preamps, plugs the tape returns into the mixer and checks the clock. In the past, it wouldn’t end there.

"Typically, I would choose a recording studio to use for taking care of overdubs and preparing a final mix. In those days, one night of recording would translate into one month of work, but that's not the case anymore." In fact, it's been almost a year since Kyle has taken a recording project from beginning to end. The reason: the proliferation of home studios. As they've become more and more popular, the demand for “mid-end” mixing services has diminished.

"The clients I work with nowadays just want their tracks recorded. What that means for me is that I'll do weeks of planning, research, talking to venues and clients, I get one shot to do the recording and then I never see the project again. I won't lie; it's pretty frustrating," admits Kyle, whose gear includes Mackie HDR 24-bit hard disk recorders, SDR 24-track recorders and 24 tracks of independent backup, along with a 24-channel customer two-way transformer and an isolated mic splitter.

What's even more frustrating is the fact that, with budgets as tight as they are, many acts aren't seeking out live recording engineers in the first place. "I've got to try to convince bands a lot of the time about the value of me recording their live shows," says Eric Heil of Atlanta's Angelic Productions/The Loft, which provides mobile recording services and concert productions for clients. Heil, who uses 48-input Pro Tools HD and dual computer monitors with two Midas 320 consoles and a Whirlwind 48x8 isolation split, says good equipment is not enough. Rather, he reaches potential clients through social networking. Allen also creates buzz about his mobile recording services to woo bands. He researches which ones are coming into town, determines which venues would be good for them to record in and then reaches out.

"I pick up the phone and give them a call, tell them who I've recorded, and explain that I know what I'm doing and can give them a great rate for great sound," says Kyle, who admits that while most bands express an interest, only 10 to 20 percent of them actually have the money to move forward and, as a result, half of his business is made up of corporate clients.

Sometimes, it even comes down to doing the work with no guarantees. "There have been occasions in which I've recorded a band with the notion that if they like it, great, and if they don't, we'll just part as friends," adds Setaro. "The key is showing people what I can do so they can hear the great sound quality, the separation of the instruments and how the tracks end up. I also show them how I'm able to do my job without interfering with the crew. It really comes down to educating them."

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