There’s a type of recording sessions that are my favorite kind of work: recordings that take place in improvised locations, outside of the recording studio.
Sometimes musicians get inspired by the atmosphere of a place and create something wonderful recordings on the spot. You’ll want that record that for later, preferably in multitrack, in your DAW.
From jams with friends at house parties to planned recording sessions at special locations, the principles are the same, you want a lightweight setup that enables you to work quickly and catch great performances as they happen.
Choose The Right Recording Devices
So, what do you need a get a decent recording of that jam session?
One obvious approach would be a digital multitrack recording device, the other is a laptop with a multichannel interface.
In my experience, 8 channels are rarely enough, 12-16 is usually on the spot, but you might easily end up using more if you separate drums to individual channels.
Remember, it’s not a studio recording! You can get away with recording drums in 3-4 groups rather than each sound individually.
So if you’re going for a hardware multitrack recorder, you’ll need a big one, and since they offer fewer possibilities than a laptop setup, I’d go for a laptop anytime.
You can use your VST instruments in sync with the rest of the setup, other musicians may use hybrid hardware/laptop setups, you may want to swap files, and you can use the same project to start mixing because you’ll probably be recording into your favorite music software / DAW (see Best DAW).
My preferred way to connect the recording setup is to use a mixer with direct outputs for each channel connected to inputs on the interface.
Musicians will be able to make adjustments on the mixer, and you’ll have another set of controls for recording.
Don’t forget musicians will often feel the need to increase the volume of their own part or a part they don’t hear well, so it’s useful to be able to lower the input gain on your interface, to avoid clipping.
On some mixers you can send the direct out signal „pre-fader“, which means that the signal going to your interface won’t be affected by mixer fader movements, therefore enabling you to set the recording input level independently of the musicians using the mixer. Depending on the situation, that may come in handy.
Choose The Right Effects
There will probably be some effects being used there as well.
Try to separate wet and dry recordings, especially with reverbs!
Also see: Reverb: Everything You Need To Know
The way I like to do it is to connect the FX unit to send/aux output on the mixer and return the signal to a free channel on the mixer.
Of course, don’t forget to set the effect mix to 100% wet if you’re using it in send mode. This way, the wet signal returns to a channel that can be controlled, EQ’d if needed, and it’s going to the interface via direct outputs just like the dry channels.
Using insert effects while recording live jams, on the other hand, can be tricky – sometimes it sounds good there while it’s happening, but listening to it later, in the studio, usually reveals there was too much effect being used.
It’s much easier to use compression later than to deal with over compressed drums, and the same could be said for other effects as well, time-based, or dynamic.
So if recording with insert FX – use them sparingly and remember it’s better to err on the side of caution!
Check The Power Supply
Be prepared for trouble. Things will break down from time to time, power problems are not uncommon in old buildings, especially if you’re into abandoned places like me.
Also, if you’re recording anything with microphones, be ready for many unexpected noises, and a lot of bleed. But first, make sure the power is ok, have an electrician check it out if you can or use a multimeter if you know what you’re doing.
I don’t recommend messing around with high voltage if you’re not qualified, please don’t electrocute yourself. But you do want to check the power before you begin or serious damage can happen to the gear and then the entire session could be ruined.
There is a common procedure that gets used a lot when AC ground hum appears. Isolating the ground is a quick fix, using duct tape or a plastic bag. It will fix the hum, but it can also cause a shock to whoever’s touching the gear because that person becomes the ground connection.
You can learn it in a painful way when you play electric guitar (let’s say the guitar amplifier is grounded), and sing into a microphone that’s connected to a non-grounded mixer. I got a spark in the nose twice and it’s quite painful, but hopefully, not very dangerous.
And it’s worth noting that on both occasions I wasn’t touching the mic at all, I was a few centimeters away. There are better ways of removing ground hum. Use DI boxes, try out other outlets, disconnect heaters and lights, try to identify which piece(s) of gear are causing the ground loop, ungrounding the whole setup can be dangerous!
Remove The Unwanted Noises
The mics will catch bleed from the monitors, but you can use absorber plates and screens to minimize that. Thicker panel absorbers (cca 12 cm) can reduce bleed significantly if you put them between the unwanted sound source and the microphone.
They can also reduce the reverb of a room – that can be useful even if you’re recording everything through line inputs, like an electronic jam with just drum machines and synths.
If the room sounds better, everyone involved will hear what they’re doing in more detail, probably resulting in better adjustments to the sound.
Screen absorbers for mics are also a lot of help and are a lifesaver if you’re trying to record vocals in a live room.
Get a laptop with a multi-channel audio interface, connect the direct outs from the mixer into you interface inputs, and you’ve got yourself a mobile recording rig.
Be careful with the power and grounding, and use panel and screen absorbers if you can.
Be ready to catch those magic moments when wonders happen, and if you do everything right, you’ll be able to mute that guy who was ruining the jam with a police siren sample 🙂 whoop whoop!