My Year in Live Music Recording

My interest in live music started when I acquired tapes of Morrissey shows in the winter of 1997. I just came to college and I spent too much time on the Internet. I started building up quite a collection by begging people I didn't know to make me copies. Then, the New Year brought me my first credit card; the same day I got the card I bought a Sony WM-D3 portable analog tape recorder. Later that same day, I went to my second ever ska show at the Wetlands Preserve. I recorded Spring Heeled Jack and the Allstonians. The first song I recorded was “Addicted,” and that's what I was… I had to record more shows. In 1998, I recorded 30+ separate musical acts. Most of the acts were ska and country, which are two genres that are less represented in Internet trading circles. Not all of my recordings turned out well; some I will never listen to again, and others amaze me. I was so obsessed with recording live shows that I would go to a show just to record it. That was my way of discovering new music, too. I used to borrow albums from the public library and buy CDs randomly to discover new music, but those methods depended on the music being available. Going to shows randomly introduced me to more music faster, and making live recordings gave me the chance to evaluate the music before spending any more money.

I turned my pursuit of live music into a game—how many different venues can I make recordings in? I wanted to check out as many music venues as I could to take note of security, venue design, speaker placement, etc. I made recordings in 13 different NYC venues and 7 different venues in other places (NJ, CT, PA). Most of the venues I went to were small and don't care much if you bring in equipment. Even bigger venues that have “No Recording Devices” signs posted everywhere don't always search you. In general, I was either not searched or not searched thoroughly. I usually carried a small bag and kept my recorder somewhere on my body. I've noticed that venues won't pat you down if you have a bag they can look through. However, I know that gender and race plays into the situation sometimes, and being a short, harmless-looking Asian female who couldn't possibly have a recording arsenal on her came in handy. Recording live shows isn't for everybody. To do it well, you should refrain from talking, clapping, singing along, and also stay away from people who talk, clap, and sing excessively. A live recording should capture the essence of the audience, but it'll be disappointing if you listen to a recording and all you hear is some drunken person singing along during the entire show. My usual method for a general admission show was to find a bench or chair I could stand on against a wall. I would then tape my mics to the wall with gaffer's tape, or clip them onto my bag and rest my bag on top of something. The benefits of this were: 1) I'm short, so I got to see the stage. 2) I was above people and I would get less of their noise. 3) The sound was better with less solid bodies in its way.

The three main media for amateur live recording are: analog cassette tape, MiniDisc, and DAT (Digital Audio Tape). MiniDisc is a digital format that uses 2.5" discs housed in hard plastic cases. MiniDiscs come in 60, 74, or 80 minute lengths. MiniDiscs are versatile because they allow you to edit, move, combine, and delete tracks. DAT is a digital tape format that is smaller than analog cassette tapes. DATs come in lengths up to 120 minutes. DAT is considered professional and can be recorded above CD quality. Portable analog tape recorders are readily available everywhere, but most of them will not give a decent recording. A good analog tape recorder like the WM-D3 will run between $200-$250, and it does produce a $200 difference in sound. Portable MiniDisc recorders are usually in the $300 range, but some are now in the $200 range. Portable DAT recorders are $700+. In addition to a good recorder, you also need good microphones. The WM-D3 came with a microphone; I used it for a while with good results before buying a pair made by Sound Professionals, Inc. from New Jersey. Microphones range from $75 to $1000+. Mine cost $150 and I love them. This is all probably starting to sound like a lot of money to be spending if I could just buy a $15 CD. But, I was trying to record things I would never hear on a CD, like Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett dueting on “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” or Built to Spill doing “Linus and Lucy.” I was recording mostly for the music, but I also did it to commemorate the experience. I won't listen to a lot of my recordings again, but looking at the playlists and ticket stubs and bus ticket receipts makes me glad that I wasn't just sitting at home with my headphones on.

After nine months with my WM-D3, I bought a Sharp MD-MS722 MiniDisc Recorder. Again, I was addicted. MiniDiscs are fun to use and the sound quality is a leap above analog cassette tapes. Analog cassette tapes have the problem of “tape hiss” that doesn't occur in digital recording. I only used the MD-MS722 for two months before it was stolen from me. After using MiniDisc, I was reluctant to go back to analog; I used my WM-D3 for the first time in months, but it wasn't the same. My interest in live recording also waned. I bought a second MD-MS722 in February 1999 and when that was stolen a month later, it effectively retired me from the world of live music recording. I could blame my ugly—and they are punched-in-the-face ugly—thieves for causing that change in my life, but it's not so bad. I can call 1998 “My Year in Live Music Recording” and leave it at that. I don't go to as many shows anymore, but when I do, I sing and dance as much as I want.

© 2001