Edited to include article linked above [DM]
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Super Stereo Soundboard Recording
Author: Gary Davis
Mail to: email@example.com
Posted: September 24th, 1997
"Making a live tape of your band, or someone else's?
Our SSS technique will give you a radical stereo recording!"
Stereo Soundboard Recording: Excellent!
If you've ever tried to make a soundboard recording of a live band, you've probably been disappointed with the tape. In a typical board tape, the guitars will be weak because a mix that's right for the room will be all wrong for recording. And "stereo" is a word most club soundmen have never heard.
Great stereo recordings are possible, using the Super Stereo Soundboard technique described in this article. By using special cables to tap key signals (guitar and bass) from the insert jacks, and mixing them live to a portable DAT recorder, you can produce a radical stereo recording with the guitars up front. The equipment can fit completely in a camera bag (including the mixer, recorder, power supplies, headphones & amp, cables, flashlight, etc.) and sets up in under 15 minutes. With a few more connections, you can get stereo drums and vocals as well.
Soundboard->DAT: What's Wrong With this Recording?
Each of us once believed that a perfect stereo recording could be achieved simply by plugging into a live soundboard. But unless you're recording in very large venues (arenas and amphitheaters), you soon learned that the board output in smaller venues is severely lacking in guitars, or more specifically, consists mainly of vocals and drums, and it's usually in mono to boot. The louder an instrument is on the stage, the less likely it is to show up in the soundboard mix. The band with the loudest rippin' guitars will sound like nothing on a direct soundboard tape!
If you could get two extra Aux's on the board, you could make your own mix, either from the individual channels or at the matrix. Trouble is, most small boards don't have two Aux's to spare (especially if the main board is also being used to mix the monitors), and even if you had the Aux's, you'd be working over the soundman's shoulder all night to adjust the mix.
Another usable technique is to mix the soundboard with a room mike. You can get adequate guitar levels this way, but the guitars will be more "distant" than the vocals and drums, and there's no way to get true stereo. Even if you recorded a stereo soundboard output, plus stereo room mikes, and panned the guitars hard left and hard right on the soundboard, you still wouldn't hear it that way on your recording. With 90% of the guitar sound coming from the "directionless" room mikes, panning the guitars on the soundboard doesn't accomplish anything!
Of course, you could use mike splitters at the stage and do a complete mix yourself, perhaps in a truck outside the venue. This is how professionals record live shows, and if you've got the time, money, and connections, you'll probably get a decent recording this way. If not, read on...
Insert Jacks to the Rescue!
If only there was a way to tap into key individual channels on a soundboard, and mix them with the main output to get a full sound. Larger soundboards may have individual channel "Line Outs," but these are usually post-fader, which means you're totally at the mercy of the soundman for the level, which may change throughout the show.
The solution: even a small club soundboard will have Insert jacks, and these are usually available (unused) on the guitars and bass (sometimes the bass will have a compressor plugged into the Insert... you'll have to get the soundman to do without it). The Insert is typically a 1/4" stereo phone plug, with the "Tip" sending the signal and the "Ring" expecting the signal back. By building special cables that connect the Tip and Ring together, you can tap off the board signals.
For starters, we'll need three such cables: two for guitars and one for bass. (We'll get more advanced later on). There are two ways to obtain these "Insert-Extraction" cables. The best way is to take an existing multi-wire RCA (or 1/4" phone) cable, cut the plugs off at one end, and solder on specially-wired stereo 1/4" plugs. If this sounds too difficult, a combination of "Y" cables can accomplish the same connection.
Some people will question if it's "safe" to plug into the Insert jacks. Clearly, there is an opportunity to disrupt the house sound if your cables aren't wired properly. Build your cables carefully, push them in firmly, and you shouldn't have a problem. There is also the possibility of creating a grounding problem. Since my recommended equipment runs off batteries and wall-warts, this shouldn't occur. (If you use AC-powered equipment, always get your power from the soundboard power strips, and bring "ground-lift" adapters for 3-prong plugs, just in case).
In actual use, I've connected this system more than 30 times and never had a problem: every suspected problem has turned out to be in the club's wiring.
Naturally, this Insert jack technique can also be used for multi-track (ADAT/DTRS) recording. This brings about its own unique set of problems, which I hope to cover in a future article.
(Note: while most soundboards use 1/4" stereo Insert jacks which combine send and return, some larger soundboards, such as the Soundcraft 800 series, use separate 1/4" jacks for send and return. In this case, you can plug a regular 1/4" plug into the Insert "Send" jack without interrupting the signal. Don't use the board's "Line" or "Direct" outputs, because unless they can be switched to "pre-fader," they are usually post-fader, which is not where you want to be!
(Also, some boards with combined send/return insert jacks use the ring for send and tip for return. That will make no difference in our application).
Radio Shack Parts
In order to accomplish Super Stereo Soundboard (SSS) recording, we will need certain cables and adapters. For convenience and clarity, I will specify Radio Shack parts, including part numbers (identified as RS#). Radio Shack parts may have their detractors, but they generally do work, are widely available, and reasonably priced.
I do have a complaint about Radio Shack's current line of plastic RCA cables: the plugs seems especially "grabby," which means you must push them on extra-firmly, and they are somewhat difficult to remove. When disconnecting, remove the plugs with care: the jack you break may be your own! (If you break the record-out on someone else's soundboard, do you think they'll fix it for you??)
I must also strongly advise against Radio Shack's "gold and plastic" female-female RCA connectors (RS#271-874): they don't make good connections! The silver-colored ones (RS#274-1553) work fine. (I've haven't tried the new "all gold" model RS#274-864).
Quality adapters and cables are available from Switchcraft and many other companies. Feel free to substitute and buy whatever brand you feel comfortable with.
Building your Insert-Extraction Cables: Soldering Iron Approach
If you can cut the end off a cable and solder on a new plug, you shouldn't have too much trouble building an elegant set of Insert-Extraction cables. 1/4" plugs as quite large and easy to work with. If you're not familiar with soldering, this is no time to learn, and you should skip to the next section for the "solderless" approach.
For the "beginner's" SSS kit, we will build three Insert-Extraction cables: two for left and right guitars, and one for bass. It is very convenient to use a triple-RCA cable which is sold for video+stereo audio. Try to find one where all three cables are the same type of wire, such as the 12-foot RS#15-1512. It's important to use cables of adequate thickness: I've also tried Radio Shack's "quad" RCA cable for tape recorders (RS#42-2355), and the wires were too thin, producing an unreliable cable. (If your mixer or ADAT uses 1/4" plugs, get three cables with 1/4" plugs at one end, and "anything" on the other end, such as Radio Shack #42-2378). We'll also need three 1/4" Stereo (3-wire) phone plugs, such as RS#274-139.
Cut off all three RCA plugs from one end of the cable. Unscrew the first stereo phone plug, and slip the case over the wire from one RCA cable. Strip and prepare the RCA cable wire, and solder the inner wire (signal) to BOTH hot terminals (tip and ring) on the phone plug (see Figure 1). Solder the shield to the ground terminal (sleeve). To avoid melting the insulation, let the plug cool before this next step: gently squeeze the ground terminal over the cable to help anchor the cable. Trim your wires and solder carefully, because a tiny short or bad connection in your wiring can kill the sound in the room!
Before screwing the case onto the plug, inspect the wiring carefully for stray strands which could cause a short. (If you forgot about the case, you can now cut off the plug and start over!) You should test your finished cable with an ohm meter or continuity tester: especially, test for shorts between the signal and ground while wiggling the cable where it goes into the plugs at both ends.
After wiring all three cables, it is very important to label the phone plugs we've just added! I use a Brother P-Touch labeler with white-on-black tape, and wrap the label around the body of the plug. For a less expensive approach, use white tape labels or white paper tape, and a black pen. I label my plugs "Left-W" "Right-R" and "Bass-Y" (white/red/yellow), for left and right guitars, and bass.
Insert-Extraction Cables: Solderless Approach
If you don't feel comfortable soldering, you can create Insert-Extraction cables by combining two Y-Cables: a 1/4" stereo plug > 2 RCA jack (left/right splitter; RS#42-2477) and a 2 RCA plug > RCA jack (RS#42- 2435). (This combination will be bulkier and messier behind the soundboard, and provide more connections to go wrong, which is why custom-built cables are better).
For starters, we'll need three Insert-Extraction cables: two for left and right guitars, and one for the bass. You'll need three each of the above Y- Cables, plus a 12-foot triple RCA>RCA cable, such as RS#15-1512. (If your mixer or ADAT uses 1/4" phone plugs, you'll also need three RCA>1/4" adapters, RS#274-320). There's really only one way you can wire these three parts together, but if you're not sure, refer to Figure 2.
If you use a multi-wire cable, you still have the original colored plugs on both ends of the cables, so it's probably not necessary to label them. If you use three separate cables, you should label both ends "1, 2, and 3" or "Left", "Right", and "Bass".
The Mixer: Roland MX-5
Since we're going to be doing our own mix, we'll need a small mixer. Several suitable mixers are available, but I chose the Roland MX-5 for its small size and low price (under $200). The MX-5 is a tiny (under 9X7X3 inches), lightweight (1.75 lbs) plastic mixer which offers 10 input channels (all in stereo pairs), with gain trim, stereo pan, and real sliding level controls for four stereo pairs. (The 5th "Aux" pair has a single gain pot). All line inputs are RCA jacks.
The MX-5 offers three sets of outputs plus a headphone jack: a "record out" at fixed level, two sets of "main outs" with level controlled by the master volume slider, and a front-panel 1/8" mini stereo headphone jack, with level controlled by a rotary pot. I use the "record out" for my recorder, and offer the "main outs" to other tapers. If someone unplugs and shorts the "main outs" (it's happened!), it doesn't affect my "record out." (Sometimes I use the headphone out for another recorder; if you do, don't set the level above 6).
The MX-5 runs off a 9-volt battery, but not for very long! If you're taping several bands, you might want to change the battery before the headliner. You might want to use an external AC supply. The voltage, polarity, and connector are fairly common, and I found a suitable wall-wart in my junk box.
There are a few drawbacks to the Roland MX-5. Since all the channels are stereo pairs, you can run out of channels, especially if you mix the drums yourself. It lacks "cue/solo" buttons, which would be very useful to check your connections and judge the sound on each channel. It can overload if you work too loud, and if you're tempted to mix in a mike, the mike pre-amps are a bit noisy. Finally (and this is important!) the headphone jack isn't loud enough for our purposes.
Another popular portable mixer is the Mackie MS-1202VLZ. At $429, it's twice the price of the Roland MX-5, and at 6 1/2 lbs, measuring 11X12X3 inches, and requiring 3-wire AC power, it's not really as portable (but notice the thin-ness, which does allow it to be carried in a bag or briefcase). One look at the specs will tell you this is a much better mixer! The new "VLZ" model adds an important feature: Solo/Cue buttons on all channels, and it has more inputs (4 mono + 4 stereo pairs, plus 2 Aux returns), and better metering. It also has a lot of features we don't really need, like three eq's (and two Aux's) for each channel (in this environment, you can barely hear well enough to adjust the mix, never mind messing around with eq!) The space of those five pots is where sliding level controls could have gone; instead, as many 1202 owners complain, this Mackie mixer offers space- saving rotary knobs for the channel volumes. Back to the plus side: the headphone output is pretty loud. All line inputs are 1/4".
Another suitable mixer is the Soundcraft Spirit Folio Notepad. Larger than the Roland but smaller and much lighter than the Mackie, priced under $250, the Folio Notepad also uses rotary level controls. It lacks Solo/Cue buttons, requires AC power, and has only 10 inputs including the Aux returns. Four mono inputs are 1/4", two stereo pairs are RCA.
The Recorder: Sony D8 Portable DAT
Any stereo tape recorder can be used here, but for our purposes, the diminutive Sony D8 DAT recorder (or the even smaller new Sony D100) will serve well. We don't need XLR inputs or mike pre-amps for our purposes, so a larger "pro" DAT just isn't necessary.
The date/time recording feature on the D8 is very useful to help identify recordings, particularly if you put several short sets on each tape. By keeping a set of AA batteries in the D8 at all times, it will remember the date/time when you plug it in.
Monitoring, or, "What you can't hear will HURT you!"
We're going to do a live mix while loud music plays in the room. No professional would ever attempt something so foolish, yet this is necessary to accomplish SSS recording.
Most people will use Sony MDR-V6 or similar headphones, such as the professional version Sony MDR-7506 or Koss Pro-4A. These Sony headphones have a reputation for loud sound, and for blocking out at least some outside noise. On the downside, their bass response isn't that good, and they don't really block out enough sound, so if you have headphones which really seal out the environment, by all means use them! Regular "walkman" phones and open-air phones (such as the otherwise excellent Grado phones) cannot be used for this purpose.
The Sony D8 recorder gives the loudest undistorted output when set to "Line," not "Phones." Even so, it's not loud enough for our purposes, especially if you record in a "safe" volume range. The headphone output on the Roland mixer isn't much better. If you've chosen a larger DAT recorder or better mixer, you *may* have enough level... if not, consider a headphone amp.
Headroom (800-828-8184) makes portable headphone amps which will solve the problem (but they're rather pricey at $250-$600), or you may have a spare receiver or amp lying around the house which you can use. For my purposes, I built a very small and inexpensive headphone amp using Radio Shack LM386 chips (a mere $1.29 each! -- look for a future construction article).
Headroom also markets an in-ear headphone called the Etymotic ER-4S ($330), which claims to seal the ear canal completely, offering the maximum possibly isolation. Still, your skin and bones will transmit some venue sound straight to your inner ear!
Consider getting *outside* the venue for monitoring. At one club where I record, the soundbooth is adjacent to a side door with a mail slot. I usually run a 20-foot mini-stereo headphone extension cable (RS#42-2462) out the mail slot, so I can check my mix outside the club.
In addition to the Insert-Extraction cables, we will need a stereo cable for the main soundboard output. Many boards have a "record out," "stereo out," or otherwise extra set of jacks of the main mix. On larger boards, you may use two Aux's for this purpose. Either way, the outputs may be RCA, 1/4", or XLR-male. Your kit should have cables for all three. For RCA and 1/4", consider the 12-foot gold-plated stereo audio cable RS#42-2606 (avoid the plastic-plug version RS#42-2356 as it may have the "grabby" plugs I spoke of earlier). For 1/4", you can simply add adapters to the RCA cable (Radio Shack #274-320).
XLR>RCA cables are not available from Radio Shack, but are made by a company called Audible Purity Cable. The model RFX-10 (female XLR, 10-foot) is ideal for our purposes. (This cable is available from The DAT Store at (310) 828-6487). If you don't need two of these for the main outs, you may need them later to access the group outputs for drum extraction. As another option, most music stores sell XLR>1/4" cables, which will also work for our purposes, as inputs 1-4 on the Roland MX-5 also accept 1/4" plugs. Caution: you do NOT want the XLR>1/4" *transformers* sold by Radio Shack. They are designed for mike level, not a hot board, and they may distort.
When recording directly from XLR outputs to consumer equipment such as the Sony D8, level matching is usually a problem, but the Roland MX-5 mixer accepts levels up to +4dB board level, so we shouldn't have any trouble, unless the board output is unusually hot (this can occur if your output in from a +4 "Aux" turned all the way up -- set it at 7 max!)
Of course, you'll also need a cable from the mixer to your recorder, which in our case, is a short dual-RCA > 1/8" stereo miniplug cable, such as RS#24-2475.
A small flashlight is also necessary.
You can run the whole setup from batteries, but if you prefer to use AC, be prepared! I bring a regular 6-foot extension cord (RS#61-2744) which allows me to plug in my wall-warts (for the D8 and the mixer) without tying up a whole power strip. (For the Mackie mixer, you'll need a three-wire extension cord with multiple outlets, such as RS#61-2765). If you need additional outlets for a headphone amp, extra recorders, or whatever, be sure to bring enough! I also bring a grounded triple outlet adapter (RS#61- 2705) so that even if all the power outlets at the board are used, I can create more.
Gaining Access: It's not who you know, but how you ask...
Clearly, you cannot connect all these wires to the soundboard without permission from the band and cooperation from the soundman. Developing a good relationship with a certain club or certain band will help give you access for SSS recordings.
Plan to arrive early and run into the band during soundcheck, but probably, they won't have time for you until after soundcheck, so you won't get to soundcheck your equipment. If the headliner won't let you record, perhaps an opening band will. (Warning: on most larger soundboards, the headliner and openers use different sets of channels, so the setup for the openers is completely different from the headliner).
The official list of "Bands that Allow Taping" can be found at the "Info" icon of the DAT-Head's site at http://www.eklektix.com/dat-heads/
. This list is just a starting point, because a band that allows microphones may not be ready for you to re-wire their soundboard! On the other hand, a band that doesn't have an official taping policy could well allow Super Stereo Soundboard recording if you approach them early and promise a copy.
Here's the best trick I've found for getting permission: in addition to my DAT recorder, I bring my old Sony WMD-6C (analog cassette recorder) loaded with a blank tape. This way I can run a copy for the band at the same time. By offering the band a copy right after the show, you're providing an actual service (instead of just promising to send it sometime, maybe, in the future). Any analog stereo recorder will do; just be aware of additional requirements for input cables and power (I always run the WMD- 6C off rechargeable batteries because I've got too many wall-warts already). If your analog recorder only has mike inputs, run it from the headphone output on the mixer, set to "3," with an 1/8" stereo > 1/8" stereo cable (RS#42-2387).
Final tips: be sure the batteries in your recorder and mixer are fresh, bring an extra DAT blank, and arrive early!
SSS Recording: The Basic Mix
Basic SSS recording involves taking the main soundboard output, and adding guitar and bass "helper" channels. Recalling from Soundboard 101 that the main output consists mainly of vocals and drums, we simply add the guitars and bass, and viola: music emerges!
Connect the main stereo soundboard output into your mixer; for the Roland MX-5, use inputs 1&2 (first slider). Ask the soundman which channels the guitars and bass are using, and plug your Insert-Extraction cables into the Insert jacks for those channels. (The guitars will almost never have anything using those jacks, but there might be a compressor plugged into the bass jack. You'll have to "negotiate" the compressor out of the circuit, or use the "line" or "direct" board outputs for the bass (in which case you should use a standard 1/4" plug, or plug the "insert-extraction" cable in only to the first click), or, look for an insert or "sidechain" jack on the compressor).
There are several ways you can arrange the bass and guitars in your mix. If the band has two guitars, typically, you would put the guitars on left and right and the bass in the center. If the band has only one guitar, you can put the bass on one side and the guitar on the other. This will break the common mix rule to always put bass in the center, but will lead to a more interesting recording. (If you record with the bass in the center and the guitar on one side, you may "cheat" the guitar by making the bass more prominent). If the band has one guitar and another lead instrument (such as a violin, horn, or keyboard), you can put that instrument on the channel opposite the guitar, and keep the bass in the center.
Keep in mind you'll get a small amount of mono guitar and bass from the main board output, so even if you pan them hard left and right on your board, you'll still get a pleasing amount of cross-channel sound in the mix.
On the Roland MX-5, I use channels 5&6, 7&8 for the bass and guitars, because the gain trim pots for these channels have the same range (channels 1-4 have extended range for microphone sensitivity, so the sensitivity between 3&4 and 5&6 is not the same). If you have two guitars (or similar), connect them to 7&8, and connect the bass in mono through a Y-cable (RS#42-2435) to 5&6 (see Figure 3). If you have only one guitar, you can connect the bass to 5 and the guitar to 6, but for more control, connect them both to Y-cables (RS#42-2435) so you can run bass into 5&6 and guitar into 7&8 (see Figure 4).
For the Mackie 1202 or Folio Notepad mixer, your first 4 channels are mono and the following channels are stereo, so we're going to reverse the order. Connect the main board into channels 5&6 (the first stereo pair), bass to channel 1, and guitar(s) to channels 2 and 3. Pan these channels as appropriate (see figure 5).
While the band is setting up, you may want to turn the gain (sensitivity) pots way up on each channel to make sure you hear something *other than* hiss, to verify you're connected properly. Preferably, you should hear people talking or warming up their instruments. Before recording, turn the gains *all the way down*, because rock'n roll tends to be louder than you expect! (For softer jazz, I'll set them up one notch to start).
Some people will want to mix in room mikes was well. On the Roland MX- 5, you have inputs 3&4 free, and these can be adjusted to mike level. However, my experience is that with the added guitars, you can make a very nice "pure" soundboard without any added mikes. (You'll pick up some room sound from the vocal mikes or drum overheads anyway). It's also very difficult to hear the room sound through headphones to adjust the right amount (it sounds exactly like the room sound leaking through the sides of the headphones!) However, if your vocals sound too harsh and un-processed, adding some room sound may help.
I prefer to set the record level on the DAT machine fairly high (
so that I can work at a lower volume on the mixer. The Roland MX-5 has two red "over" lights: when they flash, your recording isn't ruined, but if they flash a lot, it's a good bet your recording will be more distorted than you'll like!
I usually start with the sliders pretty-much equal for all channels being used.
Hit record. The music starts. Now LISTEN! This is the most important part of successful SSS recording! Suddenly, you are the recording engineer, and every decision you make, right or wrong, will be reflected on your final tape.
No matter how loud your headphones, no matter how tightly you hold them to your ears, and even if you listen from outside the venue, you can never completely isolate yourself from the room sound, especially if it's a loud rock band! Listen carefully... can you hear the vocals? The guitars? Are they about the same volume, or do you have to struggle to hear one or the other? Now the bass... adjusting the bass level is the hardest, since the bass sound in the room will overwhelm your headphones. If you can hear the "pluck pluck" of the bass clearly in the headphones, it might be too loud; turn it down a bit. Don't be afraid to change the sliders while you record: you may improve the mix (or you may screw it up).
If there are several bands, listen to your recordings between bands. How does the recorded sound compare to what you remember through the headphones? I've also been known to bring two Sony D8's, recording on both simultaneously, and unplugging one after I think I've got it "right." I then carry my sample recording to the bathroom, or outside the venue, for a quick listen, while the other D8 continues to record the show.
When the music's over, unplug your cables and go home! Instead of the typical vocals and drums soundboard, you will now possess a recording with loud, raunchy, Stereo guitars! Enjoy it!
Advanced SSS Recording
Our basic technique will assure loud, stereo guitars & bass. But what if we want to bring up the drums in stereo or have more control over the vocals? In next month's EQ, I'll explain a number of soundboard configurations to obtain even better Super Stereo Soundboard recordings.
If you want to experiment in the mean time, here's an important tip: if you pan individual channels on the main soundboard, and expect it to send to your mixer in stereo, you MUST pan all the "group master" pan-pots alternating Left, Right, Left, Right. Otherwise, any panning on individual channels will be lost in the group mix. Happy taping!
Copyright 1997 Gary Davis. All rights reserved.