If I remember correctly, I recorded my band’s first demo in 1981. From there it was a pretty rocky, arduous path to get to the point where artists were willing to pay me to record their music. For the most part I would beg to record bands for free to enhance my “portfolio.” This portfolio of mine became one of the largest private collections of worthless music on the West Coast, and I was having a terrific time building it.
Years later and driven mad with success, there was one musical platform I never embraced: The Live Album.
THE RECORDING STUDIO WAS MY WOMB
Inside I was safe. I could record two hundred passes of a vocal if I wanted without the singer dancing around the stage. I could isolate acoustic guitars and hear when a mosquito was flying near the mic. I had no desire for the mayhem of a live concert.
Then the wild west came back for a visit. Suddenly high school punks could record albums in their bedrooms on a laptop or iPhone. For the first several years I criticized them because they didn’t know that recording engineers once actually wore lab coats. My standards were so high that I became irrelevant. (To be clear, I ultiamtely stopped criticizing these punks because many of them were making brilliant recordings).
I decided I could still find a way to beat these hacks. When the next live concert project came across my radar I snapped it up. Invigorated, I took on another. The only issue with these first live recordings was that they were "live" in name only. With most elements painstakingly overdubbed for months in the studio, they were basically studio recordings wrapped in a live skin.
I was asked to record and mix a live album for RockHarbor church. This project was to be produced by Bobby Hartry, and the discussion was for it to be a very honest, authentic live album. I jumped in.
My studio isn't exactly a "mobile" studio. It has no wheels. No road cases with handles. And yet, after a day of unplugging hundreds of connections, wrapping and loading one piece at a time into various trucks and cars, a mobile studio was born. We rebuilt the studio in the green room of the church. Good planning years before had provided an audio split where you would normally find the green M&Ms.
Bobby and I discussed our desire for the sound to be "thick," especially the bottom end (that's the "bass" knob for the rest of you). Dreams of a thick bottom end isn’t usually a client’s request, say of their Yogi, but this is rock and roll.
To capture the ambience of the room we hung four condenser mics from the ceiling. We wanted the listener to feel like they were a part of the event. These mics would capture the crowd singing, but equally important was to capture the sound of the room. For a concrete box, there is a certain wonderful and energetic sound in the RockHarbor Center, but this also presented another challenge: RockHarbor isn't known for being the quietest church in town. Especially on Sunday nights, when the Loudness Patrol is given the wrong address.
The room is oriented wide (the stage on the long wall) so our ambient mics were only about twenty feet from the PA speakers -- speakers putting out an amazing amount of pleasure. This became the angel on our shoulder during overdubs. You can't exactly change a vocal ad-lib later in the studio when your ambient mics also contain everything coming out of those speakers.
The vast majority of the performances you hear on the final album were captured live. Only a few fixes, rather than complete lead vocal takes were recorded in the studio. Bobby added a some of his delicious guitar candy in the studio, but tastefully restrained. While we did use the best songs (or best parts of songs) from two nights, we were able to stream them back together and in a new sequence to create a cohesive experience which feels very much like you are part of the event.
The mixing process was best described as "old-school." I don't remember any digital reverbs being used. A generous helping of our ambient mics brought all the life to the drums that would normally be sauced-up in the mix. The great sound of dynamic mics through placement and solid equipment brought a wonderfully natural sound. Pairing that with a gobs of musical talent onstage and well-crafted songs, this is a project I was very proud to be a part of.