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Help choosing live recording gear

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Help choosing live recording gear

Postby RedEye on Wed Oct 05, 2011 11:15 am

Please bear with me as I explain my odd situation and my needs in choosing new gear. Sorry in advance for the wall of text. Also, sorry in advance if this is in the wrong section, please move it to where it should go it is.

I record music for fun and for the benefit of my friends. It's a hobby that, if I gain enough confidence and experience, I plan on doing as a side profession. I am part of a church organization that has a recently decided to create a series of concerts throughout the world, showcasing the music talents of it's members. While there are many people that have knowledge in making music and even tv and photo media, the amount of audio engineers are fairly low. As such, I probably know more about gear, audio tech, and audio engineering than most of the high ups deciding on what to do for the concerts. There are those that know how to work with music gear, but as far as recording, and doing live mixing, the numbers aren't there.

As such, the organization has contracted the venue's engineers to do the live mixing. Also, recording the performances, other than through video, hasn't even been considered until I came into the scene (Three concerts in). We used my 12 channel rme ufx, but it didn't have enough inputs. So now that the issue has been brought up, they are now interested in recording all the performances and are open to suggestions for what gear to get. Live recording has never been my thing so I ask everyone here for aid in choosing what to recommend.

The overall goal is a recording system able to record all inputs from the house's mixer. Because of the situation, we will probably still be contracting to use the concert venue's engineers and their mixing board. We are looking for something that can tap into that and record it instead of completely bypassing the house's mix. We are open to either full hardware recording systems (which I know nothing of) or systems where we use pc and audio interface (which I know a little of). There will probably be no mixing on our end, and we will just record the live feed and mix it afterwards.

Our biggest concern is that, depending on the venue, we are unsure of what we will be and won't be allowed to plug into. All we want is the signal recorded separately to be able to be mixed later, but are worried that for some reason or another, we won't be able to get that from the house's mixer. Whatever the reason, either the stubbornness of the house to tap in, or that they are already using their sends, we might have to bypass their mix and put it through our recording before sending it to the house mixer. As such, we want something that will DEFINITELY not crash, and thus, are concerned about doing it through a computer.

Assuming a very generous budget, what gear should I be looking at to suggest?
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby Big Tim on Wed Oct 05, 2011 11:39 am

Your description is a little confusing:
There will probably be no mixing on our end

Followed by:
we will just record the live feed and mix it afterwards

This leads immediately to the first point: do you want to A) record the 2-track mix, done on the house system and which is being played out of the PA, or B) record all the microphones individually so you can mix the audio later yourselves?

This is a fundamental question which you need to address first, because it has huge ramifications for your gear. Your initial post doesn't quite make it clear, although I suspect you want to do (B).

If you're doing (A) then you will have no opportunity to change the mix that comes out of the FOH desk. It's usually very easy to get a duplicated/mirrored output of the stereo FOH mix, and you would only need two channels on an interface to record it with. A simple interface, a couple of cables and some headphones, a laptop with some HDD space and you're done. however it's very limiting later on, and there's no guarantee that the mix done for the FOH is any use at all for a recording. They may not even have mics on everything for the FOH if the instruments are loud enough.

If you're looking at (B) then it is much more involved. Firstly you need a device that can accept the 24+ individual channels of output from the desk. That could be an Alesis HD24 (or similar) or a rack of devices that has a total of 24 inputs (say 3x MOTU 828 interfaces, chained together over ADAT or FW) and is connected to a computer. Secondly, you need enough cabling to take the signal from the desk into your device.

Thirdly, you need a way of getting the signal out of the FOH desk into your rig. This is where things get hairy and (potentially) expensive. Many FOH desks have "direct outputs" which send a separated signal out of each channel. This signal is split out somewhere in the channel, it varies from desk-to-desk, some are immediately after the preamp, some after the EQ, some after the fader. This can work fine.

However in an ideal world you don't want the mic signal to have gone through the FOH desk at all. The guy on the FOH desk is mixing the live show - he makes EQ and gain/level changes constantly throughout, and anything he changes could change the signal you receive at your end. If your levels are going up and down because of things the FOH guy has changed, that makes your mixing harder later on. In order to avoid that you need to split (or duplicate) the mic signals so that one signal can go to the FOH desk and a second signal can go to your rig. This way neither rig interferes with the other. This is done with a simple splitter box, however these can get quite expensive if you go for the proper transformer-isolated splitters. They work on a simple principle - one mic is plugged into it and split into two identical signals which are then routed to the two rigs, the FOH and your recording rig. Repeat for each mic required.

This second option, with splitters, would require you to have mic preamps as well as an interface, possibly in your own mixing desk or built-in to the interfaces (say 3x MOTU 8pre interfaces, daisy-chained). It will require you to be there during the sound check so that you can set up your rig, set up the signal splitters with the FOH guy, set your recording levels and record the show. However, despite this additional work, it will give you a much greater level of flexibility - you have each channel at your on levels, you can mic things that the FOH guy doesn't want or need, and you won't be affected by anything the FOH guy does on his side.

Once you've identified the approach you want to take, we'll be able to specify some gear and some options. A more budget would be helpful too - it's easy to specify £50k's worth of gear, but harder to make this kind of venture fit into a very small budget. Without knowing where you sit budget-wise it'll be hard to judge the kind of rig you can afford.
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby RedEye on Wed Oct 05, 2011 2:17 pm

Thank you very much for the quick reply and sorry for not being as clear as I wanted.

When I said there would be no mixing on our end, I meant no live mixing. Yes, the plan is to record as you describe in (B). Record all tracks separately and mix it together after the event. Regarding the budget, I am a bit of a bind in terms of answering how much I can spend. As stated, recording was not even on their radar until I brought it up. As such, I am not exactly sure how much they wish to spend. I have been asked to scout to gather information and give them sample scenarios and prices and let them know which I believe is the best solution and why, but ultimately, the choice is with them. I can, say however, that they spent tens of thousands on the video media when they feel they need so. If they so wish, they can do the same with their audio. As stated, I will be preparing sample scenarios for them to choose from. So it's pretty fair game what I can toss in there. realistically though, I expect that they will not want to spend more than 2-30k. I know that's a ridiculous window, but again, higher ups do not know much about music gear. They will want to spend 2, but can be convinced if the need is there.

That said, let me reply on a few points of your enlightening post.

1) I was not aware there were such things as transformer-isolated splitters. I just dismissed the idea of splitters, thinking it would screw with the level and sound and that everyone just used bigger mixers to send things wherever they wanted. Could I get some information on them, or list of models so I can research them please?

2) I assume at this point, I have two options for the signal chain
a) Mics ->(preamp)house mixer ->(through send)recording mixer
b) Mics -> splitter->(preamp)house mixer/(preamp)recording mixer

3) Size is an issue. I would prefer not to have another desk. Asside from the house's desk, there's the video mixers, live stream desk, and cameras.
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby Big Tim on Thu Oct 06, 2011 4:21 am

OK, thank you for clearing that up. That makes your rig choices much more defined, but at the same time it opens up a whole world of options in terms of individul componants.

Splitters are easy enough to find, but you can spend almost as much as you want on them. If you're taking feeds off a stage (and you've already mentioned that 12 channels was not enough) then I'd suggest 24 channels is going to be ample for most situations. This chap: http://www.zzounds.com/item--ARTARTS8 is probably about as cheap as they come, and you'd need 3 units to split 24 channels, so about $600 worth of gear. That's the cheap & nasty end of things, if you wanted a better all-round device the Radial OX8 is far superior, but runs at $900 per 8-channel unit for the basic configuration (you can spend $400 extra and get better transformers in it), so you'd be looking at $2700 ish for your 24 channels. There will be other devices in between price-wise.

In order to handle the split signal, you need quite a lot of cables as well. Normally the signal would come out of the stage box into the FOH mixing desk - one set of 24 cables or possibly, in a smaller, unchanging setup, straight into the desk so NO extra cables. With a splitter, you need to feed the signal from the stage box into the splitter (one set of 24 cables), then feed two signals out to the FOH desk and your own rig (two further sets of 24 cables), for a total of 3x24=72 cables. You will be expected to provide the additional 2x24 sets of cables, as the house engineer will only be set up for his own rig. This is a particularly tricky one to judge because cables come in all lengths and you may not know in advance how long they need to be. A 24-channel snake/loom is by far the easiest approach, but you may need them to be anywhere from 5 metres up to 100 metres. You just won't know until you arrive at the venue and check out the rig and setup. A good place to start would be one shorter loom of 24 x 5m cables, which could be located near the stage box and feed from the stage box to the splitter (or the stage box feeds straight into the splitter and your 5m cables run to the FOH desk). The FOH guy's own cables would then be used to feed his rig and you would use the second set of your own cables to feed your rig, probably at least a 20m loom but possibly a lot longer depending on where you're able to set your rig up.

Once you've got the split, you need to feed the signals into your rig and record them. You will need preamps if you're splitting, because the signals are coming straight off the mics rather than out of a desk. Since you are recording up to 24 channels and are needing to be portable, a laptop with Firewire is your only real option, unless you want to rack-mount a full PC (which is entirely possible but less compact). In that situation you have a number of options. The simplest approach is a set of FireWire based interfaces. There are many available, most max-out at 8 preamps but can be daisy-chained to give multiples of 8 inputs - 16, 24, etc. 32 is pretty much the nominal limit for a single FW connection. Some examples are the MOTU 8Pre or 896, Presonus FireStudio, Focusrite Saffire, Steinberg MR816 CSX, Mackie Onyx Blackbird, M-Audio ProFire etc etc. Most run between $500 and $800 per unit, and you'd need 3. The mic splitter signals go to the preamps on the interfaces, you set your levels and route them into your laptop over the FW connection. You'll need an external HDD for data storage, and don't forget that if there is any video-syncing proposed, you'll need to run at 48k sample rate which increases your file sizes a bit.

A similarly capable but entirely different approach would be a 24-channel mixer and an Alesis HD24 hard disk recorder. You would simply feed your mic splitter cables into the desk, set your levels and feed them out to the HD24. The HD 24 doesn't require a computer, it's stand-alone and you can mix directly off it on a desk or transfer the files to a computer for mixing later. An alternative is a 24ch desk, a device like the MOTU 24IO feeding into a racked PC (the 24IO is not FW and requires a PCI card). An expansion of that (if you can go REALLY cash crazy!) would be a rack of 24 mic preamps (instead of the desk) feeding into the recording device. That would get exponentially more expensive though - a fine example would be a DAV BG8 which runs about $2500 per 8 channels, although you can get much cheaper than that.

Bear in mind you'll need to monitor the signals hitting your rig. On a desk this is fairly straightforward, they usually just have a headphone output you can use. Going down the interface route you may need some form of monitoring box like the Presonus Central Station. It kinda depends how the interfaces route their monitoring. I know with the MOTU stuff it will monitor from a headphone output on the "core" interface (to which the others are connected) so there's no need for additional monitoring devices, but I don't know if that applies to all the manufacturers mentioned. Either way, a good set of closed-back headphones is also required, and you may even want to budget for a set of small, portable monitors like the Yamaha HS50m or KRK VXT4's. Monitors are a bit of a luxury in this type of rig though, not an absolute requirement by any means, but very useful if you've got some quiet time between soundcheck and the show to check your recordings.

You're also going to need to rack all this stuff up in rack bags or flight cases. These aren't overly expensive but you have quite a choice there too. I have my rig in a little 4u softcase (hard around the sides, padded at the ends) which is fine for me, but you may need a more robust setup so I'd recommend a full hard flightcase. They come in just about any configuration imaginable, and if you can't find what you need a lot of places will custom-make you a case for not much more cash.

So your basic rig would end up looking something like:

- 1 x 19" rack flight case (probably 4u) with 3 x 8 channel mic splitters

- 1 x 19" rack flight case (probably 4u) with 3 x 8 ch FW Interface, possibly a 1u monitoring device, a FW equipped laptop and an external HDD for data storage/backup
or
- 1 x 24 channel mixing desk + Alesis HD24 (or similar) recording device + cables from desk to HDD recorder (or one of the variations mentioned above)

- At least 2 x 24 channel XLR looms, various lengths
- A good quality pair of closed-back headphones
- A flight case or portable storage box to store all the other, non-racked stuff in

There will be more, no doubt I've forgotten stuff, but that's a pretty basic rig that serves its function. Going the laptop route with the cheapest stuff mentioned, I reckon you're looking at about $3.5-4k, but that could easily be made to reach $10k or above with different, better choices.

Some other stuff to consider: Power related thing - the splitters are often passive and require no power, but your computer and rig will need power. Some form of power conditioner, UPS or at the very least surge protection is recommended (venue power is often very ropey), and the ability to have 8+ things plugged in to power at the same time. A long power extension cable is also a must. You might want to get a folding table & chairs, as you never know what's going to be available to you at the venue. Some form of low-powered lighting is also useful if you're positioned off in a dark corner of the stage.

I could go on but I think I've rambled enough...!
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby RedEye on Thu Oct 06, 2011 8:32 am

Thanks again for your advice. A few questions for clarification:

1) Regarding the splitters, what should I watch for to know if they're good enough quality? I really have no idea. Are they all good? does it matter?

2) I am not familiar with the Alesis HD24. I'm pretty sure they will probably want to tap in the live stream feed through whatever system we have (because house mix sucks when not in the house). Does it have basic mixing features? Basically, can I do things like add verb without affecting the recording? Let it come in without verb and send it out with it?

3) I mentioned space was a problem, but vertical space is ok. Just physical space on the ground. As such, rackmount PC vs laptop doesn't matter. It will all be in the same rack box anyway. If we go computer route, they will probably buy a completely new computer. Given the extra price tag of a new computer, would you recommend getting the alesis24 with preamps?

4) Given the price tag already incurred, I would rather not worry about touching the FOH. As such, if I get the Alesis24, I would need to get separate pres. I very much doubt that they will be amiable to $2500 per 8 channels unless justified. I see price ranges for these go for 400 to 5k. How much does the quality matter for these things given that we are not using studio mics but instead the mics given to us by the house? Given this, can you advise what I should be looking at? I know this is a loaded question, and I apologize in advance. No need to go into full details, I know a little about pres and quality from what I have. I'm not asking to review all pres, lol.

5) When I was recording with my pc, I was sweating bullets, worried it would crash. I have never done recordings that long. Logically, I know computers nowadays are powerful enough that it shouldn't crash while recording the few tracks I've done, but I was nervous nonetheless. Am I overly paranoid about this or is this a concern? I've never recorded with more than 6 before the concert, should I be concerned about 24?

6) Big Tim, you are the man. thank you for your help
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby Big Tim on Thu Oct 06, 2011 10:06 am

RedEye wrote:1) Regarding the splitters, what should I watch for to know if they're good enough quality? I really have no idea. Are they all good? does it matter?
The important thing is the transformer isolation. This article helps explain why: http://whirlwindusa.com/support/tech-articles/microphone-splitters At the end of the day, buy what you can afford/justify, but a better quality splitter will reduce the possibility of signal-based problems.
RedEye wrote:2) I am not familiar with the Alesis HD24. I'm pretty sure they will probably want to tap in the live stream feed through whatever system we have (because house mix sucks when not in the house). Does it have basic mixing features?
The HD24 is a hard-disk based recorder. You pass signals into it, it records them and can play them back. It's a glorified, digitial, multitrack tape machine, in other words. It doesn't mix, it just records & plays back (and can edit) multiple channels. To mix with it, you have to feed the recorded channels out of the HD24 onto a mixing desk, just like with a tape machine, and you mix and add reverb etc there. Or you can export the files digitally and put them into a computer, if that's how you prefer to do it.

However, don't forget, this is part of YOUR recording-side rig, so will have no impact on the live mix being done. You've split the signals already, the sound guy has his own signal to work on for the FOH, he won't go anywhere near the HD24 or anything on your side. He physically can't touch it unless you jury-rig him some other cabling, which is highly not recommended. You just need a means to record your split of the signal - that's what the HD24 would do.
RedEye wrote:3) I mentioned space was a problem, but vertical space is ok. Just physical space on the ground. As such, rackmount PC vs laptop doesn't matter. It will all be in the same rack box anyway. If we go computer route, they will probably buy a completely new computer. Given the extra price tag of a new computer, would you recommend getting the alesis24 with preamps?
By far the easiest and most compact approach is a laptop with a bunch of interfaces. It's a simple approach, just a single cable from the interfaces to the laptop, done. However it has limitations, mainly that it lacks flexibility, will be overall slightly lower quality and it's harder to upgrade or replace individual bits, such as the mic preamps. With the HD24 you can plug ANY mic preamp(s) or mixing desk into it. The HD24 doesn't care as long as it sees a line-level input. That means you can mix & match your preamps (or indeed anything you put in front of the HD24). For example you could have 8 really nice mic preamps and 16 average/cheap ones. However the individual price of mic preamps means this is a much more expensive route. You're looking at around $300-500 per pair of preamps at the "budget" end, plus the extra cabling. It's more expensive, but more flexible and customisable. Most commonly the HD24 is used with a mixing desk, because you can record from the desk to the HD24, then pass the recorded signal back to the desk for mixing. You've indicated that the space issue rules out a mixing desk, so I would suggest that even though it's technically fine, you shouldn't go with the HD24 + individual mic preamps.
RedEye wrote:4) Given the price tag already incurred, I would rather not worry about touching the FOH.
You don't need to. Once you've split the mic signals, you have your own copy of the signal to do what you like with. So does the FOH guy. You'll never touch each other's gear or signals. Nothing he does will affect you, nothing you do will affect him. That's the whole purpose of splitting the mic signals with mic splitters. You get a raw copy of the mic signal, which you record and can subsequantly do whatever you like with without having any impact on the FOH mix. You can be set up in a different room for all it matters.
RedEye wrote:As such, if I get the Alesis24, I would need to get separate pres. I very much doubt that they will be amiable to $2500 per 8 channels unless justified. I see price ranges for these go for 400 to 5k. How much does the quality matter for these things given that we are not using studio mics but instead the mics given to us by the house? Given this, can you advise what I should be looking at? I know this is a loaded question, and I apologize in advance. No need to go into full details, I know a little about pres and quality from what I have.
There's some debate about the impact preamps have on the sound overall. There's no doubt they are important, but you will find that the differences between preamps are subtle and as long as you have some standard, decent preamps there is little to be gained from putting in high-end preamps. This is all the more so with a live recording rig, where there will be far more important variables outside of the preamps to contend with. You're not going to have the luxury of owning and auditioning multiple different preamps to get the best sound, you'll only have the opportunity to plug up and check the signal levels. Again, this is generally a case of "buy the best you can afford". But, as mentioned, it's most common to use the HD24 with a mixing desk. I kind of mentioned the individual mic preamps as a "hey, look at the crazy stuff you *could* do" option, in reality it's usually only done in studios or if you have a high enough budget that you CAN drop big bucks on individual mic pres.

But if you go the Laptop + Interface route you have little to worry about, because you probably won't have the ability to mix & match preamps anyway, you'll just use the ones built into the interface. These days interface preamps are generally fine, unexceptional but certainly will not hold you back.
RedEye wrote:5) When I was recording with my pc, I was sweating bullets, worried it would crash. I have never done recordings that long. Logically, I know computers nowadays are powerful enough that it shouldn't crash while recording the few tracks I've done, but I was nervous nonetheless. Am I overly paranoid about this or is this a concern? I've never recorded with more than 6 before the concert, should I be concerned about 24?
Certainly. A reliable computer is very important, and that is one of the strong arguments for the Alesis HD24. It's very reliable and doesn't suffer from many of the problems a PC does. It's explicitly designed for this type of application, with high throughput and long sessions with large files.

That said, PC's are much more reliable these days and if you look to one of the more reputable audio-pc manufacturers there's no reason why a laptop, be it a PC- or Mac-based one, shouldn't be up to the task. A rack-mounted PC would be more reliable than a laptop, and could be configured with RAID to help prevent disk failures, multiple power supplies, etc etc. That said, I can happily record 18 channels simultaneously into my laptop from a pair of interfaces (a MOTU 828mkII and a MOTU 8Pre). I've done it often and it's no issue. However recording that many channels for several hours does present other problems - disk space, file size etc. I'm not sure my rig would cope with 18 tracks solidly over 2 hours.
Last edited by Big Tim on Thu Oct 06, 2011 10:22 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby Big Tim on Thu Oct 06, 2011 10:18 am

We're getting a bit bogged down with minutiae here. Let's take this back to basics.

The mics come off the stage on a stage box.

You plug the mics into the mic splitter, which outputs 2 signals. One signal goes to the FOH guy, who mixes the show and does whatever he needs to do. Nothing he does will impact your recording. The second signal goes to your rig. Anything you do here will have no impact on the live sound or what the FOH guy does. You'll be required to provide the splitters because you can't guarantee what the venue will have, if anything.

You need to record your set of signals, and you have several options.

Option 1 - computer + interfaces with 24 mic preamps built-in. This could be 3 x MOTU 8pre (or any of the other interfaces mentioned earlier) plus a laptop, or the same interfaces with a rack-mounted PC.

Option 2 - an Alesis HD24 with a 24-channel mixing desk.

Option 3 (a bit of a hybrid) - a rack mount PC with an interface like the MOTU IO24 (24 inputs but all line-level, so no preamps) and a mixing desk (to provide the preamps). One of our other forum users, Ken (TKMJ) uses this type of rig and it's on the whole great, the only drawback for you is the additonal space impact of the mixing desk.

For simplicity & footprint's sake, I would take Option 1. If you can afford a rackmount PC with RAID'd disks, even better.
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Re: Help choosing live recording gear

Postby RedEye on Fri Oct 07, 2011 1:41 pm

...but the details is what I needed. lol. Or at least examples at what to look at.

Thanks for all your help. I fully understand my options of signal chain now. Time to do some research and get together a proposal. I wish I could give some closure and tell you which I'll go for, but that's not my choice. Hopefully, they can make a decision sooner than later. Thanks again, big tim.
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