Folks ask me what all I use, so I figure a post about that very topic is timely. Please note that this is my rig as of March 2010; I expect to get a better set of equipment as time goes by. [If you want me to have better gear to record shows that you enjoy, you are encouraged to support me by buying prints from the store, or supporting my incorporation sale. Ahem.]
I’m a big fan of M-Audio‘s MicroTrack recorders. Why?
- They’re compact and lightweight. It’s about the size and heft of a deck of cards.
- Inputs include a 1/8″ stereo mini jack and two 1/4″ jacks. This gives you plenty of options for microphones: the included stereo omni, a pair of binaural mics you use to do a true stealth bootleg, or 1/4″ to XLR for using professional microphones.
- Records to Compact Flash. I use Canon cameras, so I had a bunch of CF cards hanging around when I got started with the MicroTracks. I find CF to be reliable. Also, you can use 1st and 2nd generation cards, which are dirt cheap.
Your mileage may vary, but I own both the original 24/96 and the current II version, and both are great.
Except … both provide 48V phantom power on-board, but my experience is that this just doesn’t work very well. And, if you think about it, you’re asking a lot of this little recorder with its on-board battery: recording CD-quality [or DVD-quality, if you want] audio and providing phantom power? Nah. Let’s go with …
I own two Applied Research & Technologies’ ARTcessories Phantom II battery boxes. I found that, when I was using the MicroTrack’s on-board phantom power, even when plugged into AC power, it just wasn’t enough. There would be line noise because the power supply wasn’t consistent. It was decidedly suboptimal. I’d had one of these boxes that I used a few times, and when my friend Chris helped me diagnose the problems I was having over Twitter, I put it into action. I then slapped myself for stupidity.
The price on the Phantom II is certainly right: $50 for the base unit, with the optional AC adapter being in the range of $10. [I recommend the AC adapter because you never know when the 9V batteries inside the unit are going to crap out on you.]
I don’t have any strong opinions on cabling for when I’m using XLR-based microphones. I know that cabling/wiring can be a complete ripoff. I suggest trying cables out and seeing if you like them. Talk to people you know who use XLR cables on a regular basis and see if they have a favorite brand.
But for Pete’s sake, test the cables, before every show. Just because they worked last time doesn’t mean that they will this time.
One recommendation I do have with the MicroTrack-to-XLR cabling is Sound Professionals‘ MicroTrack specific 1/4″-to-XLR bundle, pictured above. I’ve found these to be very reliable; previously I’d used some crappy adapters from … :sigh: … Radio Shack. These are way better, plus they’re pretty rugged. Again, I own two of these, and they’re worth it. You can plug the male XLR end directly into the Phantom II and have the battery box and MicroTrack within a foot of each other, which makes for a fairly compact setup that you can gaffe tape into place at the venue.
I’ll tell you what I did: I went to FindTape.com and ordered their sampler pack of gaffe tape. I haven’t used it all yet [and have had this over a year], but they come with convenient labels on the inside of the roll so you can see which ones you really like to use. I’ve had professional sound guys ask me where I found the tape for that cheap, actually. Tape from a retail store has a huge, huge markup.
And you want to have gaffe tape, because you never, ever know where you’re going to be locating your rig until you get there. You may need to tape it down on a slanted surface! [I have to do this all the time at 12th & Porter, for example.] Having your own tape will make the sound guys happy.
Okay, I’m cheap. I don’t have the money to blow on crazy Neumann or Schoeps mics. [If I did, I’d be using a Sound Devices 722 instead of a MicroTrack.] I use Audio Technica AT2021s, which are nice, reliable, inexpensive cardioid microphones. I buy them from Sound Professionals, where I usually get them for $70ea. [Sometimes, they run crazy sales where they’re like $30. I jump on those sales, just because I like these mics enough. I now own four. Just writing about it makes me want to buy a spare pair.]
I own some other microphones that I haven’t really run in the field, purely because I’m lazy. I get solid perfomance out of the 2021s. One thing I really like about them is that their response range starts at 30Hz, so if you’re at a very bass-heavy show, your recording won’t be overwhelmed by that.
The Total Cost
You can find MicroTrack II’s online for $160. The ARTcessories Phantom II is, as I said, $60 for the box and adapter. Figure you spend $25 on cables and $30 on that SP adapter for the MicroTrack. Add $140 for the AT2021s, maybe $50 for a nice boom mic stand and mic bar to mount them on [both available at soundprofessionals.com, who I’ve found very helpful when ordering equipment—Chris Carfagno is great!], and you’re looking at $465 for a nice, solid, compact rig that will give you solid performance. If this is too much for you, start with the MicroTrack and its included omni mic: for acoustic recording and small venues, it can be enough. High SPL environments overwhelm it, though, so you’ll want to watch it for louder shows. Also, the omnis are bass-heavy, so you can get some distortion in the recording.
Why two rigs?
- It never, ever hurts to have a backup.
- I use the old 24/96, 1/4″ to XLR adapter, and XLR cables to get soundboard patches.
I have found that most sound boards have XLR outputs you can tie into. Bands, if they’re great about taping, will usually push for you to get a patch. Some sound guys are curmudgeonly about it, but if the band pushes them to do it, they usually will. Be cool about it. You’re asking a favor from the sound guy and taking time away from his sound check.
Having a SBD/AUD matrix gives you the best of both worlds: the SBD patch will give you a solid body for the recording, but the AUD will give you a sense of the room and will take away from the SBD being flat-sounding. You want some crowd noise, of course … this is live music.
This is what I use these days. I’m sure I’ll graduate to better and better equipment as time goes by. I’ll update this as I do …