Five Essential Mobile Recording Rules
Meet Adam Lansky, the owner of Arkansas-based Lansky Sound and archival audio engineer for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Hot Springs Music Festival, Wildwood Music Festival, and Art Porter Jazz Festival. His interest in producing better recordings for his own QuadkilleR project led him from an education in audio recording and production to launching a successful crowd-sourced Little Rock mobile recording company. With his crew, he quickly became the preeminent solution for live recording of classical music in Arkansas. He's also a guest lecturer at the University of Central Arkansas. (Learn more and check out his recordings at lanskysound.com).
For a guy who appreciated classical music but preferred electro space-rock, this career path may seem surprising. But he learned that opportunities exist where you least expect them. If given the chance to learn from someone who knows the ropes, he says, jump on it. It may be the opportunity of a lifetime. His recent experience recording the Far East Symphony Orchestra in Khabarovsk, Russia, is fascinating, but we figured his top five mobile recording rules would be more helpful. Here they are, from his point of view.
Rule #1: Keeping Your Cool
No matter what happens, BE COOL and think through the situation before announcing something has gone wrong. On almost every session, something goes wrong, and the mobile engineer has to act logically. Situational awareness is vital. Mobile recording is all about adapting to the environment and recording situation. The engineer must always be thinking ahead and anticipating every need before, during, and after recording. Seemingly small details like knowing the location of the electrical outlets and which side of your rack case is the front will save a lot of time on the front end. It is impossible to be prepared for every potential circumstance, but thinking through the recording process at every level of detail is important. A checklist is a great thing to have!
One of my first mobile recording sessions was in a church 90 minutes away from my office. I drove all the way to the site and began setting up only to discover I had forgotten all of my XLR cables. I had nothing to plug in the twelve-or-so mics I had planned on running during the session. Had I informed the musicians of the situation, they would have lost all confidence in my abilities, thus killing the session and my relationship with the new client. I kept my cool, got in touch with the in-house sound tech, and asked to borrow a couple extra cables "just in case." I was lucky because they had about thirty, so I got everything I needed. The musicians never knew any of this happened (neither did the technician), and they still don't. The recording turned out great.
Rule #2: Be Prepared
Explore the performance venue a few days beforehand to get an idea of where to set up and what environmental factors can be controlled. If you can't check it out, here are a few things to consider: Can the air conditioning be turned off? Do certain lights buzz? Can heavy traffic be heard outside? Will doors be opening and closing on a regular basis? The mobile engineer CANNOT plan on fixing these things in the mix as it becomes very difficult and time-consuming on the back end. If there are environmental sounds that cannot be controlled, then the engineer needs to make the client aware beforehand so the expectations are set. Windscreens are necessary if the air conditioning cannot be turned off. Setup should be complete 30–60 minutes before sound check to allow time for fixes and tweaking.
Often, the mobile engineer will need to setup somewhere he or she can see the action to understand how the recording should sound based on the live performance. However, the setup must also be out of sight and away from foot traffic. All mic stands should include a sandbag on the legs to prevent falling over. All cables must be safely secured to the floor via gaffer's tape or cable ramps to minimize liability. Someone ABSOLUTELY WILL trip on a cable, causing a microphone to fall into someone else's eye, thus destroying a microphone, mic stand, cable, input jack, eyeball, and the knees of the person who tripped. A cable snake can replace a pile of tangled mess and keep it clean and simple. Insurance is also a great idea. There are a small handful of companies that provide insurance to "music studios."
Rule #3: Check Twice, Record Once
Know your signal flow and be ready to troubleshoot in high-stress situations. The mobile engineer almost never gets a second shot at a recording because the majority of the gigs are live performances. You can't ask a group to perform a song twice in a row with a live audience present. Errors are typically permanent, and fixing them will be very difficult or simply impossible. When there is something wrong with the input level on a channel, being able to adjust quickly and precisely without causing alarm is of paramount importance. Also note that when you step on stage, everyone will be looking at you. Everyone. And the audience is certain that mostly everything is your fault.
Documenting the recording session is extremely helpful. The distances, height, angle, and location of microphones, gain settings, errors, dates, times, et cetera should all be documented in a text file within the project folder. A digital camera is a great tool for documentation as well. This kind of data will allow the mobile engineer to make adjustments while mixing or recall settings in a similar situation.
Rule #4: Situational Awareness
Be prepared to deal with performers, managers and anyone from the general public including dancing children, clowns, disrespectful teenagers, thieves, and maniacs of all breeds. Many of them will be curious about the shiny equipment, and since they have never seen that many knobs before, some may be inclined to turn a few of them. Again, situational awareness is key. The mobile engineer has to dress appropriately depending on each gig, and although the standard performance technician outfit is all black, I try to dress similarly to the performers. Suit for the orchestra, jeans and a catchy shirt for hip-hop, plaid for indie rock. This will help the performers relate to you. This is also a perfect segue into the last rule...
Rule #5: Your work is your calling card.
I'm not just working on a recording; I'm actively promoting my services every time I'm out in the field. Anyone you run into is a potential client, so working like a professional at all times in high-stress situations can make or break the mobile engineer's business. It is also important to have promotional materials on-hand because someone will ask for them at every gig. When people see the mobile engineer at work in the field, there is automatically an assumption that a professional is at work. This is the best promotion possible!
One more thing: my gear checklist.
- Uninterruptible power supply (or UPS, a battery back-up)
- Power conditioner
- A/C electricity extension cables
- Headphones that block outside noise, and extension
- Portable flight cases
- Rolling dolly or portable cart
- Folding portable table
- Tape measure
- Digital camera
- Wireless mouse
- Rugged lockable cases for gear
- 8–16 channel snakes, 150' in length
- A small set of speakers for playback in controlled environments
- Good quality shock mounts
- Parachute cord (nylon cord or even fishing line)
- Gaffer's tape
- Work gloves
- Extra batteries
- Business cards and promotional materials
- A can-do-make-it-happen-no-excuses attitude
And if the gig takes you overseas…
A Department of Homeland Security CBP Form 4457 must be submitted prior to departure. If you're sponsored by an equipment manufacturer, you must obtain a "carnet." This requires a customs broker who insures the equipment. Either of these methods proves the equipment originated in the USA and will return. If these forms are not properly filed prior to departure, customs can detain "questionable items" upon return and hold them in bond until taxes are paid!