In 1956, the Duke Ellington Orchestra headlined the Newport Jazz Festival. The show was going moderately well until Ellington decided to pair “Diminuendo in Blue” with “Crescendo in Blue,” separated only by Paul Gonsalves’ saxophone solo. The tune, with its amazing 27-chorus solo, turned the crowd from simply enjoying the show to chanting and screaming for more. It was the performance that revitalized Duke Ellington’s career.
The whole festival was being recorded, and it went on to become an album that sold extraordinarily well. However, that track on the album is not the version that was played live at the festival – it was recorded the next day with the audience track layered over it! Why? Because at several points, Paul Gonsalves walked away from his microphone and could not be heard on the recording.
With festival season now upon us, you have the perfect opportunity to capture crowd energy on some live tracks. Festival albums are great for exposure, and they’re an awesome way to show off your live performance chops. But as we’ve learned from the example above, there are a few important things you’ll need to keep in mind to ensure that you get top-notch live recordings.
1. Be prepared.
You’re at a festival in front of more people than you’ve probably ever played for. If your set is being recorded live, the festival organizers will have informed you about it – so be ready. Make sure that you've sent in a tech rider, and that you've followed the appropriate communication schedule for the event.
2. Make your changeovers seamless.
Make sure that everything you use is labeled or marked. Several onstage items (such as mics) may be reused between bands. If you have fewer needs, move things as little as possible to accommodate. If you need extra gear, make sure it’s all in your stage plot so that you don’t confused the stagehands.
When departing, depart quickly. If you used your own cords, leave them attached to your instruments and unplug from the stage box so that the next band can plug in. Wrap the cords around your mic stands or instruments and properly pack it all offstage. Also, if you brought snacks or drinks onstage with you, make sure you clean it all up before exiting the stage.
3. Don’t expect a comprehensive soundcheck.
At a regular show, you’ve got time before the doors open to tune up, soundcheck each instrument, and maybe even run a song or two. At a festival, there are no doors keeping people out. When the music starts at 10 AM and you’re not on until 4:30 PM, there is no “before.” You may get some form of quick soundcheck (but not a full one) if the festival has two or more stages, but at a single-stage festival, there just will not be time. At best, you’ll get a few notes to ensure that the hookup is working, and then you’ll need to go straight into your first song.
The most important thing is to make sure you have everything ready to go. Have your instruments tuned, and double-check that the sound engineer has your stage plot.
4. Keep the show moving.
Interact with the audience while you’re onstage. Being quiet or just talking amongst each other in between songs will not make for a great live album. If you need some banter inspiration, check out other live albums (the 1994 Woodstock albums are a great place to start) to hear how other bands do it. If you already feel pretty good about interacting with audiences, then the most important thing is to not let the size of the venue get to you. The more liveliness that you can bring to your performance – and the more hyped you can get the crowd – the better your potential placement on the festival album will be (which means that there’s a greater likelihood of your tracks being listened to by other festival bookers).
5. Communicate non-verbally for sound needs.
If you need to communicate with the sound person, do it through hand or arm signals (depending on the distance) to keep a good flow going throughout your set. Point to your mic or your instrument, and then point at the monitor you need more or less of. It’s nice to give the sound guy a signal when things sound great, too – that way he knows he can stop tweaking the mix.
6. Don’t walk away from your mic or pickup.
As in the Duke Ellington Orchestra example, you can give the best live performance of your career, but if it doesn’t make the album, no one else will ever get to experience it.
Make sure that you sing or play like you normally play, but just be aware of where your mic is. Everything you put out should be clear and directly into the microphone. The biggest culprits are mics for singers, horn players, and acoustic instrument players, since most other instruments plug directly into the board.
Most importantly, just remember that you’re in this business because you’re passionate about it – so get up there and play the best you can! You should be equally as hyped as the audience (or more). Recording a live show can be intimidating, but it’s the truest sound that your band produces. By following the tips above, it’ll all end up in a great recording.