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Advice for Aspiring Tapers

by David Hogan

What to tape with?

Whatever you can afford. There are $90 tape decks that will make a listenable, but not a A+ tape. The general rule of recording is the more you spend, the better a tape you'll be able to make. (There is a degree of skill to it, having to do with mic placement both on you and in the arena, but with Pearl Jam not playing any general admission shows you're pretty stuck with where you are.)

I would not recommend analog cassette for many reasons. The low quality, limited tape length, excessive cost for a good recorder and the cost of the blank media all make it not something worth paying for. (Though if you already have access to a Sony WM-D3 or other professional-grade analog recorder it still will make beautiful recordings if used right.)

The best bet for the cost-aware taper is minidisc now. Thanks to many advances in the technology they are based on they are very affordable and reliable. The Sharp MD-MS722 is my recommendation for someone looking for a good recorder. I have heard of people getting them for as little as $135, but you still need to get a microphone after that. (At least another $50 for a mediocre one.) Blank media ranges from $2 per disc if you buy generic discs from an online vendor to $9 per disc if you go to Media Play. In my experience I'd suggest Minidisco as a good place to look for Minidiscs and recorders. (I am not affiliated with them at all, just a very happy customer.)

Minidiscs do have drawbacks. The recording is digital, but it is compressed digital. The compression used is much better than MP3, but still it is there which many audiophiles see as a problem. You also are limited to 74 or 80 minutes per disc in stereo mode. Many recorders have a mono mode which I would not suggest. The recording is much flatter, and you lose a lot of ambience that you get from using both channels. The advantage of mono mode is that it allows you to record twice as long, up to 160 minutes on a single disc. (That's the whole Chicago '95 show on one disc!) If you do not have a stereo microphone setup mono is not that bad of an idea, though it could cut the frequency response of the microphone if it is a good one.

Also be aware that if you buy a Sony recorder you probably will not be able to change recording levels on the fly. Being able to change the levels is important so that you do not go over (which results in clipping - the distortion of the signal. It's a very bad thing.)

The next step up is digital audio tape (DAT). DAT is the best way to master a concert, since you have non-stop recording for up to six hours in LP mode. (44.1 kHz is the best sample rate though, since most microphones under $1000 do not record the extra frequencies gained by using 48 kHz, and 44.1 is the sample rate of a CD making transfers to CD-R much easier.) The drawback is the cost. You'll spend about $600 for a low-end deck, plus most DAT decks do not come with microphones.

For microphones you can spend under $50 at Radio Shack for something that will work, but you will not be able to make a great recording of a rock concert with it. Core-sound and Sound Professionals mics are the preferred brands by many tapers. They make excellent recordings, are designed to be stealthy (not noticed by people who may care) and are not too expensive. (Under $300 with a battery box. For those thinking that is expensive, take a look at high-end microphones. Some cost thousands of dollars.)

You almost definitely will want to get a battery box (preamp) since the preamps built into most DAT and Minidisc recorders are not designed to handle a signal as loud as what you will be bringing in at a rock concert. This will result in brickwalling, which is the sound of a preamp overloading. (It doesn't sound good.)

Money is really the deciding factor, usually the more that you spend, the better the tape will come out. There are other factors too, like the experience of the taper, the location of the microphones, etc, but those are things that just need to be learned from taping shows.

How To Tape A Show

  1. Become familiar with the deck and mics you'll be using. Do this by going to small shows that you can tape without getting in trouble. This will get you used to changing media, changing batteries, placing mics, and just using the deck before it's a show you really want to get.

  2. Always bring more tapes/discs and new/fully charged batteries than you think you'll need. I've needed to tape over an opening band or two from not having enough tape. 180 minutes should be good, but bring at least 240 if you're going to get the opening band as well. (Taping opening bands is a good idea, as long as you're there & taping you may as well have something else to trade, and who knows: you may love them.) I've also had to squeeze out more time than I should have from batteries. 135 minutes (3 sides of 90 minute analog tapes) is a good estimate for new alkaline batteries with some decks, sometimes you'll get 90 minutes, sometimes you can get 6 hours. As with #1, know the deck well.

    Minidiscs have a lot more battery power than most DAT and analog recorders, I have been able to use mine without recharging or changing the external AA battery for over 3½ hours of recording plus 2 hours of playback.

  3. Put the deck somewhere inconspicuous. Pearl Jam is allowing taping, but that doesn't mean all the security guards are. I place my deck in the front of my pants, the mics in my shoe over my toes, and the discs in my wallet, shoes, down my pants, etc... I also keep one disc in the deck when I bring it in.

  4. Bring a backpack with lots of miscellaneous (but ALLOWED) things in it, like some CDs, a sweatshirt, a notebook or two, pens, whatever. Just nothing they could question. I've avoided getting my body searched because they looked through my backpack and jacket and found nothing...

  5. Wear a watch. This makes timing a heluva lot easier. (Don't laugh, I forgot one once. I taped about 30 minutes to a side, on 45 minute tapes so I wouldn't cut songs.) Another advantage Minidisc and DAT have is they keep track of time recorded, but some don't have a backlight. If that is the case have a small flashlight to use if you want to be able to check the time remaining.

  6. Keep track of the time so you don't cut songs. A good rule is to flip when a song ends after 40 minutes of tape has been used. For the second side, if you flipped at 42 minutes, end at 37. The tapes are better with no cuts in the music. For minidisc, I always change discs when a song ends after 65 minutes - those long versions of Porch can run over 10 minutes. =) (DAT and video tapers don't need to worry about that unless it's a long show.)

  7. Most of all, don't act like a taper. Don't be looking in your shirt every five minutes, staring at your watch, etc... Try to have fun, and blend in. (That goes for how you dress too, try not to stick out... Sweatshirt/jeans in the winter is good, and t-shirt/cutoff jeans is good in the summer. Make sure you can hide everything if you're wearing a t-shirt though...)

  8. Have fun. There will be other people recording, so don't worry about fucking up the tape. That's part of why Pearl Jam is releasing CDs of the tour. As nice as it is to have a perfect recording of a show, it's more fun to see the show you're at. I hate it when I spend so much time thinking about the recording that I miss something cool at a show, so now I just setitandforgetit. (Until I have to change discs.)


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