This autobiographical saga was sent to Music City Mike in an audio file through Bit Torrent from a stranger who identified himself only as the “Mystery Taper.” He said: “I am concealing my name to protect the guilty.” He also said that he recorded this with the same gear he uses to record live concerts.
I have always loved live music. To me, each and every live performance is a unique and rare treasure that deserves to be preserved. This is my story about being a capturer and collector of live concert recordings. I will tell of how I developed and maintained this passion through evolving times while also voicing my opinions about the ethics involved and providing some practical tips from my experiences.
How I Got Started
Anyone interested in the history of live music recordings needs to read Clinton Heylin’s great book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. “Bootlegs” (illicit record pressings of live concerts) is where this whole thing started for me. I remember seeing my first bootleg in a box on the floor of what we used to call a “head shop”—a small retailer who sold counter-culture items (e.g. tie-dyes, beads and drug paraphernalia) in the late 60s and early 70s. Inside that mysterious box of wonders were a handful of LP records in white sleeves with Xeroxed paper inserts identifying the contraband music contained within.
The first bootleg I ever bought was a Jethro Tull title called Ticketron (the forerunner of today’s Ticketmaster). It was a crude but pleasant audience recording of their Thick as a Brick tour set at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The thrill of hearing this was remarkable. It was like I had access to a forbidden realm where concerts could be relived. Hearing this raw and natural playing of live music was remarkable. The thought of being able to experience a concert I attended all over again was thrilling.
Questions began to run through my mind. I had heard that there were places that would press records for a price with no questions asked. But how in the world was this concert recorded in the first place? Who were these people that did this? What kind of equipment did they use, and how did they get it inside to record the show undetected?
I wondered if these guys somehow smuggled a small reel-to-reel into the arena? If so, what did they use for power? Or perhaps they used that new cassette tape format through some kind of battery-powered portable? I would eventually learn and my desire to be just like them would be realized.
Around this time, I was still a sports fan and dabbled at home with a small reel-to-reel machine recording baseball and football games off the radio. These were the days before the VCR and capturing audio off of the radio was all that was available to the budding home sports archivist. I actually was following in my Dad’s footsteps who actually has some of his 1950s World Series baseball game recordings in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Though I never achieved such accolades with my sports tapes, in some respects my Dad’s hobby was the genesis of my future passion to record live music.
First There Was the Radio
Soon thereafter, I discovered the wonders of the free-form music coming out from the FM dial in New York City. The 70s were a golden era for rock radio during which disc jockeys became local personalities who were given the freedom to play absolutely whatever they wanted. For me, Manhattan’s WNEW-FM became my musical university. It was there where I both kept current with the latest music as well as discovered what had come before. But it was this radio station that really started my live music hobby with the live FM radio broadcast.
My virgin effort was a live WNEW-FM broadcast of the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage from New York’s Felt Forum. I simply couldn’t believe what I was about to hear. The entire sets of both bands would be sent out over the airwaves in perfect sound quality. I just had to capture this and did so by recording it on my small reel-reel. The recording I got sounded great since I now had the magical ability to do a line-out to line-in recording into my machine thanks to my new stereo receiver. No more holding a microphone up against the radio speaker like I did for those baseball games.
I wasn’t really familiar with either band. But when it was over, I was so thrilled to own this recording. I went to the record store to try and find the song titles to label my tape box. This made me further discover the value of the treasure that I now possessed—some of the songs they played were not on their records! So, in addition to the fresh different-sounding live versions of their album cuts, I had some unrecorded new songs and cover versions. My passion had begun.
Not only did I want to savor the personal enjoyment of these recordings, I somehow felt an obligation that they should be preserved. At the time though, I figured I was just one of hundreds who would be recording this show. And of course I thought that the radio station and artists would be keeping copies of these things. Much later I would learn that sadly this rarely is the case.
Home Equipment Evolves
Soon thereafter, my reel-to-reel was replaced by the economy and simplicity of a home cassette recorder. At the time, this was a state-of-the-art sophisticated component to my stereo system that I used to make high-quality recordings of live FM concerts off the radio. In the late 70s, the record industry was flourishing and the local radio concert broadcast became a major promotional tool. I took full advantage of these events and quickly began to amass quite a collection of live FM broadcasts.
I had a stellar radio signal and the sound quality of my FM recordings were fantastic. Although my master tapes have survived intact for almost forty years, cassettes were a highly-imperfect media. They were also quite expensive in 1979, even at today’s prices, and went for about $3.00 for a 90-minute tape. (The standard everyone used back then was the Maxell UD-XL.) Tape was not cheap but it was reusable if you recorded something you didn’t want to keep.
But there were many problems with cassettes. Most notable was that in recording a live show, you had to deal with flipping the tape over at the 45-minute mark. It’s laughable that to this day you still see old live recordings surface that have a song that got split at the halfway mark and is missing a few seconds of sound. The skill of flipping the tape at the right moment between songs become a talent for the taper to perfect. Doing it too soon wasted tape while doing it too late could of course split the song.
Cassette tapes were also somewhat fragile and were prone to frequent manufacturing defects, especially about using the cheap brands. Mishandling them also caused breakage and occasionally the leakage of tape outside of the plastic cartridge.
Those of you who may have used such a recorder will be familiar with the Dolby noise reduction feature which mostly served to eliminate tape hiss caused by the spinning media. For whatever reason back then, while we always recorded with Dolby on, playback with Dolby off seemed to produce a much brighter sound.
The Advent of Trading
Soon my new hobby was catching on with other serious collectors around the world. Taping your hometown FM broadcast gave you the opportunity to trade with others for their local shows. But copying cassettes to trade was a real drag. You either had to have a second machine or borrow one from a friend.
It was a slow process since dubs were made in real time. There was also the inherent degrading of quality as copied tapes when from “master” to “first generation” to “second generation” and so on. Copying did get somewhat easier later on, when we traders got double cassette decks to do our dubbing. They even had high-speed dubbing to speed things up, but they still took way too much time and the quality dropped at the higher speed.
Tape-trading really began to proliferate. The trick of course was finding other traders. However, that wasn’t easy in the days before the internet. The marketplace for traders was usually found in the classified ads of music collector periodicals like Goldmine. Trader ads would tempt you by listing the trader’s artists of interest and trading relationships would start with the exchange of trade lists. And boy, keeping a list was a real pain back then since without a computer your list was either hand-written or done courtesy of the typewriter. Keeping your list updated and current was a real drag. Lists would usually include addendums up until the time you did a reconsolidation.
Trades were simple back then—tape-for-tape (usually at the Maxell standard) and were of course done through the mail. Ethics amongst traders developed and anyone who sold tapes was blacklisted and shunned. Some folks thought they were clever and would offer to trade shows for blank tapes. But, it was easy to see that as just a guise for selling tapes without involving cash. It was fun to see your good trading relationships flourish, and it made getting the mail an exciting daily event. You soon learned to count on “so-and-so” for getting you the local broadcast of your fave artist in his town.
My Introduction to the Audience Tape
Pouring over my manila folder of other people’s trading lists, it soon became obvious that there was another world of taping out there for which I was not an originating party—the “audience” tape. This was of course a show that was not aired on the radio, but one that was recorded by someone sneaking a “rig” (portable recorder and microphone) into a concert. While in the early days the quality of most of these recordings were often inferior, nonetheless, the rarity of some of the performances involved made some of these audience tapes priceless.
Over the years, I eventually got to know some of my trading friends personally and met them socially and at shows. These friends were the ones who eventually encouraged me and taught me the tricks of my current practice of recording live shows.
I finally got started recording at live concerts in the mid-80s. The standard weapon of choice in those days was a small portable cassette recorder that ran on four AA-batteries—the Sony Professional Walkman which tapers referred to by its model number, the “D-6.” The specs on this machine were fabulous, and for most of us it was a better machine than our home cassette decks. (It also could be helpful as a second deck for dubbing tape copies.) The D-6 back then was no bargain and went for about $350 new, and it took yours truly a while to spring for one.
Since the D-6 became the standard, the quality of the mike used by the taper was usually the factor that separated the men from the boys—a major differential that still exists today. Mikes ranged from simple hand-held models in the $100-range to high-end clip-ons in the $500-range. One of the popular high-end versions were said to be developed by a taper Grateful Dead fan who later became a sound engineer. I used a small handheld Sony mike that I either held, stuck in my belt, or sat on a table if I was at a club.
Using the D-6 was no simple task considering that in most cases audience tapes are made “stealth” undercover. It was about the size of a brick which meant it was too big to fit in your pocket. The trick was to hide it in your pants which is where it usually resided while you were recording unless you had a deep pocket. Again, like with your home recorder, you had to deal with the tape flip at 45-minutes. (This later went up to a high of 55-minutes when we became more comfortable with the durability of longer 100- 110-minute cassette tapes.) However, the tape flip at a live show was more challenging in the dark and also required you to wear an illuminated watch to keep track of time. While flipping the tape, taking that big deck out of your pocket was also a risk of being detected.
The Digital Era Begins
As time when on and technology advanced, taping gear eventually evolved into the digital age. The first major advance came in the 90’s with the advent of DAT (digital audio tape) and the portable DAT recorder. DAT though was expensive both in terms of the machine (around $600) and the tapes (about $10 a pop). Tapes though ran for 2 hours in the preferred mode thus extending the flip point by an hour. The machines were also only about the size of a transistor radio. (The Sony D-7 was the popular model everyone used.). However, these higher costs kept me out of the switch to DAT although I was in the receiving mix of the efforts of several notable DAT tapers.
DAT was the first step in a major evolution in tape trading in that it eliminated any loss of sound quality when tapes were copied. But that only worked in going from DAT to DAT, and few of us had machines at home or in our cars where we could listen. We were however able to get great-sounding cassette tapes that were made from DAT masters.
But the next revolutionary change to impact the trading community was a big one: the home CD recorder which came initially in the form of a stereo component. This game changer helped rid the world of sound quality loss through the ability to make CDR copies to trade. DATs could be transferred directly to CDR loss-free, and most of us excitedly went ahead and transferred our favorite shows from cassette to CDR as well. The CDR made trading much simpler and also greatly reduced postage. (File-sharing had not yet gotten practical, and we all were still using the mail to trade.)
As I alluded, I took a back seat to the DAT recorders for a few years while putting the old D-6 Walkman into retirement. My first move though into digital recording came with a home CD recorder through which I became proficient at capturing FM broadcasts. Its only imperfection was its slow “flip” at 80-minutes while the data being finalized on the disk. Still, this was like magic to produce CD copies of live radio broadcasts.
CDRs eventually got so cheap that their cost was inconsequential. The advancements continued and soon we were using our computers to transfer and copy CDRs instead of our CD recorder stereo components. The CD bootleg market that had developed around this time soon began to wane as people were now able to easily make and copy their own disks.
After lying low in the DAT years, I got back into the “stealth” recording of live concerts in the late 90’s when I went digital with a portable Sony Minidisc recorder. This was a tiny, fabulous and relatively inexpensive ($200) piece of equipment that made wonderful digital recordings that I would transfer to CDR. Its beauty was not have to change the disk until after 80-minutes which usually meant that I could switch just before the encore and not miss a note. The disks were cheap (about $3.00 each) and reusable, although I chose to retain all my masters even after they were all copied and preserved on CDR and later onto my PC. I operated happily with minidiscs for several years.
But as we know, digital technology continued to advance to bring me where I am now as a taper. My current rig for the last seven years has the remarkable Roland Edirol R-09. This device is about the size of a pack of smokes and records to an SD card. In addition to recording in a pure digital format, it takes an 8GB card that will hold about 8 hours of music and is reusable. No more “flipping” or changing of anything during a show, and what I used to spend on blank media, I now spend more economically on back-up PC drives. The Edirol also uses two AA batteries and my use of cost-efficient rechargables has never failed.
Overall, an Edirol rig is the taper’s nirvana. Once you get everything properly set, you can relax all night with the deck comfortably sitting in your pocket. This device will run you around $200. (It looks like there is a newer model Edirol that I am not familiar with.) Your setup must include compatible microphones which usually will require some form of battery pack amplification (another small piece of gear that will fit in your pocket next to the deck.) Expect to spend about the same $200, or perhaps a little more for your mics. Check with the experts before you buy to ensure they will work with whatever kind of deck you choose. I have had good success dealing with an outfit on-line called The Sound Professionals.
Also be careful with your mikes for they are a delicate piece of equipment. I am now on my third pair due to rough handling of them. It doesn’t take much to cause a loose connection in the wires.
Bit Torrent to the Rescue
However, the real game changer for tapers during the evolving digital era was of course file-sharing. Trading lists and mailing media to one another have gone the way of the Pony Express. In fact, the concept of trading has for all practical purposes vanished as well. The society of sharing concert recordings on premier bit torrent sites like DIME reflects an entire new world order. Tapers freely share their shows simply for the common good. Albeit most feel some bravado in displaying their proud accomplishments, but there is also the feeling that as part of this community you reap what you sow. With a current inventory of 38,000 shows for download on DIME, tapers can easily receive their just rewards in return. Non-tapers can reap the benefits as well by simply paying the price of allowing their computers to help share torrents to maintain the threshold share ratio.
I’d now like to share some tips for getting a good quality live audience recording at a show. When I started out I was nervous about both getting caught as well as screwing up. Hopefully these pointers will make you feel a little more at ease.
The first challenge of course is getting your rig into the venue. Fortunately I don’t frequent many venues that conduct body searches or use metal detectors. But I have had to deal with these in the past so if attending an unfamiliar venue, I suggest PM-ing someone in one of the on-line file-sharing communities who has recorded there (or tapes in that town). Otherwise, get there early to see if they are searching people going in. If they are, you usually can come up with a plan to work around them by watching what they are doing. Remember that they are looking for weapons and bottles in the first place so it’s usually not too hard to get around some of the loose searches. For example, they sometimes don’t check ankles so hiding your rig in your socks may work. Sorry, no tips on how to deal with metal detectors other than just taking the chance of showing them your gear and hoping they don’t care.
Outside of having a good rig (deck and mike) that you know how to use, the three keys to getting a good recording are location, location and location. What you want is a clear line to the speakers, un-muffled by bodies of people in front of you. While most think being in the center serves to get a more balanced sound, the width of separation of your mikes on your body isn’t going to help as much as it getting that direct line of sound without anyone blocking it.
The height of the mikes is therefore key, and that is why I use clip-on mikes on my shirt collars. Outside of also being easy to work with and conceal (black mikes on a black shirt are hard to detect), the height and separation are great. Many tapers however choose to put their clip-ons atop a pair of glasses (some even use fake ones) or a hat, but I just cannot get comfortable with those.
But most importantly these days, your biggest obstacle to getting a good recording is chatty fans. It just drives me crazy that people pay top dollar for concert tickets and spend more time talking to their friends and playing with their phones than watching the show. So be mindful of the folks you are around. The use of alcohol is a good sign of potential misbehavior. And by all means you don’t need to be drinking either. Recordings made from the bathroom don’t sound very good at all. I did one time hear a toilet flushing after a period of distant sound in a recording I once got in a trade.
Standing venues offer you the ability to move around so don’t be afraid to wander towards a quiet spot if need be. And when moving, be mindful that you need to keep your body still while recording. With mikes on my collar, I can move my head from side-to-side, but I make an effort to keep my shoulders intact since turning your body with the mikes will make an annoying swirl in your sound.
Properly setting your sound levels is of course a given. This is one of the reasons I will always record the opening act. In addition to possibly getting an early recording of a future superstar, it gives you a chance to test the volume of the room. But that’s only a start as the volume could be different for the headliner. I will not lock my levels in until sometime during the first song.
You need to be alert to things as such as how switching from acoustic to electric guitar or some horns kicking in might due to the sound intensity. Don’t lock in until you’re sure, but don’t play with it too much since I have ruined one too many recordings messing too much with the volume. Set it safe and leave it there. The most important thing is for the levels to not peak since that will cause distortion that cannot be corrected. Erring on the low side is something that, as they say in Nashville, “you can fix in the mix,” so lean towards being at the lower end of the sound spectrum. And don’t worry about the level meters peaking during applause since that will not affect your recording.
Be familiar with the workings of your deck—especially knowing how to locate all of the necessary buttons in the dark. One great tip I got from a friend was to use a piece of clear packing tape to cover all of the settings that you won’t ever be changing. This will avoid an unfortunate flick of the wrong switch at the wrong time.
One last thing about your gear—always bring along some extra batteries!
While you are at the show, here’s a trick for helping you compile a list of the songs played that evening. (Something you will need if you put your show on-line as a Torrent.) I will always make an attempt to get one of the band member’s handwritten set lists from the stage after the show. However, since there is often fan competition for it, I sometimes just settle for asking the lucky gatherer to allow me to snap a photo of it. Depending on your position before the show, sometimes you can cop a photo of the set list as it lies there on the stage in front of you. If all this fails, www.setlist.fm is a great source for finding song titles.
After you get home and are ready to share your treasure with the rest of the world, you will need to separate the tracks in order to prepare your Torrent. I recommend the CD Wave shareware if no sound editing is required. Although I tend to leave my recordings “naked,” some tapers us the Golden Wave shareware to tweak things up a bit. I have used the later in a few cases to remove some unwanted noise or to smooth out the volume where I may have a significant volume change during the show.
Another option for you at a live show is to ask the guy at the soundboard for permission to plug your deck directly into his feed. It is rare that this will be allowed although it might be possible for a young band at a small club gig. There are some of the big bands who reportedly also allow this practice.
I have only tried to do this once and the man at the board couldn’t figure out where his line out was. So obviously you need to know what you are doing. You will also probably need to bring the right cord to input into your device that hopefully will have an opposite end that fits into his.
My tape collection does include many soundboard tapes, most of which started circulating from some source within a band. While a soundboard will generally be a clean and unblemished recording, they tend to sound flat. Since they are a direct feed from the stage, they have no crowd noise which make them lose the feel of the room. Many tapers, myself included, prefer the sound of a great audience recording over a soundboard any day.
In my history I have been caught taping a total of four times out of over a thousand shows that I have recorded. The saddest was when the manager of a fledgling artist offered me a ten-dollar bill for my minidisc when he spotted me recording. After trying to reason with him, I gave in, but honestly I just didn’t get it. What he was afraid of I just don’t know, especially since the night before his artist did a radio broadcast that anyone was free to record. Did he think her performance sucked so bad that he didn’t want anyone to hear it? Or was he just acting in some misguided righteous effort thinking he was someone doing his managerial duty in protecting her career.
One other time I got caught I wound up having to go back to the venue the next day to get my rig. It was a small hall and they were just confused and didn’t know what in the world to do. It was obvious to me that they were simply over-reacting to a recent big bootleg CD bust by the Feds at a local record fair. I was thumbs up on that one since as I mentioned before, like most tapers, I don’t want to profit or see others profit from recording shows—I just don’t think it’s right to sell someone else’s work and make a profit without their permission.
I also was caught twice by artist staff who simply asked me to stop. For a while, I would try to ask the artist for permission if I was able to see them before the show. No one ever said no which made me realize that most artists could care less so I stopped wasting my time.
The Ethics of Concert Recordings
Finally this brings me to discussing the ethics of all of this. How should you feel about doing something like this undercover where you need to sneak in your rig and where your ticket stub and the venue announcement says “No audio recordings.”
Let’s go back to why I do this in the first place—for my personal enjoyment and in fulfilling what I believe to be a necessary function for history’s musical archives. Those special live concert moments and for that matter, tours in general, need to be preserved for posterity and enjoyed over-and-over again.
Let’s first consider the fact that the venue makes that announcement for every artist. It is a known fact that there are many artists (e.g. Wilco, Drive-By Truckers) who explicitly allow or those who otherwise do not disapprove of taping. Most of them are fans too who grew up listening to live recordings themselves.
I personally have shared live recordings with several notable artists—both of their bands and of other bands they are fans of. I have also actually had FM recordings of mine utilized as bonus tracks on official releases by several well-known artists. Their lack of respect for preserving their own work is shocking.
I have also had one of my recordings selected as “Bootleg of the Week” by Rolling Stone magazine. The fact that just about every show today gets recorded is fairly common knowledge. And I am talking about great sounding audience audio recordings, not than the plethora of mediocre IPhone videos cluttering up YouTube.
One of my favorite artists, Elvis Costello, had this to say about bootleg recordings: “Live bootlegs can be funny, studio bootlegs are the work of gangsters and thieves.” I agree with Elvis that stealing and profiting from an unreleased studio recording is just not right, although most times I cannot resist the temptation to seek them out. Infamous recordings that leaked were the “Pizza Tapes” which were some Jerry Garcia recordings stolen by the pizza deliveryman and some Bruce Springsteen studio outtakes that he left in the cassette player of a rental car.
Finally, just to further evidence the value of live concert recordings, some artists now get into the act themselves and will sell you a recording of the show that is available shortly after the show has ended. I have seen this done on either CDR, flash drives or by on-line download. Bruce Springsteen, Wilco, Peter Frampton, The Pixies, Crowded House, Squeeze, Joseph Arthur and Steve Poltz are artists whose shows I have purchased either at the venue or on-line. (It’s nice to take a break from recording every once in a while!) There is also a firm out of the UK called Concert Live that does this on a contract basis for bands and maintains an on-line store where you buy shows on CD.
Here’s the deal—unauthorized live concert recordings only serve to promote musical careers. They augment and do not replace the need to hear what is in an artist’s catalog. For most every artist I record, I already own their records, usually all of them. If not, I generally make an effort to buy their CD at their show as a sort of tit-for-tat for the recording I will be taking home.
Then of course through file-sharing sites like DIME, artists are getting promoted by having their live concerts heard by others. I really respect the way DIME is operated. Artists who chose so can elect not to have their recordings shared on the site. Likewise, anything that has been released commercially is banned. The DIME moderators are like vultures waiting to swoop down on violators and offending material doesn’t last too long on-line. (That is something I know from experience having errantly posted something by an artist on the banned list.) Fortunately that list is not that long. Oh how, I wish I could only have a moment with those who just don’t understand what this is all about.
All this said, I am a big believer in respecting musical copyrights. I do not believe that officially released material by an artist should be shared for free. I respect that this is their livelihood and what they use to pay the bills. But to sum it all up, if I didn’t record their concert, it most likely would be lost for eternity, and that is a bad thing. I believe that what I am doing is not harming artists, but actually helping them.
Likewise, part of me feels that my ticket price entitles me to record the show and take photos. I am not a lawyer, but everything I have heard tells me that I am not violating any laws by recording live concerts. As I have said, selling live concert recordings without permission is another story, and that is something that I strongly oppose.
Live concert recordings made by amateurs like me are meant to me shared and enjoyed. That’s what it is all about. I treasure my collection and savor all the special moments that I have managed to capture and can relive with just the press of a button: unreleased songs, special guest appearances, artist banter between songs, etc.
I hope that you have learned something here, and I welcome hearing the thoughts of both artists and fans about this topic. Other than that, support live music, buy CDs at shows and if you record shows—get them out there to be shared and preserved for eternity.