Community member Audrey Martinovich has an unusual gig, one where timing is everything and that’s recording live shows at the Comedy Club On State in Madison WI. She shares her tips for making sure everyone can hear the jokes and no one misses a punchline. Over to you Audrey...
A Little Bit Of Background
I’ve been an audio engineer since 2010 when I started doing live sound. Over the course of these last 7 years, I’ve switched to mainly studio recording and on-location recording. I co-own Audio for the Arts studio based in Madison, WI with my business partners Buzz Kemper and Steve Gotcher. We specialize in classical music, acoustic instruments, and are highly sought after for corporate recording. Between the three of us, we’ve also completed several albums for Comedy Central where my live sound experience is especially valuable.
Whenever you record any live performance with an audience present, you can expect challenges. It’s usually only a matter of time before an audience member or two to become fidgety and begin clicking a pen or rustling their program. When recording the performance of an orchestra or choir these noises distract from the performance and iZotope RX plug-ins will become your best friend. But what about a performance that incorporates the audience?
Laughter and audience reactions are a crucial part of stand-up comedy performances and on the final product, the comedian needs to sound like they absolutely killed it. So far this year I’ve recorded three Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents albums: Josh Johnson, Shane Torres, and Chris Redd. These recordings take place in comedy clubs of varying size but I use a similar set-up every time.
Because the audience is key, I place several small capsule condenser mics all around the club. Typically, I’ll use Shure SM81’s in shock mounts hung from the ceiling, either pointing straight down or and angled slightly toward the back of the club.
This slight angle prevents the mic from picking up only the audience members right beneath it. If there is a food and bar service in the club then there is also the potential to hear glasses clinking and that slight angle will help to dampen these noises as well.
Usually, I’ll place three SM81’s across the middle of the audience, from left to right, shown as 6, 7, and 8 in the picture above. There is a pair in XY down center stage above the comic’s head, labelled as 2 and 3. I also have 2 shotgun microphones (4 and 5) hung from the ceiling on stage to capture the first row. When placing the mics it’s important to take into consideration where the speakers are in the room and avoid hanging mics too close to them. Otherwise, you’ll lose the audience and predominantly pick up the signal coming from the speakers. Additionally, you’ll want to avoid placing mics near vents and fans. I place windscreens on my audience mics as a precaution for fans and AC units that turn on or off. Finally, the comic gets an SM58 (mic number 1) with a windscreen. This gives us a total of 8 inputs and all but one are dedicated to the audience.
Because the comic’s mic is fed to the PA and the recording gear, you’ll need to split the line. The house engineer might want to split everything, or they might want to only split the vocal mic. Depending on the number of channels you need to split, you’ll either need a few Y-cables or a mic splitter, either passive or active.
It’s Going To Get Loud
The most important factor to consider with comedy is the dynamics of the performance. Comics will often suddenly yell or the audience will scream and applaud, making the potential for clipping pretty high. If you’re lucky, there will be an opening act that will allow you a bit of a sound check before the headline comic comes on. If this is the case, keep in mind that the audience will be louder for the headliner than the openers so it’s still best to err on the side of caution when setting your levels, keeping them lower than perhaps you are used to. Below, are two photos showing the dynamic range of a performance. Input 1 is the comic, 2 through 8 are audience mics, and 9 & 10 are a reference mix.
I use the True Precision 8 1U unit with 8 mic preamps, which I split to two Alesis HD24 hard disk recorders - one is the main and the other is a backup. I also take the output of one of the HD24s and run that to an 8 channel mixer for monitoring purposes. The output of the monitor mixer is fed back into one of the HD24s (the top one in this photo) to provide a reference mix for the comic to hear and evaluate their performance.
Work With The Staff
The people who are working at the club should be your best friends. You want a good recording. Your client wants a good recording. The club wants the client to continue to book in their venue, so they should do what they can to help you get the best recording possible. That can mean anything from letting a certain audience member know their laugh is too distracting to kicking hecklers out of the club. In one of my recent recordings involved an audience member who repeated the last few words of every punch line before laughing. I let the staff know and moments later the distraction was gone.
Record All Of The Shows
If it’s possible, I recommend recording 2 or more performances of the same material. This gives you another “take” that you can use in the editing process in case something goes wrong during one of the shows or a heckler decides it’s their time to shine. For a commercially released CD, I feel most comfortable recording 4 or 5 shows between two or three days. As with most things, it’s always better to end up with more than you need rather than wishing you had more to work with.
Now, go forth and record some comedy, my friends!
Thank you, Audrey, for this insight into a rarely covered subject. In summary, and joking apart, recording live comedy is a serious business. The role of the sound recordist is to put the listener in the room without contriving the end result. With careful planning, good mic choices and working well with those in the live venue, you can ensure your recording doesn’t end up being the joke!