One of my favorite John Vanderslice songs is titled “Me and My 424“. The song is all about his love and attachment to his Tascam 424, which is a 4 track recorder. This song was the first thing that popped into my head when I sat down to write this post and it was too perfect of a connection to ignore. For those of you that got this reference, congratulations on your good taste. For those of you that didn’t, you should really brush up on your bay area indie artists.


This last weekend I attended the Austin City Limits Music Festival and sadly two of my best friends couldn’t attend the festivities. So I figured the next best thing to being there is getting to hear live recordings from some of the sets. I’d never done any recording so I knew the chances of me getting something of quality wasn’t likely but worth a shot. Plus, the endless string of shows over three days would allow me to cram a ton of learning into a short time frame.

Before making my purchase, I did some research online. I managed to find this fantastic article by Mark Nelson on the O’Reilly Digital Media site comparing the M-Audio MicroTrack II to the Edirol R-09HR. Mark leaves it up to you to decide which recorder best fits your needs and it was the 48 volt phantom power on the MicroTrack II that sealed the deal for me. That and the fact that I found a brand new recorder on CraigsList for only $225.

Shure SM57 with TRS cable

Shure SM57 with TRS cable

The MicroTrack II came with a simple stereo microphone that seems to be of good enough quality for unplanned recordings, but my desire for better quality required the use of a nicer mic. A few weeks prior I had purchased a Shure SM57 dynamic mic to play around with and I wondered what kinds of results it would produce. So I picked up a TRS to XLR cable to go from the MicroTrack to the SM57 and did some test runs using my home stereo. Right off the bat I noticed that the mic that came with the MicroTrack was much more sensitive than the Shure. I wasn’t sure which one would do a better job at the festival so I decided to take both and experiment.

Ideally in this situation I’d have a nice condenser mic but I didn’t know how much I’d enjoy making the recordings and I didn’t want to dump more money into this if it wasn’t going to yield any pleasure. Fortunately I found out quite quickly that the stages at the festival were loud enough to drive my dynamic mic and I left the small clip on mic in my bag for the rest of the weekend.

Austin Texas tends to be fairly hot this time of year and while recording, the MicroTrack actually generates a little bit of heat on its own. The first set I recorded was Yeasayer and things went off without a hitch. I kept an eye on my levels throughout the show keeping them low enough not to clip. After the set I wanted to listen to the recording in a bit quieter setting to get some immediate feedback. I started playing the track back but to my surprise, I couldn’t adjust the volume on the headphone output. This had me a bit worried so I decided to power cycle the recorder.

The combination of the heat from the sun and the internal heat that the recorder generates was clearly upsetting my new device because after turning it back on, it immediately turned itself off. After biting a couple fingernails I decided to let it sit in the shade for a while to cool off with the hopes that it would come back to life. It did.

For the rest of the afternoon I continued to play around with various settings and was quickly finding myself very comfortable with the layout of the device. It’s operation is really straightforward with a minimal amount of buttons and only the ones you need quick access to. My first real complaint was the fact that when recording from a mono source (left channel only) you only get audio in the left channel of the headphone output, even when setting the recorder to mono mode. This seems like an oversight on M-Audio’s part, making it slightly annoying.

The last set I saw on Friday was Donavon Frankenreiter and I so desperately wanted to get a good recording of what I knew would be a fantastic show. I managed to get a great spot on the right hand side of the stage and it felt like a pretty good place to setup shop. At the end of the set we headed back to the hotel and I got my first chance to hear what I had captured in detail.

It was amazing, I could hardly contain myself. The last time I felt this type of magical experience was making prints in a dark room. The recording didn’t have the same quality as a sound board recording but for such a simple and portable setup I’m truly shocked at the results. Here’s a video that Will shot, I replaced the audio from the camera with my recording.

Encouraged by Friday’s results, I went into Saturday with a lot of enthusiasm especially because Iron & Wine was playing in the evening. Once again, the recording went off without a hitch but I’m discovering that it would be nice to roll off the bass a bit before the signal hits the MicroTrack. I want to do this because some of these shows have so much bass that it’s difficult to keep the input from clipping like crazy and still capture the rest of the detail. In photographic terms, it’s a lot like trying to take a picture of something in the shadows while staring at the sun.

Sunday was a big day. I wanted to get a recording of Tristan Prettyman, Neko Case and The Raconteurs. All was going well with the Tristan set when I realized that twenty minutes into the set I ran out of space on my CF card. This was confusing to me at first because I had removed all the old recordings from the previous day and my 4GB card should have had enough space for over three hours of recording. Being a geek, I had a theory for what went wrong.

When deleting the files I didn’t use the delete button on the MicroTrack, instead I deleted them via the Finder on my Mac and it seems as though the files weren’t actually deleted, just hidden. The file browser on the MicroTrack only shows you audio files that it can read which in normal situations is nice. But when you’re out of space because of clutter it would be great to be able to remove that clutter while in the field. So I’d highly recommend that M-Audio adds a feature to allow you to browse all of the files on the device for these kind of emergencies.

Because this feature isn’t present, I found myself running around the festival looking for a usb cable so I could hook my recorder up to one of the computers that Dell had at its tent. This was a fruitless task and I was left with no option but to reformat my CF card, loosing what I had of the Tristan set. But thankfully the reformatting worked and I was able to grab the other two.

So the bottom line is that I love my new toy and I highly recommend it. It’s friendly to use, affordable, portable and produces amazing results. The only reliability problem I had was when it got excessively hot. As for features, I’d love to monitor a mono signal in both ears and be able to manage the non-audio files on the device.

Austin City Limits: Day Three

September 29, 2008

That's a big bunny, even for Tate

Ah the third and final day. The strangest thing about this year’s festival is that Friday and Sunday had the best lineup (in my mind) and yet neither day was sold out.

First up for the day was Priscilla Ahn. Will had seen her when she opened for Amos Lee a while ago and suggested we check her out. She was a last minute replacement for Adele which had to be somewhat difficult, especially given that it was just her on this huge stage. But she delt with the pressure really well, in fact she’s pretty damn funny. One of her songs in particular titled “The Boob Song” was really enjoyed by the crowd.

At the same stage after Priscilla was Tristan Prettyman. I’ve been a Tristan fan for over three years now and I’ve seen her in concert a number of times and always look forward to each performance. I was especially excited for this show because I wanted to get a recording. Things were going great, Tristan was playing some of her new material which I really enjoy, but when I looked down to check my levels I realized that my recording had stopped. I tried to start things back up but it would immediately stop recording once it started. What the hell. After a few moments I realized that it was out of space. So I abandoned the recording process for the rest of the set and simply enjoyed the set.

I suspected the problem with the recorder was that when I deleted the old files from the CF card that they really didn’t get deleted. Sadly I needed a computer to remove these old files and Dell and AT&T had a booths setup with laptops so I figured one of them might have a USB cable. No such luck. My only option was to reformat my CF card to free the space but that meant I’d loose my Tristan recording. Given that there was two more shows that I wanted to record, I saw little option.

With free space at hand, we headed over to see Neko Case. When buying some cables for my recorder I started talking to this fantastic guy that works at Gleb Music and along the way I mentioned that I was going to ACL. He immediately stated that he’d love to get his hands on a Neko Case recording and told me stories of how he’d traveled from California to Washington to see one of her shows. How couldn’t I check her out after hearing a story like that.

We then hung out for an hour, keeping our spots a few feet from the stage to see The Raconteurs. Their show was amazing. As much as I love Tristan, I think The Raconteurs edged her out just a little bit. Unfortunately Jack White (lead vocals) had a slipped disc in his back but somehow managed to pull himself through the show. Their studio albums most definitely have a rock feel to them but their live performances are much more intense, but how couldn’t they rock with a guy like Brendan Benson on guitar?

Initially I wasn’t sure about this years lineup, but thankfully those feelings were unwarranted because in the end I had just as much fun this year as I did the last two. Plus, this year was a lot cooler (temperature wise) than previous years and the grounds were much more enjoyable thanks to volunteers picking up bottles in exchange for t-shirts. I was really glad that Tate could join us this year and am hoping that we can have an even larger group for the next festival.

Austin City Limits: Day Two

September 29, 2008

Clothing Optional Area

Clothing Optional Area

Tired. Very Tired. We got a bit of a late start on Saturday which actually worked out pretty well because there wasn’t anyone on the schedule in the morning that we really had our hearts set out to see.

Will and I checked out Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings while playing a little game of Hot or Not. Neither of us had ever heard any of their music but really enjoyed how much fun they had interacting with the crowd. After that set we checked out the merch table, I got a fairly cool recycling themed shirt but sadly the posters this year weren’t all that appealing.

We then wondered over to the stage where Erykah Badu was going to perform. I haven’t listened her since 1998 so I can’t exactly say that I’m familiar with much of her music. But she’s got a fun sound so we figured we’d check it out. Sadly she started the set 10 minutes late and then decided to spend five minutes telling the crowd a story. I’m all up for artists telling stories during their set, but spending 10% of the set on a story is a bit excessive. We headed out to meed my Dad and Tate at the WaMu stage to see The Nachito Herrera All Stars.

None of us had herd the Nachito Herrera All Stars before but apparenlty a couple of Tate’s friends had actually seen them the night before in the Twin Cities and were impressed. Apparently the group had only played together for a few shows which is quite impressive. They didn’t have a whole lot of lyrics to their songs but that’s pretty understandable. I was just impressed with how well Herrera conducted the group while playing they keys.

By 6:30 the day was really starting to roll. We all checked out John Fogerty (front man for Credence Clearwater Revival). I started listening to CCR when I was in junior high which surprised my Dad at the time, so I’m quite familiar with Fogerty’s earlier work. I wasn’t sure how much of his older stuff he’d play but happily he had a good mix. It’s always interesting to watch someone as legendary as Fogerty.

The highlight of the day for me was Iron & Wine. When I started working at O’Reilly a coworker named Matt introduced me to their music. I listened to the album a bit but sadly didn’t spend much time with it. This is a decision that I’ve regretted after circling back around and hearing their latest album, The Shepherd’s Dog. Iron & Wine continues to develop a more complex sound which is especially present in their live performances.

This was the only show that I recorded in its entirety on Saturday and I’ll post it if I find out if they are cool with having their shows recorded. As a side note, for all of you in the bay area, Iron & Wine is going to be playing at this years Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival on October 5th. The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is a free festival in Golden Gate park and I’d highly recommend checking them out.

We closed out the day with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and happily walked back to the downtown area feeling a bit more energetic than the night before. Plus, we had the pleasure of being informed that we’re sinners by some religious folks outside the park, always a good time.

Austin City Limits: Day One

September 29, 2008

Last Friday was the first day of the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the beginning of my third year in attendance. My goal was to write about each day immediately after the day ended, but it didn’t take long to realize that this goal would not be met. But better late than never and I’ve got a few hours to kill before my flight back to San Francisco.

Part of the reason I didn’t have time to write at the end of each day is because my Dad, my brother Tate and one of my best friends Will made it to the festival as well and we were simply having too good of time hanging out together (wish you could have made it Alex and Amanda). This was the first year that my brother came along with us and I was excited to see what he thought of the experience.

Given how exhausted we all were from traveling to Austin, I was very proud of us for getting to Zilker park a bit after noon. The first show I wanted to see was Yeasayer at 1:30. I first heard of Yeasayer last January from Liz and I’d listened to their album All Hours Cymbals a few times but didn’t give it a whole lot of attention until leading up to the festival. However, in the last few weeks the album has really been growing on me. Their lyrics can be a little hard to follow along to sometimes so I wasn’t sure what the others would think of the show.

They played most of the songs off of the All Hours Cymbals album but without a doubt, Sunrise and 2080 were two of my favorites. My only complaint is that the base guitar was driven into distortion which cast a lot of the delicate and intricate details into the shadows. But that’s fine, it gives me a good excuse to see them again the next time they are in San Francisco.

Next up was Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan. Last year Bob Dylan was the closing act on Sunday and lets just say I was disappointed with how he interacted with the crowd. Thankfully his son Jakob seems to have plenty of energy and spark in him to say hello to all of us. Knowing that it would be a fairly long day, Will and I kind of relaxed a bit during his set but still found it quite enjoyable.

At 3:30 we made our way over to see Del tha Funky Homosapien. I love Del. He is by far one of the most innovative and talented artists in the Rap/Hip-Hop world. Many people aren’t familiar with him under this name but chances are you’ve heard him without knowing it. His most well known work is likely on the song “Clint Eastwood” with the Gorillaz. But for me his greatest work is the Deltron 3030 album. We didn’t get very close to the stage which is a bummer because there was clearly a ton of energy in the crowd.

Going off of a recommendation from someone that Will chatted with on the flight to Austin, we decided to check out Patty Griffin. She didn’t seem too bad but given that we didn’t know much about her, it was kind of hard to really get into her set. So we headed out halfway through, got some food and then listened to the first half of the Slightly Stoopid set. I was hoping that G. Love would come out and join them for Mellow Mood and in fact G. Love did come out, but they sang a different song. Will and I decided that we’d leave early and get a killer spot for The Swell Season.

If you aren’t familiar with The Swell Season and you like folk music, make sure you do something about that. Many months ago Will suggested that I check out the soundtrack for the movie Once and that was the best music recommendation Will has ever given me. The soundtrack for the movie was written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (they also starred in the movie). So when Will informed me that The Swell Season was made up of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, I was very excited. We managed to get some spots a few feet from the stage and the show firmly cemented the desire to see the two of them in concert again. Especially because we headed out fifteen minutes early to see Donavan Frankenreiter.

If you follow my blog, you may remember me blogging about how amazing the Donavan Frankenreiter show was at the Outside Lands Festival and that was an experience I wanted to duplicate, so I was very motivated to get a good spot for the set. My Dad and brother didn’t feel the same need so they hung out a bit further back in the crowd while Will and I managed to be close enough to touch the stage. Once again the show did not disappoint. Donavan was as fantastic as always and clearly seemed to be enjoying himself.

But what made this show special for me was when G. Love joined Donavan on the stage. I passed on seeing the G. Love show in favor of The Swell Season, a choice that wasn’t easy to make. So it warmed my heart to be able to see him join in on both “What’cha Know About” and “It Don’t Matter”.

Normally at shows I spend a good amount of energy taking photos. But for this festival I took a grand total of 15 pictures, 15! Last year I took ten times this many photos and frankly it felt very strange to not have a camera in my hand the entire time. But I have a good excuse, I promise.

Shortly before the festival this year I went to a JJ Grey & Mofro concert and during the concert I was wishing that I could share what I was hearing with others. Then it hit me, I could totally share what I was hearing if I got some recording equipment. I did some research online, got myself a portable recorder and I already had a mic so it was easy to get something simple going (I’ll share the details of my setup in a later post).

I played around with the recorder and various mic positions earlier in the day and by the time the Donavon show came around I was feeling fairly confident that I could get a good recording. So Will and I stood right up front, me grabbing the audio and Will grabbing some video. Not only was the set better than I expected, the quality of my recording exceeded every single expectation I had, almost to the point of tears :). Here’s the video of “It Don’t Matter” that Will shot:

Friday ended up being a very long day for all of us and we were all ready to get back to the hotel for some much needed rest. Between the sun, moving about and the music, one tends to feel pretty drained at the end of the day. But that’s actually a pretty good demonstration of exactly how amazing these festivals are. It’s the memories that are made hearing so many amazing artists with such amazing friends that makes it all so worthwhile.