What’s a taper? What equipment is needed to tape live performances?

A “taper” is a person who records musical events often from standing microphones in the audience for the benefit of the musical group’s fan-base. Such taping was popularized in the late 1960s and early 1970s by fans of the Grateful Dead.  Audio recording was allowed at shows and fans would share their tapes through trade. Taping and trading became a Grateful Dead sub-culture.

Tapers generally do not financially profit from recording such concerts and record using their own equipment with permission from the artist. Taper recordings are commonly considered legal because the recordings are permitted and distribution is free. Taper etiquette strictly excludes bootlegging for profit. “Stealth taper” is a common term for a person who may furtively bring equipment into shows to record without explicit permission.

Although taping is usually done with microphones, often bands will allow plugging into the soundboard for a direct patch. Taping setups are generally portable, operating on high quality condenser microphones, phantom power, a microphone preamplifier and a recording device all of which are battery powered.

A common means of trade is by transferring the tape recording to a lossless digital format such as FLAC and sharing through an internet file share protocol such as BitTorrent with the assistance of a networking service such as etree.

Personally, I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to build a taping rig.  I did find some valuable information located at About.com that explains a rig in detail, and the pricing behind building one.

The Elements of a Taping Rig

When you’re looking at building a taping rig, there’s some major elements you need to remember to pick up. Understanding the elements will help you decide where to budget your money the best.

Microphones are the most important element of your entire rig. Here’s where you can potentially eat up a large portion of your budget. Microphones, especially really nice ones, aren’t cheap. And really, that’s an understatement — there’s some microphones that go for over $2,000 each, and up from there! You will need to purchase a pair of microphones, preferably a matched pair (a pair matched for equal sound quality). This is simple: you have two ears, so record in stereo with two mics for the best realistic sound reproduction. For taping, you need condenser microphones, compared to dynamic microphones. The reason for this is simple – as discussed in my other article about microphone types, condenser microphones offer a greater range of frequency response and sensitivity. You’ll also need to consider what polar pattern you’ll want – cardioid microphones are the universal choice for concert taping, as they pick up in a heart-shaped polar pattern, rejecting a lot of rear and side noise. Hyper-cardioid mics are also a great choice, if taping in larger rooms. As a beginner, you’ll want to stay away from omnidirectional mics – mics with a 360 degree pickup pattern – as they can be brutally unforgiving in bad acoustics.

When selecting a mic, it’s really important to trust your ears before you trust the specs. Downloading shows for free from Archive.org’s Live Music Archive is a great way to audition microphones in many environments without having to spend the money to do so yourself! Pick a mic with a broad frequency response — 20Hz to 20kHz is generally the benchmark for a fantastic mic, as that mimics the response of the human ear better. Also, pick a mic that’s durable – in the field, you’ll be surprised the abuse your microphones put up with.

Another thing to look at is large-diaphragm vs. small diaphragm. Small diaphragm generally have a tighter bass response, whereas large diaphragm have a better high-end response. Small diaphragm are must more portable, and much less fragile, but it’s not unheard of to see large-diaphragm mics in the field (AKG C414, Oktava MK219, and ADK TL Series are all common). Good small diaphragm condenser microphones to consider are the Oktava MC012 (around $100 per microphone, up to $450 or so for a match stereo pair), the AKG C480b/CK61 (around $1500-2000/pair), and the DPA 4021 ($2500/pair). There’s several other options, too. Just keep the specs in mind, and trust your ears, first and foremost. Brand names don’t mean much if they don’t sound good!

Microphone Preamp

One thing you’ll need to consider is a stereo microphone preamp. This stage is necessary if using condenser microphones which require 48v of phantom power, the way condenser microphones are powered. A preamp takes the very low voltage output of a microphone and translates it into the higher voltage line-level required to feed audio recording devices. Microphone preamp quality can vary greatly between models, but it’s generally best to spend whatever you can afford. The Edirol UA5 is a great option, available at around $250 or less. It can be used with any laptop computer – or, with a modification done by the Oade Brothers, a stand-alone recorder. It’s a really good quality preamp. Other options include the Grace Design Lunatec V3 (about $1000 used, more new, or about $600 used for the V3’s little brother, the all-analog V2), the Sound Devices MP2 (about $350 used), and the Apogee Mini-MP (about $1000). You’ll also need a battery — some, like the MP2, are self-powered, but most require an external battery, built yourself for about $100, or purchased ready-made for a bit more.

Analog-to-Digital Conversion

This isn’t as much an issue as it once was, but if you’re still recording to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) or an entry-level hard disk recorder like the JB3, your audio will benefit from a really good analog-to-digital converter. This takes the analog signal from the microphone preamp, and gives it a high quality conversion to digital signal. This can be a drastic improvement over the on-board conversion when going analog in, however most all-in-one digital recorders now feature fantastic quality a-to-d conversion. Popular options include the Benchmark AD2K ($1200), Apogee Mini-ME (a preamp and a/d converter in one, around $1000), and the Lunatec V3 (another all-in-one, $1000 or so).

The Recording Device

The last thing you need to complete your rig is a recording device. DAT has been a popular choice, and recorders are rather cheap now; the downside is that it’s an obsolete format, and finding DAT tapes and maintenance is really hard, as is that they’re limited to 48kHz/16bit recording, which is almost obsolete by the new standards of 24bit, 96kHz (remember, CD quality is still 44.1kHz, 16 bit — but as new standards of listening evolve, you’ll be happy you recorded your masters in higher quality). Mini-disc is also a popular choice, but it’s not preferable because it’s limited to 16 bit, 44.1kHz, and it’s a lossy format — compression takes away from the full fidelity of your audio. The best choices are hard disk recorders, ranging from the Zoom H4 ($299), Edirol R09 ($399), Nomad JB3 (found around $120-150 used), and on up to the Sound Devices 722 ($2495). In shopping, look for a recorder with stereo recording up to 24bit, 96kHz in uncompressed .WAV/.AIF format, with good a-to-d conversion, and good battery life.

Don’t Forget the Accessories

Remember the necessary accessories, and you’re on your way! A good, tall mic stand (most tapers use modified lighting stands to get up above the crowd), a stereo microphone bar, good mic cables, windscreens, and batteries, and you’re all set!

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~ by Jason Ewert on December 4, 2011.

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