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Elliott Smith Mini-Repository - Taping Information

Why tape live shows?

I tried to tape every Elliott Smith show I went to. He was one of many great artists who played a different set every time he performed and also, played some songs live that never made it to his albums. He also played other bands songs which ranged from classics like his Beatles and Kinks covers to songs from somewhat unknown artists. When you really love an artist's work, you want every bit of it to be documented in some way. More of the people can experience it and less will be lost. Who knows how many songs a band played only once (at a show that wasn't taped) that were never played again... I'm going to keep taping the bands and artists that I like (assuming they don't object) and I hope other people do, too.

The rest of this page will give you some basic instructions on how to tape a show. I'm sure you can find better info out there on the web, but this is how I tape.

What equipment do you need?
Please note that this page was written in the early/mid 2000's and the equipment here is pretty much outdated, but the concepts are the same. The main thing to focus on is a decent mic and a (preferably stereo) recording device that allows you to set the levels. It's not really expensive to get decent taping equipment, but it does cost something. There are a ton of sites which tell you what the best recorders are and what the best microphones are etc. I'll focus on two simple set-ups. One basically the least expensive way and the other a bit more expensive.

The cheaper way:
Get a Mini-Disc recorder and a Sony ECM-717 stereo microphone. This is the set-up that I use and it seems to work pretty well for most shows. The exact model I have is the Sony MZR70 which doesn't seem to be made any more. You can find the MZR70 and a lot of other similar models on ebay fairly cheaply, but these things seem like they'd be pretty fragile so be careful if you buy a used one. Also, read below for more about getting a Mini-Disc recorder.

The more expensive way:
Get a DAT recorder and an Audio Technica stereo microphone. The only portable DAT recorder that is still being made (that I'm aware of) is Sony's TCDD100. They cost over six hundred dollars, but the recording quality is as good as you can get in a portable device. This is the set-up that Jeff (who also contributes shows to this site) uses. He uses the same mic I do, the Sony ECM-717, instead of one of the more expensive ones and his tapes come out great.

Digital recording without disks or tapes:
There are a lot of new mp3 players and phones coming out that can record as well. I haven't tried these for music, but most of them only have built in mono microphones and no line input to use an external mic. The only mp3 recorder I know of that has a line input is the Creative Muvo Micro (a.k.a. N200). You will probably have to buy or make some sort of adapter to plug a mic into it because it uses a very tiny input. Also, you will also probably need a mic that has a pre-amp something similar because the input is meant to be a "line-in" (to accept a stereo's line-out) and not a mic input. The pre-amp would also need to have a level adjustment because there is no way to set the recording level on the device. You could probably get something to work, so please let me know if you do. It's a great player and it would be cool if it worked well for taping shows since it's so small and one battery seems to last forever.

When buying a Mini-Disc recorder there are three features that are crucial:

  1. It obviously must be able to record
    Some Mini-Disc players don't record. Don't get one of those.

  2. It has to have an input for a microphone
    It seems that Sony has discontinued all the inexpensive models that have microphone inputs. The only two models that still have mic inputs at the time of this writing are the MZN10 and the MZNF810CK. Both of these cost about twice as much as the ones that don't have mic inputs. The MZR70 and MZR50 are fairly common discontinued models that definitely have microphone input.

  3. It must have a way to adjust the recording level
    I don't have a lot of experience with different recorders but the few I've seen have an automatic recording level setting and a manual recording level setting. You need to make sure that you set it to manual recording level and then adjust the recording level to a low enough volume that the recording isn't overloading.

There are a lot of Mini-Disc sites on the web which should have detailed information on which models have the right features for live recording or if you just want more info in general.

If you really want to get a great mic, you should do some more research. You will have to spend quite a bit more than $100 to get better quality than the ECM-717. A lot of taping info sites will point you to the Core Sound mics or other similar "binaural" mics that seem to be specifically made for live taping. Don't make the mistake of getting Core Sound's less expensive mics though. They actually cost more than the Sony and don't sound as good. An experienced taper named Rob told me that the Audio Technicas are the best higher end mics for taping for the money. If you're willing to spend even more, he recommends the Core Sound binaurals with the battery box and bass roll-off feature. Those cost around $250 at the time of this writing.

What's the best way to do it?
There are plenty of ways to record a show well but it's pretty easy to mess something up too. Here are some basic tips to get started. You will probably come up with your own way of doing things soon enough.

Before the show:
First of all make sure you know how to use your recorder properly. I messed up nearly every show I tried to tape when I first got my recorder. I'd always start recording after the first song started or accidentally pause the thing in the middle of a song or any number of other errors. The next thing you need to do is to make sure the batteries are charged up or get new ones if your recorder doesn't use rechargables. Next make sure you have two blank Mini-Discs (or DAT tapes if you're using a DAT recorder). Don't try to erase them at the show, it's much easier when you have time, light and quiet. Lastly, just put the recorder, your mic, the blanks and the batteries in a little bag. Don't load the batteries into the recorder until you get the the show, just leave them in the bag with the recorder and blanks. Don't bring the headphones, the remote or any other unnecessary stuff to the show, it will just get in your way.

When you get to the show:
Apparently a lot of tapers just bring a dat recorder to the show and ask the soundman if they can plug into the board and tape the show. You need to bring some cables so that they can plug your recorder in, so you'll need to do some reading on a taping website to find out the ones to get for your particular set-up. This seems like the way to get the best quality, but I've never felt like I could just ask them to do that myself so I just use my mic and tape from wherever I stand at the show. Here is some advice from Rob about where to stand at a show to get the best sound:

"When taping club shows, I try to stand a little back from the main speaker stacks, towards the center of the stage. avoid corners, because they act as bass traps, and you'll end up w/ muddy sounding recordings. you want to be close to the speakers and have a direct open line between your mics and the stacks, but still be picking up the stage sound, cause in clubs, not everything is going thru the PA. for example, on the spaceland show, a lot of elliot's guitar sound came from the guitar itself, while most of the vocals came out of the speakers. basically, just walk around and listen and find the best sounding spot. i like to think of opening bands as "soundcheck". try to get your mics as high up as possible, and you'll get clearer sound, and less crowd noise. i don't know how you usually position your mic...maybe consider putting it in a hat... best of luck."

During the band that plays before the band you're taping:
First decide where you're going to stand or sit. Then figure out what your recording level should be. I usually just set my level so that the level meter bars go a little more than halfway to the end of the display.

When the band you want to tape is about to start:
Set your recorder to record-pause mode (where it's ready to record, but it's not actually recording anything yet) and get the level to where you decided you want it to be when you checked earlier. On most pro type recorders, when you hit record, the machine goes into record-pause mode automatically, but on the MZR70 (and probably other Sony Mini-Disc recorders) you have to hold "pause" down while you hit "record" to get it into that mode. Once your level is set and the band is about to start, just get the recording rolling. On some machines that means hit "pause" again on others hit "play" (just make sure you know which).

While the band is playing:
There are two things you can do depending on what you feel like doing during the show.
  1. If you just want to enjoy the show and not worry about the recording, after you get the tape or disc actually recording, hit the "hold" or "lock" switch and put the recorder in your pocket. That way any buttons that you accidentally press won't do anything and your tape should come out fine. You should always take a look at the display once or twice during the show to make sure that it's recording ok.

  2. If you don't mind keeping your mind on the recording during the show and you'd like to make your life easier later, you can hold the recorder throughout the show and hit the "T-Mark" button every time a new song is about to start. That way, when you transfer the disc or DAT to CD, the track marks will be set already and you won't have to go back and put them in later.

After the band leaves the stage:
Stop the recorder and quickly take out the Mini-Disc or DAT and load the second blank you brought into the recorder. Set the recorder to "record-pause" again and re-set your recording level if necessary. If / when the band comes out to play some more songs, get the recording rolling again and tape the rest of the show the way you did the first part of it.

When the show is over:
The lights are on, they're playing cd's over the PA and you're pretty sure the band isn't coming back out. Stop the recorder, take the Mini- Disc or DAT out and put everything away.

When you get home:
You'll want to transfer the show to CD so you can easily listen to it and make copies for friends or trading. Plus then you can re-use your Mini-Discs or DAT tapes for the next show. The best way to do this is to make a direct digital copy:
  • For Mini-Disc:
    Use a component Mini-Disc deck with a digital output (such as the Sony MDS-JB940) into a CD recorder with digital input. This will give you the cleanest possible transfer of your recording and if you put the track markers in, you'll have a cd that's ready to play instantly.

  • For DAT:
    You will need a multi-purpose digital transfer cable that is made specifically for the Sony TCDD100 if you don't have access to a DAT deck with standard digital outputs. Either way you do it, just get the digital output of your DAT machine into the digital input of a CD recorder and you'll have a nice digital copy of your recording.

If you don't have access to this equipment, you can make a fairly good copy of your recording by just taking the analog audio out signal from the recorder and putting it into the analog audio input of a cd recorder or your computer that has a cd recorder in it.

I have to say that it makes a HUGE difference in sound quality if you transfer your recording digitally. I would be happy to make a free direct digital CD transfer of any Elliott Smith Mini-Disc or DAT live recording you have. I've done this for several people on the Elliott Smith boards over the past few years and everyone has been really happy with the results (assuming the recording was decent in the first place).

Well, that about covers everything. I would of course love to get copies of any Elliott Smith shows, especially the ones listed on the main page of this site. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at

- Lido
August 23, 2003 (updated November 17, 2003, March 12, 2005, June 4, 2005, June 26, 2013)

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