[Excerpt from Acoustic Guitar Magazine] By Rani Arbo
Whether he’s playing African, Hawaiian, or Celtic music, or his own compositions, master fingerstyle guitarist Ed Gerhard is renowned for making records so clean and tonally rich that to listen, you’d think you were inside his guitar. So it’s hard to believe him when he quips that his intention for The Live Album was “to put out a crappy-sounding personal bootleg.”
According to Gerhard, the genesis of his live album was part necessity and part invention. “I needed to get another record out,” says Gerhard, “and looking over my past albums, I thought, ‘Gee, it would be nice to play those tunes live, the way I play them now.’ In the ’90s I reconnected with how much I love playing for people, and it changed the way I played some of those older pieces. I improvised things and made them more-l hate to use this phrase, it’s an Oprah phrase-in the moment. I thought a live record would be a nice way to capture that.”
In true form, Gerhard hit the road with his usual complement of guitars (a 12-string, a Weissenborn copy, and something he calls a “mandotar,” in addition to his regular cache) and excellent recording mics. The quality of the results, recorded between 1995 and 1998, startled even him. “I was very surprised,” he says. ”I’d listen to the stuff and say, ‘Damn, this sounds as good as anything I’ve done in the studio.’ I was using a Neumann microphone, and having a Neumann makes your whole party better.”
For road gigs, Gerhard recorded to DAT; closer to home, he used an ADAT. He placed up to three Neumann mics on his guitar and used a room mic or two at venues with good acoustics. Unfortunately, Gerhard remarks dryly, many of the audience tracks were unusable. “In the winter, all of New England is hacking and coughing,” he says. “Never do a live record in the winter; everybody’s having some kind of respiratory ailment.” At each show, Gerhard’s main concern was the audience’s sound experience; his own DAT tapes came second. “I wasn’t too worried about how good it would sound,” he says. “The concept of this project was to capture a gnarly-sounding bootleg and to record as many shows as I could so I had the best chance of getting something usable.” The left DAT channel took the Neumann, and the right channel got everything else–guitar pickups, internal electronics, reverb, and vocals. On stage, Gerhard plugged into a small Mackie mixer and sent a stereo mix to the house engineer, leaving his DAT signal untouched by the house EQ.
Once the tracks were assembled, Gerhard did very little editing. He used some reverb from his Ensoniq Paris mixer and from a Lexicon PCM-90, “mostly to tweak things when I wasn’t getting a good room sound, like on the pickups. I would use the reverb to help re-create what the Neumanns heard.” A good mastering job, he says, was key to smoothing out the natural highs and lows that result from different venue conditions.
If he had it to do over again, Gerhard says he’d like to record with more track capabilities, although he admits that using a two-track DAT had its benefits. “It was cool using the DAT because it forced me to make decisions earlier in the process,” he explains. “Either it’s workable or it sucks. When you have a whole lot of tracks, you can go try it lots of ways and it takes a lot longer before you can say, ‘OK, I’ve tried everything and I’ve confirmed that it really, truly sucks.’ Or it’s really truly good.”
That’s a Wrap
As all of these fine musicians have pointed out, performance is everything whether you’re in the studio or on stage. As Martin Simpson mentioned, getting a good take involves some very complex chemistry, and the fact that you have only limited control over it is both frustrating and exciting. You can practice
your butt off, put on a good show, and do your best to set an audience at ease; you can use a good sound system, and you can play in rooms that you love. But in the final hour, what matters most is letting go–one of the hardest things to do when you know the tape is rolling for posterity. When our interviewees opted for multiple recording nights, they were no fools; they knew it increased their shot at that inexpressible magic. They were all going after the Holy Grail of live recordings, something that Chris Smither describes as “one of those nights where you cannot go wrong. You’re in a zone, and you’re hitting homers every time the ball comes across the plate. When you’re doing a live album, you hope and pray that the night you’re recording will be one of those nights.”