Joe Perry, longtime and legendary guitar-slinger with Aerosmith, helped MUSICIAN kick off its March '99 special issue on Live Recording with an illuminating Frontman interview. We asked him to focus on finding advice for players on how to cut a killer live tape, and he delivered. Here, as a complement to his comments in the magazine, are further reflections on live recording, presented as a Website Exclusive.
Do you tape every show?
We have been for the past two tours, for our own reference. With all the technology that's come along, it's been really easy to record like that. It used to be you'd have to bring out a mobile truck and the whole thing; now, with the DA-88s and the ADATs, it can all be packed into a couple of road boxes and trucked around. It's made it real easy and cost-effective to record every night.
Was there anything different about cutting the recent live tracks, as compared with the earlier live tracks, when recording live wasn't so routine?
There might have been a little more pressure in the early days, because you knew there was tape rollin'. And there was the money part of it: You're paying for that truck out there, though it's never been at the top of our list for anything-fortunately or unfortunately, it's always taken second place-it's always in the back of your mind. There's the "red light blues" thing when you're recording. But now, if you're recording every night, you can't be sitting there going, "Wow, this is going down for posterity." It's another gig. So as far as the actual recording of the record, there was no added pressure or any of that stuff.
The only problem was, when we got the first batch of tapes in from the "Get a Grip" tour, it sounded a little harsh. So the next time around we brought some better mic pres, and the stuff was actually sounding better as it went on tape, coming off the amps. The other mistake we made was that we didn't have enough audience mics up, so Jack [Douglas] had to fiddle with that stuff. When Jack got involved, about halfway through the "Nine Lives" tour, we added another tape machine, and we got some different mic pres out there, and we went into it a little more seriously, because he knew what he was going to need when he went into the studio.
The new album was cut in stadiums. Do those gigs lack a certain energy that you might get in a smaller venue?
Well, again, the recording is a secondary thing. We're talking about live shows, and live shows are live shows. There's an element of intimacy in the smaller places, but a lot of the shows that are on the record are from European stadiums and South America, and yeah, the sound isn't as condensed. Sometimes it's even louder onstage in those places, although that's not what you perceive, and that all affects how you play. I noticed that as soon as we went indoors this fall, everything got tighter, just from playing the sheds and arenas. It's a lot more controllable; it just sounds better to me. When I go out there, I try and get as much of a rush out of hearing the band play live as I hope the audience does. I love it when the sound is great and the mix is great; I lose myself in it. I just find it's a lot better in either a smaller place or an indoor arena.
Are you using in-ear monitors now?
Everybody does except for me.
I tried them a while ago, and I just didn't like them. I really like to be able to hear my amp, you know? I think it was "Get a Grip" or even the tour before that, when I had all my amps under the stage in a road box, and a lot of the sound was coming up through the monitors; I didn't like that at all. I found that a lot of the reason I was having to play so loud was to get above the drums, to get the volume up, so one of the things that's made it bearable for me onstage is that Joey's got Plexiglas around his drums now; it's just enough to keep the sound level down so it blends in and I can turn him up in the monitors a little bit. So now I get a really good balance, because everybody's playing through amps onstage. Everybody's got a couple of hundred watts of amplification. It sounds really good. It's just on the threshold; if we were playing any louder I'd have to wear plugs, but we're at the point where I don't think I'm doing any damage and it just sounds great. Plus I can hear the house, I can hear the kids yelling, I can hear anything that's going on onstage. It's a little frustrating because the other guys have these plugs in; you say something to 'em, and they can't hear you. Plus I don't like all those wires hangin' off of me.
Do the size of the stage and kinds of gestures you have to make in a stadium gig get in the way of the kind of playing that makes you feel good about working in smaller venues?
Yeah. . . . You want to fill up the stage when you're in a big place. When we played on the Dome Tour in Japan, it was a good hike from one wing to the other. It would take me twenty seconds to run across that stage. Those places were like forty or fifty thousand people indoors, so you gotta get out there and work the stage. The sound is never as good in that kind of a situation as you find when you're anchored down in a small place. One of our most fun gigs was in our club, which seats a couple of hundred people: You can't run around, because you've got a postage-stamp-sized stage, so you have to stand in front of your amp and you make it rock.
When you started taping your shows, did you pay some extra attention to the quality of your sound that you didn't put into your live shows before then?
Not really. I don't think Joey even changed his cymbal size or anything. Now, with everything from the microphones up, there was some fine-tuning, so we're always fooling with the sound. I've been using some fabulous Audio-Technica mics, and they just gave us some tube mics, which I'm also using. We're always looking for better ways to get what's coming out of the speakers into the house, but it's not like we changed anything for the album.
These are the mics on your amps?
What are you using for vocal mics?
I'm using an Audio-Technica; I forget the model number. I'm not sure what Steven's using; I don't know if they have one that adapts to wireless. If they don't have one now, I'm sure they're gonna have one soon. Of all the new mics I've tried, the Audio-Technica carries the day.
How different is the intensity level on live recordings versus what you do in the studio?
It gets more intense [live]. It's been a long time since we've recorded a song in the studio that we've played to death. Everybody's first and second record is kind of like that. Then you grow into playing songs for the first time in the studio and move on from there. That same thing happens now; you develop a song to the point where you can record it, and then it gets out on the road and becomes something that breathes and lives, and you find the pocket. Sometimes you don't really find out what a song is about until you've been out on the road for a while. It's funny which ones end up in the bin, and which ones end up sticking to the set. But there's definitely more of an intensity when you start bringing it on the road.
What is Aerosmith's philosophy about editing live tapes?
There are no overdubs on our album. No overdubs, no editing. It's just live. Sometimes I hear some places on the tape where I played pretty bad; I know I've played it better on other nights. But the overall feel and everybody's performance as a band is pretty intense. We want it to be a live record; I didn't want to hear about redoing guitars or anything.
So a live album is a document of something that happened, as opposed to a finished work in the sense of studio albums.
Right. It's definitely a glimpse into the live show. I know there's been a tendency over the years to fix stuff up. I guess that's fine, if that's what you're going for. But we wanted this to be a live record.
Do you play different instruments live and in the studio?
I probably lean more toward Les Pauls live. I use them a lot in the studio too, but I'll tend to use different guitars as well. Different tracks call for different sounds. In a studio situation we may have four or five guitar tracks . . . not fighting each other, but trying to live together in the same sonic apartment. You have to be careful about what frequencies you're eating up. You can't lay down six tracks of a Les Paul through a Marshall and expect it to hang together with any kind of dynamics, so you have to adjust that a little bit. Sometimes it means you don't put six tracks down; sometimes it means you use a Les Paul with a Strat. That's where the skill of the engineer, and the producer, and the band come together.
How can a beginning band make sure that stage fright doesn't get in the way of a killer performance on their first live recording?
The best thing you can do is to not think about the tape rolling. Just give it to your audience; that's what's gonna come across. If you're trying to fire up your audience, that's what you want to capture on tape.
You might also want to learn from Aerosmith's experience about making sure audience noise is in there.
That was something we definitely lacked. Jack had to do some tweaking; I'm not sure how he did it, but he dug down and isolated some stuff from the drum mics, things like that, to get more audience in there. So if you want that live energy, you've got to have enough microphones picking up the house. If it's going onto a separate track, you can always adjust it. Plus you get the ambient sound of the band.
What are your favorite live albums?
I'd say "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!" Obviously, "Live at Leeds." There are the Hendrix recordings at the Monterey Pop Festival; they're really good. Also Fleetwood Mac at the Boston Tea Party. There've been various incarnations of that as a bootleg; it's come out in England, and I don't even know if it's available here. I've heard that they're putting out a box set with all the shows from there. But I've been a fan for so many years, and people hand me these things, and even though I know some of them are bootlegs, that's still one of my favorites. I spent a lot of time at the Tea Party when I was going to shows as a kid, and I saw them there. They probably influenced my idea of what makes for a great live band, more than anybody else. Them and the Who and Ten Years After were bands I would see every time they came to town. Those recordings were really a window into what a good live band is.