Drawing the line

millikens2First, the details.

Stuart and Robin and I met at our friend Jolie’s house (close to the studio) to practice with the recording of “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” that I made yesterday. Then we headed to the studio, practiced some more, worked on adjusting our tuning, and recorded the parts. After the Millikens left, I finished the rest of “What Child is This? / Menuet.”

What to do next was a difficult decision.

If I started a new piece and didn’t finish it, chances are it would be difficult or impossible to have the tuning so exactly the same that the later sections would match. I almost went home early, but then decided to risk it. Amazingly enough, we managed to record all the dulcimer parts for “Fallen”: the melody throughout, a drone in the beginning, and some arpeggio sections. This means I have a CD to practice with for the guitar and bowed psaltery parts, which I’ll try to record next week along with another medley, “Noel Nouvelet / Wexford Carol.”

Working at Wilburland is changing my approach to recording.

At Outback Studio, where I recorded No Loose Threads, our approach was to record a section in one pair of tracks, allowing the last notes to fade out naturally. Then with headphones on, I’d listen to this section and then record the next section in a second pair of tracks. The rest of the piece would go the same way, switching back and forth between the two pairs of tracks. If I made a mistake in one section, I could do another take of just that section.

I assumed I would use the same approach here, but Wilburland’s computer system makes it easy to splice together smaller bits of different takes. One way to respond to this possibility is to record lots of small bits, and that has been my first temptation. Instead, I think it would be better to record longer sections, which I tried today. Playing a longer section is more natural, which makes it easier to be more musical and expressive. Then if one take has a mistake near the beginning and another has a problem in the middle, we can use the best part of each one.

The whole process of recording brings up the question of where to draw the line between natural and artificial.

There are folks who think the best kind of recording is live; some require an audience while others don’t mind a live studio recording. Live captures energy and flow, as well as synergy with ensemble members (and with the audience if one is present). On the other hand, mistakes that seem unnoticeable in a concert setting (they go by so quickly) can become increasingly distracting or annoying each time one listens to them on a CD.

There are all sorts of tricks to minimize mistakes. The Outback Studio approach, for example, helped by minimizing stress: if I only have to play one section without messing up, that is psychologically less threatening than having to play the entire piece flawlessly. The kind of splicing we’re doing at Wilburland is a little more artificial, but I’m still actually playing each of the parts.

Where I draw the line is at looping and recycling tracks. Looping is where you’d record maybe a short rhythm section and repeat the recording instead of actually playing the section over and over. Looping obviously gives consistent results, but to me it’s too artificial; I want to play the section every time.

For example, I have a hard time playing the low D drone consistently in “Fallen”; to even it out a little, I was willing to record it twice (as if there were two dulcimer players droning simultaneously) and to play with the equalizers some, but I didn’t want to just loop a nice section of it.

Recycling is similar; maybe you’d record the chorus of a song and instead of singing it again after the next verse, you repeat the first recording. I’d rather not do that for the same reason I’d rather not do looping.

(By the way, right now I’m listening to what I recorded today. I noticed that in some places, it sounds like the music has shifted to the left, and then it shifts back. And I realized that those places are where I move from playing on the right side of the dulcimer to the left side. I just think that’s interesting. Oh, and have I mentioned how exciting this is? I love to play the dulcimer, and of course I can hear it when I’m playing, but it’s entirely different to hear it when I’m NOT playing; I can hear it more when I’m not busy attending to where my hands are going next.)

A final thought.

As I look over what I’ve written so far, I’m thinking about audience interaction. I remember hearing a quotation about how some musician played for an audience of one, no matter what size the audience actually was. (Anyone know the musician or the source of the quotation?)

I like that idea; I think music is at its best when it’s intimate, up close and personal. I’ve been trying to take that approach in the studio. In one sense I’m playing for myself and Matt, the engineer, whose observations I already value pretty highly. In another sense — and I don’t mean this to sound particularly holy or anything — I’m playing for me and God: me and the one who knows and loves me better than anyone else, me and the one who knows and loves music better than anyone else; an intimate little tete-a-tete.

I hope other folks will enjoy listening in.

2 thoughts on “Drawing the line

  1. I’ve enjoyed your other CD and will look forward to the new one. Thanks for caring so much about your craft and trying to be as natural as possible. I tried recording a tape of myself on the piano and organ once upon a time and every mistake bugs me no end so that I can’t play it for anyone, which is really sad. I think you have a nice compromise.

  2. D., thanks for visiting — glad you’ve enjoyed No Loose Threads. The good news is that there are not one but two new CDs — I finished the one referenced in this post in 2004, and my alas-no-more trio recorded one in 2006. Check them out on my recordings page: https://mp-dulcimer.com/recordings/

    If you can hook up your microphones or inputs into your computer, try the freeware Audacity program — you can record, edit, and mix multiple tracks.

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