The effects and limits of volume

doorSo tired…

Thinking about graphic design, editing and mixing, and whether or not I liked my arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” kept me up late last night, and then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. “Above thy deep and dreamless streets…” — in my case dreamless because sleepless! Not the best way to prepare for a week in the studio. However, there is good news… (No, I didn’t switch to Geico.)

…Today we finished recording! Woo-hoo! I added one dulcimer note to “Gesù Bambino” (I’m so glad I only had to tune that one note and a few neighbors). Then I redid one recorder section of the same tune so that the breathing would be the same as if one were singing the words, and I also did the recorder parts for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I decided I liked my arrangement just fine.

Once the recording was done, we started on the mixing. First, we tackled “He Shall Feed His Flock,” after loading the tracks Henry Smith sent from his Outback Studio in Virginia, where Tom Abernethy recorded a guitar part for me. Then we finished editing “Hewlett / Silent Night,” and mixed that and “Easter Thursday / O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” the two Hanshaw Trio medleys. Finally, we worked on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Christmas Star.”

So what is mixing, anyway? I’m not an engineer… but as far as I understand it, mixing is about setting relative volume levels among multiple instruments or parts, panning different parts so they sound like they come from the left, right, or center, adjusting equalizers so things have the proper amounts of high, mid, and low sounds, and adding effects like reverb, which provides a little echo as if one were playing in a cathedral or something.

As a general mixing philosophy, I prefer to leave sounds pretty natural. I’d like to control the sound through performance as much as possible — i.e. playing loudly or quietly, using different kinds of hammers, etc. Sometimes, though, judicious use of equalization or effects can smooth or clarify a sound, or occasionally adjust a performance choice that perhaps wasn’t what I wanted after all.

I especially like to use a little reverb on the recorder, psaltery, and fiddle, because I love the sense of soaring or floating it provides. Matt has also used just a hint of reverb to add a sense of space to the dulcimer.

One of the challenges I face in the mixing process is deciding whether I want a different volume level or an effect or equalization adjustment. It’s partly a communication challenge. If I express dissatisfaction with the character of the sound, Matt expects to deal with it by equalization rather than by volume. He knows that changing the volume doesn’t change the character of the sound.

Sometimes, though, changing the volume changes the way I perceive the sound. For example, when I recorded the first psaltery parts for this album, I thought they sounded too scratchy and wobbly. But when we lowered their volume, I discovered that the sound only bothered me when it was too loud compared to the other parts.

I had to deal with this challenge with the first melody line of “Twinkle” and some of the other things we mixed today. Some of them we adjusted with volume, some with equalization; in the case of “Twinkle,” I ended up asking for a lower volume and an equalization adjustment.

This morning I was thinking about nearing the end of this project. As glad as I am to be almost done, I’ll miss the studio work. I enjoy recording (in spite of the stresses), and I find the engineering part fascinating. It’s cool to watch Matt position mics, splice different takes together, and set up all the mixing adjustments. The board at Wilburland is even automated, so that once we decide what should happen to what tracks and when, we can sit back and listen while the board moves all the sliders and such. That’s just cool.