And they’re off!

I just got back from FedEx / Kinko’s where I picked up the final proofs for the trio CD and shipped it all off to National Tape and Disc: CD-R master, CD of PhotoShop art files, proofs, intellectual property rights form (declaring we’re not using NTDC for bootlegging), and the first payment, all traveling together in a bubble mailer, nice and cozy.

It should arrive in Nashville in three days, and come back in another three and a half weeks.


Yesterday I got the final approval from Jerry and Craig, with one revision to the booklet. I did that revision and took it to Kinko’s to order a new proof, and then went down to Wilburland to get some Taiyo Yuden CD-Rs and show Matt our work. After listening to bits of two tracks, he said it sounds good, better than it ought to for a home recording. Gratifying to get approval from a real engineer.

I hadn’t listened to the CD since last Wednesday when I sent it off to the guys for their approval. Too much “in it,” I was afraid that if I kept listening to it I’d keep hearing things I would want to try to change.

When I got home and burned the tracks onto the new CD-R, though, I had to listen to it to make sure it burned properly. About half-way through I started getting nervous and thinking there might still be things I needed to fix. Even though I know that I’m a high-anxiety type and overly sensitive, it was hard not to take this nervousness seriously.

I listened again a few hours later, and decided it’s fine.

It’s fine!

Not perfect, but if we waited for perfection we’d never get anything done. Especially if, like me, your standard of perfection gets more and more absolute the more you work at something. I think imperfections, imprecisions, inaccuracies, and so on, are a given in this earthly life. It’s a fallen world, and we’re fallen people. It’s still important to work on narrowing margins of error, but I think they will always exist this side of heaven.

In which I discover EQ

The trio CD continues to near completion… still.

We are done recording, and I’ve got decent mockups of the graphic design, so all that remains is finishing.

Thursday evening we got together to listen to the CD. We agreed that the panning and balance among instruments seemed fine, and the volume from one piece to another seemed consistent. But in general, the guitar is just a little too bassy or muddy on some tunes, and the fiddle just a little too sharp.

I had already experimented a little with the EQ plugin to do a bass cut on the guitar and a high cut on the fiddle. It’s hard, with little computer speakers, to tell how much difference it’s making. Apparently not enough yet.

Yesterday I revisited the first four tracks and tried again. It’s certainly a learning experience.

One very useful thing I discovered is that you can have the plugin open during playback, adjusting and instantly hearing the change, even turning it on and off to compare to the original.

I’ve also been experimenting with what to adjust, too. I started with presets for bass cut and high cut, and have been modifiying the gain and bandwidth knobs — I only have a vague idea of how they work, but by tweaking one or the other or both I seem to be able to get the sound I want — at least on the computer speakers. We’ll see what happens with the CD player.

A very surprising discovery was that on one piece where the guitar starts with fingerpicking, the guitar track has a lot of bleed from the fiddle and dulcimer — perhaps that mic’s gain had been boosted to get a strong enough signal compared to flatpicking. So I added the fiddle EQ adjustment to that track as well, and I also understand now why everything sounded balanced even though the guitar track’s meter runs higher than the other two.

Two other discoveries, not EQ-related:

1. “Spootiskerry” is not a traditional tune. It was written by the late Ian Burns, copyright 1980. Thanks to Susan Songer (of The Portland Collection), I was able to get in touch with his daughter to get permission to include the tune. Whew!

2. For medium runs (500-1000 CDs), it’s only pennies more expensive to have them professionally replicated (manufactured), versus professional duplication (CD-Rs; actually more expensive than replication for this many CDs), having imprinted blank CD-Rs made and the graphics professionally printed, or doing everything ourselves.

Replication costs more up front, and you have to commit to a pretty high number of CDs, but the quality and appearance is better, it’s less time and work on our part, they’ll be shrinkwrapped, and even if we only sell 100, we’ll at least break even.

So — we’ve decided to have the CDs done by the same company (National Tape and Disc) that pressed my two solo albums.

Those pesky eighth notes

Last night The Hanshaw Trio recorded our guitarist Craig’s tune “Cherry on Top.”

This is the tune with a syncopated A part — a lot of the accents fall one eighth note before the downbeat, so that it’s easy to lose the feel for those downbeats, tempting to shift them ahead a bit and lose the syncopation. Fiddler Jerry and I both struggled with this, but in different places. Then the transition to the unsyncopated B part always throws me off a little, and it’s hard to get the expression and timing of my part just right. That and my hand hurt last night.

Still, it’s been a fruitful and rewarding experience to put a trio version of this tune together.

A few times at past sessions, while waiting for something to save, Craig would start playing the tune and Jerry would improvise some long sustained notes over it. I may have tried a few things myself, although I think I hummed them rather than trying to play them.

With some difficulties — because of that syncopation and because I’m not really a guitar player — I managed to transcribe something like the tune, and draft some preliminary fiddle and dulcimer parts.

We talked through some arrangement ideas, put them on paper, and played with them last night, adjusting and refining and adding as we went.

Guitar starts alone. Fiddle comes in with a long sustained note and a little run. At the B part, dulcimer replaces fiddle. Second time through, it’s everybody. Third time on the A part, the dulcimer part gets fuller, mixing melody and response parts. Then we cut to an alternative B part — at first it was going to be just guitar, but we added some dulcimer bass stuff — then a single strum, a pause, and back with a bang to the regular B part with everybody, closing with a slight fiddle slide into the final note.

It’s one thing to decide how to do something, and another to actually do it.

After trying a few times to run the whole thing, we decided to do three takes without that pesky fiddle run. Then on a new track, we worked on putting those runs back in with the right timing. I think I did something wrong on each take, but maybe with editing we can put something smooth together.


Slooooooowing down

I have one more “gig” — playing the offertory in church this Sunday (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with Camille on flute) — and one more recording session on Tuesday (Craig’s tune “Cherry on Top”), and then that’s it for this holiday season.

It’s been a nice full one this year, starting with the weekend craft show at Mom’s Place in mid-November. The busiest time was the weekend before last, when the trio had two gigs in Corning (about nine hours including travel and a dinner break) and then a gig near Albany the next day (about twelve hours for that one, yikes!).

Though I’m a little sad to be almost done with playing for a while, it’ll be good to have a break.

For one thing, we can get back to the trio CD. I’ve burned copies of what we’ve got so far for me and the guys to listen to and evaluate. I think I need to revisit some of the mixes — many seem to need more volume on the guitar and some need more dulcimer, too. I’ve also started thinking about possible track orderings, and I’ve been experimenting with traycard designs. At some point I’ll have to think about how to actually make the booklets and traycards — maybe buy software and paper myself, or maybe see about having them done at a local printer.

By the way, here’s a track list, in alphabetical order for now:

  • Banish Misfortune / Swallowtail Jig
  • Carolan’s Welcome
  • Cherry on Top (© Craig Higgins)
  • Down the Brae / Ballydesmond Polkas #2-3
  • Dubuque / Spootiskerry
  • Hills of Lorne
  • Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze (both © Marcy Prochaska)
  • O’Keefe’s Slide / Derrane’s / Trip to Durrow
  • Out on the Ocean / Morrison’s Jig / Kesh Jig
  • Star of Munster / Old Copperplate
  • Staten Island / Julia Delany
  • Winter East and Kensington (© Marcy Prochaska)

For another, it’ll give my hands a rest. I’ve been dealing with an inflamed tendon in my left hand since October or so — tuning and playing the dulcimer aggravate it a little. I’m not convinced the dulcimer caused the problem, but there might be ways I can adjust my methods to be easier on my hands.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the nail side of the tip of my thumb sometimes hurts while I’m playing; when I demonstrated the dulcimer for my physical therapist, she noticed that I tend to overarch the left thumb. I think this has to do with the finger-flick technique I use to compensate for being right-handed. By flicking the back of the hammer grip with my ring finger, I can get a clearer, stronger sound. Having a big arch in my thumb seems to help with that technique, perhaps by providing a nice shape for the hammer grip to rotate around, which seems to also help me keep the hammer from wobbling sideways. Perhaps there’s a way I can be more aware of that thumb — maybe I can keep it arched but not overarched, and keep it relaxed and not rigid.

Or perhaps I can train my left hand to do what my right hand is doing.

For want of a nail

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of the horse, the rider was lost,
For want of the rider, the battle was lost,
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!

We have recorded everything except one piece, an original tune called “Cherry on Top,” composed by our guitarist on the day his daughter was born.

It’s something he’s often noodled around on during down time; the more we heard it the more we liked it, and decided we should work up a trio version “sometime.” Now that everything else is done, “sometime” has arrived.

I’m not that great at improvising on something like this by ear, so my first task was to try to transcribe it.

I pieced something together by listening first to the bass notes, then to the highest pitches, then to whatever I could pick out in the middle. Sometimes I could catch the rhythm but not the notes, and sometimes vice versa. Most frustrating, there seemed to be odd moments where there was an extra beat or a missing one.

Nevertheless, with transcription in hand I wrote out some tentative dulcimer and fiddle parts and sent PDFs and MIDI files to the guys.

When we tried it last night, we figured out what was going on with those frustrating rhythmic oddities; many of the notes that I thought were falling on the downbeat actually occurred an eighth note before the downbeat.


Even watching Craig tap his foot didn’t help me catch the right rhythm — once you’ve got an idea of a tune in your head, it’s hard to shift the feel of it by something so small as an eighth note (or a horseshoe nail).

Today, with the help of a new recording with a metronome, the freeware Audacity which lets one slow down a tune without changing its pitch, and a drumbeat ‘metronome’ to my NoteWorthy Composer file, I straightened out my transcription — and now I can feel the tune the right way, and those rhythmic anomalies have disappeared.


Otherwise, last night’s session included recording additional tracks for Hills of Lorne and for Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze, after a late start — soon after we arrived one of Craig’s kids got hurt and it understandably took them a while to determine it was not a broken arm; good thing it’s not!

For Hills of Lorne, we added mandolin picking the melody, mandolin playing some long tremolo notes, fiddle playing a sustained harmony part, and recorder playing the same part. I wanted to play the part on the whistle instead, but I’m still new at the whistle so it didn’t sound as good, plus my whistle is a cheapie with the mouthpiece glued on, so it’s not tunable.

I’m not sure if we’ll use all four additional tracks or not. That will require a lot of listening to a lot of combinations.

For Irksome, I just added some dulcimer bass notes.

There’s plenty of work yet to be done: get some photos taken, do the graphic design (with the new old Photoshop, version 6.0, that I just won on Ebay), write the liner notes, and record Cherry on Top — but it feels good to be almost done with this CD.

Hills of Lorne

The Hanshaw Trio met to record this past Tuesday; we worked on Hills of Lorne and Midnight Maze, then had a little time to run through some Christmas music.

Hills of Lorne is a slow piece. We start with just fiddle, then add guitar on melody and dulcimer on harmony for the second time through, then all three playing melody the third time.

For the second time through, I decided to use hand-damping.

On a dulcimer, every note keeps ringing after you strike it. Different builders and designs have different sustain lengths, but sustain is part of that characteristic dulcimer sound. Sometimes, however, a player might want to reduce or stop the sustain. Options include mechanical dampers mounted on the sides and operated by a foot pedal, threading yarn or other material through the strings, or hand-damping.

There are different ways to hand-damp. Some hammers, especially in other countries, are designed to let the player easily turn their palms to the strings without the hammer getting in the way; it’s a bit trickier with typical American hammers.

I based my method on some instruments in the Indonesian gamelan, which require the player to strike the current note with one hand while the other hand damps the previous note. It’s an interesting challenge to think simultaneously about the current note, the next note, and the previous note.

For the third time through, on one take I played normally, so that there is a contrast not only of melody versus harmony, but sustained versus damped. After that take I thought I ought to damp this part, too, which I did for the other takes. Now, though, I like the contrast better.

We’ll also add mandolin to this time through, and perhaps something else — maybe some kind of drones or descant.

I’ve spent a lot of time already on engineering Hills of Lorne. We had four takes, and I’m using three of them. Take 1 for the fiddle solo, takes 0 and 2 for the rest.

The third time through is the trickiest, because there’s only that one take with un-damped dulcimer, and the fiddle on that take is not as nice as it is on the other. But I’m almost satisfied with the way I’m editing the takes together.

I haven’t even listened to the Midnight Maze takes yet.

October Snow

Last night The Hanshaw Trio got together for another recording and practice session. It’s been raining here for weeks, but by the end of our session there was snow on our cars.

The first snow came in October two years ago, too, and I ended up writing a tune called “October Snow” in response — thinking about the childlike excitement for the first snow, mixed with the dread of long months of darkness and cold. I don’t play the tune exactly like I first wrote it down, but the MIDI at least gives an idea of it.

Anyway, unaware of the coming white stuff, we began our session by revisiting Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze, a pair of original jigs. I wasn’t happy with our previous arrangement of this medley, so I’d made some changes.

First of all, we now start with a guitar intro, then dulcimer playing the A part twice, then fiddle playing the A part twice, then both of us playing the B part. Before, we’d also tried doing four A parts the third time through the tune, but I think it makes for a better transition to Midnight Maze if we just do the A part twice.

I had also been trying to play bass notes along with the melody. It’s hard to do that both accurately and expressively, and the bass notes tended to be too loud. So this time I left them out, and perhaps I’ll add them back in later by recording them on a separate track. That way I can also control their volume better relative to the melody.

For Midnight Maze, I ended up writing new fiddle parts to add syncopation and interest, and also to hopefully avoid the awkward bowing and fingering the melody involved. Jerry hasn’t had time to learn these parts yet, so he’ll add them in later, too.

I have three full takes and two partials (just Irksome Girl) to listen to; I hope they’re good enough to use this time — we’re all a little anxious to finish this project.

After recording, we started reviewing Christmas repertoire. Last year we developed trio arrangements of nine pieces from What Child Is This?. Two of them, Fallen and Easter Thursday, we play all year. Last night reviewed the others: The Lord at first did Adam make, Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Planxty Irwin, O Come O Come Emmanuel, He Shall Feed His Flock, Three Ships Medley, Noel Nouvelet / Wexford Carol, and Hewlett / Silent Night.

New arrangement MIDI

Yesterday I worked up a new arrangement of the Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze medley.

Jerry had told me that the melody of Midnight Maze, particularly in the B part, involved some very awkward bowing and fingering, and I also thought it might be more interesting to make his part different from mine — in keeping with the theme of the dream world and its weird juxtapositions.

I didn’t want to take the time to really write the guitar part — who wants to notate strumming!? — so I only roughed it in for Irksome Girl in order to provide the intro and a sense of the chord structure and syncopation. The guitar will also play during Midnight Maze, I just didn’t bother writing it out.

Keep in mind that MIDI is a digital format — these sounds are just attempting to resemble a guitar, dulcimer, and fiddle.

Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze MIDI

If the shoe fits

Last night we worked on Irksome Girl / Midnight Maze, two original jigs.

The title Irksome Girl comes from one of those band name generator websites. We decided it didn’t work for us as a band name — it doesn’t exactly fit our “kind of Celtic” style. But it does fit for a description of our band’s sole female.

Guess who’s the most picky, the most demanding, the most likely to be in a foul mood, the most sensitive, the most whiny, most likely to send too many, too-long emails? Fortunately we all (seem to) tolerate my rough edges and still manage to get along quite well and enjoy one another.

Anyway, since we weren’t going to use the title for a band name, I figured I’d at least use it for a tune title.

Irksome Girl is in Am for the A part. There’s some walking bass stuff, but essentially the A part centers on that Am chord. In the B part, the key changes to A mixolydian, and the chord progression rocks back and forth between A and G or Em.

We start with four A parts, first just dulcimer and guitar, then adding in the fiddle. The third time through, we do a sort of re-intro, with fiddle and guitar doing two A parts and then me building in a rhythmic bass thing for two more A parts, leading nicely into the B part.

Midnight Maze might be the first tune I wrote here in Ithaca. There was a community-wide reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein going on, which I thought was a cool thing to do. The introduction to the book talks about its origins in a contest, and how Mary’s idea came to her in a dream.

I think dreams are fascinating, with their weird yet familiar landscapes, people, and events, juxtaposed and jumbled together. Midnight Maze nods to Mary Shelley and to the world of dreams.

It’s in Bm, and I tried to write a melody full of jumps and turns and shifts. We start with a single guitar chord and a long low B fiddle drone while dulcimer plays melody, then the guitar returns in the second A part and the fiddle joins the melody in the B part. Second time through I drop an octave, and the last time we repeat the second-to-last phrase to make a kind of tag ending.

It’s a difficult medley, especially for me. Playing the bare melodies is a bit awkward, and I’m also trying to throw in some walking bass notes in Irksome. We also had to decide between guitar strumming all the time, or fingerpicking some parts and strumming others. We like the fingerpicking, but there’s not enough time to grab a pick for strumming, so if he fingerpicks, he’s got to strum without a pick.

I’ve got seven full takes plus two partials; I hope there’s enough good material in them to edit together a good version of the medley. If not, it’s still useful development and practice.

Mixing and editing

Yesterday I started mixing and editing “Down the Brae / Ballydesmond Polka #2 / Ballydesmond Polka #3,” the most recent track for The Hanshaw Trio‘s home recording, and today I just finished mixing it down.

Mixing involves things like panning, effects, and volume. I set the panning so that the fiddle is 33% to the right, the dulcimer 33% left, and the guitar is centered. Then I add just a hair of reverb to the fiddle.

The interesting part is drawing the volume envelopes. If I had a mixing board, I would move the faders manually; newer boards can record this movement so that mixing can be automated. With the software we’re using, Cakewalk’s Guitar Tracks, I could do the same thing, using the mouse to move the faders and having the program record that movement. However, I find it easier to use their envelope method instead.

You start by creating an envelope, which shows up as a straight line on the track, with a dot (node) at each end. You can then add more nodes and define the movement from one to the next (jump, linear, fast curve, slow curve).

My first task is to mix large chunks, like sections where dulcimer has the melody or sections where the guitar is fingerpicking. Then I may have to make smaller, shorter adjustments like when a particular guitar strum goes over 0 dB (which creates distorted noise), or where the fiddler stepped away from his mic a bit and therefore needs a boost. I think some folks use a tool called compression to deal with the guitar spike problem, but it’s easy enough just to add a dipping node at each spike, so I haven’t explored the compression option.

This particular medley involved editing the best “Down the Brae” take with the best “Ballydesmonds” take. We started the “Ballydesmonds” takes with the last two measures of “Down the Brae”; the overlap gives me more elbow room to find the best editing point. I ended up switching dulcimer tracks at the point where I hit a bass note before starting a set of arpeggios leading into the “Ballydesmonds.” I switched the fiddle and guitar over a bit later after their last “Down the Brae” notes had faded out.

Today’s work involved finishing mixing the individual tracks, and then mixing down the three tracks into a single stereo track, which will later be converted into a WAV file ready to burn onto a CD.

I like this medley. It has a lot of energy and momentum. And I’m especially impressed with the guitar work on this one. Kudos to Craig.