(Somewhat more) advanced engineering

Last night we worked on Down the Brae / Ballydesmond Polka #2 / Ballydesmond Polka #3.

All three tunes are in Am; Down the Brae is a march, which has a similar feel to the Irish polkas. The chord changes get a bit closer together as we go from tune to tune, and each tune also gets a little more note-y, and there’s some cool F chord substitutions in the last tune, so there’s an increase in energy just from stringing these three together in this order.

We spent a good bit of the evening finalizing our arrangement decisions; our arrangement is fairly busy, but we think the similarities of the tunes help keep it grounded.

Down the Brae starts with an intro of guitar fingerpicking, then a fiddle and dulcimer call and response, then both together — just twice through the tune. A set of fast dulcimer arpeggios leads into fiddle and guitar playing the A part of Ballydesmond #2, then guitar switches to backup and dulcimer joins the melody for the B part, and on into the second time through. Dulcimer and guitar start Ballydesmond #3 while fiddle plays some bass notes (how cool is that, fiddle playing bass!), then he joins the melody on the second A part. The second time through this tune dulcimer plays a harmony part, and we end with a bang.

Because the arrangement is fairly complicated, and because the dulcimer arpeggios and switch from finger-picking to strumming create a natural break, we tried recording Down the Brae and the Ballydesmonds separately. We started the Ballydesmond takes with the last two measures of Down the Brae, to allow for some overlap of sound, particularly the dulcimer’s sustain, and to allow for more elbow room for editing.

Today I hope to choose the best takes of each part and try the edit; I hope it works!

Recording, wedding, festival, crosswalks?

For a few months, a few streets downtown have been closed. Yesterday, on route to church, we found them open. And what marvelous work has been done? No, not repairing the cracks and potholes due to our heavy winters, but fancy new red cement crosswalks with decorative white paint arrows! Oh, thank you, Ithaca!

Last Thursday The Hanshaw Trio met to record again after a haitus of two months. I’m still working on mixing and editing the track, a medley of O’Keefe’s Slide, Derrane’s, and Trip to Durrow. We recorded six takes, and two of them are possibilities for the first two tunes, and three of them for the final tune.

Right now I’m working on edits using take 4 for the first half, edited with take 3, 4, or 5 for the final tune. Yeah, even using take 4 for both parts requires editing, because we missed our entrance for Durrow and just waited for the previous chord to fade out, then took it from there — so I have to edit out that gap.

Yesterday I played for an afternoon wedding. It was lovely — nice weather, a nice setting (we played from a balcony overlooking a yard edged with trees), and a nice mix of Celtic and classical music on harp and hammered dulcimer. We used my new pa, and found out that, as I suspected, better mics (borrowed from one of my trio partners) do work better with it, so now I know what my business’ next purchase will be.

This Thursday I am headed to West Virginia for the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Fest. It’s my favorite dulcimer festival (even though I’ve only been to one other). I was supposed to teach a class on modes, but only one person signed up so we canceled it. The good news is I get to go to a class on percussion techniques that was scheduled at the same time.

Things I’m especially looking forward to are:

  1. Playing my tune “Fallen” in Friday’s open mic, with my friend Rick Davis on psaltery and musician extraordinaire Paul Oorts on guitar. I think Paul is awesome, and I’m so excited that he agreed to accompany us.
  2. Eating at Shepherdstown’s Thai restaurant. Mmmm.
  3. Visiting friends for a few days afterwards — including a couple I haven’t seen since last year, who have a new baby, and some girls from the youth group I used to work with, whom I haven’t seen for two years.

Anyway, I doubt I’ll be blogging again until I get back.

After the market

Wow, two months between sessions. I guess we’re busy folks, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change until January. We have a few gigs in September and October, and then it’s time to review Christmas material and play Christmas gigs. We’ll have to keep trying to fit in some recording sessions between gigs, practice, and other work.

Today we played at the Farmers Market. This is the second year they’ve run a Thursday afternoon / evening market, and it’s still quite small, with maybe ten vendors and twice as many visitors. It was lovely weather, and we had a good time playing together.

We reconvened at Craig’s, and fortunately the dulcimer still seemed sufficiently in tune for recording. Good thing, because I’d remembered to bring my tuner, but forgotten the tuning wrench.

We spent the evening working on the O’Keefe’s Slide / Derrane’s / Trip to Durrow set, and I think we have a few potentially good takes.

Lots of false starts and interrupting mistakes in between. And we discovered that Craig and I have been playing different chords at the end of the B part in Durrow. (How did we not notice that before?)

During one take Craig missed his echo, and we just let the previous notes fade out, then he just started again from the echo (it would be an easy edit) and we carried on.

I got caught in the “don’t laugh” problem, where I’d think how funny it was, but try not to laugh, then think how funny trying not to laugh is, and so on — I came pretty close to losing it. We were all a little punchy today, even at the market; I like how easily we laugh together.

By the way, back in July I’d made a preview CD with all the stuff we’ve got so far — seven tracks — and we think we like it.


Waterfall at A Sort of Notebook has started up her practice pact again. Each week participants make notes in the comments to record how much time they’ve spent practicing their instruments. Besides me (hammered dulcimer), there’s a pianist, an oboist, and a bassist. No other folkies (yet). It’s a little added motivation, and interesting to actually keep track of how much I’m practicing or not practicing (I’d like to average two hours each weekday), and fun to hear what other people are working on.

My practicing is usually organized around gigs or other projects. Right now, the main projects are The Hanshaw Trio‘s home recording, a concert with Pas de Deux, and a wedding with another harpist.

The trio CD is moving so very slowly. We missed two weeks while Craig was on vacation, then we were away, then this week didn’t work… and we have four gigs in September to work around, and then it’s time to review our Christmas material. Personally, I’d just as soon put the project aside until January when there’s really nothing else going on. But we’re going to try to do some more recording after our Farmers Market performance next Thursday afternoon. If I’m still sufficiently in tune after playing outside for a few hours. This is one of those times when I really wish I could tune in twenty minutes like all other dulcimer players, instead of my average of two hours (and that’s assuming I’m at home and calm without a deadline or any other pressure).

Pas de Deux is a duo with harp and flute player Lisa Fenwick. She teaches flute at a local community music and art school, and we’ll be performing in late November, one of three faculty showcase fundraiser concerts. We’re also playing at the Farmers Market this Sunday, which will be a good chance to try out what order to put things in and so on. Our repertoire is a mix of classical things, especially Bach, and Celtic things, especially O’Carolan, with some other things sprinkled in. One thing I’m excited and nervous about is “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I adapted John Rutter’s lovely arrangement for dulcimer, flute, and vocalist, and I’ve been learning how to sing and play at the same time. Most of the range is fine for my voice, but in the higher key (three verses) there’s some really high notes, and in the lower key (one verse) most of it is in the awkward place between my folky chest voice and my choral head voice. You know, it takes a lot of energy to play an instrument and sing at the same time. Especially if you’re trying to do both well.

The wedding is a week from Sunday. Lisa wasn’t available, so I asked Lynn Ray to play with me instead. We met at a community concert last Christmas that featured a number of choirs and soloists and small groups each performing two or three pieces. She sang and played a lovely thing on Celtic harp. For this wedding, we are doing mostly Celtic pieces, mostly O’Carolan, with some classical and Irish and other things thrown in. The mothers and grandmother will be seated to “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar, then the matron of honor and bride will process to Pachelbel’s Canon, but in G instead of D (lovely on harp and dulcimer), and we’ll do another Ungar piece, “The Lovers’ Waltz,” for the recessional.

One click, three clicks

Funny how it gets hot in the summer. And humid.

Our recording session was punctuated by turning the ceiling fan on and off; three clicks to turn it off while recording, one to turn it on again while waiting for the computer to save a good take.

Thank you, Craig, for installing ceiling fans in your house.

It turns out that last week’s work on Banish Misfortune / Swallowtail yielded usable results, so this week we went back to the O’Keefe’s set and the Dubuque set.

This time we improved the transition from Derrane’s into Trip to Durrow. Going straight from the jig to the reel seemed too abrupt, so what we did at first was have Craig flat pick the last two bars of Derrane’s as an echo, then go into Durrow. It still felt a little abrupt, so we added a bar of rest before coming in on Durrow, and the transition flows much better now.

I think these two sets took the whole evening because they’re both difficult for me and for Jerry; for some reason it’s just harder to play some things accurately and expressively than others. I got hung up especially on Derrane’s and Spootiskerry; Jerry on Durrow. We ended up saving five takes of the one set and I think three of the other, so I have a lot of listening to do today to see if any of them will be good.

We talked a bit about that — my work of evaluating — while waiting for the computer to save these eight takes onto the jump drives (yes, it takes two of them to save eight takes; the takes are roughly 70MB each since we have to save them as “bundle” files).

I’m making some progress — albeit slowly — in adopting a “live feel” standard, understanding that recording whole sets in ensemble is necessarily different from laying down individual tracks and sections of tracks. It’s a tough task for me, since I tend to see trees rather than a forest.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program

Once again, things kept us away from recording for the last month.

One of those things was the Chenango gig this past weekend, which involved two hours in the car together. We listened to the mixes that I’ve roughed out so far, and decided that we have at least four, possibly five pieces that are CD-worthy, if I can just get the mix right. For example, the level of reverb (for the fiddle) that sounded good on my computer speakers was overwhelming in the car.

Tonight, we worked on three medleys: redoing Banish Misfortune / Swallowtail Jig, and first attempts on Dubuque / Spootiskerry and O’Keefe’s Slide / Derrane’s / Trip to Durrow.

Dubuque is a fun tune with a syncopated B part; we start with a half-phrase call and response between dulcimer and fiddle for the two A parts, playing together on the B parts, and then the guitar joins in for the second time through. I play chords the last time through, experimenting with a kind of back-up approach inspired in part by Ken Kolodner and Karen Ashbrook, although they might shudder to hear that.

After a run of dulcimer walk-downs in the B parts, dulcimer and guitar play the first time through Spootiskerry. The fiddle plays some floaty sustained notes in the B part, then takes over for the second time through. I get to do some fun arpeggios in the B part where the chords change pretty quickly.

The other set is two jigs followed by a reel. For a change, we have the guitar start this one, playing melody, then the fiddle joins in on the second A part, and dulcimer on the Bs. Dulcimer starts Derrane’s, with just a few well-placed guitar strums. Trip to Durrow’s change to the reel meter, with its fun chord progressons, brings a boost of energy to close the set.

Sometime this week I’ll need to listen to these takes as well as the most recent takes of Out on the Ocean / Morrison’s / Kesh, which hadn’t fit on the jump drive last time. Hopefully, even though we all felt sloppy tonight, some of these takes will be usable. Even if they’re not, there’s really no such thing as a worthless night of practice.

Oh, we might have also decided on an album title, but I’m not telling yet.

5:00am is not a time

Good morning. It’s 5:00 am, a time no one should ever have to be aware of. I have to be up at this time on a Saturday because our trio is playing an 8:30 gig at a coffeehouse two hours away. What was I thinking? (Insert grumbling whiny not awake yet noises here.) And of course, since I knew I had to be up early, my body prepared in advance and woke me up at 3:45. After an hour I gave up on getting back to sleep. Fifteen extra minutes means I can blog a bit.

Yesterday I spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon working on mixing and editing. (Our trio is doing a home recording.) I think I’ve got a good workable mix of Star of Munster / Old Copper Plate, and I think maybe three others might be acceptable. Banish Misfortune / Swallowtail Jig, though, we definitely have to do over.

I tuned in the afternoon, which was going quite well until one of the strings broke. I have a box of extra strings and I think I matched the right gauge. I didn’t do it quite right, though; I only got two windings instead of the more secure three or four. It’s a little scary to replace a dulcimer string, especially a really high one, because they’re so tight; as I bring it slowly up to pitch I’m afraid it’s going to break again. Fortunately, dulcimer strings rarely break. This is the fourth one I’ve broken in five years. Anyway, new strings stretch, which means they go flat quickly, so I’ll have to tune it up again when we get to the gig. I hope it’ll stay close enough for the duration of our performance.

One good thing is that we’re not driving two hours to play forty-five minutes at the coffeehouse and then come home again; we should be able to go play in the gazebo on the village green afterwards, until 11:00 or perhaps even later. (Chance of rain: 30%.)

Well — time for me to get dressed and put my waffles in the toaster oven. Made them yesterday and stuck them in the freezer; a double batch of cinnamon walnut waffles, with half regular and half whole wheat flour. Butter and honey; mmmm.

Two Firsts

This morning, I attended the debut screening of the film I scored. This afternoon, I made my first experiment in editing and mixing tracks all by myself.

Instead of the usual Cornell Plantations luncheon, this year they had a mystery presentation followed by a lunch reception. The husband of a particular lady who has been very involved with both Cornell Plantations and the Lab of Ornithology made a donation to make this film project — a collaboration between the two entities — possible. Everyone managed to keep the project a secret from her until the presentation today.

A variety of folks associated with the two groups assembled in a campus theatre to see the two films in high definition. First was the one I scored, “The Wildflower Garden,” followed by the one Laurie Hart scored, “The Sanctuary.” Both are short nature films focusing on particular areas around campus. Natural sound is the primary score, with a narrative and an underlying bed of music.

It was pretty exciting to see my name in the credits.

The lunch afterwards was quite nice, too. Cornell makes good food. I didn’t get to speak with Laurie or the videographer David Brown who had hired me, but I sat with the woman who was next to me at the screening and another woman I knew from our old church, and I got to talk with yet another woman I knew from a local jam session.

(It feels odd to refer to people as “woman” — seems so old. “Lady” would be worse, “girl” doesn’t seem to fit, and “gal” is just silly…)

Not long after I got home, I started experimenting with The Hanshaw Trio’s recordings of a medley of “Star of Munster” and “Old Copper Plate.” Take 8 was my favorite, but I had a bum note in the middle, so I wanted to see if I could replace that section with the same section from another take. For my first attempt at editing, I thought I did a pretty good job, although I need more practice to really understand what I’m doing and how to do it better. I’ll also need to do the edit differently; the tempos between the two takes were different enough that the edit isn’t smooth. I could try taking the section from another take with a more similar tempo, or make the section longer (going to a natural transition point) or shorter (just the bum note) in order to make the tempo change less significant.

I also learned how to draw an envelope to control the volume faders automatically, and I learned how to mix down the three tracks to a stereo track.


Moving on

We started with Carolan’s Welcome again, trying the variation I wrote about in the last entry. We also had Craig do some melody towards the end, and I experimented with some high harmony. I kept making a lot of mistakes, so once we had two reasonable takes to use for evaluating the arrangement, we moved on to other stuff.

Carolan’s Welcome was the last of the four pieces we’d decided to record first, so I haven’t practiced anything else in a long time. Fortunately, we decided to try Staten Island / Julia Delany, and Banish Misfortune / Swallowtail Jig, sets I’m fairly comfortable with.

I love the Staten Island / Julia Delany set; I love the switch from D to Dm, and Julia Delany is just a great tune. By the way, I’ve heard that Staten Island is supposed to be a hornpipe; we play it as a reel. (Definitions: A reel is a fast tune in 4/4 time. A jig is a fast tune in 6/8 time. For each step a contra dancer takes, a reel has two beats, and a jig has three. Hornpipes are more like jigs than reels — a little slower, and played with a lilted or swung or dotted rhythm.)

For Banish Misfortune, Jerry gets to imitate a bagpipe the first time through. He plays one A part, then drones on the D while I play the repeat, and so on for the B and C parts.

I’m not sure what exactly I want to do for the other two parts; I could play melody both times in the normal octave, or one time I could play in the lower octave, or I could do a sort of call-and-response with myself, one A part higher, the repeat lower, and so on.

Then I drop out for the first time through Swallowtail. (Having one of us drop out at a transition is an effective technique for signalling a change; still, I hope we don’t overuse it.)

Now I’ve got to listen to this week’s takes to see if I like the arrangements, and chances are I’ll want to practice the sets in hopes of recording better takes next time. I hope the recording won’t be too disrupted by our preparations for a pair of gigs — we have a Farmers Market performance and also a show as part of the Chenango Summer MusicFest coming up.

Variety hour(s)

It’s been a long time, almost a month. It’s all Craig’s fault — first it was wrist pain, then a trip, then he and his family got sick… obviously all done on purpose to delay our recording, lol. But now that he’s back, and healthy, we’re at it again. Twice this week.

Tonight we decided on a new approach. No more sessions with fourteen takes of the same set. It’s just too hard to evaluate fourteen takes. I’ve narrowed those down to six, but even that was exhausting, and I still need to narrow the six down to two or three for the trio to choose from.

Instead, we decided we would do more evaulating at the session, eliminating takes that didn’t feel good or that we know we made significant mistakes on. Once we had two or three good ones to take home, we’d move on to another set.

So tonight we went through Out on the Ocean / Morrison’s / Kesh yet again, then Winter East and Kensington, and finally Carolan’s Welcome.

I’m a little uncertain of our arrangement for Carolan’s Welcome. The first time, the fiddle leads and the guitar and I play backup. The second and third times we do a call and response; the fiddle leads and I follow. The final section we play together.

I wonder if maybe we ought to have me lead the first call and response, so that there’s more of a contrast from the first time through. Something for us to think about and listen to.