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.


(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.