Coda: final thoughts

This morning I went to Fed Ex to ship the CD master, another CD with the graphics files, color proofs, and a deposit check to National Tape and Disc.

It’s amazing to me, but not really surprising, how all that stress and overly-focused anxiety has just melted away, and how I’ve regained perspective, remembering that the important thing is that this album show the beauty of the coming of Christ. I slept well last night.

Doing the graphics was a pretty amazing experience. I wish I’d allotted more time to it, especially considering I had no experience with PhotoShop.

The stripped-down program that came with my scanner is also an Adobe product, and I’d just assumed PhotoShop would do all the same things the same way, just with extra features and tools I wouldn’t need to worry about.

Oh no. Very different products, so a lot of my design time was figuring out how to do things.

I learned how to use some of the cool features PhotoShop has that PhotoDeluxe doesn’t, like writing text on a curved path for the CD imprint, adjusting kerning and leading to space text horizontally and vertically the exact way I wanted it in the booklet, using “Curves” to adjust the color of a photo more precisely than I could with other color adjustment tools, and modifying a selection to make it smoother or smaller.

Eric Hause helped me learn my way around, and Christi Sobel helped me with a lot of the scanning and image work.

One particular challenge was that the original artwork, a beautiful collage by my college friend Andrea Seavers, uses a textured paper for Mary’s and Jesus’ skin. That paper didn’t scan well, so Christi used various tools to smooth out the texture and even out the color. I made the final adjustments last night and had color proofs made at Kinko’s, so everything would be ready to ship this morning.


I can’t say enough about the folks at Electric Wilburland.

Calm and assured, kind and patient and generous, easygoing and humorous, not to mention highly skilled, Matt and Will have made this project a fantastic experience. Matt’s engineering has been thoughtful, sensitive, attentive both to details and to context; he’s also given helpful feedback and suggestions throughout the process. And both of them have given me confidence when I was too far gone to think anymore.

Thanks, guys; you’re the best.

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“Trust the Engineer” Day

It wasn’t until I was sitting in my car at 9:00am about to turn on the ignition that I realized how anxious I was about this final day in the studio.

See, it only takes me a half hour to get there, and we start at 10:00. Yeah. I made myself go back in the house and read for thirty minutes, but even so I was still shaking when I got to the studio. Matt suggested a cup of tea (tea! I didn’t even know they had any), and soon I was sipping a lovely herbal brew with chamomile and some other stuff, aptly named Tension Tamer.

Since Thursday’s session, my task had been to listen to the mixes and make sure everything was as I wanted it.

I listened to it all day Friday as I worked on the graphic design, and thought it sounded great — but my attention was almost entirely on the computer and I only heard the CD as background and occasional snatches that grabbed my attention.

Saturday and Sunday I listened more attentively, and came up with a list of places I wanted to double-check. Some were simple mix concerns — wanting various instruments’ or parts’ volumes adjusted here and there. Some were performance concerns — a knock on the bridge or a weak note; perhaps I had a better take we could edit from. Some were editing concerns — I thought I could hear some of the edit points and I worried that they were blatant noises that everyone else would notice, too.

As I listened, though, I reminded myself that I have a tendency to look not just at trees (instead of the forest), but their leaves, even the cells of the leaves, even the little bits floating around in the cells, etc.

So, I decided that today would be “Trust the Engineer” Day. It’s the engineer’s job to make the edits work. If they didn’t work he would have told me so — at the time they were made, so that I could have done another set of takes if necessary. Therefore, as we reviewed each of the things on my list, whenever I was in doubt, I chose whatever Matt suggested.

Someday I hope to be a good enough musician that I won’t need to rely on edits in order to record an album on a reasonable budget. I would love to be able to play both precisely and expressively. Then I wouldn’t be sitting here with a sinking feeling in my stomach, wondering if, by attending too much to precision (in the form of edits), I might have taken the life out of my performance.

Conclusions… obviously I’m still “in the hole,” like I was after recording “He Shall Feed His Flock.” Anxiety is surely making me focus on tiny negatives instead of being able to enjoy any overall beauty. But it’s “Trust the Engineer” Day still, and I’m fairly confident that I’ve done my best and made a good record. So, I take a deep breath, put aside my stomach-sinking fears, and say, “Woo-hoo! It’s done and I love it!”

Wilburland withdrawal

Today we mixed the four remaining tunes.

Only one presented any challenges: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Planxty Irwin.” This is one where I made some arrangement decisions after recording some of the parts, so the different parts were not entirely aligned with the various tracks. Dealing with that sort of thing wasn’t even really challenging, it was just a matter of finding where a part switched tracks and adjusting the levels accordingly.

We were done by lunchtime.

I’m definitely experiencing some strong symptoms of Wilburland Withdrawal.

Making a recording is a very intense process, and Matt (and Will) are such great guys — patient, kind, and really good at what they do. And I’ve been working at Wilburland for the past four months — it’s the most sustained intense thing I’ve done this year.


I think this is one of the reasons why I don’t think I would enjoy home recording, even though with today’s technology you can get great results and save money. I love being in a studio and working with a good engineer — music is best when it’s shared.


Today we mixed six more tunes, beginning with “Christ Child Lullaby,” which only needed a few volume adjustments so that the change between recorder and dulcimer sections would not be too drastic.

Then we worked on “Noel Nouvelet / Wexford Carol” and “What Child Is This?” — there were a couple of noises on these two that I wanted to look at, to see if we had better takes of those spots. Once that was taken care of, “Noel” just needed a little volume adjusting of a pair of psaltery parts and a pair of dulcimer parts.

“Three Ships Medley” didn’t present any problems, and I think the only things that concerned me about “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” were a pair of dulcimer parts that I thought were panned too far apart and a recorder section that had too much of a volume jump at one point.

On “Fallen,” there was a timing issue I hadn’t noticed before. It turns out that it was an effect of some processing Matt was doing on the melody track, so all we needed to do was move the whole accompaniment track to match.

Generally, my job now has been to occupy myself while Matt does most of the mixing, so that when it’s done, I can listen with fresh ears. If both of us were listening equally carefully throughout the process, it would be a lot harder to really hear the results… the trees would overwhelm the forest.

So, I started out reading a library book I’d brought. When that got tedious, I read some of another book picked from a pile of reading material in the control room. Then I got tired of reading, and I started to feel a little left out. I wanted to observe all the cool things Matt was doing and find out why and how he did them, but of course that would defeat the purpose of keeping my ears fresh.


Fortunately Will was downstairs mixing recordings from the Newfield Fiddle Festival, and he let me watch and listen.

Tomorrow, four more tunes to mix.

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.


Even on an ordinary day I’m a pretty anxious and strong-willed person. Today, I was even more so. For one thing, I wasn’t entirely happy with what I’d recorded yesterday and uncertain what to do about it. I also really wanted to finish recording the dulcimer today, but I wanted to do it well and not rush, and I was concerned that the remaining two pieces might not be ready yet. That’s a lot of stuff to be anxious and stubborn about.

We started with “Emmanuel.” I wasn’t sure that slowing down at the end of the first section was a good idea after all.

I had no idea how we might fix that without having to re-record the following sections, but it turned out to not be that difficult. I just punched in that last part of the first section plus the first note of the next section, then Matt moved the previously recorded next section up to match. Then I re-recorded the melody line of the third section to clean up some of the timing and expression things I hadn’t done so well yesterday.

Next, we worked on “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” My version starts with an old English tune called “Forest Green,” then two verses of the familiar “St. Louis” tune, and a final verse of “Forest Green.” The first “St. Louis” verse I recorded in four-part harmony.

By the time I got to the tenor part, the sun through the stained-glass window behind me was casting my shadow on the soundboard and creating a glare on the strings — that’s a little disorienting. Matt came in and set up one of those tall wooden baffles behind me to block the sun: “Is that better, Princess?”

After lunch, we finished “Bethlehem,” and started working on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Christmas Star.”

“Twinkle” is a tune I often play when people comment about how difficult the dulcimer looks; I show them that it’s simple to play simple tunes like “Twinkle,” because all the notes are in a nice vertical row with nothing to skip in between. I add more chords and ornaments as I go, then talk about the visual shapes I improvise with and how those shapes and patterns make writing, arranging, and improvising so much easier on this instrument than on the other instruments I’ve tried.

Gradually my arrangement started incorporating some unusual chords and acquired an air of mystery and wonder; I thought it would be cool to include it on this album in honor of the amazing journey of the Magi, those mysterious people from the East who read Jesus’ arrival in the heavens and made their way to Israel to see him.

While we were working on these two tunes, I was increasingly anxious and stubborn. I really wanted to be done. But I was also trying to be careful not to settle for less than my best just for the sake of being done.

That kind of tension makes it difficult to evaluate things and make choices. (Perhaps it also tries Matt’s nearly infinite patience.) So even though we “finished” recording the dulcimer for this album, I’ll have to listen to the results a lot before deciding if I’m really done or not.

Matt’s teasing got me thinking about princesses and extreme sensitivity; “The Princess and the Pea,” for example.

I suppose you can’t have sensitivity without irritability; you can’t be sensitive only to positive things. On the flip side, one might take a second look at the irritable people in one’s life and find out that they are not sensitive only to negative things.

Anyway, I hope Matt and Will and my husband and everyone else around me have not been too bothered by my irritability while working on this project, and I hope that the plus side of that sensitivity will show in the finished CD.

Not yet

Today I worked on two tunes: the remaining recorder parts for “Christ Child Lullaby,” and a new piece, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

I’d been practicing those recorder parts several times a day, so they didn’t take too long this morning. In fact, the timing was really nice: I had from 11 to 12:30 to tune, then took a break for lunch, and finished tuning afterwards. Taking a break in the middle of tuning helps keep my ear from getting overly sensitive with concentration.

After lunch, we started on “Emmanuel.” My version starts with an adaptation of the Episcopal Hymnal’s setting, continues with another verse in the standard 4/4 meter, then goes into a sort of two-over-three rhythm.

Recording the middle verse was interesting because it involved a set of softer responses between melody phrases. What we ended up doing is recording one melody phrase, switching tracks, recording the response, switching back to melody, and so on. The last verse was challenging, too, because of the syncopation, timing, and accents. I’m not entirely sure of the editing yet… I’ll have to listen to it a lot and see what I think.

Tomorrow may well be my last day of recording. I just have two more new pieces to do, plus fix one part of another tune. The end is near, but not here yet.

Besides those last bits of recording, I need to do the mixing and mastering and finish the text and graphics. Writing the liner notes is proving to be difficult — there’s only so much room, and it’s hard to decide exactly what I have to say about each piece and then figure out how to say it in the space allotted.

A college friend, artist Andrea Seavers, is working on the cover art and text. She does marvelous Christmas cards: collages mixed with original drawing, painting, and lettering. So far she’s sent me one rough sketch of a Madonna and Child collage based on a Fra Angelico painting, and I think it will be a perfect cover for this album.

Another couple of friends (who happen to also be dulcimer students), Keith and Marty Bryant, took photos of me with the instruments for the traycard, and I’ve also taken some studio shots of guest musicians for the back of the booklet. The last step, besides sending off the CD and graphics to the manufacturers, is planning a release party and concert. I have some ideas, but I’ll wait until it’s finalized before I announce it.


From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. I worked on four pieces. First, I wanted to finish “Christ Child Lullaby.” I did the dulcimer parts without too much trouble, thanks to practicing each of them ten times daily since my last attempt. Then I tried the recorder — but after maybe half a dozen takes on one recorder part, my fingers were stiff enough that I needed to do something else for a while.

So, second, I corrected an error in a harmony part in “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Planxty Irwin,” then added guitar to the medley. I’m not very good at finger-picking stuff, so this part was difficult to learn and took a lot of takes to record.

Third, I added guitar to “Three Ships Medley.” This part was mostly strumming, so it wasn’t as difficult as the other. There’s one section played with a capo — Matt suggested I retune with the capo on, which I’d ignorantly never done before; it makes a big difference. I wonder if that says something about the intonation on my guitar…

Anyway, my back and left shoulder were really stiff after recording these two guitar parts, because I’m one of those “guitarists” that has to look at the left hand all the time. That’s when I decided to give up on those “Lullaby” recorder parts until next session; too stiff, and extra practice would probably help a lot, too.

The last thing I did that afternoon was a preparation for the evening session. We’d decided to record Craig’s guitar part first, so that Jerry, the fiddler, would have both dulcimer and guitar tracks to follow. But on one of the tunes, “Easter Thursday,” Craig needed to hear Jerry’s part, too. So I recorded a dulcimer version of Jerry’s part as a reference track.

Home to rest a little and make and eat an early dinner. And my in-laws arrived just in time for me to let them in and then head back to the studio for the trio’s evening session.

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The trio convened at 6 p.m. Jerry headed downstairs to warm up, and Matt got Craig set up to record. We started with “Hewlett / Silent Night,” which turned out to be more interesting than I thought it would be: I’d unintentionally slowed down in places, which made it difficult to keep tempo with my tracks. We figured out that recording section by section made it a lot easier. Once the guitar tracks were finished, Jerry recorded his parts.

Next we tackled Craig’s parts for “Easter Thursday”; Jerry joined me in the control room to watch and listen. This tune is difficult because it’s in an unusual meter — it’s a 3/2 hornpipe — and because there’s a syncopated section at the end of the B part. Having that reference track helped a little.

I ended up standing in the window sort of conducting — keeping track of the first beat of each measure, and indicating when to play during the syncopated part. Lots of fun… when we were off from each other we’d be shaking our heads and laughing silently, and when we got it right my index finger “batons” would become thumbs up. Meanwhile Jerry sits on the couch fascinated, as I am, by all the technology and the whole recording process.

Once we thought we had Craig’s part down, Jerry went out to do his part. But the middle section was problematic. I realized that my decision to have Craig play this section syncopated was not only making things difficult for Jerry, but also just didn’t sound good. So I wanted to have Craig redo that section.

Matt was unconvinced about being able to position him the same way so that the part would blend seamlessly with the previous parts — both of them suggested instead that we just copy the part from a previous section and recycle it for this section too. I’m not comfortable with that idea, so they agreed to try re-recording the section… fortunately, we did manage to get the positioning essentially the same. Whew.

Now it was Jerry’s turn again. He’d never recorded before, but he did his parts for the first tune in four takes, and just three takes for this one. Impressive!

After doing some editing and checking the other takes to make sure they didn’t all have the same mistakes in the same places, I offered everyone cucumbers (Craig actually accepted) and sent Craig and Jerry home. Matt burned the end-of-session CD for me, I wrote a check, and, at about 10 p.m., headed home myself.

A touch of grey

As always, this recording session began with tuning. I took the dulcimer to the studio yesterday and did an hour’s worth of tuning, then finished this morning. It took a long time again, but was relatively straightforward and nonproblematic. Whew.

Speaking of tuning, I’m anticipating the arrival of a new tool that I hope will help reduce my tuning time: I won an Ebay auction for a Conn Strobotuner ST-11. Its grey face sports a spinning patterned disc with flashing lights behind it… when the note I’m plucking is in tune, the pattern will appear to be stationary; when it’s sharp the pattern will seem to be moving to the right, and when it’s flat the pattern will look like it’s going left.

I’d tried a Peterson VSAM virtual strobe in a store, and found it confusing to read. At another store I got to see how a mechanical strobe works with a guitar, and to me it seemed easier to read, so when I saw the Conn on Ebay I decided to bid on it. I’m hoping that its continuous reading will cut the time I usually lose to my needle tuner’s sometimes delayed and inconsistent responses. I’m also hoping that it’s in working condition when it gets here!

Tomorrow evening, the Hanshaw Trio will be recording two medleys, so today I recorded my parts. We started with “Easter Thursday / O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” a medley I’m including on this album as a reminder of what the babe in the manger accomplished when he’d grown up.

“Easter Thursday” has two especially tricky parts: one separated hands moment where I kept hitting the note just above the one I was aiming for, and several places where, reaching for the Bb on my extra bass bridge, I instead hit the wrong side of a course coming off the regular bass bridge. It’s like the sound you’d get if you plucked a guitar string between the top of the fretboard and the tuning pins. So it took a while to get it right.

“Hewlett / Silent Night” went more smoothly, probably because it’s in D, one of the most playable keys on the dulcimer. We did it in just four takes. Because this one starts with the guitar alone, I first recorded a count and then plucked the notes the guitar will play, then on another track I recorded the dulcimer parts. Likewise, where there’s a pause near the end, I recorded another count so that all three of us will come back in at the same time.

After listening to the “Three Ships Medley” I’d recorded last time, I’d decided I should fix two little errors. To do that, I figured I’d have to record the two larger sections containing the errors. It turned out I had to re-record the entire thing because the mic placement today was a little different than it was last time. However, it wasn’t that bad… only four takes; and just five edits, compared to fifteen last time.

We also recorded the dulcimer harmony parts for “Three Ships.” One of the harmony sections had three notes that weren’t timed exactly right, leading to a technique that, for me, falls in a grey area between what’s too artificial and what’s acceptable: Matt moved those three notes slightly to correct the timing. I said in an earlier entry that I draw the line at looping or recycling — that I want to really play every note each time. Well, I did play those three notes… but not with exactly the right timing. Hmmm.

The end is in sight. I’ve scheduled the rest of the sessions, at least what I think I’ll need, and if all goes well I should be done by mid-October. That should mean I’ll have the CDs by mid-November. So, this year I expect I’ll make my anniversary concert a release party, although it’ll probably be a few weeks late.

What’s left? Finishing the trio medleys, finishing three other pieces in progress, and three new pieces, plus, if time allows, a few fix-its. (Hopefully these other fix-its won’t require as much re-recording as “Three Ships” did!) I’m starting to work on the liner notes and graphics, too. This time I’ll make sure the web address is correct! (On No Loose Threads, I missed a typo in the URL, and I also didn’t realize that you can’t include the usual “www.” with addresses at Tripod, my former hosting service.)