The joys of editing

Today we started by fixing some problems in yesterday’s work.

One was a timing issue, in “Gesù Bambino,” which I fixed by just re-recording one section.

The other was something weird about going from the intro of “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Planxty Irwin” into the tune. We ended up deciding that it was mostly because the intro is in two octaves, but when the melody begins it was just in the upper octave. Adding another track with the melody in the lower octave sounded better.

Then, after I recorded the remaining dulcimer and psaltery parts, I decided the last section would be better if I added one more dulcimer line and had the psaltery come in later. Having NoteWorthy Composer notation software helps me plan out arrangements pretty well, so that usually only minor alterations, if any, are needed.

Next, we recorded psaltery and recorder parts for “Gesù Bambino.” Matt thought the psaltery parts for both tunes went better this time, but I still found them difficult to play smoothly, especially certain notes like the low F#. I saw someone play with two bows last weekend, and it was very smooth — maybe I should try that sometime. The recorder parts were a little easier.

Then I actually did try “Three Ships Medley,” and got a nice melody skeleton to play with. At the time I thought the new transition ideas worked well; we’ll see if I still think so when I’ve had more time to listen to it and experiment with it. Most likely it will have additional dulcimer and guitar parts, maybe some other things, too.

After that, we started working on “Christ Child Lullaby.” I wanted play it as low on the recorder as possible, which put it in Bb Mixolydian. That’s three flats, same key signature as Eb Major, but centered around Bb instead of Eb; the Mixolydian mode has a sort of wildness to it that I love.

I really like the way the tune sounds in this low key, but it’s a real challenge for my recorder and dulcimer skills. It’s hard for me to play certain notes well on the recorder, especially the lowest F and the Ab. And the dulcimer parts are difficult because I have to reach across the instrument for various Ebs and Abs — it’s hard to do that accurately and expressively and rhythmically.

So far, we’ve only managed to get a good take of the solo recorder intro. We must have done over a dozen takes (twenty?) of the next dulcimer part, but each one had at least one mistake in it, and the part is too quiet for good seamless editing.

So we stopped there. Burned the end-of-session CD, put the “He Shall Feed His Flock” files on a CD to send to Henry, settled the bill, and homeward went.

Now, about the joys of editing. I just thought this was sort of amazing and fun. First of all, consider just one psaltery section on “Long-Expected.” This section has eleven different pieces edited together from seven different takes. Isn’t that cool? And the rest of the piece is, oh, four or five dulcimer sections, two psaltery sections, and two guitar sections, each with various amounts of editing from various numbers of takes. Then, just the melody of “Three Ships” has fifteen pieces edited together from four different takes. Wow. The amazing thing is that, more often than not, Matt can make these edits absolutely seamless. When it doesn’t work, we just do some more takes.

Final thoughts. Today just felt better. Being able to start right away without dealing with tuning was refreshing. And knowing that husband Mark would be home in the evening, after being at a research conference all week, also helped. And I now have five pieces finished, and four in progress. That’s about half done!

A sunny day in summer!

It’s been a strangely rainy summer thus far. Rainy and on the cool side; my lettuce is happy, but the tomatoes have yet to feel any desire to turn red. Today, however, my return to the studio was heralded by a gloriously warm and sunny day. Mmmmmm.

Last time I talked about how discouraged I was when I left the studio after recording “He Shall Feed His Flock.” And yet the more I listened to it in the following week or so, the more I liked it. In fact, I think I may have played more expressively and cleanly on this piece than on anything else I’ve recorded thus far. Maybe it’s my version of end-of-recording-session syndrome — getting more and more into it, more perfectionistic with each new piece over the four-day session.

Anyway, I decided what “Flock” needs is Tom Abernethy’s classical guitar. Tom, Carolyn Huff, and I used to play together as the WoodSong trio in Richmond VA; you can hear us in “Carolan’s Draught / Sleepers Awake” on No Loose Threads. So Matt will transfer the dulcimer tracks from Wilburland to Outback Studio, where Henry Smith will record Tom’s new part and transfer the results back up here. Yesterday, Tom played the part for me over the phone; it’s going to be wonderful.

Today’s studio session started with tuning. Truly awful: three and a half hours. After talking with Bob Wey at the Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering this past weekend, I’m going to look for a strobe tuner and try a gooseneck wrench, and see if those tools help me tune more efficiently. Anyone got a used strobe lying around? Or one of Peterson’s Virtual Strobe tuners?

After lunch, we started on the first piece of the day, “Gesù Bambino.” For the most part, this went fine. (After that grueling tuning session, recording felt like cake. See? I knew there was an advantage to being terrible at tuning.)

The main issues were a tough vertical passage on the bass bridge, some timing difficulties where two parts come in simultaneously after a pause, and a tuning problem. The high A – D course on my treble bridge is nearly impossible to get perfectly in tune. Fortunately, there’s a duplicate of that A on the right side of the treble bridge, and I managed to adjust my hammering to use that A instead. At some point I’ll add psaltery and recorder to the “O come let us adore him” parts in the intro and end.

The rest of the day we worked on “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Planxty Irwin.” As an interesting variation, each time I come back to the beginning of the tune, I start it at the same time as the last note of the previous time. Another interesting variation is that I got through the really hard part in just a few takes, but had a really hard time recording the easy part. Odd. Then again, I’d practiced the hard part more.

It was also interesting to make final hammer choices. I have five pairs of hammers, ranging from a very soft and mellow pair wrapped with yarn, through various leathers, to bright bare woods. Sometimes it’s pretty clear which hammer will be best for a particular part, but sometimes it’s necessary to experiment with several, listen to each, and then choose.

Overall, except for the first three and a half hours, I enjoyed today’s session. I felt more settled in the rhythm of the recording process, with a better idea of when to edit, when to just go for another take, etc. Maybe next time I’ll remember to turn on the volume of all the tracks in the headphones… at one point today I recorded a section without being able to hear it, because that track’s volume was off. Even so, I think we actually used part of that take.

Tomorrow? Finish “Long-Expected,” do “Christ Child Lullaby,” and maybe “Three Ships Medley.” I got to workshop the last one at the Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering in Bob Wey’s class on “Playing With Your Blocks.” So the last few days I’ve been experimenting with different ways to implement suggestions from Bob, other students in that class, and Marya Katz of Blacksburg VA’s Simple Gifts.

No such thing as objective

This fourth day we began with “The Wexford Carol,” the second half of the medley beginning with “Noel Nouvelet.” I’ve been practicing these parts a lot, and all that hard work at home translated into less difficulty in the studio. The arrangement begins with both hands playing melody an octave apart, followed by an ornamented version. Next is a section with echoes, and the final section has a mostly sixths harmony and a bass part.

All that was done before lunch. So the next question was whether to go home really early or to try “He Shall Feed His Flock,” which until this week I hadn’t played since last Christmas season. I did work pretty hard on it Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, making arrangement decisions and practicing them, but I wasn’t entirely sure it was ready to record. Still, I decided to stay and give it a try.

I like the intro, using my yarn-wrapped hammers for a soft, mellow effect. At the closing chord, I repeat the intro part as a conclusion. In between, I did the main part with separated hands; the left plays melody while the right plays three-note chords. The form is AAB twice through, and I vary the ornamentation a bit on the repeated sections. Still, I’m not sure there’s enough difference between the first AAB and the second, and I’m not convinced I played the right-hand chords as well as I’d have liked… I’d prefer them to be less heavy on the downbeats.

As we listened to the whole thing, after recording that last section, both of us seemed unconvinced. Matt said he was still too much “in” it, thinking of all the editing and the various short sections. I felt that it didn’t seem to flow, and it didn’t even seem very pretty. Maybe that’s because I’d had to record sections too short to feel natural and expressive, and maybe also because I hadn’t practiced enough to play both accurately and expressively.

It’s hard to listen objectively right after recording. It’s hard to listen objectively when you’re feeling uncertain and discouraged to begin with.

Actually I think it’s impossible to listen objectively at all.

There’s so much to influence how something will sound to you, from external or physical factors like recent events, temperature, or your state of health, to internal factors like your current self-image or level of anxiety. So I think I’ll plan to listen to “He Shall Feed His Flock” several times over the next week or two before making a final evaluation of it. Meanwhile, I can also be thinking of alternatives: practice more; add guitar, psaltery, or recorder to part(s) of it; record the left and right hands separately, maybe even with a softer hammer in the right hand…

My next session is scheduled for July 29 and 30; besides finalizing “He Shall Feed His Flock,” I’d like to prepare two or three other pieces. My trio, newly renamed the Hanshaw Trio and featuring Jerry Drumheller on fiddle and Craig Higgins on guitar, is also preparing two medleys; we plan to record them late in August.


In the mix

After a few days of almost frantic practicing, I returned to the studio today to add guitar and psaltery parts to “Fallen” and to record dulcimer, psaltery, and recorder parts for “Noel Nouvelet.”

(Why frantic? Well, for most of my gigs I’m just playing dulcimer, so that’s what I practice most. Then, when something like this does come up where I need another instrument, I end up cramming in practice like a student at exam time. Also, just in case I managed to do all I’d planned on and still had time left over, I was trying to prepare “He Shall Feed His Flock,” although I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finalize the arrangement and be able to play it well enough in such a short time.)

The day began with tuning the dulcimer. That took about two hours. So far, necessity is not reducing tuning time. But it could have been much worse.

Then we worked on “Fallen.” The guitar part was a little tough, but the psaltery part was really tough. I don’t have the steadiest hand when it comes to bowing long notes, and I don’t always start notes very smoothly either. Everything just sounded scratchy and wobbly to me. Even after we’d selected and spliced the best parts of various takes, I was wondering about writing an entirely different part or even asking my trio partner Jerry to play the part on violin instead.

Moving on to “Noel Nouvelet,” we recorded the dulcimer parts, where the main issue was trying to articulate the ornaments nicely without getting off tempo. The recorder parts went pretty smoothly. Then back to the psaltery. The harmony parts weren’t bad — no really long notes requiring that especially steady hand. Last, the hardest part: in one section the psaltery has the melody. Because the tune is in A dorian, I have to reach across the psaltery for an F#. Moving the bow that far that quickly and still getting the note nicely is tough for me. By this point I was feeling pretty beat, so we called it a day a couple hours early.

Before I left, the final task was to put the day’s work on CD to take home and evaluate. I asked Matt to burn one “Fallen” with the psaltery and one without, so I could try some alternative ideas. We usually check the mix before burning, adjusting relative volumes of the various tracks to get a decent blend. While we were doing that, much to my relief, we found that at its proper background volume, the psaltery actually sounded quite nice. No more scratchies and wobblies, just that edgy but sweet psaltery sound. Whew!

Drawing the line

millikens2First, the details.

Stuart and Robin and I met at our friend Jolie’s house (close to the studio) to practice with the recording of “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” that I made yesterday. Then we headed to the studio, practiced some more, worked on adjusting our tuning, and recorded the parts. After the Millikens left, I finished the rest of “What Child is This? / Menuet.”

What to do next was a difficult decision.

If I started a new piece and didn’t finish it, chances are it would be difficult or impossible to have the tuning so exactly the same that the later sections would match. I almost went home early, but then decided to risk it. Amazingly enough, we managed to record all the dulcimer parts for “Fallen”: the melody throughout, a drone in the beginning, and some arpeggio sections. This means I have a CD to practice with for the guitar and bowed psaltery parts, which I’ll try to record next week along with another medley, “Noel Nouvelet / Wexford Carol.”

Working at Wilburland is changing my approach to recording.

At Outback Studio, where I recorded No Loose Threads, our approach was to record a section in one pair of tracks, allowing the last notes to fade out naturally. Then with headphones on, I’d listen to this section and then record the next section in a second pair of tracks. The rest of the piece would go the same way, switching back and forth between the two pairs of tracks. If I made a mistake in one section, I could do another take of just that section.

I assumed I would use the same approach here, but Wilburland’s computer system makes it easy to splice together smaller bits of different takes. One way to respond to this possibility is to record lots of small bits, and that has been my first temptation. Instead, I think it would be better to record longer sections, which I tried today. Playing a longer section is more natural, which makes it easier to be more musical and expressive. Then if one take has a mistake near the beginning and another has a problem in the middle, we can use the best part of each one.

The whole process of recording brings up the question of where to draw the line between natural and artificial.

There are folks who think the best kind of recording is live; some require an audience while others don’t mind a live studio recording. Live captures energy and flow, as well as synergy with ensemble members (and with the audience if one is present). On the other hand, mistakes that seem unnoticeable in a concert setting (they go by so quickly) can become increasingly distracting or annoying each time one listens to them on a CD.

There are all sorts of tricks to minimize mistakes. The Outback Studio approach, for example, helped by minimizing stress: if I only have to play one section without messing up, that is psychologically less threatening than having to play the entire piece flawlessly. The kind of splicing we’re doing at Wilburland is a little more artificial, but I’m still actually playing each of the parts.

Where I draw the line is at looping and recycling tracks. Looping is where you’d record maybe a short rhythm section and repeat the recording instead of actually playing the section over and over. Looping obviously gives consistent results, but to me it’s too artificial; I want to play the section every time.

For example, I have a hard time playing the low D drone consistently in “Fallen”; to even it out a little, I was willing to record it twice (as if there were two dulcimer players droning simultaneously) and to play with the equalizers some, but I didn’t want to just loop a nice section of it.

Recycling is similar; maybe you’d record the chorus of a song and instead of singing it again after the next verse, you repeat the first recording. I’d rather not do that for the same reason I’d rather not do looping.

(By the way, right now I’m listening to what I recorded today. I noticed that in some places, it sounds like the music has shifted to the left, and then it shifts back. And I realized that those places are where I move from playing on the right side of the dulcimer to the left side. I just think that’s interesting. Oh, and have I mentioned how exciting this is? I love to play the dulcimer, and of course I can hear it when I’m playing, but it’s entirely different to hear it when I’m NOT playing; I can hear it more when I’m not busy attending to where my hands are going next.)

A final thought.

As I look over what I’ve written so far, I’m thinking about audience interaction. I remember hearing a quotation about how some musician played for an audience of one, no matter what size the audience actually was. (Anyone know the musician or the source of the quotation?)

I like that idea; I think music is at its best when it’s intimate, up close and personal. I’ve been trying to take that approach in the studio. In one sense I’m playing for myself and Matt, the engineer, whose observations I already value pretty highly. In another sense — and I don’t mean this to sound particularly holy or anything — I’m playing for me and God: me and the one who knows and loves me better than anyone else, me and the one who knows and loves music better than anyone else; an intimate little tete-a-tete.

I hope other folks will enjoy listening in.

First Day!

window2Today was the first recording session for my latest CD project, an as yet untitled Christmas album.

Ideas for a Christmas recording had been floating around for quite a while, but serious planning began this spring. Initially, I knew I wanted it to be an instrumental album, centered on the hammered dulcimer with support from my other instruments (recorder, bowed psaltery, and guitar), from my trio (fiddle and guitar), and possibly from some other local musicians.

I also knew I wanted to focus on music that reflects the spiritual meanings of Christmas.

Right now, for example, I plan to open the album with an original piece called “Fallen.” I wrote it one day after viewing the finalists’ entries in the competition for the September 11 memorial. Its theme of mourning the fallen also looks beyond that tragedy to the first and greatest fall of humanity in Eden. It’s because of that Fall that we have Christmas and the Savior it celebrates.

Near the end, I hope to include a piece called “Easter Thursday” along with one verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”; again as a reminder of what God came to earth to do. In between, there will be carols both familiar and less well-known, from “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” to “Silent Night” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

When I arrived at the studio this morning, I found that the dulcimer wasn’t as in tune as it was last night after I spent most of yesterday tuning it. Some of you reading this may know how frustrated I’ve been with tuning. It takes me much longer than it should (believe it or not, most dulcimer players can tune in an hour or less), despite an excellent dulcimer and good tools and techniques. Must be me. Anyway, I was quite upset to find I’d have to do all that work again, and under the pressure of being in the studio and supposedly ready to start recording. Fortunately, the good folks at Electric Wilburland (a great studio housed in an old church in Newfield, just south of Ithaca) don’t charge for tuning time, and Matt was very patient as I did my best to get it ready.

Once the dulcimer was in tune, we decided which microphones to use and where to position them, then did the same with my soprano recorder. For the dulcimer, we decided on a matched pair of Earthworks QTC1 mics. They are set up like ears, with a foam disc in between like a head. Notice also the bits of white tape on the dulcimer, which helped us position the dulcimer in the same place each session to avoid changes in the stereo image.

The first tune we worked on was “The Lord at First Did Adam Make,” a carol from the 1800s that tells the Christmas story beginning with Genesis. My arrangement opens with solo recorder and includes sections with multiple recorders, multiple dulcimer parts, and a dulcimer accompaniment. Today I recorded the first recorder verse and all but one of the dulcimer sections; tomorrow Stuart and Robin Milliken will join me to add the other recorder parts, and then I’ll do that last dulcimer section.

Today I also recorded almost half of a dulcimer solo medley of “What Child is This?” and a Quantz “Menuet.” After one time through “What Child is This?” with the familiar chords, I change key (a blend of A minor and dorian) and introduce more major chords (F, D, C…) — thanks to Keith Bryant for some of these chording ideas.

It’s exciting to be in the studio again. I would have loved to record with Henry Smith at Outback Studio again, but since Mechanicsville VA is a little too far away now, Wilburland is a good second choice. Actually it’s great so far and I think I’m really going to enjoy working there.

The tuning thing is a huge source of anxiety; knowing how awful some tuning days have been, I hate the thought of having to tune in the studio. This will either force me to quit altogether, or else learn to metabolize some of that anxiety and patiently do whatever it takes to get in tune. Maybe necessity will even help me learn to tune a little more quickly.

Meanwhile, I have plenty of wonderful musical work to do, selecting and arranging and practicing pieces for this recording as well as continuing to teach and perform.

Christmas project begun

I’m starting to work on a Christmas album. I would love to finish it in time for this Christmas season, but I’m afraid it may take longer than that. Recording starts at the end of June, and meanwhile I’m working on selecting and arranging pieces.