Nashville SkylineI've always loved Christmas albums of just about any kind, but the ones that I return to are unusually durable statements that transcend the season and 12/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern
I've always loved Christmas albums of just about any kind, but the ones that I return to are unusually durable statements that transcend the season and stand as true artistic accomplishments, inspiring any time of the year. Emmylou Harris' Light of the Stable, which was released in 1979, is one of those albums.
When Rhino Records elected to re-issue Light of the Stable, they contacted Brian Ahern, the album's producer, to work on several new tracks at his home studio. The new Ahern-produced tracks are “Cherry Tree Carol,” “There Is a Light” and “Man Is an Island” — the last a magical song written by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who also perform and sing on the new recordings.
“I love the new songs,” enthuses Harris. “I knew ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ from the second Joan Baez album. I originally wanted to do ‘There Is a Light’ for Wrecking Ball. And when Brian mentioned the McGarrigles' ‘Man Is an Island’ and I heard it, I realized it would be a beautiful and unusual addition to the original album.”
“Man Is an Island” was what Ahern termed a “packrat pay-off”: “I had it in my cabinet for 10 years, trying to figure out what to do with it, so when Warner Bros. wanted Christmas bonus tracks, I thought, ‘Man Is an Island’!” Ahern says, laughing.
While Ahern prepared to record the new tracks, he decided that it would be a great chance to do a shoot-out between two mics — the classic Neumann M50 and the BLUE Bottle with the B-4 capsule. Ahern has been frank in saying that he regards the M50 as the world's greatest microphone and owns a pair.
“There is a perspex ball sitting on a pedestal in this microphone, and on the surface of the ball is a small nickel diaphragm,” says Ahern. “The microphone is very directional for high frequencies, but as the frequency range goes lower, the microphone becomes nondirectional, so it picks up a lot of low-frequency ambient information, which is the way our ears normally hear stuff. Most microphones are designed to be directional, even at low frequencies.
“I had heard that AIR Studios in London had abandoned their M50s for a re-creation of that concept by BLUE Microphones, who had designed the B-4 capsule to go with their big BLUE Bottle mic,” continues Ahern. “I called up Tom Menrath at GC Pro, who I knew from his days at Monster Cable, and told him about my idea of a shoot-out around this Emmylou Harris session. He had one mic shipped from Florida and another mic I picked up from a local Guitar Center. I also got an extra B-4 capsule — that is the perspex imitation of the Neumann — directly from BLUE as a backup; all of the service was instantaneous and excellent.”
Ahern found that the BLUEs with the B-4 were excellent on everything, but once he got out about eight feet, the M50 began to out-perform them. “I guess the M50 was built to record large orchestras, so it was designed to reach out and touch instruments at a distance and reproduce the ambience that comes from a full orchestra,” Ahern points out, adding, “I can record an acoustic guitar 12 feet from the mic and it sounds like it's right in front of you. The difference is that you can hear all of the air around the instrument and the low frequencies rumbling across the floorboards to the microphone. It is a pretty extraordinary way to record a great guitar.”
For recording at closer range, Ahern felt that the BLUE Bottles stood out: “If you are going for something at three feet or less, I would go with the BLUEs. When the Neumanns get in around three feet, they get brittle because they are reaching out for an orchestra. If they have a female voice right in front of them, they get messed up,” Ahern says. “We started with the M50s on Emmy's vocal and it was then that we realized that they don't like to be up close, so we wound up using a BLUE Bottle on her voice, with the exception of one song, where we used my old AKG C-24.
“The BLUE mics have an interesting feature: Instead of having pads for loud recordings, they have a control over the voltage that is supplied to the capsule,” explains Ahern. “So if you want to record something gentle, like an acoustic guitar being played with fingers, which we did, you would crank it up so that it would highly sensitize the capsule and then jump when it heard something. If you were recording a gnarly banjo, you would back the setting off a little so it wouldn't over-react to the harsh tones of the instrument. The BLUE also has interchangeable capsules, so we tried a few of those, too. We tried the BLUE B6 capsule on Ricky Skaggs' mandolin with an M50 looking over his shoulder. When he heard that back, he was pretty impressed.”
One of Ahern's favorite instruments is his special Ernie Ball acoustic bass, which has the end of the body bored out and an adjustable cello peg installed so that he can play it upright between his knees. He also put “one of those chewing gum contact mics” under the lowest string to reinforce the lower register of the bottom string.
“When I recorded my Ernie Ball acoustic bass, I used the BLUE Bottle,” Ahern reports. “That bass is a very quiet instrument, so I cranked that capsule excitement up all the way. I preferred that BLUE Bottle microphone over the M50 on two out of the three new songs recorded for the album.”
Ahern brought in Glenn D. Hardin (the legendary keyboard player for many of the classic Harris recordings and one-time member of Elvis Presley's band) to play some unusual parts on some of the new tracks. “On ‘Cherry Tree Carol,’ I pictured a bizarre dance hall-on-a-riverboat sound. When you're on a riverboat, everyone is having a good time and people forget themselves, so I wanted the musicianship to reflect that idea,” says Ahern. “I would say, ‘Glenn D, pretend you are just a drunk guy who wanders in from the deck and sees what's going on and decides to sit down at the piano and join in. Play like you are not quite conscious.’ He did and it turned out great. I wanted one of those out-of-tune upright piano sounds — what I called the ‘Deadwood’ sound, which is the name of that HBO series.”
On one of the tracks, Kate McGarrigle worked out a great frailing banjo part, but was having difficulty reacting to the tempo information fed through the headphones. “That wasn't working out, so I ran up to my closet and got my old antique six-string banjo with an ebony guitar neck on it that I had built for me. It had the resonator removed and Kotex napkins stuffed into it,” Ahern says. “I played that and sat right across from Kate and the other BLUE mic, and we got a great feel live and we built from that.”
Concerning the new material for Light of the Stable, Harris states, “‘There Is a Light’ and ‘Man Is an Island’ have that spiritual quality going for them, but they are not really Christmas songs. The words to ‘Man Is an Island’ are amazing, and that song could be on a secular album. I love it when there is a song that can transcend a particular religion and go more into the realm of the spirit, bringing along our shared experiences as human beings — bringing heaven and earth together, so to speak.
“‘There Is a Light’ could be more of an Easter song, but there isn't really a tradition of Easter albums,” Harris says, laughing. “It's about the same person, in a sense, but it goes beyond any particular religion, which I like myself. ‘Cherry Tree Carol’ is a more traditional song, and I'm glad that we got it.
“I get into Christmas and I have favorite records,” she adds. “I love the one by The Chieftains and John Fahey's Christmas record, which is just guitar. I love Eddie Arnold's and Gene Autry's Christmas records. It is nice to put on Booker T & The MGs' Christmas record, too, and I'm honored to be in that company.”
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