The Chieftains and FriendsLast fall, a stellar cast of country and bluegrass artists joined the Grammy Award-winning Celtic group to perform songs from Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions. 3/01/2003 7:00 AM Eastern
According to The Chieftains frontman Paddy Moloney, the musicallineage of Appalachia's bluegrass and Ireland's “greengrass” sprouts from the same fertile soil. Last fall, Moloneyproved his theory at the historic Ryman Auditorium, where a stellarcast of country and bluegrass artists joined the Grammy Award-winningCeltic group to perform songs from Down the Old Plank Road: TheNashville Sessions, a two-volume collaborative on RCA Victor.
A two-hour DVD release and one-hour PBS television special —both featuring concert footage, interview clips and video from therecording sessions — will reach the public this month, inconjunction with The Chieftains' 40th anniversary and 41st careeralbum. The Ryman concert prepped the band for their 41st world tour,which began in January.
Sadly, the live event also marked the final performance ofChieftains harpist Derek Bell, who died from unknown causes just twoweeks later. “His passing will leave a silence that will never befilled,” The Chieftains said collectively in a recentstatement.
TEC Award-winning broadcast engineer Marc Repp recorded the sold-outconcert from the MTV Networks Digital Audio Truck, an impressive mobileunit that houses a 96-input AMS Neve Capricorn digital audio console.As the sound producer, Repp supervised all aspects of recording, mixingand post-production for an event that included The Chieftains, anine-piece house band (packed with A-list session players such askeyboardist Matt Rollings, dobro whiz Jerry Douglas, drummer ShannonForrest, banjo player Jim Mills, fiddler Stuart Duncan and guitaristBryan Sutton, among others), three sets of dancers and 15 guestartists.
To avoid a potential miking nightmare, Repp planned ahead.“Basically, we set up the show with enough mics so that peoplecould walk on and off anytime,” he says. “As we got furtherinto rehearsal, the director wanted to take mics off of the stage asneeded, just to keep their shots clear. So, we started setting andresetting those, but we could have done it without moving a singlemicrophone.”
The “forest of mics” included an assortment of NeumannKM140s, Shure KSM 32s and KSM 44s, Sennheiser 416s, and AKG 535s, 419sand 409s. Repp used Audio-Technica 35s for fiddles and snare, Shure SM57s on the banjo and a set of SM 58s for the vocalists. “I findthat they sound good on a wide range of voices,” Repp says.“There are some great-sounding vocal mics out there, but since wehad such a wide range of people coming and going, and because TheChieftains were already using them in their band, I chose the SM58.”
Repp reserved one brand-new SM 58 for lead vocalist and narratorMoloney, and placed four more across the front of the stage for guestssuch as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Martina McBride,John Hiatt, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Buddy and Julie Miller,and bluegrass wizards Del McCoury, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas, EarlScruggs, Jeff White and Ricky Skaggs. Chieftains bodhrán playerKevin Conneff and acoustic guitarist Jeff White also sang through SM58s.
“It was the weirdest conglomeration of microphones for a liveTV show that I've used in a while,” says monitoring engineerChuck Davis, adding that it was mostly due to the addition of Uilleannpipes, harp, tiompán, accordion, tin whistle and other atypicalinstruments. “There's only a couple of ways you can mike them.Also, The Chieftains have been doing this for 40 years, and they'reused to having their mics a certain way.”
Moloney confirms: “For 40 years, we've been doing our normalshow. Technically, I always thought the best sound for the band for TVor radio was these two microphones hanging above the theater like inthe old days.”
The individual miking strategy presented an odd challenge for theengineers. “We had a rundown of who played on what songs, butmany times, I'd look up and Stuart Duncan, for example, wouldn't belisted for a certain song, but there he'd be,” Repp says.“So, to avoid getting into a problem, I just left everything upall of the time, so if they came or went, the mics were alwaysthere.”
Davis experienced similar challenges in the monitor mix. ErickJaskowiak, who also served as second engineer on The Chieftains' CD,assisted Davis during the concert. “I said, ‘Your jobtonight is to look at the house band, and whoever's not playing, mutethem. If they're still muted when they walk back onstage, you're introuble!’” he says jokingly. “That way, I couldconcentrate on the artists and The Chieftains and make sure that theywere happy.”
Davis worked from the Ryman's 48-input Soundcraft SM 16 monitorconsole, paired with six BSS FCS 920 Varicurve Stereo-Programmable EQs,a Yamaha SPX990 effects processor, two dbx 160A compressors and othereffects. The 2,300-capacity venue also features 12 Clair Bros. 12 AMmonitor wedges and an amp rack stocked with 13 Carver/Clair Bros.CBA-1000s.
“Kudos to Clair Brothers,” Davis says of the 12 AM.“I don't think that there's a better wedge out there. In almostany instance, I can go up to an EQ, do what I need to do, and know it'sgoing to be safe and loud. I don't think anybody said, ‘Turn meup’ all night.” He did communicate with Chieftains engineerMark Howard, who transmitted Moloney's requests.
From the top of the balcony, Howard manned the Ryman's 40-inputSoundcraft Europa and an effects rack equipped with Yamaha and Lexiconprocessors and an assortment of dbx compressors, among other items.
Howard squeezed The Chieftains and house band onto 32 channels,leaving eight for guest vocalists and musicians. “Normally, we'llhave a few extra players, but not a whole extra band,” Howardsays. “The mix is a lot denser with so many playersonstage.”
Howard generally mixes to please the live audience, but for thisperformance, the television and DVD mix became top priority. “Ihad to try to keep the volume down and have a consistent show,”Howard says. “The Ryman's an interesting venue because everyoneonstage hears so much of the house playing back. If it gets too loud inthe house, it can really hurt the performers onstage.”
Loud volumes didn't keep the artists from delivering virtuallyflawless performances across the board. Earl Scruggs received the firststanding ovation for his rendition of “Sally Goodin”;Martina McBride nearly rattled the stained glass windows on “I'llBe All Smiles Tonight”; and Ricky Skaggs' exuberant performanceof “Cindy,” joined by the Opry Clog Dancers and the limbertap dancing Pilatzke brothers, had the house clapping their hands,stomping their feet and singing along to the traditional bluegrasstune.
The Chieftains appeared equally comfortable onstage, althoughMoloney admits to pre-show jitters. “TV can throw his rhythm offbecause people are changing mics in front of him, and he has to keeptalking where he normally wouldn't,” Howard says of the vocalistand tin whistle virtuoso. “It was a different vibe for themonstage, but in The Chieftains camp, we just treated it like a regularshow.”
The band also adjusted easily to the Ryman's acoustics. “TheRyman system was originally designed to enhance the acoustics of what'sgoing on onstage,” Ryman audio engineer Les Banks says.“But the band has to be sensitive to the room and not play likethey do every day in a club or an arena. For those who get it, it workswonderfully.”
The audience also helped enhance the sound quality.“Audio-wise, our biggest advantage was a full house,” Bankssays. “It's an audio person's dream to have a full house at theRyman because it helps the acoustics. The Ryman was designed in thelate 1800s for Reverend Sam Jones to be heard preachin' the gospel withno amplification.”
The home of Jones' revivals became the “Mother Church ofCountry Music” in 1943 with the coming of the legendary Grand OleOpry, which broadcast from the Ryman until 1974. After sitting vacantfor 20 years, the Ryman was restored and became a nationally renowned,historically significant venue, hosting artists such as Sheryl Crow,Lyle Lovett, Wilco and Elvis Costello, along with country legends andseasonal Opry performances.
Artists of all genres revere the Ryman for both historic and sonicreasons. “Acoustically, it's the curved walls,” Banks saysof the venue's superior sound. “If you're facing the audience,all of the curved walls are bouncing your voice right back to you,which is great for acoustics, but it gets in the way when youover-amplify with electric instruments. The lower you play, the betteryou sound, because if you over-excite the room with too muchamplification, it just starts bouncing all over the place. And theghosts of the Ryman don't like that.”
The spirit-friendly Chieftains performance was captured by MTVNetworks' AMS Neve Capricorn and an array of effects processors,including the TC Electronic M5000. “I used it to do more ambientsettings, and got a real nice, intimate room sound,” Repp says.He recorded to the Studer D827 digital 48-track, as well as a set ofTascam DA-88s. One DA-88 included nothing but six tracks of audiencestems for the forthcoming 5.1 mix.
To properly record the audience, Repp placed four mics at the frontof the stage, a stereo mic in the middle of the main floor and twowidespread mics at the back of the main floor. Audience tracks werethen mixed in stereo for the TV broadcast. “For the 5.1 mix,we'll separate them out for front, center and back to give the depth ofthe room, and we'll wrap some of the extreme stereo-left and rightstuff around the sides,” he says.
Repp mixed the concert to broadcast standards on the truck'sCapricorn, utilizing the mobile studio's Genelec monitoring system, AMSNeve 33609 stereo limiter/compressors, Empirical Labs EL8limiter/compressors and TC Electronic effects processors and delays.After mixing down to Tascam DA-88, Repp brought material to DigitalAudio Post, where he supervised the final DVD mix and post-productionprocess.
Located in Emerald Entertainment's “Building 2”(formerly Masterfonics), Digital Audio Post features the Pro Tools 24MIXPlus, the accompanying Pro Control and two Yamaha 02R digitalconsoles with full dynamic automation and recall. The facility,expanded and remodeled in 1999, is also equipped for 5.1 AC-3 andplayback formats that include AES, TDIF, ADAT and analog.
D.A.P. owner Michael Davis served as audio sweetening andpost-production mixer on The Chieftains project. Davis“batch-digitized” the DA-88s in Pro Tools with Digidesign'sPostconform program. “Postconform looks at the edit-decision listthat video house generates, and finds all of the appropriate pieces ofthe mix and ambiences on the DA-88. It loads those in and pastes theminto place, so that my timeline looks exactly like the videoedit,” Davis explains.
Postconform then created eight tracks that sync to the videofootage. Additional documentary audio and voice-over parts, sent viaOMF files, were added in prior to the sweetening process — afairly basic procedure for this concert. “We added additionalapplause as a way to smooth across the edits,” Davis days.“We made sure that the tracks are consistent and have goodbeginnings and endings.”
The process was modified slightly in anticipation of a DVD mix.“We have to be sure that we do sweetening across all six channelsso that the applause is proportionate when we pull all of thosechannels into surround.”
Davis made slight EQ adjustments to the stereo mix during there-recording process. The veteran engineer also mixed the project forDVD, aided by the Martinsound Multimax Surround Monitoring System.“We don't usually try to do anything really racy as far aspanning individual instruments,” Davis says of the 5.1 mix,designed to mimic sitting in the middle of the live audience. “Weleft the stereo mix in the front speakers, then took the ambientspeakers and spread them across the front to the rear. Then we took themics from the back of the room and sent them to the back speakers; thesame for the center and the front.”
Surround stems were routed through the 02R, dubbed off to sixchannels of DA-88 and sent to a local DVD authoring house. Mixes forthe television special were recorded onto CD and sent to Music CityDigital for the last round of video editing.
Whether they know it or not, the engineering and production crewrecorded more than just a concert and television special to promoteDown the Old Plank Road. They helped provide a glimpse into therich history of Celtic and roots music, both of which grew out ofback-porch pickin' parties and spirited family celebrations. Throughtheir final performance with Bell, The Chieftains and theirüber-talented guest list show us that the only thing that reallyseparates the music and traditions of Ireland and America is one largebody of water.
Pictures from the sold-out Chieftans concert at the RymanAuditorium on September 30, 2002, by Rahav Segev
Emmy Lou Harris performs
Ricky Skaggs performs
Alison Krauss sings "Molly Bán"
Patty Griffin sings "Whole Heap of Little Horses"
John Hiatt sings "Down the Old Plank Road"
Paddy Moloney with Gillian Welch backstage at the Ryman Auditorium.