Recording Bluegrass Instruments Online Extra

Apr 28, 2008 5:35 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Tradition is good, tradition is important. But just as no one expects rock ’n’ roll albums today to sound like the Sun and Chess records of the genre’s 1950s pioneers, the sonic tastes of bluegrass fans have evolved considerably since the seminal ’40s and ’50s recordings of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, the Osborne Brothers, the Sunny Mountain Boys, Ralph and Carter Stanley, and all the other greats who helped define the style. True, there is a certain romance to the gritty mono recordings that were usually cut with just a couple of microphones direct to disc: You can sometimes hear the fiddler or guitarist or mandolin player actually leaning in towards the mic for a solo, and you can feel how the band as a whole balances itself from moment to moment, both in relation to each other and with the soaring vocal harmonies that rise above the instrumental conversation of the ensemble. Good as those recordings might sound—and with today’s restoration techniques, many of them have literally never sounded better—they tend to be light on bass and guitar, somewhat imprecise on both the upper and lower registers of the mandolin, occasionally too ring-y on certain banjo notes, and lacking the ambient “air” that modern ears appreciate.

Of course, bluegrass itself has changed and grown through the years, though there will always be purists dedicated to preserving the art form as exemplified by the classic Blue Grass Boys quintet, with Monroe on mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on double-bass. But from the beginning, there were bluegrass groups that didn’t toe that line—that made remarkable music as duos and trios, added Dobro to the mix, or doubled banjos or fiddles or guitars. Even the tradition-oriented Blue Grass Boys were in a semi-constant state of flux as new members brought in new influences, whether it was the “high lonesome” wail of Jimmy Martin (which changed the group’s harmonies), innovative banjo pickers from Don Reno to Bill Keith, or swing jazz-influenced fiddlers such as Vassar Clements and Richard Greene. In all, more than 150 different players cycled through Monroe’s group alone over five decades, and many of them took what they’d learned in that proving ground and added ingredients of their own to other bluegrass and bluegrass-inspired projects. By now there have been bluegrass albums featuring piano, drums, strings, saxophone and electric instruments (bass being the most common); somehow, the essence of the music always seems to survive every challenge from “progressive” elements. Indeed, bluegrass is enjoying a particularly robust period right now, as shown by the success of everyone from Alison Krauss to Ricky Skaggs, to Rhonda Vincent, to the smash hit soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to hippie “jam” bands like Railroad Earth and Yonder Mountain String Band.

Not surprisingly, Nashville has long been the center of bluegrass recording, though there have certainly been historic and important sides cut elsewhere: The Blue Grass Boys’ most famous early sessions were in Chicago; the Seldom Scene worked out of the D.C area (and counted George Massenburg among its early engineers); the Kentucky Colonels (with Clarence White) were based in L.A.; David Grisman’s ground-breaking fusion of bluegrass and jazz, known as Dawg Music, and featuring the likes of Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs and Vassar Clements (engineered by Bill Wolf, who also helmed a number of influential discs by Rice solo, Mark O’Connor and the Bluegrass Album Band) worked out of the SF Bay Area. But over the past 20 years, Nashville has reasserted its dominance in the field, and it’s where we went looking when we wanted to talk to engineers about recording bluegrass.

Our panel is a distinguished one:

Gary Paczosa says that it was a year of recording “every variation of classical and jazz” as an intern at the Eastman School of Music that taught him “how to listen to instruments and the room and then reproduce that. That’s my job with acoustic music—really listening to what’s there and putting a magnifying glass on it.” When he came to Nashville he assisted on every kind of session imaginable, but cites working under Chuck Ainlay on The Telluride Sessions, the lone album by the all-virtuoso group Strength in Numbers (Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Conner and Edgar Meyer) as being particularly formative. “Most of them came in with their own microphones. We spent a day or two getting sounds and comparing 15 ips against 30 ips and they were so tone-conscious. I worked on that for ten days and I knew that was how I wanted to approach recording. So from that point on that’s how I geared everything from the microphones I purchased to the preamps; everything was based around acoustic music.” As an engineer and producer, the multi-Grammy-winning Paczosa has worked with scores of top artists, including Alison Krauss & Union Station (whom he has recorded since the mid-’90s), Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek (and Chris Thile), Tim O’ Brien, Dixie Chicks, John Prine, Darrell Scott, Yo-Yo Ma—and the list goes on.

Bil VornDick is another respected engineer/producer particularly admired for his work recording acoustic music. Originally from Great Falls, Virginia, a D.C. suburb, VornDick used to go see local bluegrass favorites such as the Seldon Scene, the Country Gentlemen and Cliff Waldron & New Shades of Grass, occasionally getting into shows for free by doing sound. “Ralph Stanley and other top bluegrass acts would come up and play clubs in Georgetown,” he says, “and there were also various bluegrass festivals at places like Berryville [Va.], Camp Springs [N.C.] and Galax [Va.].” When VornDick moved to Nashville and became part of the studio scene there, he says he admired such established engineers as Quonset Hut regulars Jim Williamson and Mort Thomasson (who also built a number of studios in town), and Scotty Moore—“people think of him mostly as a guitarist,” Vorn Dick says, “but he was also an engineer at Marty Robbins studio,” where VornDick himself eventually became chief engineer for a spell. Since the early ’80s, VornDick has worked on projects with the likes of Bela Fleck, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Del McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis, Maura O’Connell, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and dozens more.

Hailing from Kentucky, Steve Chandler moved to Nashville in the late ’70s and has been a fixture in local studios ever since, working with a wide variety of bluegrass, old-time, gospel and country acts. One of his longest associations has been among his most fruitful: banjo master J.D. Crowe had been a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys in the ’50s, the Kentucky Mountain Boys in the ’60s, and in the ’70s formed one of the first great progressive bluegrass groups, the New South, with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Bobby Slone. Chandler has worked on all of Crowe’s albums, except one, since 1977’s You Can Share My Blanket, including the 2007 bluegrass Grammy nominee Lefty’s Old Guitar, which was cut at Hilltop Studios in Nashville. Among the many other acts he’s cut, produced or mixed through the years are Keith Whitley, Hazel Dickens, the Whitstein Brothers, the Happy Goodman Family (and Vestal Goodman solo), the Osborne brothers, Rhonda Vincent and NewFound Road.

Finally, we have a two-fer. Randy Kohrs is probably best known as one of the top bluegrass players in Nashville—a Dobro and lap steel specialist who also plays regular acoustic guitar, pedal steel, dulcimer, even drums if need be; he’s played on scores of sessions—Dolly, Randy Travis, Hank III, Dierks Bentley, Rhonda Vincent, and a zillion bluegrass tributes to everyone from Eric Clapton to Kelly Clarkson, to name just a few. But he also does engineering and production on some projects, including the winner of this year’s Grammy in the Bluegrass category, Jim Lauderdale’s Bluegrass. After our interview, Kohrs turned the phone over to Michael Latterer, an up-and-coming engineer, originally from Minnesota but in Nashville since 2000, who has helped Korhrs record two of his own albums, and also worked with Hank III, Lauderdale, Blue Moon Rising, Ralph Stanley II and Rhonda Vincent, whose All American Bluegrass Girl earned two Grammy nominations in 2006. Latterer also runs a company called Music City Audio Machines, which designs custom Nuendo-based workstations for studios (including Kohrs’ and Rhonda Vincent’s) and also rents equipment.

It goes without saying that each of these fine engineers will treat every bluegrass project that comes his way uniquely. Variations in budgets, studio and equipment availability, the players involved and the instruments being recorded are all variable that will affect how each approaches a bluegrass session.

“We’re in the digital age now and we have more options than ever before,” VornDick says, “whereas before, you’d try to record pretty much how it went down live in the studio. I’ve done a Jimmy Martin album in 45 minutes. They came in, stood up like they would onstage, they played, we taped it and that was it. But that doesn’t happen much,” he laughs.

“Different generations always had different technology to work with. The early guys had to record a whole band on two mics and then you get to the Bluegrass Album Band and they’ve got reels and reels stacked high. Jerry Douglas might like his Dobro part from take 17 and Tony Rice might like his guitar part from take 23, so they’d put all that stuff together—everybody’s picking their favorite performances for themselves.”

“I’ve done it both ways,” Paczosa agrees. “It great to have some isolation so you can punch in and fix things and have more control over it in general, but, for instance, on the last Darryl Scott record I did, we cut everyone live in one room, no headphones, over at George Massenburg’s room at Blackbird and that’s a great record. The last two Tim O’Brien records were cut over here [at his studio] and everyone was close together, so I’m embracing the lack of isolation and the bleed. Part of that, too is economics, because we’re not cutting as much in big studios, I’m cutting at home.” Fortunately, budget limitations have never been a determining factor in whether a bluegrass album was successful. As Paczosa notes, “A Nickel Creek record we did cost $25,000 to make and sold a million!”

“From the perspective of someone making records, the bluegrass scene here in Nashville is very similar to the jazz scene in New York,” Latterer notes. “It’s a mix of fantastic performers, small club performances, low budgets, lower sales, but at the same time a high production standard is required to facilitate capturing an acoustic performance. Sadly, while there is a great core of young musicians and writers working with this music, there’s not a ton of production talent. A lot of talented producers and engineers shy away from bluegrass for higher budgets.”

Rare is the bluegrass project these days that is recorded to tape (though some are still mixed to half-inch); that’s a fact of economics, too. Nuendo probably has a stronger footing in Nashville than in any other major recording center, though Pro Tools is definitely the top dog in this town, too, as it is in New York and L.A. Steve Chandler notes, “Pro Tools is as good as its converters. I still like to cut on RADAR because their converters are so good—they sound so much like tape. That’s J.D. [Crowe’s] preference; he’s not much of Pro Tools guy. A lot of times when I use Pro Tools, I use RADAR converters.

“Even recording to Pro Tools or whatever, we try to stay with our same principals,” he continues. “We do fine-tune things a little better in this day and age, because we can and because the public’s ear has changed in a way. There’s more detail awareness. Some of that is from years and years of people hearing really well-recorded albums, but it’s also from satellite radio and the fact that people have developed ears that recognize good detail. I don’t like so much detail that it sounds sterile, but detail that complements the color is always nice.”

A word that kept coming up in the interviews was “hybrid”—both in terms of commonly employing vintage mics and analog processing to record to digital media (though some bluegrass recordists don’t shy away from digital plug-ins—the 26-year-old Latterer says he and Kohrs like various UAD, Waves and Sonics plug-ins), but also in mixing different recording techniques within a project, as needed. Latterer notes that on a recent Ralph Stanley II project, Kohrs and fiddler Tim Crouch (along with mandolinist Adam Steffey) cut the bulk of the instruments on many tunes, isolated and occasionally layered to conform to rough pre-determined arrangements. “But we also cut about six or eight tunes with the Clinch Mountain Boys, which is Ralph Stanley’s band, and that was a completely different experience. For them we couldn’t cut with a click—it was completely counterintuitive to what was going on. Nobody would even count those tunes off; I’m not kidding! There’s just a banjo or a fiddle and then everybody comes in. The tracks sound great, but they sound totally different.” The fact that they were recorded in a converted church in Kentucky added to their authentic feel, too.

We asked our panel to list some of the microphones and preamps they like to use on traditional bluegrass instruments. (Vocals are whole separate issue, better left to another article.) Keeping in mind what we said earlier about different players, instruments and studios affecting these sorts of choices, here are some of their answers.

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