When one thinks of Nashville music, world beat, fusion and new age don't readily come to mind. But as the city's artistic and recording communities have expanded during the years, it's become home for a wildly diverse blend of players. Over time, the ones who stay realize there is plenty of life outside of Music Row's mainstream country scene.
Producer/engineer/musician/composer Kirby Shelstad (www.kirbyshelstad.com) has made a name for himself as one of the area's finest drummers, percussionists and synthesizer talents in the areas of world music, new age, fusion, rock, jazz, blues, classical, feature-film composing and pretty much anything musically exotic. In 1979, Shelstad came to Nashville from Minnesota, where he had left college to take a gig on the road, only to get fired somewhere in Kentucky after three months. Instead of going back home to finish school, he checked out Nashville and has been here ever since.
Percussionist/engineer Kirby Shelstad at home with his drums
Photo: Rick Clark
“I never thought I'd end up in Nashville, actually,” says Shelstad. “When I got here, it was like a cultural wasteland compared to Minneapolis, but at the same time, it was comfortable here and the cost of living was so low that it didn't take long to get by totally being a musician.”
In 1997, Shelstad was nominated “Percussionist of the Year” by the Nashville Music Awards and has performed and recorded with such notables as Leon Russell, Mark O'Connor, Béla Fleck, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Charlie Rich, Dobie Gray, New Grass Revival, Kathy Mattea, the Nashville Symphony and many more. Shelstad also has considerable experience in feature-film scoring, including the bizarre independent art film Existo, four Ernes' features for Touchstone Pictures films and the award-winning children's series on CBS, Hey, Vern, It's Ernest!, which he scored with best friend and former Minnesotan Bruce Arntson. Shelstad has also composed numerous soundtracks for educational films, documentaries, television commercials and CD-ROMs for clients including National Geographic, Warner New Media, Jeep, Toyota, Bridgestone, TNN and others.
“Film work is great but is also complex and tedious. You start out working 12-hour days and eventually work your way up to 20 hours!” says Shelstad. “The deadlines can be intense, but I'm glad I've been able to learn these skills.”
Shelstad gives credit for the development of his engineering chops to Rich Schirmer, who engineered the movies he scored, as well as Gene Eichelberger, Lynn Peterzell, Willie Pevier and Giles Reaves. “Giles is a great player, engineer and close friend, and he has taught me a great deal in Pro Tools and other soft and hard synths,” he says.
Beginning in 1990, Shelstad began studying tabla drumming and Indian classical music with the tabla masters Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and Ustad Azkir Hussain at the Northern California music school run by sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, one of India's most respected musicians. He also learned about South Indian classical singing from Dr. Sankaren Mahadevan and Western singing techniques with Kathy Chiavola.
Over the years, Shelstad has released seven fine CDs on his own label, Love Circle Music, that reflect his life's spiritual and reflective sides — the most recent being Mother of the Buddahs, which was three years in the making.
I visited Shelstad at his new digs in the hills of West Meade, which was once the home and studio of producer/engineer and all-around good guy Bil Vorndick. “There are a few small floating rooms with double walls and windows. It's built like a tank and the isolation is great,” says Shelstad. “This is really a blessing because it was ready to go. I even purchased a Pro Tools rig from the previous owner, Charlie Honea, who rebuilt the studio and did an excellent job. All the wiring is done perfectly, including lots of Ethernet connections, video feeds that go everywhere and mic panel boxes in every room, plus a very nicely wired patchbay. Once I configured a few of my things into the setup, I was recording and mixing in about a week.”
Shelstad's basic rig comprises Pro Tools HD3 running on a Mac G4, ProControl and Tannoy Reveal monitors. “The ProControl is quite nice and came with the studio package. I'm having fun mixing again with faders,” enthuses Shelstad. “Mixing with the mouse the last few years has some advantages, but grabbing faders for the basic levels feels great again. I'm also using Ableton's Live and Stylus RMX to be in the loopy world, as well as Reason and the Native Instruments soft synth bundle, which is excellent. In the meantime, I've got a pile of synths in the garage destined for eBay soon. The soft synth world is getting better all the time, and I really like having all the parameters on the screen; plus, they are all easily automatable in the DAW.”
For recording, Shelstad has some favorite ways to capture the best sounds his drums and exotic percussion have to offer. “For recording percussion, aside from the large-diaphram mics, I like to use AKG 414s through Neve or API mic pre's, as well as the KM184s for many things. I also have a Royer SF-24 that sounds great on overheads and all kinds of stuff,” says Shelstad. “I'm also getting great results using lower-cost dynamic mics from Shure and Audix, coupled with a pair of Great River mic pre's and EQs. These mics are really handy in a noisier room. They have a real direct sound, and with these Great River EQs, you can carve all kinds of tone out of them before printing to disk.
“I use fairly typical mic placement on drums and percussion, but am always moving them around to try find other tones and possibilities,” he continues. “As a player, I really try to adjust my technique to the room and mic setup. Many times, I find myself playing much softer and opening up the mics with the preamp gain to see how much I can get out of them. Drum sets can sound huge if the drummer can play a bit softer, letting the mics and pre's do the work. This might bring in a bit more noise, but there are some amazing sounds you can get this way, and it's also great for getting sound effects from found objects.”
Recently, Shelstad has begun recording and mixing The Doyle and Debbie Show, which is another brainchild of Arnston and is enjoying a successful run in Nashville. “It's a theater piece and a hilarious country music parody, if there is such a thing,” Shelstad offers. “It runs about 90 minutes and there's around 18 pieces of music. It's gone really well and we're hoping that as it expands, we'll get to perform it more with a band, and hopefully move it into film and television.”
Shelstad is currently working on tracks for Beth Neilsen Chapman's upcoming album of world hymns and heading up an archival project of 25 years of teachings by Tibetan teachers, which were recorded on many different formats. He is also mixing a South Indian classical CD by Mahadevan. Shelstad is looking forward to working on his next album for the first quarter of the new year.
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