Tradition runs deep in the bluegrass music community. At the same time, no one expects albums today to be made the way they were when Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and the genre's other pioneers were cutting mono records direct to disk, often using just one or two microphones. These days, as with other styles, bluegrass is mostly (but not exclusively) recorded to digital workstations, with some isolation, using expensive microphones and top-quality outboard gear.
To learn more about the modern art of recording traditional bluegrass, we talked techniques and equipment with several top Nashville engineers. Gary Paczosa is perhaps best known for his award-winning work with Alison Krauss & Union Station, but his long credit lists also includes Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek (and Chris Thile), Tim O'Brien, John Prine, Darrell Scott, Yo-Yo Ma and the Dixie Chicks. Widely respected engineer/producer Bil VornDick has worked on projects with the likes of Jerry Douglas (for 25 years!), Béla Fleck, Mark O'Connor, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Del McCoury, Rhonda Vincent and Krauss. Steve Chandler has recorded nearly all of banjo great JD Crowe's albums since the late '70s, including the 2007 bluegrass Grammy nominee Lefty's Old Guitar. 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, the Osborne Brothers, Vincent and NewFound Road. Dobro and lap steel specialist Randy Kohrs is best known as a top session musician in Nashville, but he also produces and engineers — indeed, he did both on this year's Grammy-winning album by Jim Lauderdale, The Bluegrass Diaries. When Kohrs and I spoke, as a bonus he handed the phone to his frequent collaborator, engineer Michael Latterer, who has impressive bluegrass recording credentials of his own, including Lauderdale and Vincent.
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 variables in the equation.
“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.” [Laughs]
“Different generations always had different technology to work with,” he continues. “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 Darrell 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 Paczosa's 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 [copies]!”
“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 these days is the bluegrass project that is recorded to tape (though some are still mixed to half-inch); that's a fact of economics, too. Steinberg Nuendo probably has a stronger footing in Nashville than in any other major recording center, though Digidesign Pro Tools is definitely the top dog in this town, too, as it is in New York and L.A. 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 JD [Crowe's] preference; he's not much of a 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 principles,” 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” — not only 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 as regards to mixing different recording techniques within a project as needed. Latterer notes that on a recent Ralph Stanley II project, Kohrs and fiddler Tim Crouch cut the bulk of the instruments on many tunes with instruments isolated and occasionally layered to conform to rough predetermined 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.”
We asked our panel to talk about some of the microphones and preamps they like to use on traditional bluegrass instruments. (Vocals are a 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.
Paczosa: “I stereo-mike everything, or at least I use two microphones; it's not always a true stereo configuration. On mandolin, I like to use [Neumann] KM54s that I angle in from the top and bottom. The top mic is pointed down at the top string and the bottom mic would be pointed up more at the sound hole, six to eight inches off. The bottom mic really helps with low punch for mando chop, and the top gives you the high-end detail. I always want a fast preamp for mandolin, so I'll usually use a discrete preamp like the Millennia. I'd also use a compressor with a fast attack time and a fast release — almost the same compression and path I'd use on a snare drum. I've used the dbx 160 on mando, but lately I've gone to the Distressor.
VornDick: “My workhorse is a [Neumann] KM84 and I also use a Milab a lot, or an Audio-Technica 4033 or 4040. But [vintage gear dealer] Fletcher has a new microphone, a KM69, that I've been using a lot instead of the KM84 and it's really amazing — it's bright, but it's smooth. For me, the main thing with the mandolin is watching where the hand moves, making sure the mic is placed so it actually gets the instrument and you don't have the masking effect of the hand going in front of the mic.
“By stereo-miking instruments, you can bring out the high mic or the low mic without having to do anything EQ-wise except highpass filters. I'll put the mics six or seven inches away to get the whole tonal overtone of the instrument. I like API or Neve preamps, and Rupert [Neve] also has a new stereo mic pre that's really stunning on mandolin called the Portico .”
Kohrs: “I'll typically use a pair of [Neumann] KM184s. I'll put one at each f-hole top and bottom, pretty close together, maybe six inches apart, tilted in to capture a stereo image. I also like to use a stereo pair of Violet ‘Finger’ mics or, depending on the mandolin, a Royer 121 for thickness and depth. All of them are run through Forssell preamps.”
Chandler: “On Dwight McCall [in JD Crowe's band], I'll put one KM84 in front, between his hand and where the neck starts and get back a couple of feet — I'll move in and listen for that right proximity. Then I'll put another mic where the lower f-hole is, almost like I'm miking his hand. There's good warmth there. I like Neve and API preamps on just about everything. I don't use an EQ on that because a mandolin will cut through anyway. I use a Sony C-30 for Ricky Skaggs.”
Paczosa: “In the case of both Stuart Duncan and Alison [Krauss], they've got great-sounding fiddles, and I'll put KM54s on them, fairly close together — I'm never panning them hard-left and -right; I'm only opening them maybe two degrees from 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock. I'll use a Mastering Lab [pre] with a GML compressor. I think fiddle is by far the hardest [bluegrass] instrument to record because what's perfect for one song might not be for another — once you move to another key, it can change dramatically.”
VornDick: “I don't always do stereo; it depends on whether we're going to overdub fiddle later, like we often did with Mark O'Connor. I'll use a KM64 for some people, a KM84 on others. If I'm in a situation where I'm overdubbing, I might use a [Neumann] 67 or an [AKG] C-12; go for a tube.”
Kohrs: “I usually use one mic on a fiddle, eight to 10 inches away, right where the bow strikes the strings and tilted a hair toward the neck. Lauten Audio's Horizon mic or the Globe or Amethyst mic from Violet Microphones all work great on fiddle. These are run through Natale Audio-modified 600 Series Ampex pre's.”
Chandler: “I've found U87s or 47s on the fiddle are reliable and great when-in-doubt mics, but another one I like is this Studio Projects [LSD2] stereo mic, which is a large-diaphragm mic and surprisingly flat. I used to do two 87s on Mike Cleveland, for instance, but after I used the Studio Projects stereo mic on him one day, he called me up late that night, and said, ‘What mic did you use on my fiddle? This is the first time it's ever sounded exactly like my fiddle!’ So I used that on Ronnie Stewart, too, and I've used it on Stuart Duncan. It gives you two channels, obviously, and the coverage is great.”
Paczosa: “I'll usually put a mic down below the tone ring, near the bottom left pointed up. Because it's a harder sound there, I like the Royer 121 for the tone ring. Then, in front of the banjo I usually will put a large diaphragm — either an Audio-Technica or a Neumann M49 or a 67 — about eight inches away from the open spot below the strings and angled up toward the bottom strings. Another mic I've used and loved is this really old, nasty, giant iron microphone — a Telefunken 201 into a Telefunken V76 preamp.?It is outstanding to blend that in with any large-diaphragm Neumann. It has a midrange punch that is perfect for banjo in a full track. In general for preamps on banjo, I use the Mastering Labs — I love tube compression, especially if the banjo is being played hard. And if I need more compression, the dbx 160 has a nice attack and release for banjos.”
VornDick: “I stereo-mike banjos. On the high end you really can't beat a KM84. Sitting in the position of the banjoist, coming in from down to the left, I'll put it in between the resonator and the head, then move it around until you hit the sweet spot. Then I'll use a U89, which is sort of an unsung hero. A lot of banjo players like a U87. Another one I like is this Swedish microphone, a Milab 56. When Béla Fleck brings out his old Mastertone banjo, which is a beautiful instrument, I'll mike it differently, maybe using a C-12 or a C-24.”
Kohrs: “For banjo, I'm a Mojave Audio fan all the way. I'll run stereo Mojave MA200s. I like my stereo zone to be right where the neck joins the head of the banjo — to me, that's the sweet spot, but it depends on whose instrument it is. I'll use two channels of Fred Forssell preamps — banjo takes a really fast pre, and most times I won't compress the banjo at all going down. In fact, upright bass is the only thing I compress at all.”
Chandler: For JD Crowe, I have a wonderful 40-year-old U87 that I have used on him for years. We've tried other things but we always come back to that. Sonny Osborne, too; he says, ‘Just bring that U87; that's all I want.’ If I do use two mics on a banjo player, it'll probably be two U87s. There have been instances where I'll reach out and grab a [RCA] 77X ribbon mic. I recorded Earl Scruggs the other day and that's what I used on him. I've also used the Royer , which also sounds the way a ribbon should sound. I used that on NewFound Road at Dark Horse. I usually record everything pretty flat because they bring these $100,000 instruments in there, and if you've got a good mic, you're in good shape. So I almost never insert the EQ button. I like using Tube-Tech preamps on banjo; in fact, I like that on just about anything. But I also like Neve and API preamps, as well.”
Paczosa: “Usually, I'll use KM54s or the Royer SF24. I'm leaning more on the SF24 these days, especially if I'm not looking for a wide stereo image in the mix. The SF24s have a little bigger low end than I usually want on guitar, but after I shape the bottom a bit and dig out some top end, it's beautiful.?If it's a more sparse production I'm after, I might head back to the 54s so that I can get a wider image. If it's the 54s I end up with, I love the Mastering Lab preamps, GML EQ and GML compressor. If I go with the Royer, I usually pair it up with the Vintech X81, which has plenty of gain for a ribbon and great-sounding EQ.”
VornDick: “This really depends a lot on the player and the guitar, of course. On Tony [Rice], historically, if he's going to be playing Clarence White's [1930s Martin D-28] guitar, I'll use a Sanken 31 and 32. On someone else I might use KM84s or 184s. Martins can get really boomy when you get to the 35s and 45s. The D-28s are still pretty smooth on the low end; they don't have that thump. I'd normally use an API or Neve [pre], depending on where I'm recording — if I'm going to bring in my racks.
“My mic placement on guitar is a little odd. I have one where the neck joins the body, pointed in the area, looking at the guitar, to the right, between the hole, arch and neck, where the higher transients are. Then I have another one that looks down from where his right shoulder is because most guitar players play to the right ear — and that mic is pointed down to the upper end of the guitar,?covering the area in the middle between the wrist and shoulder. That microphone emulates what the guitarist is hearing, and will be deeper in tonal timbre.?I keep the 3-to-1 rule in mind [if a mic is one foot away from the instrument, it must be three feet away from another mic that is a foot away] and the two mics are no wider in angle then 90 to 110 degrees. They both will be focused to the back of the sound hole.”
Kohrs: “Recently I've been using a stereo pair of Peluso P-28s run through either Telefunken V72s or the Forssell pre's. Placement depends on how boomy the guitar is — if it's a boomy old Martin, Mike and I will either use a Blumlein at the 12th fret to get a lot of punch and what have you, or we'll do an over and under. If it's a finger-picking thing, I tend to mike the guitar left and right wide and get it really close to the guitar to get the fingerpick noise.”
Chandler: “The guitar determines what mics I'll use, but I have favorites. Ricky Watson always comes to the studio with a good Herringbone [a type of Martin D-28 made between 1932 and 1946] because he's got 12 or 15 of them! And, of course, Tony [Rice] has that awesome [D-28], but his right hand is awesome, too, and pulls the tone out of that guitar. Both of those guys like the small-diaphragm mics like KM84s, but sometimes I might put a U87-sized mic or a 47 miking from the center out and then put an 84 or an 86 up around the neck area. For pre's, I stick with Neves and APIs.”
Paszosa: “On upright bass, I have always loved combining a Sony C880G and a B&K 4006.?The Sony has all the top end I need for attack, as well as good low-end definition. I love an omni blended in to pick up some room ambience. I'm not too picky about what preamp I use on the bass, but I love the Anthony DeMaria ADL 1000 compressor. It has the perfect attack and release for doghouse bass.”
VornDick: “For bass, you can't beat a 47 or a 77DX, or a 44. The Shure KSM 44 is really amazing because it has a really tight low end to it. Then there's the [Crowley and Tripp] El Diablo — that can take so much level. Typically, I'll have that lower mic six to eight inches off the bridge, either a little to the left or the right depending on the player. For the upper-end mic, historically I used to use a KM84, but right now I'm loving the new Telefunken 260: I used that on this new Charlie Haden record, and we both loved it. For that upper microphone, I'll go to the center of the upper curve and angle it toward the strings. For a preamp, for ribbons and large-diaphragm mics like that, I'd choose a Great River [Electronics] preamp because you have a lot of options and a pretty fast slew rate.”
Kohrs: “When I'm using two mics, for the bottom mic I'll use a K2 RØDE or Audio Technica 4060 through a [Universal Audio] LA-610 [tube preamp] with mild compression at -2, run through a Natale Audio-modified Ampex 351. For the top mic, I use a Violet ‘Finger’ mic run through a Forssell preamp. I use that for finger noise to get some punch. Sometimes I'll add a third mic to the bass, too, like another 4060.”
Chandler: “For the bottom mic, I like to use an RCA 44 ribbon with a UA LA-610 pre, which gives me more impedance options and a smooth warmth for the low-end tones. I generally like mic placement for this at around six to eight inches from the bridge, depending on the room and instrument volume. For the top mic, I really get good results from U67 or U87s. These mics have good proximity response, which gives you more coverage and ambience.”
Paczosa: “On dobro, it really depends on who is playing. Jerry Douglas makes it really easy. Depending on the dobro and the key that the song is being played in, I will start with a pair of Neumann 582s into the Vintech X81 into the Empirical Labs Distressor. If it's sounding too metallic, then we move right to our Royer options.”
VornDick: “On Jerry Douglas, I use a pair of 67s through a Great River preamp; on his new album, that's what I used. On another session, I used Telefunken 260s — because I was using the 67s for vocals — and that was immaculate. Mike Auldridge likes KM84s, and I've also used KM86s. I'll place the mics six to eight inches off the instrument — one where the hole is on the treble side and one off the resonator, but it depends a little on whether we're talking about a dobro [brand] or a Scheerhorn or a Beard because of the way the overtones work on those particular instruments.”
Kohrs: “Again, I'll use Peluso P-28s run through the Telefunken V72; or the Violet ‘Dolly,’ now called the ‘Black Knight,’ works great, too. Doing tracks with heavily featured dobro, a darker sound sometimes sounds better and I'll go with Royer 121s.”
Chandler: “Dobros are fun, especially when you have players like Rob Icks, Jerry Douglas and Phil Ledbetter to work with, along with good instruments that make mics and placement easier. I like Royer 122s, U87s and C-12s. I always listen for sweet spots before I do any placements and try to get as familiar with the tone of the instrument and player as possible to reproduce the tone accurately.”
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.