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.
Paczosa: “I stereo mic 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 the 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 high pass 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 J.D. 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’Conner. 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 a [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 as well. 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, towards 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 pre amp. It is outstanding to blend that in with any large diaphram 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 the 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 mic 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 Bela Fleck brings out his old Mastertone banjo, which is a beautiful instrument, I’ll mic 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 J.D 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. And 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 KM 54s 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 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 mic 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-size 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.”
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 El Diablo, which I mentioned earlier. 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 Rode 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.”
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—Jerry owns a few and always brings them along.”
VornDick: “On Jerry Douglas, historically 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 260s—because I was using the 67s for vocals—and that was immaculate, too. Mike Audldridge 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, it affects where I put the mic.”
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.”