The Rev (John Nelson) came down again from Provincetown, MA to record in January (drums and rhythm tracks), and again in May (backing, fills, vocals), 2013. The result is his best CD yet, Leavin’ Nashvegas. Take a listen to the title cut, Leavin’ Nashvegas. Nice!

CD COVER: THE REV, LEAVIN’ NASHVEGAS

Several changes were made when recording this album. First, I completely revised the way that the bass guitar was recorded.

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IMG_0050I used a smaller amp and cab, a Markbass 12′. I miked it using an EV RE320 (on instrument setting), and took a parallel line into my LA610 MKII so that I could add a line source into the mix. On the Markbass, I used a slightly midrange setting, and ran the RE320 into my Peavey VMP-2 tube preamp (I love this pre for bass!). This gave me lots of options at mix down, and helped us to get a really solid and punchy bass sound this time around without it being too sub-gassy (the Rev is not a fan of low end).

The next change was in how the drums were recorded. I decided to use Auralex Promax baffles around the drum kit to control the room a little more, and I used a Cascade X-15 ribbon mic for overhead mic, to try to tame some of the highs from the kit, due to the low ceiling in my room.

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I put a pair of MikTek C5s on the cymbals, in case I needed it in the mix, and I miked the underbelly of the snare with a Beyerdynamic M422N (C) – a great mic for taming high end rattle from snares. This gave me great options at mix down this time around and vastly improved what I was able to do with the drums, given the range of different kinds of songs The Rev has on this CD. When recording drums, I only use compression on the Kick, so I used my True Precision rack of 8 preamps for pretty much everything else. You can really hear the different on songs such as Sausage and Fries.

Oh, and in order to get the Cascade stereo ribbon mics “off the ground,” I used the greatest invention since peanut butter, the (stereo CL-2) Cloudlifter. Man, do I love this little toy!

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Another change this time around was getting Mark to use my ’72 Telecaster Thinline to track the lead guitar.

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He also used my pedalboard, adding in his own compressor. The Nick Greer Ghetto Stomp was great for John’s blues tunes! And my buddy Dave Perkins loaned us his vintage Cry Baby for the reggae tune, Prayers for Luna.

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Finally, the Rev. wasn’t going to get the CD mastered independently, so I was going to have to do it. Knowing this from the start, I used the Slate Virtual Console on this project, spreading the NEVE board emulation across the entire project, including mix busses. I also spread the Slate Virtual Tape Machine across all channels as well. I also used Izotope 5 (on the mix buss – only for small tweaks), and the Slate Virtual Mastering Processor to the mastering buss for the CD. I can’t say enough about how much these products have added to all of my recordings. Truly inspired emulations of analog equipment!

All in all, the CD turned out great, and John seems very happy with the end product. Check out the music at his website!

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Ok. A small post about my mixing philosophy. Pretty simple – I’m not a mastering engineer. Every time I go into my  brother’s audiophile listening room, with its $70,000 worth of speakers, preamps, amps, acoustic treatment, etc., I realize that mastering is not the first element in my game. I don’t have the rig. Its a different art entirely from mixing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do it! I’ve got good software for it, and a fairly good ear for the job. But I’m not going to tell you that I can do what a boutique mastering house can do with several hundred thousand dollars worth of gear.

Whether I’m mixing for my own mastering, or someone else’s, here’s the plan:

1. Whether I’m mastering or sending it out, I provide a final mix that is mastering friendly. Even if the client is not going to pay for mastering, I don’t just assume that I should slap a mastering plugin onto the mix and pump it up. I’d rather that the client listen to a well mixed CD than one that is sloppily mastered, or crammed into the Procrustean bed of someone else’s mastering “preset.” That doesn’t mean I don’t use mastering plugins – but I use them to achieve mixing ends – centering bass frequencies on live mixes, multi-pressing frequencies to add more punch or presence, etc.

2. I try to listen to my final mixes on lots of equipment – car speakers, mid-field monitors, near-field monitors, 2.1 computer speakers, etc. I figure if my mix translates pretty well, then if the client doesn’t pay to have it professionally mastered, at least it will sound good in lots of contexts.

3. I try to listen to my final mixes (and masters) on at least one audiophile system – just to tweak it with all the audio information I can, and with the best soundstage possible. My brother lives in Denver – and I have been known to haul my computer and Apogee Mini-Dac into his listening room when visiting him, spending a few hours with whatever projects I have going. It helps. I have a couple of other options nearby.

Near my home, a new listening room has just been installed at The University of the South, Sewanee, TN. It’s called the Ralston Listening Library. The guy who runs it is Tam Carlson, one of my English Professors when I was a student there years ago. He’s a music lover. When I was a student in the 70’s we used to go to his home and listen to old Toscanini vinyl albums on his electrostatic speakers. Amazing! Last time I was up there, he told me he’ll log me a few hours in the room if I call ahead. He might do the same for you. Here is a picture of Tam hanging out in this amazing room.

Ralston Listening Library, Sewanee, TN

For a great article about this listening room, and more great pictures, check out Stereophile.

4. Finally, I leave as much space in the mix as I can. By this I mean that I don’t hyper-compress the audio – even if it is Heavy Metal. When I bounce the final mix, I don’t want my gain structure and compression to leave the transients looking flat as a doornail. I leave at least 3 db. of headroom overall, and work for clean gain throughout the chain, with no tracks overly compressed or pumping. I focus on building a luxurious stereo soundstage and on getting the kind of sonic palette that works best for the project. In the end, however, I want a good mastering engineer to have something he or she can work with, adding the kinds of finishing touches that only they can add. If I squash out all of the gain, or over-compress, there’s nothing a mastering engineer can do.

What I’m trying to say is this: “to thine own self be true.” I’m a recording and mixing engineer. And I mix in a way that lets the mastering engineer do his job (even if that happens to be ME).

John Wiley Nelson (a.k.a. “The Rev”) is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister who lives in Provincetown, MA. In his retirement, he is the manager of the local public radio station, WOMR. The Rev writes mostly folk and/or Americana songs. He likes to use acoustic instruments, but with electric bass and drums – locating his sound somewhere between bluegrass and country. Although a minister, his music is not religious – though, at times, it shows the sensibilities and sensitivities of a theologian and pastor. There is a lot of fun in his music which is loaded with irony, double-entendre, and reversals of plot.

The Rev. likes quality of instrumentation. When he comes to town, he hires the best. In this case, he hired Grammy award winner Randy Kohrs on dobro and pedal steel. Kohrs was Dolly Parton’s dobro player for years, and has played on more than 500 albums, ranging from those by such legends as Hank Thompson and Jerry Reed to current chart-toppers Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley, Sara Evans and The Wreckers.  Among his accolades for such work is a 2009 Academy of Country Music Award nomination in the Top Specialty Instrumentalist category. Randy owns and operates his own recording studio called Slack Key Recording Studio. We sent him scratch tracks and he recorded his tracks in his own studio.

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On fiddle, the Rev brought in Stuart Duncan. Stuart can be seen and heard with The Nashville Bluegrass Band, where he’s been a contributing member since 1985.  The band has won two Grammies, multiple IBMA & SPBMA awards. Duncan has played with Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Yo Yo Ma, Alan Jackson, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and many others. He is a complete professional. Because he tracked after the dobro and mandolin were finished, he provided fills that weave all of the other tracks together in a beautiful way. He showed remarkable sensitivity also. When tracking “Ordinary Day”, a song with a verse about the death of the Rev’s son, he re-recorded his lead, working to make it match the tenor and feeling of that part of the song. I used a single MikTek C5 on his fiddle and it worked great. I let him find the sweet spot, and the tracks turned out great.

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The Rev hired Grammy award winner Adam Steffey to record mandolin tracks. Steffey has played with many of the bluegrass greats, including playing for seven years with Alison Krauss and Union Station, working regularly with the Dan Tyminski Band, and now playing with the Boxcars. Adam lives several hours away and had a friend, Ron Fonzerelli, record his tracks and send them in. Ron used API pres and a stereo pair of Neumann KM84s to record Adam. The tracks turned out really well in the mix.

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I used no eq or compression on the dobro, mando, or fiddle tracks. I used the same stereo buss for all three instruments in order to get them pretty much into the same sonic space in the mix.

Plugin Settings

That buss had a tiny bit of Softube “Focusing Eq“, (to add tape saturation – I love Softube saturation), URS API modeled eq. (a really smooth, natural sounding eq.), a very small bit of URS 70’s compression, and a tiny bit of IK Multimedia CSR Room reverb on it. That’s all.

The Rev. likes to mix genres on his CDs, and on this CD he had two great blues tunes. He flew Mark Hill in from New Jersey to track the lead  guitar parts. Mark played with Herd of Blues for years, and really has a nice feel for blues. He brought his Fender Nashville Telecaster and we recorded him through my Fender Princeton, using a single Shure SM57. He used my Nick Greer “Ghetto Stomp” to add grit to the sound. The result was great.

Mark Hill

Andy Hull produced some masterful drum and percussion tracks. Andy has drummed for Ty Herndon, Jamie O’Neal, Collin Raye, Joey and Rory, Lee Greenwood, and the Evinrudes. I tracked him in the larger room in the studio and, instead of overhead miking cymbals individually and using a room mix, I used a stereo pair of AT4041s, which are brighter than my MikTek C5s,  up and back over the kit to get the kit reflecting off the walls of the room. This would give us the option of picking up as much of the ambient wood in that room as we could as a part of the kit.

 

On the Rev’s vocals, we used the TLM 103 through my UA LA610-MKII. I used a tiny bit of limiting on the way in, but no compression. With vocal tracks I usually use a 4-buss setup. Buss 1 is for a touch of reverb, buss 2 is for a tiny bit of delay, buss 3 is for vocal thickening, and buss 4 is for widening. I find that the Logic Stereo Delay works fine for delay, timed to 1/8 notes and used very modestly. Izotope Alloy’s vocal preset for “Intimate Parallel” vocals is a nice place to start when tweaking a vocal thickening track. Logic’s analog tape compression combined with Logic’s Stereo Spreader produce a nice, adjustable spread. The IK Multimedia “Vocal Late Reverb” setting provided a good amount of reverb ambience.

Vocal Plugins

The Rev invited his daughter, Molly, to track vocals on three of the CD’s songs. She had a lovely, soft voice, and her pitch was perfect. I used the TLM 103 on her voice and a similar 4-buss palette.

The Rev asked me to record the bass tracks. I used my Fender American Deluxe P-Bass. I went direct, through the LA 610MKII. I then added the IK Multimedia Ampeg SVX plugin, splitting the sound between the DI and an emulated SVT-4 Pro. On the two blues songs, I used the back pickup (a Fender Jazz Pickup), and a bit more compression on the way in, to get a more mid-rangy “honkin blues” sound.

He also asked me to record some of the rhythm guitar tracks. Mark Hill recorded some of these also. He prefers these to be in the mix, but not prominent. I used my MikTek C5 stereo pair in a ORTF arrangement for these tracks.

He also had me record the keyboard tracks. I used Logic’s “Yamaha Studio” piano for the piano tracks, and used my Nord Electro 2 for the organ tracks.

The CD turned out great. Check it out at CD BABY.

Leslie (my daughter) is a talented young photographer, writer and vocalist.

Leslie in the Vocal Booth

She wanted her second CD, Back Home to You, to be a little different. While filled with her usual bluegrassy, folky, Spanish-laced original music, she wanted to include several covers – long time favorites by Peter Rowan (You Were There for Me), Patty Griffin (Useless Desires), Alison Krauss (It Don’t Matter Now), Julie Lee (Many Waters), and Josh Wolak (Fell Out). All of these songs are wonderful, and really fit in nicely with her own music.

The sonic palette we were after might best be described as “acoustic silk.” We wanted the musical background to be soft, transparent, understated, but musically interesting. Leslie wanted me to provide the acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, and keyboard tracks. To save money, I would do some of the lead guitar work on my Alvarez S-Yairi dreadnaught and on a half-sized guitar called a Papoose, made by Tacoma guitars.

Nathan Dugger, a friend of Leslie’s from her days at Belmont University, who has since gone on to play with Marc Broussard and Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, provided lead guitar work on You Were There for Me and Useless Desires. Nathan came by the house and I recorded him in stereo, using the TLM 103 about 10 inches from his bridge, and an AT4041 about 8 inches off the 16th fret. I used this same configuration to record my own guitar tracks. Nathan did a first rate job with two very difficult songs.

Nathan Dugger (in another studio)

Nathan Dugger (in another studio)

Kevin Maul provided Dobro work on the more bluegrass-oriented songs, Sarah Taylor and Fell Out. Kevin has performed with Soul/Blues icons the Holmes Brothers and has shared the stage with people like Greg Brown, Tim O’Brien, voodoo blues king John Mooney, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill, Chet Atkins, dobro master Jerry Douglas, and the Everly Brothers. He’s been a frequent guest, along with Robin and Linda Williams, on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program as well as Mountain Stage, E-Town and Austin City Limits.

Kevin Maul

Although I’ve recorded Kevin in the studio before, this time he mailed his tracks in from his home studio in upper state New York. He did a great job of getting the feel for the songs.

Leslie wanted acoustic double bass on the CD. I don’t play double bass, so I sampled a note from an old Bill Evans CD and spreading it across the keyboard of the EXS24 sampler in Logic. Worked pretty well.

We decided that the only “drum” on the CD would be the chop of a mandolin on several more upbeat songs. I don’t play mandolin. Again, I sampled a chop from another recording provided by mandolinist and guitarist Mark Hill and used the EXS24 to play the mando chops. The results were pretty nice – not perfect, but overall fairly effective and musical.

Recording Leslie’s voice is always difficult. She is a powerhouse, and controlling the transients that nearly leap out of the speakers is not easy. Her good friend Carson Leverett, in a course on music tech at Belmont, had built a crazy looking preamp modeled exactly after a Manley Tube Preamp. It turned out to be just the ticket. While capturing her voice beautifully, it also seemed to have a kind of natural compression built into it that kept her peaks in range of what my FMR Compressor could deal with. I didn’t use much compression – just a tiny bit of limiting, and the result was lovely.

Carson’s Hand Made Manley Tube Preamp

Given the very limited budget, and the fact that I had to cover musical instruments that were not in my repertoire, the CD turned out beautifully. Check out a cut HERE.

Several years ago, when I was still living and recording music in Louisville, KY, I was contacted by a wonderful woman named Joyce Ochs about recording a CD to accompany a basic lesson book for the mountain dulcimer.

Joyce Ochs and her Dulcimers

The book was to be a part of the well-known and respected Mel Bay lesson series.

Mel Bay First Lessons: Dulcimer

She gave me a draft of the book, which indicated all of the places where we would need to record her voice and a music sample. She also asked me to accompany her on the guitar. I set her up in the studio, and, after trying a couple of microphones out, discovered that my Rode NT-2 gave just the right body and high end bite that was needed, in order for students to hear the notes and chords well. We used the Neumann TLM-103 for her spoken parts, and the AT4041s for my acoustic guitar.

As you can see from this screenshot of the index, we recorded a LOT of music! And she was kind enough to thank me in her acknowledgments.

Index of Joyce’s Dulcimer Book

We had a wonderful day in the studio, as Joyce demonstrated her outstanding talent for organizing lessons, articulating clearly her instructions, and performing beautifully what she was after. The result is a first rate set of lessons on the mountain dulcimer by the “first lady” of dulcimer music herself. Check it out!

Ian Willey (AKA I.C. Will) flew in from New York City on Thursday. His primary goal was to track several songs in the vocal booth, and to have my daughter, Leslie, record several vocal hooks and background vocal parts.

I.C. Will, July 2012 Session

As I’ve noted before, Ian likes me to roll off most of the low end on his voice, so I pulled everything below 200 of during he recording stage, and pulled more off in Logic. Here’s the eq curve he likes! Whew! And you can hear it (audio clip linked below)!

He and Leslie spent a good bit of time discussing his lyrics (on his iPhone) and deciding on how he wanted the vocal hooks to feel.

He wanted Leslie to not only sing a few vocal hooks, but to also do some blues scat vocals behind his rapping during a couple of songs.

In the end, it SOUNDED GREAT to have her free-stylin’ on vocals while he rapped.

The CD is now about halfway tracked. I’ll keep you posted!

Sherry Cothran is a smart, multi-talented, profoundly creative woman. The former lead singer for the alt-Southern rock  band the Evinrudes, Sherry now is the pastor of West Nashville United Methodist Church.

I first met her in class at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She was beginning a journey that would end with her placing her poetic abilities as a lyricist, and her musical genius, into the service of giving voice to biblical women. By her third and final year in divinity school, she had written a complete set of incredible songs. I was lucky enough to be able to work with her in the studio,  bringing these songs to life. Through each song we hear something of Sherry’s own journey of faith, and what it means to be a woman haunted by the God of the Bible. The stories of Deborah, Hagar, the woman of Endor,  the “strange woman” of Proverbs 8, and others resonate with the lives of women today.

Sherry was able to rally the Evinrudes to track her songs in the studio. It was a real treat to work with this excellent group of musicians who are now playing with some of Nashville’s big name artists.

Andy Hull produced some masterful drum and percussion tracks. I tracked him in the larger room in the studio and, instead of overhead miking cymbals individually and using a room mix, I used a stereo pair of AT4041s, which are brighter than my MikTek C5s,  up and back over the kit to get the kit reflecting off the walls of the room. This would give us the option of picking up as much of the ambient wood in that room as we could as a part of the kit. Sherry liked this room sound, and liked the drums on the “bright” side. We used a lot of room ambience on the drum and percussion tracks.

Ethan Pilzer’s bass tracks are fluid and lyrical – creating beautiful counterpoints throughout the CD. He lugged his excellent preamp rig into the studio and I ran it direct into my Apogee converters. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the sound he was getting. He also recorded his standup  bass tracks at home and mailed them in. I found that with a little tweaking, Izotope Alloy’s preset for acoustic bass was just the ticket for juicing those tracks with some presence and energy.

Brian Reed’s guitar work adds consistent “signature” hooks to nearly every song on the CD. We used an SM57 on his tweed amp, off axis, through my old Peavey VMP-2 tube amp to add a little grit and grain, and the sound was fantastic. Brian played identical parallel tracks, doubling himself perfectly on each song. This allowed us to create a huge soundstage with the electric guitar.

Jonathon Hamby’s keyboard tracks, especially on “In My Lover’s Arms” are sensitive and add sonic depth throughout the CD. He recorded these at home and mailed them in. In the mix, they needed only a little high-mid boost to cut through nicely.

Sherry invited Conni Ellisor in to track on violin, encouraging her to use Middle Eastern scales and tones. Conni was amazing. Her fiddle sounded best with a ribbon mic, and the Cascade Fathead worked wonders, keeping the highs from overpowering her sound. Conni was her own taskmaster, hard to satisfy, but in the end, her tracks make the CD (IMHO).

Toward the end of our tracking sessions, Sherry wanted a few small percussion tracks. She invited Cathy Chalmers, a first rate percussionist, to bring some of her more exotic percussion instruments into the studio and we spent and afternoon tracking some amazing bits. I wanted some real high end bite on these instruments, so again I used the Audio Technica AT4041 matched pair, allowing enough space from her instruments to capture the room. In the end, Sherry only used a few of these tracks, and they add to the subtle Middle Eastern ambience throughout the CD.

Sherry’s voice presented us with many possibilities. She has beautiful overtones in the low-mid, mid, and high registers. After listening to the music we had tracked, we decided to accentuate the low-mids a little, and to do the unexpected – to accentuate the high end breathiness in her voice, with the preamp (we used the Peavey VMP-2 with a slight high end boost), and by using the URS Neve emulation EQ, which has a great open-sounding high end.

This is one great CD. Here’s Sherry’s website for a quick listen. You can also hear more and order the CD at CD Baby.

For more on the connections between Sherry’s music and my book Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, go to: my blogspot MASHUP RELIGION.

One of my favorite things to do is to support artists who are working for social change. So it is with Ian Willey, (a.k.a. I.C.Will). Ian is a public school teacher in New York City and writes “education movement music” designed to raise consciousness about public education issues in NYC and to boost the self-esteem of students.

Ian is a lyricist, primarily. He gets his beats tailor made by Chris Capable of Capable Beats. Chris builds his beats on Ableton Live, using their VST plugins and instruments and his own collection of keyboards and synths.

One of the issues we had, recording I.C. Will’s first EP (check especially the song New York Sky), was that Ian had Chris provide him with stereo WAV files only.  This limited the amount of mixing we could do in order to build the beat around Ian’s vocals.

We’re now recording his second CD.  For this CD, he’s asked Chris to send bounces of each track of his own mix, especially keeping the bass tracks discrete. We anticipate getting a much phatter mix this time around.

Ian’s voice is naturally full of low frequencies – he’s a low baritone. He doesn’t like this all that well, and generally asks me to remove much of the low end from his voice in the mix.  He likes his vocal acapellas to cut through the mix somewhere in the upper mid range.

For the first album I.C. did a lot of vocal doubling, which took a lot of time. He didn’t feel that it had to be perfect, but he wanted it close. On the new CD, he’s backing off from this, and doing more single track vocals.

He also wanted to sing some of the vocal hooks on the CD. He’s not a trained singer, so this took some tracking to get our system and workflow going. Sometimes we’d negotiate the pitch, going back and forth, till it was within tunable range. For the most part, however, he was able to sing and double his parts easily.

Ian is an amazing human being and a great performer.

Check out the first CD at CD Baby. It’s some amazing music.

A quick trick. It’s not always easy to get your stereo mics spaced well. Here’s an easy way to get your measurements. Go to ORTF  Stereo Technique on Wikipedia. Click on the diagram on that page. Print it out. You can use it to easily align your microphones.

ORTF Microphone Spacing

Wikipedia also has pages for XY spacing and other configurations. Oh, and by the way, ORTF miking is great for acoustic guitar. Give it a try sometime.

My niece Sarah McCutchan was in town last week to attend a music camp for teenagers at Trevecca University. She would be with us for a day and a half before leaving to go to the camp. She indicated interest in recording a few songs. I didn’t know what to expect.

I had her tune my guitar and warm up her voice. Sounded pretty go so far. She knew how to tune the guitar! And her voice sounded promising.

Tuning and Warming Up

I set up a matched stereo pair of MikTek C5 small condenser microphones in an ORTF (near coincident) arrangement and had her track the guitar parts first. The goal was quantity, not quality – so we mostly just ran through the 7 songs quickly, using first takes. We only had about 6 hours to do the whole project!

Then it was into the vocal booth. No pitch problems! A strong voice, though. The best arrangement seemed to be the Neumann TLM103 through the Universal Audio 610 MKII  channel strip. Since there wasn’t much time for tweaking, this tube mic pre and compressor/limiter would help control her peaks (with just a tiny bit of limiting only).

The result was wonderful. Plenty of small errors due to the fast pace and no retakes. But lovely. Here’s a sample, posted by her father on SoundCloud. The other songs should be accessible there as well. Enjoy!