The Chieftains and Friends

Mar 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Heather Johnson


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According to The Chieftains frontman Paddy Moloney, the musical lineage of Appalachia's bluegrass and Ireland's “green grass” sprouts from the same fertile soil. Last fall, Moloney proved his theory at the historic Ryman Auditorium, where a stellar cast of country and bluegrass artists joined the Grammy Award-winning Celtic group to perform songs from Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions, a two-volume collaborative on RCA Victor.

A two-hour DVD release and one-hour PBS television special — both featuring concert footage, interview clips and video from the recording sessions — will reach the public this month, in conjunction with The Chieftains' 40th anniversary and 41st career album. The Ryman concert prepped the band for their 41st world tour, which began in January.

Sadly, the live event also marked the final performance of Chieftains harpist Derek Bell, who died from unknown causes just two weeks later. “His passing will leave a silence that will never be filled,” The Chieftains said collectively in a recent statement.

TEC Award-winning broadcast engineer Marc Repp recorded the sold-out concert from the MTV Networks Digital Audio Truck, an impressive mobile unit that houses a 96-input AMS Neve Capricorn digital audio console. As the sound producer, Repp supervised all aspects of recording, mixing and post-production for an event that included The Chieftains, a nine-piece house band (packed with A-list session players such as keyboardist Matt Rollings, dobro whiz Jerry Douglas, drummer Shannon Forrest, banjo player Jim Mills, fiddler Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others), three sets of dancers and 15 guest artists.

To avoid a potential miking nightmare, Repp planned ahead. “Basically, we set up the show with enough mics so that people could walk on and off anytime,” he says. “As we got further into rehearsal, the director wanted to take mics off of the stage as needed, just to keep their shots clear. So, we started setting and resetting those, but we could have done it without moving a single microphone.”

The “forest of mics” included an assortment of Neumann KM140s, Shure KSM 32s and KSM 44s, Sennheiser 416s, and AKG 535s, 419s and 409s. Repp used Audio-Technica 35s for fiddles and snare, Shure SM 57s on the banjo and a set of SM 58s for the vocalists. “I find that they sound good on a wide range of voices,” Repp says. “There are some great-sounding vocal mics out there, but since we had such a wide range of people coming and going, and because The Chieftains were already using them in their band, I chose the SM 58.”

Repp reserved one brand-new SM 58 for lead vocalist and narrator Moloney, and placed four more across the front of the stage for guests such as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, Martina McBride, John Hiatt, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Buddy and Julie Miller, and bluegrass wizards Del McCoury, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas, Earl Scruggs, Jeff White and Ricky Skaggs. Chieftains bodhrán player Kevin Conneff and acoustic guitarist Jeff White also sang through SM 58s.

“It was the weirdest conglomeration of microphones for a live TV show that I've used in a while,” says monitoring engineer Chuck Davis, adding that it was mostly due to the addition of Uilleann pipes, harp, tiompán, accordion, tin whistle and other atypical instruments. “There's only a couple of ways you can mike them. Also, The Chieftains have been doing this for 40 years, and they're used to having their mics a certain way.”

Moloney confirms: “For 40 years, we've been doing our normal show. Technically, I always thought the best sound for the band for TV or radio was these two microphones hanging above the theater like in the old days.”

The individual miking strategy presented an odd challenge for the engineers. “We had a rundown of who played on what songs, but many times, I'd look up and Stuart Duncan, for example, wouldn't be listed for a certain song, but there he'd be,” Repp says. “So, to avoid getting into a problem, I just left everything up all of the time, so if they came or went, the mics were always there.”

Davis experienced similar challenges in the monitor mix. Erick Jaskowiak, who also served as second engineer on The Chieftains' CD, assisted Davis during the concert. “I said, ‘Your job tonight is to look at the house band, and whoever's not playing, mute them. If they're still muted when they walk back onstage, you're in trouble!’” he says jokingly. “That way, I could concentrate on the artists and The Chieftains and make sure that they were happy.”

Davis worked from the Ryman's 48-input Soundcraft SM 16 monitor console, paired with six BSS FCS 920 Varicurve Stereo-Programmable EQs, a Yamaha SPX990 effects processor, two dbx 160A compressors and other effects. The 2,300-capacity venue also features 12 Clair Bros. 12 AM monitor wedges and an amp rack stocked with 13 Carver/Clair Bros. CBA-1000s.

“Kudos to Clair Brothers,” Davis says of the 12 AM. “I don't think that there's a better wedge out there. In almost any instance, I can go up to an EQ, do what I need to do, and know it's going to be safe and loud. I don't think anybody said, ‘Turn me up’ all night.” He did communicate with Chieftains engineer Mark Howard, who transmitted Moloney's requests.

From the top of the balcony, Howard manned the Ryman's 40-input Soundcraft Europa and an effects rack equipped with Yamaha and Lexicon processors and an assortment of dbx compressors, among other items.

Howard squeezed The Chieftains and house band onto 32 channels, leaving eight for guest vocalists and musicians. “Normally, we'll have a few extra players, but not a whole extra band,” Howard says. “The mix is a lot denser with so many players onstage.”

Howard generally mixes to please the live audience, but for this performance, the television and DVD mix became top priority. “I had to try to keep the volume down and have a consistent show,” Howard says. “The Ryman's an interesting venue because everyone onstage hears so much of the house playing back. If it gets too loud in the house, it can really hurt the performers onstage.”

Loud volumes didn't keep the artists from delivering virtually flawless performances across the board. Earl Scruggs received the first standing ovation for his rendition of “Sally Goodin”; Martina McBride nearly rattled the stained glass windows on “I'll Be All Smiles Tonight”; and Ricky Skaggs' exuberant performance of “Cindy,” joined by the Opry Clog Dancers and the limber tap dancing Pilatzke brothers, had the house clapping their hands, stomping their feet and singing along to the traditional bluegrass tune.

The Chieftains appeared equally comfortable onstage, although Moloney admits to pre-show jitters. “TV can throw his rhythm off because people are changing mics in front of him, and he has to keep talking where he normally wouldn't,” Howard says of the vocalist and tin whistle virtuoso. “It was a different vibe for them onstage, but in The Chieftains camp, we just treated it like a regular show.”

The band also adjusted easily to the Ryman's acoustics. “The Ryman system was originally designed to enhance the acoustics of what's going on onstage,” Ryman audio engineer Les Banks says. “But the band has to be sensitive to the room and not play like they do every day in a club or an arena. For those who get it, it works wonderfully.”

The audience also helped enhance the sound quality. “Audio-wise, our biggest advantage was a full house,” Banks says. “It's an audio person's dream to have a full house at the Ryman because it helps the acoustics. The Ryman was designed in the late 1800s for Reverend Sam Jones to be heard preachin' the gospel with no amplification.”

The home of Jones' revivals became the “Mother Church of Country Music” in 1943 with the coming of the legendary Grand Ole Opry, which broadcast from the Ryman until 1974. After sitting vacant for 20 years, the Ryman was restored and became a nationally renowned, historically significant venue, hosting artists such as Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Wilco and Elvis Costello, along with country legends and seasonal Opry performances.

Artists of all genres revere the Ryman for both historic and sonic reasons. “Acoustically, it's the curved walls,” Banks says of the venue's superior sound. “If you're facing the audience, all of the curved walls are bouncing your voice right back to you, which is great for acoustics, but it gets in the way when you over-amplify with electric instruments. The lower you play, the better you sound, because if you over-excite the room with too much amplification, it just starts bouncing all over the place. And the ghosts of the Ryman don't like that.”


The spirit-friendly Chieftains performance was captured by MTV Networks' AMS Neve Capricorn and an array of effects processors, including the TC Electronic M5000. “I used it to do more ambient settings, and got a real nice, intimate room sound,” Repp says. He recorded to the Studer D827 digital 48-track, as well as a set of Tascam DA-88s. One DA-88 included nothing but six tracks of audience stems for the forthcoming 5.1 mix.

To properly record the audience, Repp placed four mics at the front of the stage, a stereo mic in the middle of the main floor and two widespread mics at the back of the main floor. Audience tracks were then mixed in stereo for the TV broadcast. “For the 5.1 mix, we'll separate them out for front, center and back to give the depth of the room, and we'll wrap some of the extreme stereo-left and right stuff around the sides,” he says.

Repp mixed the concert to broadcast standards on the truck's Capricorn, utilizing the mobile studio's Genelec monitoring system, AMS Neve 33609 stereo limiter/compressors, Empirical Labs EL8 limiter/compressors and TC Electronic effects processors and delays. After mixing down to Tascam DA-88, Repp brought material to Digital Audio Post, where he supervised the final DVD mix and post-production process.

Located in Emerald Entertainment's “Building 2” (formerly Masterfonics), Digital Audio Post features the Pro Tools 24 MIXPlus, the accompanying Pro Control and two Yamaha 02R digital consoles with full dynamic automation and recall. The facility, expanded and remodeled in 1999, is also equipped for 5.1 AC-3 and playback formats that include AES, TDIF, ADAT and analog.

D.A.P. owner Michael Davis served as audio sweetening and post-production mixer on The Chieftains project. Davis “batch-digitized” the DA-88s in Pro Tools with Digidesign's Postconform program. “Postconform looks at the edit-decision list that video house generates, and finds all of the appropriate pieces of the mix and ambiences on the DA-88. It loads those in and pastes them into place, so that my timeline looks exactly like the video edit,” Davis explains.

Postconform then created eight tracks that sync to the video footage. Additional documentary audio and voice-over parts, sent via OMF files, were added in prior to the sweetening process — a fairly basic procedure for this concert. “We added additional applause as a way to smooth across the edits,” Davis days. “We made sure that the tracks are consistent and have good beginnings and endings.”

The process was modified slightly in anticipation of a DVD mix. “We have to be sure that we do sweetening across all six channels so that the applause is proportionate when we pull all of those channels into surround.”

Davis made slight EQ adjustments to the stereo mix during the re-recording process. The veteran engineer also mixed the project for DVD, aided by the Martinsound Multimax Surround Monitoring System. “We don't usually try to do anything really racy as far as panning individual instruments,” Davis says of the 5.1 mix, designed to mimic sitting in the middle of the live audience. “We left the stereo mix in the front speakers, then took the ambient speakers and spread them across the front to the rear. Then we took the mics from the back of the room and sent them to the back speakers; the same for the center and the front.”

Surround stems were routed through the 02R, dubbed off to six channels of DA-88 and sent to a local DVD authoring house. Mixes for the television special were recorded onto CD and sent to Music City Digital for the last round of video editing.

Whether they know it or not, the engineering and production crew recorded more than just a concert and television special to promote Down the Old Plank Road. They helped provide a glimpse into the rich history of Celtic and roots music, both of which grew out of back-porch pickin' parties and spirited family celebrations. Through their final performance with Bell, The Chieftains and their über-talented guest list show us that the only thing that really separates the music and traditions of Ireland and America is one large body of water.

Pictures from the sold-out Chieftans concert at the Ryman Auditorium on September 30, 2002, by Rahav Segev

Emmy Lou Harris performs

Ricky Skaggs performs

Alison Krauss sings "Molly Bán"

Patty Griffin sings "Whole Heap of Little Horses"

John Hiatt sings "Down the Old Plank Road"

Paddy Moloney with Gillian Welch backstage at the Ryman Auditorium.

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