Recording Bluegrass Instruments

May 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

BOTH MUSIC AND TECHNOLOGY BLEND OLD AND NEW

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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.

BASIC TRACKS

“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.






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