Studio Insider--November, 2012

Studio Insider #176 November, 2012

Spoiler Alert! Well, OK… self promotion alert: My composition “Hymn to the Big Sky,” originally recorded on my American Portrait album, can be heard in Ken Burns’ new film, “The Dust Bowl,” which premieres November 18 and 19, 2012 (8:00–10:00 p.m. ET) on PBS.

American Folklore Society in New Orleans and Audio Engineering Society in San Francisco

This has been a crazy week for me, but incredibly rich and musical. Wednesday I flew to one of my favorite cities, New Orleans, for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society. There were lots of great sessions with music content, of course. Alan Jabbour, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, delighted us with stories and tunes from Appalachian fiddlers Henry Reed and Tommy Jarrell. Dyann Arthur, from the Seattle area, screened her informative and entertaining hour-long film, "Americana Women: Roots Musicians--Women's Tales and Tunes." It’s a collection of short interviews and performances by female roots musicians, many of whom are not professional performers. They range from slide players to fiddlers, accordionists, banjo pickers, pianists, and more. Many are delightfully colorful, including a wonderful fiddler who is still performing in her 90’s.

An animated discussion, “Perspectives on Appalachian Music and Race,” considered how record companies’ decisions and scholars’ practices have set up expectations in many people concerning how race is identified with particular genres and styles of music, often in incorrect and limiting ways. It turns out that when left to their own preferences, many African-American and white folks have enjoyed and participated in each other’s music for centuries, when segregation and industry practices haven’t kept them separate.

I presented a talk with photographs, music charts, and recordings, tracing the life of the fiddle tune “Maiden’s Prayer.” This tune began as a parlor piano piece in 1851 in Poland, and it soon swept Europe and the Americas as a popular hit. Every generation or two, the piece reappeared in sheet music publications and recordings until it emerged in 1935 on Bob Wills’ iconic fiddle record. The progression from the parlor to the honky-tonk dance floor is fascinating, and I’ll write a column about it soon for the CBA, as many of our fiddlers know and play the Maiden’s Prayer.

One evening before dinner, I walked up to the river, as my family and I have a personal connection with the Mighty Mississippi. In 1997, we hired Captain Bob Schleicher to take us in his Gulf shrimp boat from Cape Girardeau to his home port, St. Paul, Minnesota. During the month-long trip, we stopped to get to know many of the small communities along the river, where ways of life are rapidly changing as the poor and tiny towns try to cope with flooding, dying economies, and a vanishing population. When I walked along New Orleans’ riverside last week, the full moon rose as the sun set colorfully, and the beautiful views of the river, boats and surroundings were a welcome sight after spending my days indoors at the conference. The paddle wheeler Natchez was docked close by, and a band on the open-air second deck was playing traditional New Orleans jazz. That was the same gig that Louis Armstrong had 90 years ago.

After my presentation on Saturday, I drove the two and a half hours up to Lafayette, Louisiana, to play at the Black Pot Festival. Each year, the South Louisiana Black Pot Festival & Cook-Off is held at Lafayette’s Acadian Village, a living history park. In addition to presenting many kinds of roots music, the festival holds a “cook off” (hence the name “black pot”) in which contestants serve their best versions of Louisiana gumbo, cracklins, and jambalaya. Visitors sample the wares (mmmmm!) and leave tickets at the booths of their favorite providers. The winners get cash prizes, but nobody seemed overly competitive at this friendly festival.

So why was I playing at Black Pot? Texas-Polish fiddler Brian Marshall and his band “The Texas Slavic Playboys” were performing, and invited me to play with them. (Brian is interviewed in my documentary “The Waltz to Westphalia.”) We did a set of mostly Polish traditional music with the Texas influences that these musicians have from growing up near Houston. Mark Rubin played a typical trad Polish bass – a cello, which was hanging from his neck by a strap, and bowed vigorously on the downbeats. Brian Wisnowski played the hand drum, which looks a bit like a large Irish bodhran. We had a guitar too, and a tenor sax, so the band was definitely playing the Texas Poles’ unique sound. We played in an old church, and although there were a few microphones on stage, they probably weren’t needed. Brian and the guys filled the room with their boisterous vocals, ringing out over the noise of that hand drum and the combined instruments. Most of the repertoire was Polish village music – polkas, waltzes, and obereks (a type of ¾ meter tune with accents on the downbeat). I looked twice and spotted Eric and Suzy Thompson, California roots musicians extraordinaire, sitting in the audience and grooving. They were there for the entire festival, and clearly enjoying the fun music and vibe. The rest of the audience was noisy, appreciative, and friendly. As I drove back to New Orleans for my flight home the next morning, I watched the sky slowly turn pink and blue over the bayous and farm fields of southern Louisiana, and reflected on what an incredibly satisfying week it had been.

The next morning, back in California, I drove to San Francisco to attend the last day of the AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention. While there was plenty there to attract the most geeky audio engineer and researcher, I was headed to the exhibits floor to gather info for my readers. If you are interested in getting an advance look at emerging products and technologies, consider attending the exhibits at the AES. Many sponsors advertise free entry passes online. There are also informative lectures, seminars, and other events during the almost week-long event, although many of these charge admission fees.

The show was smaller this year than most, but there were some good finds. Along with their well-respected studio mics, DPA was showing their 4099V miniature instrument microphone, which attaches to a fiddle or mandolin with a small rubber clip and is suspended from a small gooseneck. (They also show these at the IBMA World of Bluegrass exhibits in Nashville). Although company people told me that they have “designed the proximity effect out of this microphone,” I found that not to be the case. Bay area multi-instrumentalist Tim Weed (no relation) was at their booth with a banjo and mandolin, and we both tried moving the mic around, monitoring its sounds at different spots on his instruments while using headphones. The results were predictable – location is everything! We found that the supplied gooseneck with the 4099V was just shy of what we needed to get a natural sound. If feedback suppression is not a problem, I would recommend this mic very highly, but only with the purchase of DPA’s gooseneck extender. It’s a shame they don’t just sell it with the proper length gooseneck. Placing the mic about 5 to 6 inches from the instrument provided a beautiful sound, and the mic and its mounting system are very unobtrusive.

Tim and I later met at the Sony booth, where the company was showing a new, inexpensive digital wireless system for microphones and guitars. The DWZ-B30GB package consists of a small transmitter with belt clip, into which you plug your instrument mic, and a receiving unit, which plugs into the house PA system. The package will retail for $399, which is roughly one tenth of what good competing systems cost. This rig sounded very good to Tim and me. We were quite skeptical at first, due to our many years of experience with analog wireless systems that heavily compressed (and degraded) the audio of our instruments. The transmitter provides about 10 hours of reliable service from two AA batteries. The company promised that the rig will be available at California retail stores next week. While touring with a country band in the 1980’s, I used a Nady analog wireless system for my fiddle, and loved the freedom from cord tangles and the ability to move around the stage without being tethered to an amp. Sony has designed this system to work with an adaptor supplied by DPA, so combining the new miniature mic from DPA with this wireless rig looks like a great solution for acoustic musicians who want clean sound, with no mic stand or cables.

The AES is finally recognizing that the monster 10-foot long, 100-input console is no longer the heart of the audio recording industry. Although trade magazines and recording schools still use images of these dinosaurs to lure readers and students, the real action today is in smaller “project” and home studios that typically center around home computer-based digital audio workstations. The exhibits floor at AES contained a “Project Studio Expo,” (open to the exhibits floor without charge) where panel discussions covered such topics as “Can Project Studios Really Get Professional Results?” and “Total Tracking: Get It Right At Source” and “Mixing Secrets: Production Tricks to Use with Any DAW.”

Of course “project” and “home” studios can achieve professional results, provided the operators know how to use them well. The exploding eclecticism in the music we have access to today is almost matched by the growth in recording tools we have available, with new devices and technologies coming out at a dizzying pace.

One new and useful tool for mastering engineers is a software program plug-in from Sonnox, called “Fraunhofer Pro-Codec.” This tool allows an engineer to process a mix with mp3 or Apple iTunes codec, and listen to it after it has been decoded in real time, so that any changes in the music that result from the encoding and decoding can be dealt with while the mix is still in the engineer’s studio. This can help eliminate the typical guesswork, when an engineer says “Well, it sounds great now, but what’ll it be like after iTunes destroys it?”

If you are working in a small home studio and are bothered by noisy fans in your computers or amplifiers, or if you are trying to block off a small area for musical isolation, you might be interested in some sound-proof sliding glass doors from Soundproof Windows, Inc., from Reno, Nevada. Their sliding glass door and window systems can provide STC (sound transmission classification) ratings up to the low 60’s, which is quite useful.

Finally, Royer Labs, of Burbank, CA, was showing some new ribbon microphones. Some feature phantom power, which means their onboard electronics provide a signal level on par with condenser microphones. In the past, the low output of traditional sweet-sounding, mellow-voiced ribbon microphones meant that many engineers would not use them, because the extra amplification they needed introduced noise into a recording. Royer was also showing a new powered model with an amazingly small, 1.8 micron ribbon element, which it says rivals condenser mics in detail and accuracy. I’ll be looking to try one of these on fiddle.

Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. Joe’s composition “Hymn to the Big Sky” can be heard in “The Dust Bowl,” a film by Ken Burns, which premieres November 18 and 19, 2012 (8:00–10:00 p.m. ET on PBS). Joe recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at, or by visiting

Posted By:  Rick Cornish

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