Notes from the Shore

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This Is My Father’s World

Skip to the end if you don’t like the technical details…

The lyrics to this hymn were written in 1901 by Pastor Maltbie Babcock who would hike in upstate New York seeing “his Father’s World.” The melody was added in 1915 by Franklin Sheppard. I love this sweet English melody – it reminds me of Vaughn Williams.

Some months ago when I was paging through a hymnal looking for hymns that took my fancy for this project, My Father’s World jumped out at me not only as appealing, but I immediately knew what instrumentation I wanted to use – recorder lead and hammered dulcimer accompaniment. Of course, I cannot do anything simply, so the arrangement built. First came a flute harmony, then a solo violin countermelody, doubled by a glockenspiel to help it sing nicely. Then I added a string section and piano (gotta have a piano).

I remember the evening that I sat down at the Yamaha upright in my living room and worked out the bridge. I don’t know if I echoed the melody in the piano on purpose, but it sure worked out nicely. Listen to the bridge and you can hear that the melody line very closely follows the melody from the verse. I could hear the strings accompanying the piano with the swells, and then pizzicato – very sweet. The pizz then fades one section at a time into a moving tremolo chord and into the big string section lead.

Here’s an interesting irony that I realized some months into working on the writing and arranging of this piece. I could hear the string section at this point clearly in my head. I called it “Copeland-esque”. Ironically, I realized some months later that the reason I could hear this part so clearly in my head is because I had in fact heard something very much like it. In his Lord of the Rings movies score, composer Howard Shore uses recurring motifs for each of the major plot or thematic elements of the movies. His “Shire” theme starts with the first line of Father’s World!

At any rate, the recorder returns with the flute for the reprise of the chorus, and the strings fade out while the hammered dulcimer fades back in. At the end, the strings make a return for the last chord. Under the last verse and chorus is also a booming bass drum.

(click for larger image)

Now for the technical details: The hammered dulcimer is from the Early Patches sample library. The cymbal roll in the middle of the piece is a sample that I found somewhere on the Interwebs, probably over at The Freesound Project. Everything else except the recorder is from the Garritan family of libraries – GPO, JABB and the Steinway. The recorder gave me fits, trying several shots at computerized samples before giving up and buying and learning to play a consort of recorders (it took all four to cover the range of the piece).

I wrote the piece entirely in Finale, and then recorded it in Sonar. The Hammered Dulcimer is the original MIDI output from Finale (I can’t play it that fast on keyboard). So are the strings, but everything else was played in live: the flute from my WX5, everything else by keyboard.

Once everything was in the way I wanted it, it was time to mix. This was actually the shortest phase of the project in actual work. It was spread out a bit as I messed with other projects, but it went together fairly smoothly.

I followed my usual process of attacking the piece one section at a time. I use automation extensively to balance the levels, and there’s a lot going on in this piece. Sometimes there’s only one or two instruments playing, and sometimes it’s the full ensemble. The screen shot to the left shows towards the end of the piece when the string choir is in all its glory. The “empty” track at the bottom is a sub where all the strings go before going to the main output. You can see the automation envelopes in each track, including the string sub at the bottom where I can control the level of the strings as a whole.

Sometimes volume changes wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go. I used some EQ on the glockenspiel, for instance, so that I could keep it both audible and not piercing. You can see most of the EQs on the screen shot to the right.

Since the Recorder was recorded live by an amateur player, the levels are not terrifically constant. They’re not too bad, but bits and pieces were popping out here and there. I attached the Antress Modern Painkiller compressor to even things out a bit, and used automation to tidy up whatever the compressor didn’t catch.

I was getting close, nearing the end of the song. In this last section, I have a deep, booming drum accenting the first beat of certain measures. I searched long and hard for the drum I heard in my head, thinking I needed a Japanese Taiko drum. I didn’t have any luck, but then I was trolling through the GPO percussion instruments. Son of a gun, the orchestral bass drum was just what the doctor ordered.

This proved to cause some trouble mixing, though. Every time the bass drum hit, the track broke up and hit me with terrible digital static. This shouldn’t happen, because I have a limiter on the 2-bus, or stereo output. I opened the limiter to see what was going on. Every time the drum hit, the limiter was going crazy trying to catch the signal and keep it from clipping. It sounded almost as bad as the clipping itself.

I was a little confused because the sound wasn’t pegging any of the meters, but my guess was that the sample contained a lot of really low frequencies and subsonics. I started by opening the EQ and high-pass filtering. I raised the frequency of the filter until I started hearing a loss of power in the drum, and then backed it off just a little.

Then I attached a compressor to the drum channel. All I needed was something simple, and hadn’t had an opportunity to try out this little freebee SSL compressor. I put it in, turned up the input until is was compressing nicely, and turned down the output until it wasn’t peaking the limiter – and it did the trick.

The last thing I did to a track was to the whole string bus. I recently listened to a podcast where the podcaster was talking about various mastering issues. In one of his examples he applied a stereo widener to a choir. It didn’t work so well for him because it smudged up the choir sound a little bit, but I liked the widening effect. I figured that my legato strings could survive a little smudging up, and downloaded the Flux Stereo Tool and played with the controls until I had something I liked. I’m really pleased with the effect, and I don’t think I could have gotten something so smooth sounding by just adjusting the panning of the 5 individual string tracks.

The last step in the chain was actually the first thing I inserted – my 2-bus compressor. My 2-bus compressor of choice these days is Bootsie’s Density Mk II. This does a really good job of gluing the stereo bus together with a little bit of dynamic saturation. I always insert the 2-bus compressor first because I need to make all of my mixing decisions listening through it. In my style of music the 2-bus compressor is not doing a whole lot of compressing (I like the music fairly dynamic), but it does affect how I mix things. If I mixed the song and then put on the compressor, the balances that I worked to hard to achieve would be changed. (Edit: here’s a cool article recently posted by Joe Gilder on master bus compression.)

I posted the song over at the Northernsounds forum for comment and critique, and subsequently decided to make a few changes. First, I added double basses to the string section, because there just wasn’t enough oomph to them. I also changed the volume balancing a little in a few places and messed with the panning some.

If this wasn’t enough for you, here can be found the entire sordid tale.

So, for your listening pleasure (I hope):

This Is My Father’s World

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