Notes from the Shore

Work, marriage, kids and music

Manger Recording Session: Violin

Last year when I was arranging Away in A Manger for Moments of Comfort and Joy I had a fairly specific concept for what I wanted the violin part to sound like. Given the folksy nature of the arrangement with Appalacian Dulcimer as the central instrument I knew I didn’t want the refined sound of an orchestral classical violinist (sorry, Dena). Enter Sarah Hamilton.

Sarah is a local music teacher and plays violin on my church’s worship team. The first time I heard her play I know she was perfect for the part. Her tone is wonderfully warm and woody, but she still has a delicate touch and delightful nuance to her playing. I approached her about playing the part and she was enthusiastic about being a part of the project.

We set up a Saturday morning to record at the church since that is centrally located  to both of us. I packed up my interface, laptop, and two mics, the ribbon and the tube condenser. I’ve used both before in different recording environments and wasn’t sure which one I would want in the end. Trusting the church to have the necessary mic stands I just brought my box of cables and arrived about an hour earlier than Sarah to set up.

Here’s where flexibility comes in handy. I knew that the shock mount for the MXL mic was broken and wouldn’t lock into place. I’ve used it before like this since it will hang nicely vertically, adequate for recording a violin from above. Therefore I did’t bother bringing my universal mount, which doesn’t fit nicely in my case. Unfortunately, the shock mount was more broken than I remembered, and was unusable. While casting about backstage for something maybe I could use, I came across a box with a pair of MXL 603 small diaphragm condensers with matching shock mounts. Change of plans: I set up the Apex ribbon over the player and placed the SDCs as a widely spaced stereo pair. Given the limited number of instruments in my arrangement, having the violin in stereo will be a nice effect. More on that when I come to mixing.

The first thing I noticed when I began setting up was that the main sanctuary in my church is noisy. There are numerous fans, blowers, and other buzzes and hums that come along with the electronic setup for the type of service we hold (lots of lights and stuff). I knew that in the end I was going to have to apply noise reduction to these tracks to get them to work so I recorded a little extra room tone just for that purpose. This is something to remember in the future – I’m usually pretty good about scoping out a recording space before I commit to it, but I assumed that since I’m so familiar with this space it would be fine, so I wasn’t sufficiently critical.

When Sarah arrived it only took about an hour to record all her parts. We did at least three keeper takes of each section, with a little rehearsing and coaching before. Sarah was great to work with and the sound was exactly what I was looking for. I again got a little choked up listing to a skilled instrumentalist bring to life something I had written. There’s a double stop at the very end that’s supposed to swell, but it turns out it’s a very hard stop to play, so we recorded it one note at a time, and the results are perfectly acceptable.

I saved the session to the thumb drive and we got everything put away. Back home I opened the project in my new Cakewalk by Bandlab and got to work. I forgot to run the two stereo mics into the same stereo track and ended up with three mono tracks. I just panned one left and one right, but it meant I had to edit everything three times instead of just twice. And, yes, I probably could have linked the tracks and edited them all together, but for this very small job I didn’t feel like taking the time to re-teach myself that technique. I applied noise reduction to each track individually and comped together the best take. Then I bounced the whole thing down to a single stereo track and imported it into the original project.

Thanks again to Sarah for contributing her time so generously to this project. I’m really excited about where it’s going and I think she’ll be really pleased with the results. Next step: mixing down the complete song.

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