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Blog - LMP - No Slammed Doors 

November 20,  2020

I had an overly ambitious plan for my first cut at recording.


My agenda going in was to do the A and B section of Maple Leaf Rag on all three instruments as a proof of concept that Mike Walker and I could get the sound I was looking for out of the instruments.  That sound being the illusion of three people sitting in the same room and playing a song together.   


Then I wanted to get the Cello [1] part for the Fodor Quartet and, time permitting, the Cello part of the Lacome Tango.   Spoiler: time did not permit.


I really had no idea how long this work was going to take to record.  The excerpt from Maple Leaf Rag was only about a minute long at the speed I was playing it, but as we would be doing all three instruments for the first time there was some setup involved in all the parts.  


The Fodor Quartet was more like 11 minutes of solid playing.   The quartet part itself wasn't all that hard, but it was on the instrument I was the least familiar with, having really only  started practicing it in earnest about a month earlier.   


The Tango was only about 3 minutes long, but again it was on the mandocello and, being an adaptation from a piano work, it was pretty acrobatic and I was a little concerned about how long it might be to get clean takes.  (See my Concerns and Considerations post)


I had scheduled three hours at Mike's Dreamwalker studio, figuring about 45 minutes for Maple Leaf, about an hour for the Quartet Cello, and maybe 30 minutes for the Tango with about 45 minutes of slop built in, just in case.  Something you don't expect always happens when you are recording, whether it's some weird setup problem, a part you inexplicably have trouble with, ProTools [2] crashing unexpectedly etc, so it's wise to account for the possibilities during scheduling.


I was really organized going in, having printed up two copies of all the parts I was playing, one for me and one for Mike, with the measures marked off.  I was terrified that I'd get lost in the middle of a 10 minute piece and wouldn't be able to "meet" Mike in the right place in the score; measure numbers seemed like the best way to go.  (And would have been if I wasn't an idiot, more on that later).  I also had all the tempos and time signatures figured out and written out in advance so Mike could set up the ProTools sessions quickly.


Turns out it was good that I had all that stuff because the tempo and the number of measures in each movement in the Quartet was the first thing he asked me.  We set up separate session files for each piece I was going to do in this first LMP round.  


From a setup perspective it was pretty easy.   We used a room mic in the vocal booth a few feet from the bridge of each instrument, and for the mandolin and mandocello which have pickups we also plugged in to a DI [3].   We didn't know if we would use the DI input, but it doesn't add any setup time and better to have it and not need it.


So for the Maple Leaf Rag, the session file setup tracks were something like this:


Track 1: Mandocello - Mic

Track 2: Mandocello - DI

Track 3: Mandola  - Mic

Track 4: Mandolin - Mic 

Track 5: Mandolin - DI


The Mic and DI's would be recording simultaneously, so I'd still only have to theoretically play through each piece once to get both tracks.  There was pretty much zero chance I was going to one take any of this stuff, but never hurts to hope.


I have no intention on recording a full version of Maple Leaf Rag, so I was going to try to not worry too much about getting a great performance; I just needed it to be good enough that we could do a quick and dirty mix and see whether this project was dead on arrival.  I wanted to know whether we had the technology, or rather, that my instrument technology was up to the task.  (I had never recorded using my mandola or mandocello before).


Because it was just a demo, I was underprepared for the Rag.  I only barely had a handle on the Mandola part, and had only realized a few days earlier that I should practice along with a recording for the mandolin part as the syncopations are crazy hard to count out and if I had a rhythm problem, I probably wouldn't have noticed practicing the mandolin standalone.   And then I would have flailed at the studio.  This exercise also made me realize that the initial tempo I had picked was fine for the mandola and mandocello, but WAY too fast for me to keep up with on the mandolin.   So I adjusted about 2 days before the recording session.


The recording came out ok.   Well, to clarify, the performance was unsurprisingly dogshit, but the sound quality of the instruments was fine and Mike was able to make it sound the way I wanted: as if three people playing three different instruments were around a mic in the room and playing at the same time.   (I'm vaguely embarrassed by the performance so I won't be posting it anywhere; I was expecting it to be a little rough but I overestimated myself.  It was good enough for a demo though.)


Recording the Cello part of the quartet was... interesting.  As I said above, the part itself from a purely technical perspective really isn't all that hard.  There's a measure in the first movement that has some tricky fingering and there's a couple of fast sixteenth note runs in the second movement, but nothing I was super worried about.


The thing I hadn't fully accounted for was how tiring it was to play 11 minutes of straight melodic material.  There was no hammering on easy chords for 30 measures and without the other parts, no scaffolding as it were to keep me in the right spot.  Meaning as this was the first instrument and in chamber string music, the harmonies (i.e. underlying chords) and structures only really become apparent when all the parts are playing.  The chords show up from the four notes the four instruments are playing at the same time, rather than just existing in one instrument like they do on a guitar or mandolin in rock or pop music.


This made it really hard to keep my place, as by itself the cello part doesn't sound like much and by the very nature of this project, I've never heard this piece before.  (No one has for potentially a very long time).  It sounds stupid, but concentrating really intently on counting measures while trying to avoid fret buzz on doing crisp clean releases on notes on an instrument you barely play is pretty taxing.


Speaking of stupid and measure counting, I discovered when I was there that the measure markings I made on the quartet were wrong.   I had miscounted, causing great confusion.  I even thought while I was marking them down, "I should double check these" and then I didn't.  Lesson learned.


We finished the quartet recording at exactly the three hour mark, so no tango.   Maple Leaf took about an hour and a half, including setting up the session files for all of Round 1, the three mic setups, and a post recording mix.   The quartet Cello took the remaining 1.5 hours. So it went slower than I was hoping, but it was well within what I was mentally preparing for and I'm happy with what we got out of it.   


Next up: recording the violin 2 part for Barbella's sonata and maybe the tango again.


11/20 - 3 hours

Maple Leaf Rag Demo  COMPLETE

Fodor Quartet Cello COMPLETE

Tango Cello Pushed






[1]  I'm playing the Cello part on the Mandocello, but I'll be using the terms interchangeably, partially out of laziness and partially because Mandocello (and mandola for that matter) is a silly word.  


[2] ProTools is the industry standard recording software suite.  It's really powerful, if occasionally a bit byzantine if you get in the weeds, a la Photoshop.  


[3] DI is a direct in.  It is a piece of electronics that boosts the signal out of the instrument pickup to make it louder.

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